There’s something so right about wireless technology. After all, who wants to be tethered to an Ethernet cable to browse the Internet or get up from the sofa to change channel on the TV? The same should apply to headphones and MP3 players, but in practice it’s taken time for wire-free headphones such as these Cerulean F1s from iSkin to take off.
In theory I’m all for cable liberation in portable media. The one thing that occasionally stops me from donning headphones on the way out to catch a train is the thought of being festooned with cables, tugging at my lugs every time I make an unexpected move. There’s nothing wrong with the technology, either: Bluetooth 2.0-equipped devices that are A2DP compatible can reach speeds of up to 3Mbits/sec – easily enough for a high quality audio stream.
And there’s another bonus: listen to music files via a mobile phone or similar device and you don’t have to rely on the (usually rubbish) amplification circuits in the phone itself, since all the amplification – and the final digital-to-analogue conversion – takes place in the headset itself.
It all sounds rosy but we haven’t yet found wireless Bluetooth headphones that can match the best wired offerings on the market for sound quality. And those that get close – I’m thinking of Etymotic’s wonderful-sounding, weird-looking ety8s – tend to be very expensive. Can the cheaper Cerulean F1s change all that?
Well, they’re certainly a big improvement over the ety8s in the looks department. Instead of that Eighties earring appearance, the F1s look more like a pair of standard Bluetooth hands-free headsets. Each earpiece has a hook that wraps around the back of the ear and a stubby, pivoting boom that points towards your mouth. They’re still not catwalk material but you’ll certainly feel less self conscious wearing these out on the street or on the train.
If you think that the earhooks are merely a nod to some bizarre notion of mobile phone chic, think again. They’re there, in fact, to support the weight of the earpieces, which house a rechargeable battery as well as the aforementioned amplification and Bluetooth electronics. And they do it very well: the F1’s are comfortable to wear, with an alternative pair of hooks supplied in the box if the standard ones don’t suit your lugholes perfectly. The earbud design is easy on the ears as well, but compared with the ear canal design of the ety8s, it won’t block out very much extraneous noise.
Other aspects of the design work just as well. The two earpieces are linked by a thin cable that goes around the back of your neck and is short enough to avoid getting snagged in your coat or shirt collar. The phones are charged using the now-standard micro USB connection so you can connect them to any powered USB socket to charge (as long as you have access to the right cable). And the controls – all found on the right earpiece as well – are in places that are easy to find with your fingers. On the top edge are the skip track buttons, on the bottom edge are the volume controls, and a circular, digit-sized button on the side performs pairing and mute functions.
A closer look at the right earpiece also reveals the presence of a microphone, which gives away the fact that you can also use these earphones to answer phone calls – this even works when you’re listening to one device (a wireless MP3 player, for instance) and another paired device (your mobile phone) receives a call. It automatically mutes the sound, goes into mono mode, and a quick tap of a button answers the call.
And then everything goes wrong. It’s a brilliant idea combining a pair of decent stereo earphones with headset functions, but the microphone itself is woeful. I made several phonecalls to various recipients on my TyTN II, plus a couple of other smartphones I had on review. I also linked the F1s to my laptop and made a Skype call, and in every instance those at the other end of the line complained that my voice was distant, thin-sounding and difficult to hear. After having to shout down the line to make myself heard on one call I gave up using the facility. A battery life of just six hours is none too impressive, but considering the small size of the units, it’s hardly surprising.
It’s such a shame the mic is poor because, in other respects, the F1s behaved themselves perfectly: I paired them with a number of different phones and Bluetooth MP3 players and found that they linked up every time. The range was pretty good, too, allowing me to walk several metres away from the various devices before the signal began to break up. The F1s are even available in a bundle with an iPod-compatible TX transmitter, which clips onto the base of the ubiquitous digital audio player for instant wire-free music. It’s an extra £28, though.
Sound quality isn’t earth-shattering, but despite being completely lacking in bass, the F1s are surprisingly easy on the ears. Potent volume levels, an open mid-range and reasonably crisp high notes combine to make up for the weedy low end, and if you listen to a lot of acoustic music, as I do, there’s a good chance you’ll actually enjoy listening to these. I listened to a selection of stuff, from a live jazz performance by the evergreen Tony Bennet to the lovely acoustic sounds of Laura’s ”Release Me”, and despite my audio-snobbery and initial scepticism, I found myself enjoying the experience.
Before I go any further, however, I’d like to point out that you won’t get as good a sound out of these as you will a pair of carefully-selected wired phones costing considerably less, but they are much, much better than most bundled earphones – good enough that you can tell the difference between a poorly-encoded 128Kbit/sec MP3 file and a higher quality 192Kbit/sec one.
In short, the Cerulean F1s are a mixed bag. For Bluetooth headphones they’re relatively discreet, they’re comfortable to wear, and sound quality isn’t bad, despite a complete lack of bass.
Had the headset function worked as it should I’d consider giving them a decent score – it’s the feature that gives headphones like these the edge over wired headphones, after all – but alas, it doesn’t and that considerably reduces the F1s’ usefulness. If you’re after a decent pair of Bluetooth earphones/headphones for music and phone calls, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.
Score in detail
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