BlackBerry Premium Multimedia Headset

By Al Sacco, CIO.com |  Personal Tech, BlackBerry

BlackBerry smartphones traditionally haven't been considered multimedia devices akin to iPods or iPhones, but Research In Motion (RIM) has worked hard during the past couple of years to change that.

The BlackBerry's transition from business-specific corporate tool to consumer entertainment device started more than two years ago, with the release of the first BlackBerry Pearl, sporting a full-fledged music player. More recently, the BlackBerry Storm debuted as an all out multimedia machine.

Along the long road to success in the consumer space, RIM has had to reach milestones including the inclusion of video playback support, video capture via built-in digital cameras and ever-increasing external storage capacities in its smartphones. Then there's the release of consumer-centric products like the BlackBerry Remote Stereo Gateway, which streams music from BlackBerrys to home theatre equipment. (RIM also plans to soon release a similar product for in-vehicle use: The "BlackBerry Bluetooth Vehicle Visor Mount.")

Just last week, the company released its latest addition to the BlackBerry multimedia family, the Premium Multimedia Headset. Here's my take on who the new BlackBerry headset's best suited for; in others words, The Good, The Bad and The Rest of What You Need to Know.

First up, the good stuff...

Comfort, Customization, Carrying Case

My favorite thing about RIM's new BlackBerry Premium Multimedia Headset: Its earbuds fit ultra-comfortably and snugly, effectively blocking out the majority of surrounding sound--even while I was sitting on a noisy flight from Las Vegas to Boston. And the headset comes with three different rubber fittings for the buds--small, medium and large--so you can find the best size for you.

The new multimedia controls, which include one button to pause/play tracks and two more for skipping back and forth, as well as volume up and down keys, are built into the earbuds' cord. They all worked well enough for me alongside a few different BlackBerrys.

As for audio quality, I was impressed with the new BlackBerry multimedia headset, especially when I used it with my BlackBerry Bold. RIM's website specifies that BlackBerry handheld OS v4.6 or higher is required to take full advantage of the new headset, and maybe that's why my music sounded better via the Bold, which runs OS 4.6, than on a Pearl 8130 running OS 4.5. I can't be sure if this is the actual reason, but one thing's for sure: Audio quality was noticeably better when I used the Premium Multimedia Headset with the Bold than with the Pearl--or my iPhone. (Note: The new RIM headset features a standard 3.5 mm jack, so it fits in many different media players. But none of the multimedia controls worked with the iPhone, and I think it's safe to say the same goes for other non-RIM devices.)

The earbuds on the new headset are also very similar to those found on RIM's slightly older Premium Stereo Headset, but the horizontal section that actually extends into your ear canal is a bit longer, which enables the earbuds to block out sound slightly better. Other differences: you'll find multimedia controls built into the new buds' cord and a few thin-plastic plates that allow you to change the color of the new in-ear components. The cord on the multimedia headphones is slightly longer, though not enough to make much of a difference.

The audio quality of the older BlackBerry Premium Stereo Headset, which ships with newer RIM devices like the BlackBerry Bold 9000, ranks close to the new Multimedia Headset's quality in my tests. So if the new playback and volume controls aren't important to you, I'd suggest going with the Premium Stereo headphones; they're US$40 cheaper than the $90 multimedia headset, and the little boost in sound quality on its own is not really worth the extra scratch.

The replaceable earbud-plates are a nice touch, though, and they let you switch back and forth between red, black and silver, so you can match your headset to your device--or your daily outfit.

I also really like the BlackBerry-branded, leather-ish case the new buds come in; it's oval-shaped with a zipper around the edges that opens to expose a space sized perfectly from the new headset. Mesh pockets on the top and bottom flaps, when opened, can store the extra earbud-fittings and color plates, among other (small) things.

Now, for the not-so-good stuff...

Call Quality, Price, Compatibility

For quite some time--since the release of the first BlackBerry Pearl 8100 in September 2006, at the latest--RIM has shipped headsets with its consumer-minded smartphones. And because those headsets were meant to be used with devices that are also mobile phones, the company built small microphones into their cords so they could also be used as hands-free headsets.

The problem: though incoming call quality is fine through these headphone/headset hybrids, the callers on the other end frequently can't hear you very well. That's because the mics in the headsets aren't great, and the constant flapping of the cord, combined with environmental factors like wind and, if you're moving, physics, further confound the issue.

I still had the same problem with the new RIM headset. The company apparently hasn't improved upon the design or function of the product in this regard.

At $90 via RIM's ShopBlackBerry.com, the Premium Multimedia Headset also isn't cheap. RIM wisely priced it under $100, which is the breaking point for many folks when it comes to accessories, but the price tag still seems rather steep to me. That's especially true when you consider the fact that some high-end headsets from company's like V-Moda and Sony Ericsson sell for just $10 or $30 more--and many of these are Bluetooth enabled and don't require cords at all. (Note: The BlackBerry Premium Multimedia Headset is so new that even the largest retailers of BlackBerry accessories, including CrackBerry.com, don't yet have it listed for sale. You can expect the price on such sites to be a bit more reasonable than RIM's own online outlet.)

Even though I was able to employ the new headset with pre-BlackBerry OS 4.6 devices, RIM warns on its retail site that the earbuds are meant for use with only its latest phones. I'm not exactly sure why this is--I've got an inquiry out to RIM right now, and I'll update this post as soon as I hear back--but I don't like it. I understand that new BlackBerrys are more technologically advanced than previous models, and the compatibility restrictions could have to do with a component not found in older devices, but I still wish the new headphones worked just as well with older BlackBerrys than newer ones, as I regularly use a number of different devices--BlackBerrys and non-BlackBerrys--and I can't see dropping almost $100 for a set of headphones I can only use with a few media players.

Finally, this is a minor quip, but I also don't like how RIM decided to place its logo so prominently on each earbud. You'll see BlackBerry "seven-dot" logos on the side of each 'bud--this is also the case with the slightly older Premium Stereo Headset. I don't like many products that are covered in branding, and this new headset certainly falls in that category. I would've liked to see a more subtle BlackBerry logo.

And to sum that all up...

Conclusion: Great for BlackBerry Purists, Not So Much for the Rest of Us

BlackBerry loyalists and CrackBerry addicts who want to employ their smartphones with products built specifically for those devices, or folks who want to keep it "pure" by using only RIM-branded products, will find a friend in the new BlackBerry Premium Multimedia Headset, as it's by far RIM's best pair of hybrid headphones to date.

But if you want to employ one quality headset along with a variety of devices, some of which aren't BlackBerrys, you'll want to steer clear of the new multimedia headset, as it's meant for use specifically with BlackBerry devices running handheld OS v4.6 or higher (read: BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220, Curve 8900, Bold 9000 and Storm 95xx).

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