Though Bluetooth technology began getting folded into headphone designs a couple of years ago, the Bluetooth headphone market seems to have had a pretty slow start. Sure, there are plenty of Bluetooth headphone products out there, but many of them are made by companies like Motorola, Samsung, Nokia and Jabra — not exactly big names in the world of headphones. To be fair, there are a few notable exceptions from the likes of Sennheiser, Sony and AudioTechnica, but the fact remains that Bluetooth wireless headphones have received a pretty lukewarm response from the headphone buying public. Why is that?
Perhaps it is because Bluetooth technology has historically required a fair amount of space, and somewhere along the line ends up making for larger and sometimes awkward headphones. Perhaps the inconvenience of having yet another battery to charge is part of the equation, too. Yet, we’re willing to bet that the main reason Bluetooth cans aren’t getting a lot of love from hard-core headphone enthusiasts is that they just don’t sound nearly as good as their wired counterparts.
Phiaton believes it can change that with the PS 20 BT, a set of Bluetooth earbuds that feature a USB-rechargeable battery with an impressive lifespan, compact Bluetooth module with phone talk and control features and Bluetooth profile 3.0 compatibility.
As we outlined in our overview of the PS 20 BT, Bluetooth 3.0 is capable of passing more data between devices, which should translate into better sound. We paired up the PS 20 BT with several devices to determine if Phiaton’s first foray into wireless headphones is a game changer or another Bluetooth flop.
Features and design
The PS 20 BT, PS 20 NC and standard PS 20 all use the same 14.36mm drivers mounted into what appears to be the same half in-ear housing. Phiaton pointed out, however, that, unlike the noise-cancelling version, the PS 20 and PS 20 BT carry the company’s MaxBass feature, which refers to a dual-chamber structure inside the earphone’s housing that allows for better air movement and, supposedly, better bass response.
The cord for the headphones is approximately 18 inches long and ends with a rounded, oval-shaped control pad, which also contains a microphone. A small control stick on the face of the pad moves up and down to adjust volume, side to side to change tracks, and you can press it down to start and stop music. Just below the control stick is a three-color LED indicator to let you know what the headphones are actually doing.
On the left edge of the control pad is the power button, and button to answer the phone or hang up. On the right edge, we found a single button with a padlock icon, which we learned will place a phone call on hold or lock and unlock the device.
The back of the control module offers a spring-clip for securing the module on a shirt or lapel. For those wearing unclippable attire, a grey neck strap is provided, too.
One of the more interesting design points of the PS 20 BT is that they can be paired with up to eight devices at once and actively used with two of those devices simultaneously. This sort of flexibility can come handy for those times when you want to listen to audio from a laptop or tablet while monitoring your phone for calls at the same time — a scenario we were sure to test out.
Phiaton claims the PS 20 BT will provide 6 hours of talk or audio listening time with a total standby capability of 250 hours on a single charge. That almost seems like enough to get through a typical work day and probably enough power to survive a long flight or road trip. Of course, when the battery dries up, it can be recharged via USB easily, enough since it seems there’s no shortage of USB charging devices these days.
Out of the box
The PS 20 BT come with a USB charging cable, a small, soft carrying pouch, a neck strap, three additional eartips (small, medium, large) and a user manual.
Since the PS 20 BT are a strictly Bluetooth headphone, our trusty test bench of equipment was left out of the evaluation process. Instead, we used a Samsung Galaxy Tab, an iPhone 3Gs and a Dell N5110 laptop.
To prepare for music listening tests, we ripped a selection of songs from a handful of CDs into AAC files and copied them to both of our devices. We say “both” because one of the devices we intended to use didn’t make the cut when it came to pairing up with the headphones. Let’s talk about setup for a minute.
For all the cool functionality Bluetooth provides, pairing up Bluetooth capable devices continues to be a serious pain. We’re not sure whether to point the finger at the Bluetooth SIG (special interest group) or individual device manufacturers, though, with respect to our particular laptop problem, we would wager Dell or Intel are the likely culprits. Whatever the case, it took us what seemed like an eternity to successfully connect the PS 20 BT to our laptop and it wasn’t for lack of trying, either. Many driver updates were made, tech support was called. We had given up altogether when we decided to re-test the headphones’ OmniPair feature. Here we ran into some problems because, unbeknownst to us, the PS 20 BT and our laptop suddenly decided to play nice. It was a frustrating situation (which we will detail in a moment because it merits further discussion), but for now, we’re going to detail our experience in the order in which it took place.
Fortunately, we didn’t have any initial issues pairing up the headphones with both our phone and our tablet. The process our first time around was smooth and straightforward. Things did get a little tricky (and we hear this can be the case with various computer media players too) when configuring the Galaxy Tab to output audio to the Bluetooth device once it was paired, but we’ve got to chalk that up to our learning curve with the tablet, since it didn’t really have anything to do with the headphones themselves.
The looming curiosity for us centered around whether there would be an appreciable difference between the audio quality of Bluetooth 2.0 and Bluetooth 3.0. Our contact at Phiaton remarked that he didn’t think the company would ever had ventured into Bluetooth headphones were it not for Bluetooth 3.0, so they clearly believe a difference exists.
We did a lot of switching back and forth between our iPhone and tablet, listening to the same tracks on each. While there were some tracks where the difference between the two delivery systems was less exposed, we can say quite conclusively that Bluetooth 3.0 sounds considerably better than its predecessor.
One of the clearest examples of this was while listening to Nora Jones’ song “Don’t Know Why” from her Come Away With Me recording. The drummer’s brush work on the snare is a dead giveaway for low-bitrate media, be it low-bitrate encoding or low-bitrate delivery streams. Under such conditions, the brushed snare will sound extremely warbled and raspy. That was certainly the case of the sound when paired with our iPhone. By comparison, the tablet’s Bluetooth 3.0 delivery was much more clean and defined-it actually sounded like brushed snare drum — but that wasn’t the only difference. Nora’s voice had much more body and presence, too. We also found bass enjoyed some improvement in fidelity, though it was a bit less noticeable than what we heard in the high and midrange frequencies.
Our excitement over the tremendous improvement in sound quality was later quelled by the fact that we ran into more problems with Bluetooth communications. As we attempted to connect the PS 20 BT to our iPhone, we noticed that the headphones were connecting to something (they emit a confirmation beep) but not our iPhone. Further investigation revealed that our laptop was now suddenly successfully connecting to the headphones. Though totally perplexed, we decided to try to play some music through our laptop. This required going into the sound manager and activating the PS 20 BT as the playback device of choice (something we tried earlier with no success). Wouldn’t you know it, we heard something. Unfortunately, that “something” was intermittent and choppy. After a bunch of failed troubleshooting, we turned the headphones off, then back on again. This time we got audio, but it sounded like a really bad Bluetooth phone call. After about 15 seconds, something changed and we got some superb sounding audio… but why all the inconsistency?
The confusion didn’t end there. We still weren’t able to connect our iPhone as the second active device, even though we had successfully done so earlier when using our tablet. We’ve had this problem with the iPhone before, so we “forgot” the device, repaired it, and instructed it to connect. Thankfully, it did but we were feeling pretty frustrated by this point.
At the end of it all, we had ourselves three different devices paired up to the PS 20 BT and were able to connect two of them at a time with some regularity, but it took a lot of doing to get to that point. We can’t help but wonder how many users would be willing to jump through all the troubleshooting hoops to make the same happen for themselves.
This review would have been a lot simpler were it restricted to evaluating the PS 20 BT’s sound quality and discussing the improvements that Bluetooth 3.0 have brought to the table. The fact is, the PS 20 BT sound excellent as a headphone in general and are further distinguished by the fact that they are the best-sounding Bluetooth headset we’ve heard yet, thanks to the 3.0 profile. However, the PS 20 NC are not immune to the problems that plague Bluetooth devices in general, which means that using them is a dicey proposition. For the technically adventurous at heart, these headphones can eventually be a lot of fun. For those less than technically advanced, however, we suggest keeping it simple when it comes to using the PS 20 BT. Pairing to more than one device seemed to exacerbate the problems that we had. For those reasons, we give Phiaton high marks for ambition and excellent sound quality, but just can’t offer our stamp of recommendation until there is a better selection of Bluetooth 3.0 compliant devices available that will play nice with the PS 20 BT and bring that much improved sound quality to the mix.
- Outstanding sound quality
- Comfortable fit
- Convenient size
- Hassle to set up and use
- Inconsistent connectivity