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Safety A Sure Bet For Hands-Free Headsets

1/09/2003 02:00:00 AM Eastern

As numerous states and major metropolitan governments take a fresh look at jumping on the ban-the-cellphone-while-driving bandwagon — following months of post 9/11 relative silence — selling opportunities for hands-free headsets for mobile units have never been better.

"In addition to the legal aspects of hands-free use in New York, soon New Jersey, and possibly California, consumers have a moral obligation to their own safety and that of others to seek out a good hands-free solution," said Tony Brillantino, VP/ sales at Unwired Technology.

With additional states expected to adopt hands-free legislation, "hands-free is a term that is becoming more and more popular in today's society," said Bill Otte, VP/marketing at Gemini Industries. "There is an increased need to juggle more than one task at a time. Consumers are faced with current legislation and a busy schedule that demands hands-free products," Otte said.

Yet, gaining momentum in the hands-free headset category has not been without some slowdowns. "The hands-free headset business grew in 2002, but not as vigorously as we had anticipated at the beginning of the year," said Gordon Tetreault, national sales and marketing manager for accessory products at Maxell Corp. of America.

"The terrible events of 9/11 caused state legislatures to shelve planned bills mandating the use of hands-free headsets when using a cellphone while driving, reducing the incentive of consumers to buy them. While legislators recognized that hands-free operation of cellphones in cars is an important safety issue, it took a back seat to more pressing security concerns that needed to be addressed by the states.

"But the category did grow last year," continued Tetreault, "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 will continue steady growth in 2003 as the universe of cellphone users continues to expand, and as hands-free legislation re-enters the pipeline," he said.

"Many states have already passed the hands-free law regarding cellphone use," said Alice Reinke, president of ARSM. "It's only a matter of time before all states pass the same law."

"The mobile phone headset market will only continue to increase as laws are passed requiring people to use hands-free devices with mobile phones while driving," said Robert Jacobson, audio business-unit product manager at Logitech.

However, beyond the immediate demands of the law, the mobile phone headset market — attuned to the fast-changing technology of cellular phones themselves — is gearing up for an explosive burst of movement.

"As people continue to have more active lifestyles, mobile phones continue to become smaller and sleeker," Jacobson said. "Because of this, mobile phone headsets must now fit individual needs and styles as well as fit comfortably in the ear." This includes teenagers who want to show off their headsets, road warriors who need high quality audio in high background noise environments and family connectors who want a simple and safe solution, he said.

To this end, new from Fremont, Calif.-based Logitech for the 2003 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, is a cordless ultra low power RF headset designed to work with existing phones as well as fit comfortably over the ear. Called the Mobile Cordless Headset, the unit, at a suggested $99.95 retail, not only is compatible with current mobile models, but offers talk time equal to the battery of the phone.

The ultra low power RF technology, which operates up to 15 feet away from the mobile phone, provides up to seven hours of continuous talk time and more than 250 hours of stand-by time. The headset weighs less than 1 ounce and fits on any ear by means of an adjustable wrap-around earpiece. Its miniature noise-canceling boom microphone ensures superior audio quality in high background noise environments.

A call answer button and volume control reside directly on the ear piece, enabling users to take calls and adjust volume controls without the distraction of picking up the mobile phone. A carrying case, which doubles as a charging station, is included with the product. The headset can be fully recharged within two hours.

Building on the success of its UC-500 Handsfree Speakerphone Accessory, which plugs into a user's cellphone headset jack, Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Unwired Technology is introducing at CES a second model, its UC-600 Handsfree Speakerphone Accessory for cellphones in the car.

The UC-600 gets a cosmetic upgrade from Unwired's UC-500 and also features a more versatile mounting capability to accommodate any type of car or truck seat. Delivery is slated for June and the product will carry a $119.99 suggested retail.

In an effort to stay current with today's trends, Clifton, N.J.-based Gemini is introducing new headsets that further complement the success of its current line. Gemini offers a full range of headsets under the Southwestern Bell Freedom Phone brand as well as a full offering under the Gemini brand targeted toward the cellular consumer.

Highlight of Gemini introductions this year is model S60210 behind the head, trendy back-band headset that also includes a boom microphone. The unit offers soft, padded ear shells along with an adjustable boom microphone for optimum placement and wearing comfort.

Featuring a metallic blue and silver finish, the S60210 is equipped with a 2.5mm plug that is compatible with all cordless and cellular telephones with a 2.5mm stereo jack. Suggested retail is $9.99 and availability is in April.

For custom comfort and wearability, Maxell is showing at CES its model HF-425 hands-free headset, introduced earlier, that features a "unique" silicone ear tip that conforms to the shape of the user's ear canal for superior wearing comfort and security. Suggested retail is $14.99.

ARSM, the Villanova, Pa.-based U.S. distributor, is showing the Sitback Sound hands-free cellular device, which attaches to the headrest and plugs into the cellphone. The cellphone is mounted on the dashboard. Suggested retail is $299.

Sony Electronics, which is playing off of the success of its headphones offerings, is featuring a number of new mobile phone headsets. The Park Ridge, N.J.-based company's DRJ-115 and DRJ-120 Earclip style headsets were designed based upon what Sony calls its tremendous success of its MDR-J10 Earclip portable audio headphone.

"Our retailers were encouraging us to bring [headsets] to market because of the success they are having with the MDR-J10," said Phil Lubell, director of accessories. "This is because of its acceptance by consumers for style, design and comfort."

Sony is introducing three new mobile headset models. The DRE-J10 is an inner ear bud style with an in-line microphone. Suggested retail is $9.99. The DRJ-115 is a comfortable Earclip type, with in-line microphone and swivel clip for use in the left or right ear. Suggested retail is $14.95. Top of the line DRJ-120 also is an Earclip type, with WISP.pipe, which is designed to eliminate surrounding noise. It also offers the swivel clip and suggested retail is $19.95.

Each model will be available for conventional mobile phones use with a 2.5mm plug. Also available are the DRE-110N4, DRJ-115N4 and DRJ-120N4 for Nokia 8000, 3300 and 3500 series phones.

A 2-in-1 headset from Oklahoma City-based Jasco Products can be used with either a behind-the-neck band for secure fit or as an ear set, with an adjustable over-the-ear loop for added portability.

Called model HO96653, the GE branded, ultra-lightweight headset comes equipped with a boom microphone that telescopes and adjusts to assure high quality pickup and maximum sound, and can also be attached to either side for a discreet comfortable fit on either ear. Volume control and microphone mute are added features to the in-the-control module, while the noise-canceling microphone filters out background noise for crystal clear calls.

As with all GE-brand headsets, the HO96653 comes packaged with two adapters to fit virtually all models of Nokia phones. While most headset suppliers offer three separate SKUs for each headset style — one for standard 2.5mm jacks, one for Nokia 3000 and 8000 series phones and one for Nokia 5100, 6100 and 7100 phones — the GE adapters consolidate these separate SKUs into one. Jasco said this value-added feature allows retailers to drive more volume through each SKU, while offering a greater diversity of styles to their customers.

Suggested retail for Jasco's hands-free headset is $19.99.

With cellphone users more demanding than ever before about comfort, functionality, performance and style in cellphone accessories, Jensen has addressed these increased expectations with its earlier introductions of its JCA700 series lineup of EarGo SoftBud and EarGo Twist-N-Plug ultra lightweight cellular ear buds.

Now, Jensen, a Lake Mary, Fla.-based Recoton company, is adding its JCA960 Universal Plug-In Mount to the cellphone support system lineup. The JCA960 turns a cellphone into a speakerphone for safe, easy hands-free use while driving. The unit is fully interchangeable with most cellphone models by use of an adapter that is sold separately. The unit is designed to be compatible no matter how often a consumer upgrades the phone.

Jensen's JCA970 Nokia 8269 Hands-Free Charger is designed specifically for this phone model to ensure the best possible fit and connection for use as a speakerphone. Special features include a gooseneck design, a large built-in speaker and a high-quality external directional microphone.

Suggested retail for the JCA960 and the JCA970 is $49.99. The JCA960-N5, JCA960-N8 and JCA960-M are all $14.99. At $19.95 suggested retail, Maspeth, N.Y.-based Coby Electronics is featuring its CAM810, a hands-free headset that the company calls a tremendous consumer value.

The unit, which attaches to the back of a car's headrest, offers a built-in flexible and multi-positional boom microphone and built-in microphone with volume control. It also has input for an in-ear hands-free headset for private conversations, included with the CAM810 at no charge.

"Today's cellphone user wants headsets that provide the same or better value set, compared with what they get talking into their phone directly," said Chris Maddox, business unit manager for the Mobility Team at Compton, Calif.-based Belkin. "They want a clear reception, a comfortable fit and a better blend of performance and lifestyle statement."

Belkin's Go:talk pod, at a suggested $24.99 retail, is a personal hands-free kit used to hold conversations on a mobile phone without having to use the handset. It is designed to be a stylish and sophisticated alternative to the more sober product being currently offered in this category, Belkin said.

The soft, moldable ear hook accommodates different ear sizes and secures the cable behind the ear. This way, tension on the chord will not pull the plug out of the ear. The ear hook is connected to the boom by a soft, pliable cord that structurally disconnects it from the boom and allows it to be freely positioned by the users to their preferences. A variety of user interchangeable earplug shapes accommodates for a wide variety of ear canals and avoids pressure points and ear fatigue.

The directional noise-canceling microphone in the front provides "superior" sound quality, while the large push-to-talk button allows for "superior" ease of use. It can be used to pick up and end calls or to operate voice activation or equipped phones. A small, iconic volume control allows the adjustment of incoming and outgoing volume.

The Go:talk pod is scheduled to begin shipping in North America this month. An acoustical, noise-canceling communications device, called The Boom, gives cellphone users the ability to speak naturally and quietly in any noisy setting and still be heard clearly, according to maker, UmeVoice.

At the heart of The Boom from the Novato, Calif.-based company, is a shape-based solution that provides a two-port microphone housing, which cancels out background noise as it hits the front and the back ports.

Thus, the unit prevents the input of noise from a user's environment. The speaker's voice, however, is concentrated on the front port and deflected away from the back port. This enables the microphone to transmit a strong speech signal, devoid of background noise.

At a suggested $149.99 retail, The Boom flexes to enable personal fit and offers a detachable boom, noise canceling microphone and a cord that can be changed to work with various devices. A landline adapter is available. In a study about the buying habits of young adults, ages 20 to 35, EarHugger found U.S. young adults want their cellular accessories to have style, but not a lot of color. The study, co-sponsored by the Lindon, Utah-based company and Utah Valley State University, showed young adults from across the country had a marked interest in both style and functionality. In terms of headset, the "style" word most used by surveyed consumers was "sleek." "Bulky" was the least desirable word.

"If I had to boil the results down to a couple of ideas, I'd say young adults want a headset which is sleek, but which incorporates some kind of gadgetry," said Chris Marshall, EarHugger's director of marketing. "They are not at all opposed to boom mics as long as there is no possibility their headset will cause people to try and order a burger and fries from them.

In pointing out the importance of the young adult market, Marshall said, "These are the mini-boomers, children of the boomers, and there are lots of them. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 70 percent of the 20- to 35-year-olds carry a cellphone and many market analysts are predicting that over the next decade, younger Americans will move away from landlines all together. Already 25 percent of the demographic reports their cellphones are their only, or their 'primary' phone.

At EarHugger, Marshall said the company designed its new Flex-Fit Mini Boom headset to be sleek, functional and a little gadgety. The Flex Fit is a slender, gray and black piece with an inset chrome element that looks like a design feature, but which functions as an on/off button. The "over-the-ear" portion of the headset is made of a moldable material that allows wearers to form the ear hook to their ear's individual shape.

The Flex-fit Mini Boom will be available in February at a suggested $14.99 retail.

Style, safety, comfort and quality are the staples of the new Body Glove EarGlove Max from Itasca, Ill.-based Fellowes.

The Max, designed to be worn over the ear, features a boom microphone. Additional features include a 3-in-1 POD with volume control, answer/end button and mute; left or right ear fit; and a cord management system. Suggested retail is $29.99.

GE/Sanyo is showing what it calls its significantly improved line of Platinum Power Headsets. The company has added features, expanded the line, changed the packaging and trademarked a marketing strategy called the Platinum Advantage. The headsets fit all cellular and cordless phones (which have a headset jack), currently being sold in the marketplace.

The Platinum Advantage at San Diego-based GE/Sanyo promotes the product's flexible, adjustable neck — a ball joint that rotates 360 degrees that allows for in and out and up and down adjustability. Others include an ear pad cushioned for maximum comfort and an on an off switch and volume control that have been placed on the earpiece for safe, easy access. Also, there is a coil cord that reduces tangling and cord interference; a speaker with superior sound quality; and a slick, platinum design for the headset.

Suggested retail for the headset is $19.95, while the ear bud version is $14.95.

"As consumers become more familiar and comfortable with the basic [hands-free headset] technology, and recognize need, they also will begin to demand better quality, features that help them communicate in a variety of environments and greater convenience," said Karl Winkler, director/marketing communications, at Old Lyme, Conn.-based Sennheiser Electronic.

Winkler said he sees the hands-free concept moving positively in three directions: toward wireless such as Bluetooth, more specialization such as noise cancellation for high-noise environments and toward greater fidelity.

New from Sennheiser is its in-ear mobile telephone headset, the company's first in-ear device in what it calls a growing market. At a suggested $19.95 retail, the unit offers a flexible microphone arm, cable clip and left- or right-wearing style. The Sennheiser is compatible with most mobile phones using a 2.5mm jack plug.

At the same time, Sennheiser's Germany-based parent announced the establishment of a joint venture in the telecommunication headset industry.

Sennheiser Electronic is the U.S. wholly-owned subsidiary.

The Denmark-based William Demant Holding Group will transfer its current headset business to the joint venture with Sennheiser, while Sennheiser will complement this with its newly established telecom business and global distribution network.

Called Sennheiser Communications A/S, the joint venture will be based in Copenhagen, Denmark, and will combine the core competencies of both companies to provide leading-edge acoustic and electronic headset products for home, small office and PC-based applications.