Okay - I realize that the days of anyone looking cool wearing a Bluetooth earpiece, if indeed they ever existed, are long since past. However, there are some types of work activities that truly do benefit from the use of these devices, regardless of whether they make you look douchey.
I’ve had my struggles finding good, uncompromising solutions in this area. As I’ve discussed here before, the market for high-end Bluetooth earpieces seems to be be dwindling, replaced largely by lower end items that either price the market down enough to drive out high end players, or work adequately for listening, but aren’t necessarily well set up for conversation.
For a while I’d decided to get by with my Jumbl Bluetooth receiver. This device has the benefits of working with any set of wired headphones, which lets me put the conversation in both ears - a bonus around background noise - and being inexpensive.
When my first Jumbl failed, I went looking again and came across an earpiece by Honshoop (nope - I’d never heard of them before either) that promised noise cancellation and a bevy of other features for about $30. While that seems too good to be true, the price of entry was worth the risk, so I took the leap. I wrote up a brief review of it... sort of. The thing is that, a couple of weeks into owning it, it disappeared from Amazon. There were other models under the Honshoop name, but not the one I’d purchased. This is not confidence inspiring, but given that I already had mine and it was working well, I moved on.
And the Honshoop worked great until I lost it. It just disappeared one day - I’m sure I must have dropped it out of my backpack - never to be seen again. And so the search began anew.
The remaining standout in the high-end market - aside from Apple AirPods, which I’m sad to say don’t fit in my ears - appears to be Plantronics. Unfortunately, back then when I tried to purchase one through Amazon I had to pay for shipping, and attempting to purchase thru the website got me nothing but an error page. I decided to look again and I was delighted to find I could now order a Voyager 5200 thru Amazon with Prime shipping.
With about a month of experience I have to say that this is what I’ve been missing from the dearth of high-end devices. Sound quality is very good, and I’ve actually had a colleague who thought I was in my office rather than in the car during a call. There is a video on Amazon that demonstrates the efficacy of the noise cancellation and, after experience, I believe it. The 5200 has a comfortable, over the ear design (similar to the Honshoop, which I assume copied from Plantronics). It’s lightweight and feels good even after having been on the ear for an extended period of time. It has multiple buttons with clear purposes, allowing for the activation of audio, such as podcasts, or for Siri, without any confusion between the two.
A separate button provides for on-device muting, which is an absolute bonus feature for taking calls on the go. This feature means you just have to tap the earpiece button to mute the microphone instead of reaching for the phone. An additional component of this feature is that the device detects if you start to speak with mute engaged and tells you that mute is on. This is a great idea, since you don’t have a visual indicator for it, and it promises to prevent unheard soliloquys that otherwise occur. However, in practice I’ve found the reliability of that feature to be mixed at best.
Battery life is good, lasting through long days with multiple calls so far. Putting it on towards the end of the day and hearing that it still has five hours of talk time available inspires confidence in the device. Plantronics does offer a case for it that has a battery pack in it for charging, similar in concept to the AirPods case. This is an extra cost item that looks well put together, but so far I haven’t run out of battery between charges. If I were traveling in a situation without easy access to other charging sources it might be worth considering.
An additional feature for the Plantronics Voyager 5200 is the Plantronics Hub iOS app that can be downloaded for it. The app offers some basic information, including an indication as to whether the device is connected, a readout of whether it is on the ear or not, and the amount of available talk time. Included here are also two components that function as a replacement for the paper owners manual. Buttons and Lights shows you what the different components on the earpiece do, while How do I provides the step-by-step instructions for things like pairing, answering, muting, and launching Siri (or your personal digital assistant of choice).
The app also offers the ability to change multiple settings on the earpiece, including things like ring volume, whether you want to use voice commands to answer or ignore a call, and the settings for the aforementioned mute features. Anyone who has ever had to follow the arcane multiple button-press dance that it used to take to set up these kind of features on a Bluetooth earpiece will appreciate the app for this reason.
And let me give a special mention of appreciation to the answer or ignore voice feature. In this day and age even cell phones routinely get spam calls. I don’t know anyone in Coral Springs, FL or Cumberland, MD, so I’m certainly not going to answer a call from them. However, the ringing of the phone takes over the whole device, so any such call that comes in interrupts the music or podcast that is playing until one dismisses the call. Typically that means reaching up to the screen and tapping "decline", which is not ideal in the car. With this feature you can simply say "ignore" and the bot on the other end simply disappears.
And given the disappearing act performed by my Honshoop earpiece, I also appreciate the fact that the app has a "find my headset" feature which, like Find My iPhone, makes your missing earpiece put out an audio tone to help you locate it. You’d still have to have a rough idea of where you lost it, but at least it’s a start.
It should also be noted that the app works with multiple Plantronics models, so if a different version trips your fancy, the app may be available for that as well.
The two niggles I have with the device thus far center around the location of the volume buttons and the "earbuds" it comes with.
For some reason, the volume buttons are placed at the top of the device. Just to look at them this may not seem to be a problem, but in practice the location is not ideal. Try to simply push down on the buttons while wearing the device and you simply push the whole device down on to your ear. And because of where they are at, and the general shape of the earpiece, finding a location to hold against when pushing down is a bit awkward. Ultimately, I ended up placing my thumb at the bottom of the battery at the back of the ear to hold against it while pushing the volume buttons. This will likely become second nature over time, but it isn’t terribly natural.
In addition, when volume buttons are at the back of the device, as with similar models, the top button is "up", and the bottom is "down" - straightforward and intuitive. Because they are on the top, there isn’t an intuitive sense of which button is "up", and which is "down". They are marked with a "+" and "-", but of course you cannot see these when you are wearing it. It’s a small thing, but a curious one, because it appears as if there is room on the back for the volume buttons.
The challenge with the “earbuds” - and this is how the documentation describes them - is that they aren’t earbuds. They are flattish silicone gel discs. With some fiddling about I finally figured out that these are the Plantronics variation of the type of earpiece that puts gentle pressure on the inner earlobe to keep it in place and against (but not in) the ear canal.
Approached that way sound quality with the discs is good, even allowing me to hear clearly in my considerably not quiet car, and they even sound clear using it to listen to podcasts while riding my trike. Playing around with the three different sizes of these allowed me to select the one that made the earpiece feel secure on my ear as well - e.g. that it wouldn't jiggle about when I shook my head. For me, surprisingly, that was the biggest disc (I have smallish ears).
Although sound quality was good, I did decide to see if I could improve it with something like a more traditional earbud fitting. To test this, I ordered one such kit from Amazon. This was not inexpensive, given what you get - about $14 for what amounts to earbud gels and (what I suspect is the cost center) a bespoke piece that fits into the earpiece and mounts the earbud gel.
After some testing back and forth, I find that these do not result reliably in the earpiece being solidly in the ear canal. I wonder if it’s simply the case that the design sits too far outside for this to be practical. That’s fine, though, because I also do not detect any significant difference in sound quality between the stock silicone discs and the aftermarket earbud. And, given that the disc sits outside the ear, it may well be the case that they will be comfortable for longer time periods.
Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’d recommend spending some time with the stock earpieces before dropping coin on the aftermarket item.
In summary, the Plantronics Voyager 5200 turns out to be an excellent bluetooth earpiece. Notable features and pro’s include:
- Exellent incoming sound quality
- Phenomenal noise canceling features
- On-device mute
- Long battery life
- Comfortable for long wearing sessions
- The bonus of a supportive iPhone app for settings and features
- Confusing use of terminology surrounding the “earbuds”
- Less than ideal placement of volume buttons
If your needs include the type of usage that goes with a traditional bluetooth earpiece like this the Plantronics Voyager 5200 is an excellent choice. It’s more expensive than many similar looking competitors on Amazon, but you are getting what you pay for.