Newly adopted statutes making hands-free headsets the product of choice for chatting while driving are accounting for much of the explosive growth of what is expected to be one of the hottest accessories categories in 2004.
To meet burgeoning demand, makers are combining comfort, style and freedom of movement — as well as the benefits of Bluetooth technology — to keep the hands-free category booming.
"As mobile headset use becomes more mainstream, we'll expect to see that market's continued growth in 2004," said Beth Johnson, senior director of product marketing at Santa Cruz, Calif.-headquartered Plantronics.
"At present, the headset adoption rate is close to 25 percent, which provides us with a great opportunity to further penetrate the market with new solutions that simplify users' lifestyles and work styles," continued Johnson. "Mobile users are realizing the value of headsets and are looking for hands-free solutions that not only have great sound quality, but also enable new levels of convenience and productivity."
She continued, "As more vendors enter the market, product differences — such as quality and style — are going to become even more critical. Bluetooth, which is already a driving force in the European market, is poised to become a major factor in the United States headset market this year."
Counting on adding true value to the mobile user through its advancements in technology, Plantronics is announcing at International CES its latest Bluetooth-enabled wireless mobile headset, the M3500. Building on the platform of the company's M3000 Bluetooth headset, the M3500 uses an embedded digital signal processing chip and software to deliver what is called exceptional voice clarity.
The M3500 supports both the Bluetooth headset and hands-free profiles for compatibility with a wide range of Bluetooth devices, including mobile phones, PDAs, computers and more. The M3500 comes with a car adapter kit and travel pouch, as well as two extra comfort ear loops. Estimated suggested retail will range from $149 to $179, and the unit will be available in early March.
The Bluetooth hands-free headset from Compton, Calif.-based Belkin Components brings the convenience of Bluetooth 1.1 technology to a cellphone. Users can make and receive calls with the touch of a button, even while the phone is stowed away in a pocket, briefcase or purse. Users just have to be sure the phone either has Bluetooth technology built in, or they can purchase a hands-free headset with audio dongle to enable the Bluetooth technology.
Designed to provide easily the comfort of hands-free communication, the headset lets users activate calls with the answer/ end button on the ear piece, and the unit works from up to 30 feet from a phone.
The Bluetooth package, at a suggested $79.99, includes headset, base, charger, manual and installation guide. For non-Bluetooth enabled phones, the headset comes with a Bluetooth adapter for a 2.5mm jack at a suggested $99.99.
"There will be an increase in hybrid headsets that allow you to do more with stereo music, gaming and other audio input," said Raleigh Wilson, senior VP/general manager at Jabra.
Wilson noted, "Cordless headsets are becoming more popular among the masses with improved talk time, smaller form and more affordable pricing with increased functionality. Emerging market segments in headsets include desktop telephony and interactive computing."
The FreeSpeak 250, from San Diego-based Jabra is an updated version of the company's FreeSpeak BT200 that delivers a high performing Bluetooth headset with up to eight hours of talk time, up to 240 hours of standby time and a comfortable and stylish design. The FreeSpeak 250 adds significant performance improvements in conjunction with the same innovation found in the FreeSpeak BT200.
Available in a silver and black color with a clear MiniGel, the FreeSpeak is fully compliant with Bluetooth 1.1 or higher specifications. It has a range of up to 30 feet to another paired Bluetooth device and utilizes a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery. The unit can be used in either right or left ear and has a suggested retail of $99.
Fellowes is introducing its Earglove BlueSport, a Bluetooth wireless headset, available with and without an adapter for non-Bluetooth phones.
The wireless headset from the Itasca, Ill.-headquarter Fellowes, called "sleek and sporty" by Fellowes, is said to offer razor-sharp sound quality at up to 30 feet away. The rubber headset, which conveniently folds for storage, offers control buttons that are separated for simplicity and ease of use.
The Earglove BlueSport has a suggested $89.99 retail and the headset/dongle combination, which adapts the headset for non-Bluetooth phones, has a suggested $149.99 retail. The unit will be available in February or March.
"People who use mobile phones value wireless devices that give them comfort, style and freedom of movement," said Abraham Glexerman, president of Cardo Systems. To this end, Cardo has designed a wireless headset that takes full advantage of Bluetooth, and, at the same time, said its makers, the user's experience is comfortable and stylish.
Called the Allways, the new Bluetooth mobile phone headset fits comfortably over a user's ear or clips onto eyeglasses or sunglasses. It offers stylish functionality, while working seamlessly with virtually all virtually all Bluetooth phones and smart-phones. It provides up to six hours of talk time and up to 130 hours of standby time, according to the Pittsburgh-based company.
In addition, Allways enables users to take full advantage of cellphones equipped with voice-activated dialing and redialing functions. They can initiate voice dialing without holding their mobile phones. Bluetooth also enables users to operate their phones from up to 30 feet away from the headset.
The Allways Bluetooth headset has a suggested retail of $99.99, while the Allways headset with BT adapter has a suggested retail of $164.99.
"Two things are happening" in the fast-paced hands-free headset category, said Bill Whearty, VP Sennheiser Communications. "Companies manufacturing mobile handsets are seeing an increase in their business, yet when you look at the statistics of mobile phone use in the United States vs. the rest of the world, we are still lagging far behind. Obviously, the mobile phone headset market is far behind those numbers — so the sales potential for headsets is great.
"Second, as consumers become more familiar and comfortable with the basic mobile headset technology and recognize the need for hands-free devices [as mandated by New York State, among others], they will also begin to demand better quality and features to help them communicate with greater convenience in a variety of environments," said Whearty.
The Old Lyme, Conn.-based company is offering a line of headset models designed for Internet gaming, PC applications and mobile communications.
Sennheiser's PC 120 headset comes with a 2.5mm stereo jack for mobile phones and a 2 by 3.5mm jack for laptop computers. The unidirectional, noise canceling microphone is adjustable, delivers 80-15,000Hz and features an in-line volume control and microphone mute. Suggested retail is $19.95 and the unit comes with a two-year warranty.
"Because of the new hands-free laws being passed, wireless headsets will be a huge growth category in 2004," said Paul Perryman, business development manager at GE/Sanyo.
To this end, the San Diego-based company is featuring an over-the-ear wire boom design hands-free headset, with new packaging. The headset fits eight major phone brands, including Audiovox, Kyocera, Motorola, Nextel, Panasonic, Samsung, Sanyo and LG/ Touchpoint phones.
The headset's wire boom is bendable, making it adjustable to users' needs, and has a noise-canceling microphone. The on/off/mute switch is located at the ear for ease of access. A custom-fitting ear hook can be adjusted for use on the right or left ear.
GE/Sanyo's high-definition speaker is said to offer excellent sound quality, while the connector plugs directly into cellular or cordless phones with 2.5mm jacks. Suggested retail is $14.99 and the headset is available in January.
With New York leading the way, there are "hands-free bills currently pending in 15 states," said Rod Rougelot, president of Reason Products. "This is just the beginning of legislation that will make driving 'hands-free' the law throughout the United States. And now that Unleash provides a high quality and affordable alternative to the wired headset, we believe that it will ultimately replace the existing wired solutions in use today."
Reason's new wireless mobile headset solution, called Unleash, is designed specifically for users demanding a simple solution with voice quality over a secure communication medium. The San Francisco-based maker said that Unleash offers a higher performance solution than 900MHz headsets and a simpler, more cost-effective alternative to Bluetooth-based solutions.
Through its patented near field wireless technology, Unleash delivers an affordable headset offering that is said to be a truly wireless headset — there are no wires to connect to a phone and no bulky AC or car adapters. Unleash creates a communication bubble that allows users to talk up to six feet away, twice as far as conventional hands-free headsets that connect to a phone with a wire.
Each charge gives up to four hours of talk time and seven days of stand-by time. Since the charging case is battery-operated, it is truly portable, with no more hunting for power outlets or waiting on a car charge. The unit is compatible with cellular, wireless and cordless phones with a standard 2.5mm jack. An adapter is included for most Nokia handsets and may be required fir certain phones, including Sony-Ericsson.
Suggested retail is $99 and availability had been scheduled for December.
"We can expect to see several key trends in the mobile phone hands-free market in the coming year," said Richard Lee, product manager, electronics and wireless telecom division at Gentec International. "Consumers will be looking for higher quality products. In the past, people have settled for inexpensive, low quality ear buds, but have become frustrated buying cheap product only to have these break or offer inferior sound quality," Lee noted.
"Higher quality products with better sound, such as headsets with noise canceling boom microphones, are gaining ground. An upscale market may finally be emerging with higher priced and higher margin products seeing increased sales, which will be good news to retailers," he said.
New from the Markham, Ontario maker is its Roots Airwave hands-free ear piece, which features laboratory-proven Airwave technology that provides crisp, clear sound through an acoustic chamber and flexible tube system. The unit, available in deep red and midnight black, offers universal (2.5mm, three-section) and dedicated Nokia (2.5mm, four-section) versions.
Availability is March at a suggested $39.99.
Jasco Products is introducing a GE-brand MP3/phone headset, model TL26654, where, with a flip of a switch, the headset alternates between a mobile phone headset and an MP3 stereo headset. Designed for cordless and mobile phones and portable MP3 players, the 2-in-1 phone headset and stereo headphone comes with a foldable neckband for convenient portability.
The unit, from the Oklahoma City-based company, also offers in-line omni-directional mic for crystal clear calls and volume control on the in-line mic. It works with all music players with a 3.5mm jack and all cordless and mobile phones with a 2.5mm jack. It also works with computers and computer speakers and comes with a electroplate and cobalt finish. Suggested retail is $19.99.
"The hands-free headset business grew last year, but not at as great a rate as we had anticipated in the beginning of the year," said Gordon Tetreault, national sales/marketing manager for Fair Lawn, N.J.-based Maxell Corp. of America, in playing down somewhat the high-flying reports from other makers.
"While legislatures understand that hands-free operation of cellphones in cars is an important safety issue, it has taken back seat to more pressing security concerns that needed to be addressed by the states," Tetreault said. "But the category is growing primarily in the opening price points, although Maxell's growth came with step-up models due to the perceived value of a nationally recognized brand."
The category continued to show modest growth in the past year as the universe of cellphone users expanded. Part of this growth was Maxell's improvement for 2004 of its HF-375, with a new enhanced microphone and construction, he noted.
The unit, which has a suggested $14.99 retail, features an ear-wrap design for added security and three interchangeable colored overlays for the fashion-conscious user. It also features an in-line microphone with mute button, a lapel clip on a coil cord and an adapter for Nokia models 5100, 6100 and 7100. The unit carries a one-year warranty and comes in case packs of six.
A new wireless headset from Gemini Industries, model AX53WHS, that works for both cellphones and cordless phones, using a 2.5mm jack, offers 1,500 minutes of use from an AA battery. Ready to use out of the box, the headset includes secure communications and does not need an AC wall adapter.
The wireless headset communicates to mobile or cordless phones through a dual-purpose base unit. The AA battery replaces the wall adapter, so users simply dock the headset to the base when not making calls to keep it ready to go.
Using low-power wireless technology, a non-RF technology creates a personal bubble around a user, ensuring a private communication environment. Suggested retail is $89.99, from the Clifton, N.J.-based Gemini.
"We believe that there is an opportunity for industry growth in 2004, as consumers are looking to adhere to local and state laws requiring the use of a hands-free kit while driving," said Phil Lubell, director/accessory products at Sony Electronics.
"At Sony, we are continually looking to bring mobile headset products to market based on consumer lifestyles and designs that have proven to be popular with our market-leading portable audio headphone business."
An example of this is the Park Ridge, N.J.-based company's model DR-Q131M/DR-Q131MN4 headset. An ear clip style for mobile phones, the clip is based on top-selling model MDRQ22LP. The headset, which is said to cover 95 percent of mobile phones, matches up with the Nokia 1200/3300/8000 series.
The N4 model features call/answer button for Nokia-featured models and mute button for all other cellular phones. Suggested retail is $39.99 and availability is March.
A hands-free headset from Shure, called QuietSpot, is a unit that provides outstanding sound quality in any environment, said the Niles, Ill.-based company. The QuietSpot offers a noise-blocking earphone that fits securely inside the ear, blocking out 20dB or 75 percent of all background noise.
The QuietSpot headset comes with a series of interchangeable sleeves so users can experiment to find the solution that fits and feels the best. The flexible ear wrap is available in small, medium and large sizes, offering flex sleeves that allow ease of one-handed placement, while compressible foam sleeves mold to the ear for a personalized fit.
A noise-canceling boom microphone that picks up 66 percent less ambient noise than standard omni-directional microphones, allows the mic to be adjusted for comfort and optimal performance.
Two models are available — one for Nokia cellphone users and one for the majority of other cellphone users. Suggested retail is $49.99.