Until recently, I always preferred to use wired headphones when using my iPhone. After my iPhone SE finally came to its end, I had to switch to a newer model, which did not contain a headphone jack. Due to frustrations when using the wired earbud adapter, I decided to see if it was possible to use Bluetooth headsets full-time. Over the last several months I have tried different headsets and found three that work quite well: Bose Frames audio sunglasses, Apple 2nd generation AirPods, and the Plantronics M180 Wireless Bluetooth Headset.
There are countless reviews of these headsets online, but from my personal experience, those who are blind or visually impaired need information beyond what is generally provided by mainstream reviews. For example, knowing the latency when using a screen reader with a Bluetooth headset can be vital if the headset will be used when completing productivity tasks. For this article, I will primarily focus on aspects of interest to those with visual impairments, for example, the aforementioned screen reader latency and accessible documentation. After discussing each headset, I will directly compare their various aspects. For this review, all of the headsets were used with an iPhone 7 running iOS 13.3.
The Bose Frames are a pair of traditional sunglasses that double as a pair of Bluetooth headphones. In addition, they contain an audio augmented reality component that can be used with specific apps. This feature uses head tracking technology built into the glasses to track head movements in order to provide life-like sound positioning. The Frames have a set of speakers positioned so that sound is aimed directly into your ear, allowing you to have full sound from the headphones while also preventing others from hearing your audio, and allowing you to hear what is going on around you.
In addition to physical instructions in the Frames packaging, you can find the Frames user manual in PDF format. The manual can also be found in the Bose Connect App on iOS after you have paired the frames. I personally found the manual in the app easier to navigate, as the PDF is not officially tagged. That being said, the manual is still readable in PDF format with few issues when I used the automatic tagging feature in Adobe Reader.
Product Description and Getting Started
The Frames are stored in a magnetic glasses case that is slightly more complex than the traditional hinged case seen with most eyewear. In the case you will also find the charging cable in a soft cloth bag. The charging cable uses a proprietary magnetic pin charging system instead of the usual Micro or Mini USB charging cables found with most Bluetooth peripherals. The glasses themselves look like traditional sunglasses with enlarged portions on the arms of the glasses just before the point where they rest over the ears. There is a raised border on the inside of the right arm close to where it connects to the glasses where the charger is connected; the charger can only connect one way due to the magnetic connection mechanism.
There are two styles of Frames, Alto and Rondo. I purchased the Alto 52 MM frames, which have trapezoidal lenses. The main difference between the frames and traditional sunglasses is that the arms of the Frames are thicker than usual in order to house the speakers and battery. There are small inset grills on the outside of the frames though these are not the speakers; the speakers are at the end of the enlarged portion, facing your ears when the frames are worn. You can feel the speakers as they are slightly inset from the rest of the arm. The enlarged portion of the arms end just where the arms rest over your ears. On the bottom of the right arm, near to where the arm connects to the lenses, you will find a small round button. This is used to power on the frames, control audio playback, activate the voice assistant, and interact with phone calls.
The Frames power on quite quickly when you press the button. Each time you activate the glasses, you will hear which (if any) device the Frames are connected to and the battery level. You can connect the frames to your device as you would with any other Bluetooth peripheral. For me, the Frames appeared in my Bluetooth menu almost immediately and connected very quickly. If you would like to disconnect the Frames without using your Bluetooth menu, you can long press the button to disconnect from your device. If you would like to power down the Frames, you must turn them upside down for 2 seconds. If you hold the frames near to your ear during this process, you will hear a descending tone when the frames power off. This seems odd, but is more intuitive than you would think. I found that I was turning the glasses off intuitively when taking them off of my face even before I had learned the method for shutting them down.
The Bose Connect app for iOS is accessible and provides some secondary functions. It is used for updating the Frames firmware, which is needed for the augmented reality component, reading the manual, and adjusting some settings on the Frames. A Bose account is not needed to use the app; the app also will recognize your frames as long as they are connected to your phone when using the app. Note that during the update process I found that the glasses produced choppy audio and/or lag.
Using Bose Frames
As would be expected from a Bose product, the Frames have excellent sound quality. Due to the placement of the speakers, the audio sounds slightly different than if you were using traditional earbuds, but this does not degrade the quality of the audio. I found that it was easy to experience full sound but still easily hear my surroundings when listening to music on a lower volume. As I increased the volume, I could still hear my surroundings surprisingly well, though I would not want to attempt to travel or hold a conversation with the volume at a higher level. Interestingly, it seems that as the volume increases, the bass decreases. I imagine that this is to protect the speakers; the lowering of the bass also was not overly noticeable until the volume was increased past 60 percent.
When using VoiceOver, I noticed a quarter- to a half-second delay from when I performed an action. This isn't a problem when listening to audio such as music, a podcast, or a book or article with VoiceOver in continuous mode, but frustrating when attempting to complete a task quickly. This is especially true when attempting to type on the on-screen keyboard. To better test the latency, I also attempted to play the game AudioWizards (also reviewed in this issue) and found that the delay was quite noticeable but that I could play effectively with some effort.
I have made calls with the Frames both indoors in quiet settings and in louder outdoor settings while walking. In both environments I can easily hear the caller, there is no lag from what I can determine, and I have had no complaints on my audio. Thankfully, I find it quite easy to hear my surroundings while on a call when traveling. That being said, I would not want someone actively talking to me if I was attempting something more demanding on my hearing such as crossing a street.
One downside to the Frames is that they only have 3.5 hours of battery life. During my use of the glasses, I have found that audio playback (music/podcasts etc.) cause the battery to drain much more rapidly than when I use VoiceOver. Due to the fact that the Frames shut down temporarily when not in use after a set amount of time, I have been able to use the frames for hours at a time without the battery draining below 90% in some circumstances when using VoiceOver only.
Though the augmented reality function of the Frames is beyond this review, I did use the Microsoft Soundscape app to navigate a route I was unfamiliar with. If you are unfamiliar with the Soundscape app, it uses 3D audio to detail landmarks and streets around you. I reviewed it in the August 2018 issue of AccessWorld. This was a good test of the Frames capabilities as I was in Guide Dog training. This meant that I needed to listen for traffic patterns, be attentive to my new dog, and communicate with my instructor while also listening to the information provided by Soundscape. I did have to lower the volume so that I could just make out the information spoken by Soundscape (around 25-30% volume) but was able to complete the route without issue.
If you are in a crowded area and cannot hear your Frames, you can cup your hand over your ear, which will drastically increase the volume at the expense of audio quality. I have used this tactic many times when in a crowded restaurant to read the menu if it was too loud to hear my Frames otherwise.
Apple AirPods 2nd Generation
AirPods, the official Bluetooth earphones produced by Apple, come in several forms. Janet Ingber reviewed the 1st generation AirPods in 2017. For this review, I used the 2nd generation of the AirPods, which have many similarities to the first in form and function. Apple has also released the premium in-ear AirPods Pro, which will be reviewed in a future issue of AccessWorld. The second generation AirPods are little different from the originals, aside from the inclusion of a wireless charger, lower latency of the audio, the ability to summon Siri by voice at all times, and better battery life on calls.
Apple provides instructions on getting started with and using your AirPods. The page is accessible and provides information on setting up and using your AirPods. Note that instructions for the AirPods Pro and 1st generation are also included but Apple is clear which version is being referenced. The page also includes examples of Siri queries that relate to your AirPods. Many are general Siri commands, but some are specific to the AirPods such as the command for checking your AirPods battery.
Description and Getting Started
Your AirPods are located in their charging case when you receive them. A Lightning charging cable is also provided, but a USB wall charger is not. The case is a small square with rounded edges. The Lightning port is on the bottom, and the magnetic lid on the top. A small button that is flush with the case is located on the back, towards the bottom of the case. This button is used for pairing the AirPods to non-Apple devices. When you open the lid of the case, you will find the AirPods magnetically secured in the case. The case has indentions shaped like each AirPod, so they must be reinserted in the correct side. The AirPods look very similar to the traditional wired EarPods provided with each iPhone, just without a connecting cable. If you are unfamiliar with EarPods, the speaker portion that fits into your ear looks similar to a teardrop or oval, with the speaker on the tip of the bud. The stems that extend from the bottom of the buds that would normally connect to the headphone cable are slightly longer than usual.
To connect the AirPods to your device, leave them in the case with the lid open and place the case close to your Phone. You will see a setup prompt appear on your device which will connect the AirPods. If you have not setup Hey Siri on your device, you will be asked to do so as part of the setup process. If you do not wish to do so or do not use Hey Siri, you can ignore this prompt (you can always set up Hey Siri later in the Settings app).
Now that your AirPods are paired, they will connect as soon as you take them out of their case. Compared to standard Bluetooth headsets, the AirPods are always on when they are out of their case, and only power down when in the case with the lid closed. If you would like to change any settings you can do so in the Bluetooth menu in the Settings app. To see AirPod-specific settings, select the "More Info" button when the AirPods are connected to your device. You can change what function is tied to the double-tap gesture on each AirPod, deactivate the feature that automatically pauses audio when you take the AirPods out of your ears, and adjust which AirPod microphone will be activated.
Using Apple AirPods, 2nd Generation
The AirPods sound is comparable to the wired Earbuds produced by Apple, with a possible slight increase in audio quality. Compared to the Frames, the AirPods do not have bass that is quite as noticeable. That being said, the audio quality on both of these headsets is fairly comparable. I find that the AirPods do not block sound from my environment to a large degree; I sometimes forget that I am wearing them. I deliberately chose the 2nd Generation AirPods over the AirPods Pro for this reason; with the AirPods 2nd Generation, I can still perform other tasks while listening to a Book or other audio.
Happily, there is almost no latency when using VoiceOver with the AirPods. Apple claims that this is due to their H1 chip that powers the headset. I have also been able to play AudioWizards without noticing any lag.
Because you always are charging the AirPods when not in use, I have never seen them fall below 50% battery. The AirPods are rated for 5 hours of audio playback and 3 hours of talk time according to Apple, but if you never use them for the entire duration, they seem to have a much longer battery. The case charges the batteries on the AirPods quite quickly; the case provides boosted charging for the first part of charging which can often bring them to a complete charge rather quickly. I use my phone quite often for daily tasks, music, podcasts, and books and find that I still only need to charge the AirPods case once a day at most.
I have used the AirPods to talk to others while indoors and while walking outside. In both cases, audio was clear and I had no complaints from callers on the quality of my audio. I found that if I kept the sound at a lower level, I could still travel while hearing audio through the AirPods, whether a phone call or podcast.
To save battery power, I rarely use features of the AirPods such as the always -available Hey Siri or the ability to double tap on the outside of an AirPod to perform a specific function, but when testing for this article, these features functioned as advertised and I didn't encounter any issues when using them.
Plantronics M180 Bluetooth Headset
Compared to the other two headsets reviewed in this article, the Plantronics M180 is a traditional single Bluetooth earphone. The headset has built-in voice commands for specific functions, is lightweight, and provides longer battery life than expected for its size. Note that when viewing this headset there are Gray and Gold versions. Though these headsets have the same model number, they are purported to be different in some specifics in online reviews. The Gold headset is the device reviewed in this article.
Documentation and the PLT Hub App
I was unable to find an official manual on the Plantronics site, though the manual is available in the PLT Hub app on iOS. The manual also appears to be available from a third-party website, though I can't confirm the safety of the site where it is hosted.
The manual is accessible in the app though there are some unlabeled or mislabeled buttons in the navigation functions of the app. The app also allows you to adjust certain device settings and cause the headset to emit a tone when connected to your smartphone. This is intended to aid you in finding the headset if it is lost, but does not seem to function unless the device is connected and powered on. The tone itself is quite quiet so may be of little help locating the headset unless it's nearby. Some online reviews claim that the app can cause the audio to echo on a call, but I have not personally experienced this issue.
Description and Getting Started
The body of the M180 is a narrow rectangle. Toward the top of the front side you will find the concave Phone button used for interacting with calls. On the top of the rectangle is the Micro USB port for charging with the power switch and Volume button on each of the narrow sides. The power switch has two raised tactile bumps for identification where the Volume button is smooth. On the back of the rectangle, towards the top, you will feel the headset's speaker. The speaker is covered with a rubber cover for comfort; this piece also has a small loop at the top so that it will better fit in your ear. There are different sizes of this cover and the device also ships with an optional plastic loop that hooks over the top of your ear for better security. I have found that the over-the-ear loop is unnecessary when using the headset.
When you power on the headset, it will be ready to be paired to your device. Any time you turn the headset on, you will hear the battery level announced in hours of talk time followed by the connection status. Note that the volume button will cycle through the headset's volume levels wrapping to the lowest volume after reaching the maximum. This volume is separate from your smartphone's volume so it is worth adjusting to a level that gives you the preferred range when adjusting volume on your mobile device.
Using the Plantronics M180 Headset
The sound of the M180 is decent, but slightly more metallic or grating than the other headsets reviewed in this article. Though it has worse audio quality than the AirPods or Frames, the audio is not terrible by any means and is perfectly serviceable for most tasks, music included.
The latency when using VoiceOver is almost non-existent and similar to what you would enjoy when using wired headphones. Calls are also quite clear; callers can hear your surroundings but not to a degree that would be overly distracting. The audio that I encountered when making calls with the M180 was clear and without issue. That being said, it is distinctly rougher than the other headsets reviewed in this article.
The headset does not block hearing much when worn and is designed to be worn in the right or left ear with equal ease. I have traveled while talking using the earpiece and found that I could still hear my surroundings at an acceptable level in the ear in which I had placed the headset.
The battery life on the M180 is amazing; 7 hours of talk time and the battery for general listening goes even further. The M180 is packaged with a Micro USB cord but not a wall charger; since it uses such a common charging cable, it's easy to find replacements if the packaged cord is lost.
The M180 has voice commands available when interacting with calls. When you receive a call you will hear “Answer or Ignore”. At that time, you can say either word to answer or ignore the call. I found that this feature worked well; I was understood the first time I said a command in the vast majority of instances. In all of the months that I have used this headset, I do not believe that I have ever had to say a command word more than twice.
Comparing the Three Earphones
In the following sections I will rate the three headsets discussed here on a range of aspects. The headset with the best features for the given category will be listed first, with those that are less optimal listed afterward.
- Plantronics M180 ($32-$55)
- AirPods 2nd Generation ($159, $199 with wireless charging case)
- Bose Frames ($199)
- Bose Frames
- AirPods 2nd Generation
- Plantronics M180
Screen Reader Latency
- AirPods 2nd Generation
- Plantronics M180
- Bose Frames
- Plantronics M180 (7 Hours of talk time)
- AirPods 2nd Generation (5 hours of listening time)
- Bose Frames (3.5 hours)
- Plantronics M180
- AirPods 2nd Generation
- Bose Frames
The Bottom Line
Though they have good audio quality and do not block your hearing when in use, the Bose Frames suffer from higher latency when using a screen reader and poor battery life compared to the other two headsets reviewed. The Plantronics M180 is an amazing deal with a price as low as $32 from some sources. It has amazing battery life and VoiceOver responsiveness and if I could stand to use only one ear at a time when listening to media, I would use it full time. The AirPods are quite expensive but provide an excellent experience. I had the Frames and M180 for several months before acquiring the AirPods and continued to use wired headphones for most of that time. As soon as I received the AirPods, I switched full time to them and have not used wired headphones since.
If you do not mind only listening to audio from one ear, the Plantronics M180 would be my first suggestion followed by the AirPods 2nd Generation. The Frames are useful in certain situations but they can't compare to the other headsets due to their lower battery life, poor responsiveness when using a screen reader, and high cost.
There are thousands of different Bluetooth headsets on the market; if you would like to share your favorite with our readers, use the "Comment on this Article" link below to send us a letter to the editor. We are always interested in hearing your thoughts and feedback.
Product: Bose Frames
Product: AirPods 2nd Generation
Price: $159 (with wired charging case) $199 (with wireless charging case)
Price: $35 (Amazon) $55 (Guide Lights and Gadgets)
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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