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Goldstuck on Gadgets

The sound of freedom

Gadgets often promise liberation but deliver only greater complexity. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK finds freedom in a tiny earphone.

Sometimes a gadget comes along that is so simple, yet so ground breaking, it can transform the way we live or work without most people even realising it’s there.

USB flash drives, cellphones and portable music players are obvious examples. The likes of credit card swipe machines and self-tuning TV sets perhaps less so.

The least obtrusive, and for its size and significance the most satisfying I’ve come across in the past year, is an earphone.

The vast array of headphones on display in almost any electronics store camouflages a few innovations that mean the earphone of the future will not only be very different, but also a lot smaller.

The first is Bluetooth, a wireless communications standard for transmissions over short distances ‚ like from laptop to phone, or from phone to headset. It’s a decade old, but appearing in ever-smaller devices, and long ago making the traditional earphone wire obsolete.

The second innovation is noise cancellation. That’s a usefully vague term for manufacturers who sell more on hype than quality, but it also has a real meaning. Noise cancelling headphones use Active Noise Control, or ANC (no pun intended) to perform a sophisticated piece of acoustic magic. It cancels out noise from the environment while allowing voice and music through.

While Bluetooth is a step on the road to freedom from too much wiring, the problem with most Bluetooth earphones is that they are great for listening, but not ideal for speaking. If you want to use it as a walk-and-talk device for a cellphone, for example, you usually need an ungainly contraption that places a microphone close to your mouth.

With ANC, your face is freed from such obstacles.

Combined with Bluethooth, ANC promises even greater liberation.

Most Bluetooth headsets are designed for a specific purpose ‚ usually to work with a phone. Which means that, should you for example want to make a Skype call via your computer, you have to don a different set of headphones. These usually come with a spoon-like microphone attachment that twist round to the front of your face, and wires running to the computer.

What price freedom from such facial encumbrance?

Enter the new generation of Bluetooth headsets, and the next step to gadget freedom. My introduction came via the Jabra Extreme, an earphone and microphone in a device smaller than my thumb. You stick it in your ear, holding it in place with a hook that hangs unobtrusively over the ear.

That’s the easy part. Now you can pair it with a phone or any other Bluetooth device. Up to eight devices can be paired, and two can be used at the same time. If you use two cellphones ‚ and people do ‚ they can be paired simultaneously.

The Jabra Extreme is set apart by a small added extra: a tiny Bluetooth dongle that you plug into a laptop’s USB drive, and pair the headset with the laptop. It is certified by Skype, and syncs seamlessly with it. This means the end of ungainly headsets and messing up your hair ‚ a big issue for some ‚ each time you need to take a call via computer.

The most pleasant surprise in using this device is the quality of the sound ‚ on both sides of the conversation ‚ when used in a moving car.

Jabra is not the only miraculously small, all-in-one Bluetooth headset on the market, but the first I’ve used that gears this liberating device to both phone and PC usage. Motorola, Griffin, Nokia and Plantronics also play in this space, so shop around to see which meets your aesthetic and budgetary preferences.

I do have one problem with the device. It is so small, I’ve lost it as often as I’ve used it. But as Janis Joplin would have put it, freedom’s just another word for something small enough to lose.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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