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Review: Plantronics Pulsar 590A Bluetooth Stereo Headphones

08/21/06 | by Adam | Categories: Technology, Reviews

Summary: Bluetooth-based stereo headphones.

I like listening to music while taking the bus or working in the garden, but find the corded headsets prone to catching and tugging off. Naturally, I'm less than fond of that so was looking for alternatives. After an impressive demo from a friend, I decided to pick up Plantronic's wireless Bluetooth stereo headset, the Pulsar 590A.

One thing I have to state though is that there are two different kinds of Bluetooth audio. There's the type that most people are used to which is what's served up on most cellphones headsets -- mono, relatively low quality. Then there's the A2DP version which is a high quality stereo signal that sounds every bit as good as you'd get from a decent pair of wired headphones. The latter is what you get through the Pulsar although it'll support the former as well.

On the Palm T3, a newish piece of software (from Softick called Audio Gateway) has enabled stereo Bluetooth audio support so the last piece of the connection arrived.

I paired the headphones up with the Palm using the audio gateway software, as well as with the Belkin BT USB dongle using the newer Widcomm drivers and my Nokia cell. All worked well so I've registered the Softick software too (another $25 CDN.)

On my Palm I use a tool called BTToggle that turns off the Bluetooth radio whenever no application that uses it is running. The Softick tool doesn't set off its flag so as soon as one exits the Softick setup software the BT radio would be turned off and the connection to the headphones lost. I modified the settings so this isn't the case now but it's not as Adam-proof as it was. However this now meant that Aeroplayer could play over the headphones. The Softick gateway has two fidelity settings, one 304 kbps, the other 230 kbps. I couldn't actually hear the difference between the two so opted for the latter. When running Aeroplayer, the music came over nice and clearly on the headphones. In the original incarnation of the gateway software, the headset was prone to losing the connection when the screen on the Palm was turned off or simply due the vaguaries of something; that improved dramatically when 1.06 came out.

The AVRCP interface (the next track, pause/play, previous track) buttons on the headset does not work but Softick say that's coming. Range is about what you would expect: 10-15 feet. After that the connection drops out completely. With both the gateway and the MP3 player active, the Palm slows down dramatically so I'm not sure I can recommend trying to multitask much. It does work but it's sluggish. Battery usage is much better than I expected: on the 30 minute commute the Palm's battery barely shifted from its full charge. I've not tried an extended session to see how far that goes.

The Belkin PC USB dongle was a slight pain to work with. While the BT stack paired with the headphones, the connection had to be made from the unit to the PC, and could not be done the other way around. Then the next issue was getting music sent over to the headset using the BT music interface. I ended up having to specifically set the primary sounddrive to be the BT interface which was unwanted. Later I found that WinAMP can choose its own audio device so I set that to be the BT interface and set the main audio device back to the soundcard and speakers. I also found that the AVRCP interface worked fine once I enabled the correct settings in WinAMP. Range wasn't bad but less than I hoped; despite the dongle being class 1 and rated at 100 metres, it didn't reach beyond the greenhouse in my garden (that's about 25 feet away) before the headphones disconnected. Then there's the second problem with the dongle: it tends to lock up preventing audio or AVRCP commands going over it. At that point you need to disconnect and reconnect the unit and then force a connection between the BT stack on the PC and the headset. It's cumbersome but it worked. Moving to a newer Kensington BT 2.0+EDR dongle dramatically improved the reliability.

On the MacBook, the quality is terrible. This isn't due to the headset but due to Apple's boneheaded lack of support for the higher quality Bluetooth sound that the headset supports. As it is, the headset pairs easily but only plays back in mono cellphone quality.

The headset supports both the phone and music simultaneously. With both the Palm and USB dongle I found that the connection would be lost on making or answering a call, and then not properly reconnected at the conclusion. In the case of the Palm the music switched back to playing on the internal speaker and would require a visit to the settings page to put it back on the headset. On the PC, invariably the Belkin USB dongle would hang.

Audio quality is good. I wouldn't say stunning but it's more than acceptable. Volume is good enough that I had no problems listening on the ride and walk into work. Audio leakage (for disturbing your fellow riders) is not too bad either but it's not a patch on my old in-ear headset. I've yet to run out the battery on the headset: it's had no problems playing over ten hours of constant use between charges. I tried the telephone microphone with a few people and most felt that while it's clearly a handsfree unit (i.e. a bit faint and noisy) it's clear enough; only one person had a real problem with how it sounded.

The general look of the unit (over the ear, silvery, somewhat bulky) is reasonable but it's not subtle. The pads are comfortable but I liked my old Sony over-the-ear set a bit more. The "collapsable" nature of the set is limited as there's no fold in the headpiece so it remains about the diameter of a portable CD player even then.

I really like the idea of the wired mode for aircraft use which answered one of my major qualms about BT headsets. The USB recharger is also an excellent idea -- I have it recharging the stereo source dongle while I'm listening to music at work.

What I really do dislike about the unit is the flashing blue LED that indicated the headset is active; personally I'd have though that producing sound would have been proof of that but apparently Plantronics felt it insufficient. The blue LED flashes very bright, so in a darkened room it's a bit disconcerting.

There was also an early death; in the first week of using the headset, the batteries discharged and would not recharge from either the stand or the USB charger. Fortunately the shop I bought it from still had another one in stock and replaced it without complaint. The new one has worked flawlessly for months now.

Overall, it's a very nice piece of kit and I'm glad to have it. It's great being able to wander around the office listening to tunes being sourced from the PC, or listening to and selecting music without being (that) near the source!

Conclusion: Nifty! Buy it!

 

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