Plantronics's successor to its much-loved Voyager 510 Bluetooth headset doesn't go on sale until tomorrow. (Best Buy got its shipment a few days early, due to a stocking mishap.) But we got a hold of a test model, and we're giving you a sneak peak--and dissecting the unusual design principles it represents.
The 510 had an unheard of production run of four years, so the new $99 Voyager Pro doesn't depart too much from the basic design of its forebear. Aimed squarely at the Jawbone 2, it nonetheless looks exceedingly old school, with a long boom mic. That might seem odd, but the Plantronics's design team, led by Darrin Caddes, insisted on the higher performance that comes from a bigger, boom-style design that places the mic closer to your mouth. As Jan Caldarella, a senior product manager at Plantronics, told me, "Headsets shouldn't be so small if performance is important."
Meanwhile, the team wanted to preserve the celebrated comfort of the 510. In that regard, the big battery assembly creates a counterbalance for the boom, allowing it to sit on top of the earlobe without applying undue pressure. In fact it's balanced enough to hang on a pencil:
That said, its packaging is massively oversized. Wonder how many more they could fit on a truck if the packaging were smaller. This one won't be an Earth Day mascot, that's for sure:
The guts of the headset tell a better story than its packaging though. Thanks to the large casing, Plantronics was able to squeeze in better, high performing components: The headset's range is, reportedly, 100 feet, as opposed to the Bluetooth standard of 33 feet. The boom contains two tiny 3mm mics, one that's slightly pointed outwards, to monitor noise that's then filtered by the digital signal processing; the other monitors your voice, and sends it for live equalization, so that you always sound natural on the other end. The ear speaker itself is extremely large for a headset--at 13.5mm compared to the typical 9mm, it's the biggest on the market, providing livelier, louder sound. The battery provides up to six hours of talk time. And there are some clever, audible aspects to the functionality: Instead of unintelligible beeps to warn of a low battery, a soft voice prompts you when there's thirty minutes, then ten minutes, of juice left. It also lets you know when the mute function--rare on Bluetooth headsets--is activated.
As a design geek, I initially balked at the wonky look of the Voyager Pro. But it does exemplify a strange, almost unheard of, design sensibility: Make the thing work as well as possible, sexiness be damned. As Caldarella says, "You're working. It's not a fashion accessory." (Hmm... Who's that directed at, you think?) And it works well--which road warriors will appreciate. Sitting here typing, I forgot it was in my ear. That never happens with my Jawbone 2. Likewise, the sound quality is much improved: Warmer, louder and more natural, with no weird crackling sounds from the digital processing. And on the other end? When I call up my girlfriend on the Jawbone 2, she immediately tells me to "take that damn headset off" because of the tinny sound. Not so with the Voyager Pro. "Yeah, you sound fine. Gotta go." That's a ringing endorsement.
Will other Bluetooth makers catch on to the Plantronics ethos? In the last two years, cellphones underwent a similar shrink down followed by a scale up, as functionality began to win out over novelty. (Compare the iPhone to the tiny Nokias of yore.) Headsets are overdue for a similar change.