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Mobile Headsets Spotlighting Fashion, Function

Improved sound quality, greater comfort and a heightened sense of style are among the key features manufacturers are building into their latest mobile headsets for 2005. Those aspects of fashion and function are designed to meet a growing array of consumer needs as cellphones become even more widely used and feature-rich.

“The cellphone market is continuing to grow, and a large proportion of the subscriber base is turning over and getting new phones,” said Paul Perryman, national sales manager at GE/Sanyo. “That generates increased demand for cellular accessories as a whole and, as a result, we’re looking at perhaps an 18 percent increase in headsets for 2005.”

Perryman pointed to the convergence of MP3 players into some new cellphones as one of the latest handset trends, which San Diego-based GE/Sanyo will address with a new stereo headset launching this month. Offered with both a universal 2.5mm jack and a connector to fit the proprietary connection on about half of Nokia’s phones, the $14.99-suggested retail product is designed with two wired ear buds so that consumers can use one for talking or both for listening to music.

Beside the addition of music to cellular handsets, their increasing video applications — requiring users to look at the screens even while talking on the phone — is a major reason for greater adoption of headsets, manufacturers said. Plus, those new functionalities are giving consumers an added reason to buy, added Chris Gantz, VP at the communications division of Milwaukee-based Koss.

“There is a lot of convergence of technology taking place, with cellphones that are also PDAs or cameras, that specialize in e-mail or stream video,” Gantz said. “All of that drives consumers to upgrade their product and, at the same time, raises their need for a mobile, functional headset.”

Koss’ new NXSET drops both earpiece and microphone down to the neck level so as not to cover or attach to the ear, and projects the sound like a mini-speakerphone. It features a padded, adjustable neck band that rotates to be worn on either side of the head, and includes an integrated ear bud for use when more privacy is desired. The NXSET will be available at the end of the first quarter at a suggested retail of about $60. A cordless version is planned for later in the year.

Bill Whearty, communications group VP at Sennheiser, also agreed that with cellphones becoming multi-use devices, headsets are increasingly valuable accessories. “There’s so much functionality in cellphones today, and consumers can’t take full advantage of that functionality when they’re holding the phone to their ear,” he noted.

Sennheiser is currently offering two headsets in its PC headset line that are also for mobile communications use. The compact PC 110 over-the-ear and PC 120 in-the-ear models both feature a short boom microphone and 2.5mm jacks along with 3.5mm stereo jacks, and are engineered for high-quality sound. A full line of mobile headsets is currently in development for introduction late in the second quarter.

Another factor driving sales of mobile headsets is current and proposed legislation in many states barring cellphone use when driving unless the driver is using a hands-free device. Rick Weber, senior product manager of Jasco Products, also cited the recent scare with exploding cellphone batteries and previous warnings about radiation dangers as spurring some consumers’ headset purchases.

“All those factors contribute to an interest in headsets, and then the improved ergonomics and trendy, sportier styling attract consumers even more,” Weber said. “Our new GE-brand hands-free ear set, model 26666, for example, is very sleek and comfortable, with a flexible ear loop that fits either ear and all ear sizes, and a lapel clip to stabilize the cord and control module.”

Retailing for a suggested $12.99, the headset is one of about 10 new models Oklahoma City-based Jasco is introducing for 2005. The products, which emphasize performance, fit and comfort, include ear loop, ear bud, and behind-the-neck, over-the-head, and “necklace” styling, in a price range from about $7.99 to $29.99.

Maxellis tweaking its mobile headset assortment for 2005, primarily to improve the quality, said Gordon Tetreault, sales and marketing director.

“With all the new technologies built into cellphones, more consumers who haven’t gone cellular certainly will,” he said. “So, we’re improving the quality of the magnets, microphone, and other elements of our headsets to stay up to par with the technology of the newest phones.”

A highlight of the Maxell line, from the Fair Lawn, N.J.-based company, is the HF-425 hands-free headset, which features a unique silicone ear tip that conforms to the shape of the user’s ear canal for superior wearing comfort and security. The headset comes with several sizes of ear tips to accommodate a variety of users, and has an in-line microphone with mute button and a lapel clip on a coil cord. Suggested retail is $14.99.

Belkinis introducing new lifestyle-oriented packaging for its mobile headsets for 2005. Among its newest products is the ActiFlex SportsBoom, which features a lightweight headband that contours behind the head for secure fit and long-term comfort. Designed for users with an active lifestyle, the headset is both shock- and splash-resistant.

“The need for portable headsets is growing significantly as consumers latch on to portable DVD players, cellphones, and MP3 players,” said Michael Narikiyo, senior product manager at the Compton, Calif.-based company. “Since many consumers will find it inconvenient to carry multiple headsets around with them, we anticipate a trend toward headset convergence, or headsets that are able to connect and operate with a broad array of portable electronics.”

Already, headset manufacturers are placing greater emphasis on their products’ sound quality, which helps bridge the gap between communications and entertainment use. Shure, for example, has developed its new QuietSpot mobile headsets based on the engineering of its wireless earphones for the pro-audio market.

“We built a number of proprietary technologies into our headsets, including small, dynamic drivers with tremendous sound and noise isolation qualities far beyond traditional communications headsets,” said Mark Karnes, general manager for the personal audio division at Niles, Ill.-based Shure. The company’s boom version, introduced last fall, is being joined at CES by an in-line model. Suggested retail for both is $39.99.