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After 80-plus hours of researching headsets and testing more than 18 models over the past few years, including testing three new models over 20 hours for the latest update, we’ve determined that the Plantronics Voyager 5200 is the best mono Bluetooth headset for making and taking calls, whether you’re in a quiet office or a noisy coffee shop. The Voyager 5200 offers the most comfortable and secure fit and the best dedicated call-management controls of the headsets we tested. It also has better mic quality than stock earbuds or most Bluetooth earbuds, plus battery life that can last most of a workday.
In our tests, the Plantronics Voyager 5200 provided the most consistently clear incoming and outgoing audio in a variety of settings. Its earhook design sometimes requires two hands to put on, but it’s easily adjustable and comfortable enough to wear all day. Its earpiece provides a secure seal for optimal sound quality, and its battery gives you about five hours, 40 minutes of talk time. It’s the complete package, unlike any other model we tested. The Voyager 5200 also has all of the software features that have made Plantronics headsets some of our favourites throughout the years, such as the capability to accept and reject calls with your voice.
We recommend the Plantronics Voyager 3200 only if the Voyager 5200 is not available, or if the idea of possibly having to use two hands to put the 5200 on is a dealbreaker for you. The Voyager 3200 has a more conventional in-ear design that doesn’t fit as securely as our top pick. Its audio – both incoming and outgoing – isn’t as consistently good as that of our top pick, but the sound is clear enough in quieter environments. And although this model has longer battery life, it’s only by 20 minutes or so.
The Jabra Talk 2 isn’t nearly as comfortable as our top picks, and its incoming audio quality isn’t as good, but it’s acceptable on both counts if you want something cheaper. It also gives you much better mic quality for calls than you’d get from stereo Bluetooth earbuds that cost a fair bit more. In our battery test, it offered almost seven hours of talk time, lasting over an hour longer than our top pick.
Who should get this
If you spend a lot of time on calls and you want hands-free convenience along with better microphone quality, long-term comfort, and call-management functions than traditional earbuds or Bluetooth headphones offer – and you want to keep an ear free to stay aware of what’s going on around you on your commute or at the office – a mono Bluetooth headset can solve your problems. These headsets include mics with noise cancellation, so you sound better to the people on the other end of your calls, plus additional buttons for more-convenient call taking and call making that you won’t find on traditional earbuds or headphones. They also have a design aimed at all-day comfort. Some offer the option of voice dialling and answering.
If you don’t do much talking on your phone, you’re probably fine using the earbuds that came with it. And if you listen to a lot of music on that phone, with only the occasional call, you’re better off getting a good set of stereo Bluetooth headphones with a microphone – we have guides to full-size Bluetooth headphones and earbuds.
If you already have a working Bluetooth headset, you probably don’t need a new one. Bluetooth-headset technology hasn’t changed much in the past few years: the latest generation of headsets we tested in 2018 offer only marginal improvements over previous models. So you can use the same set for several years without missing out on many new and exciting features or dramatically better performance.
But if you have an inexpensive headset that doesn’t perform as well as you’d like, or if you’re dissatisfied with its features, upgrading to one of our picks will get you better sound quality, improved noise cancelling and voice or gesture controls. If other people complain that you sound like a robot during phone calls, or if you’re unable to trigger Siri or Google Assistant from your older headset, it may be time to upgrade.
How we picked
- Comfort and fit: If your hands-free Bluetooth headset pinches or causes discomfort, you’re unlikely to use it, regardless of how good it sounds. If you’ll be wearing this thing for long phone calls, or for extended stretches in the car or at the office in case you need to take a call, it should be comfortable enough for you to forget you’re even wearing it. And because everyone has different ears (as the wall of ears at Plantronics’s industrial-design labs illustrates), we look for headsets that come with multiple sizes of tips and loops, as well as other accessories for getting the right fit.
- Microphone quality: A great Bluetooth headset should transmit audio that’s crisp and easy to understand regardless of the environment where you take your call. This requires the microphone to have some noise-cancelling capabilities to reduce the ambient sound. Without that, you might sound muddy or robotic, or worse, incoherent to the person you’re talking to.
- Speaker quality: Almost as important, a good speaker ensures that you’ll be able to immediately comprehend what someone says to you during a call. We don’t expect mono Bluetooth headsets to compete with the audio quality of a great pair of stereo headphones, but since calls conducted over Wi-Fi or cellular signals tend to have more noise and audio issues than calls over physical lines, it’s imperative that your headset avoids making the incoming sound even worse.
- Battery life: Given the diminutive size of most headsets, you shouldn’t expect exceptionally long battery life, but you at least want your headset to last most of a regular workday. We consider five hours of actual talk time to be the minimum for a good headset – unless you’re talking on the phone nonstop, five hours of talk time should get you through an eight-hour day. (Some headsets come with – or have available as a separate purchase – a battery-equipped storage case that charges the headset when you put it inside, which can extend the battery life significantly. But you can’t take calls while the set is charging, so the headset itself should still be able to last a good while on its own.)
- Controls: At the bare minimum, you should be able to accept or reject a call and adjust volume with buttons on the headset itself. The ability to do some of this with the sound of your voice is a nice bonus but not a requirement.
- Ease of charging: We test and consider only those models that charge via a Micro-USB cable rather than over a proprietary cord and charger, so you can use any standard cord and charger. You shouldn’t be prevented from using your headset if you lose or forget the cord the headset came packaged with.
- Appearance: Let’s face it – Bluetooth headsets look kind of silly. So we look for models that are as inconspicuous as possible.
Few models meet all of our criteria. For our update, we ended up testing only three new headsets: the Plantronics Voyager 3200, the Jabra Talk 2 (a well-reviewed newer model), and the Marnana Bluetooth Headset. We tested these new models against two of our previous picks: the Plantronics Voyager 5200 and the Plantronics Explorer 500.
How we tested
For our testing, we conducted updated and slightly condensed versions of a few different qualitative and quantitative tests we’ve done in the past. In previous years, to test comfort and fit, we gave four people all of the headsets in our test group and their respective accessory kits, asking each person to rank the comfort of each headset. Although that procedure was not an exhaustive survey, it at least gave us an idea of how each model fit an assortment of people. For this update, we relied on the results and feedback we received from that survey to inform our criteria for choosing and testing three new models.
To test battery life, we streamed a mixture of music and standup comedy from an iPhone to each headset, recording how long we could do so before the headset’s battery ran out. Because stereo audio and mono phone conversations use different Bluetooth protocols, this test doesn’t correlate perfectly to talk time, but because the difference should be roughly proportional for each headset, this approach let us directly compare battery performance without maintaining phone calls for hours at a time.
While testing battery life and going on his morning commute through several different noise environments – in a quiet apartment and office, near a squealing train, and in a bustling coffee shop – Daniel Varghese, who has been part of these tests in the past – noted how clearly he could hear and understand the audio streaming from his phone and whether there were any drastic sonic concerns. Finally, to test each headset’s microphone, he connected each headset to his laptop and recorded himself reading a Shel Silverstein poem in three different noise environments, including a quiet home, a coffee shop and the passenger seat of a friend’s car (with the windows down, of course). He listened to this audio later, noting whether he could understand all of the words and whether the audio was distorted or muddled.
Our pick: Plantronics Voyager 5200
The Plantronics Voyager 5200 is the best headset available for hands-free calls. In large part due to an earhook design that created a close fit and a choice of ear tips that provided a secure seal, this headset produced consistently clearer incoming and outgoing sound than any other model we tested. Though the earhook can make the Voyager 5200 a hassle for some people to put on, it ensures that the headset stays comfortably in place. Add a talk time of more than five hours in our tests, simple pairing to any iOS or Android phone, easy-to-use controls and a smartphone companion app for easy adjustment of the settings, and the Voyager 5200 was the standout performer in our test group.
Each piece of the Voyager 5200 – the boom, the earpiece, and the earhook – is adjustable, so you can change the orientation of each to get the best fit in and around your ear and at the proper distance from your mouth. This complete adjustability gives the Voyager 5200 a much more comfortable, secure fit than with the other models we tested. When wearing the headset, we experienced none of the pinching or other discomfort common to these gadgets. It’s a headset that you can comfortably wear for an entire workday.
None of the headsets we’ve tested provides audio – incoming or outgoing – with the level of fidelity we expect from a set of studio-quality headphones. But the Voyager 5200 performed the best and most consistently in both speaker and microphone tests across our testing environments: a quiet office space, a bustling coffee shop and the passenger seat of a car. Incoming audio, though lacking bass, came through clear and easy to understand even in noisy environments, thanks to the Voyager 5200’s quality speaker and the in-ear seal you can achieve with the headset’s customisable fit and multiple ear tips. Outgoing audio was equally clear to the people we were talking to, likely due to the headset’s four-microphone array and its noise-cancelling features, which help isolate your voice.
The Voyager 5200 has good, but not exceptional, battery life, lasting for 5 hours, 42 minutes of talk time in our tests. If that isn’t enough for you, Plantronics sells an optional Voyager 5200 charging case that provides an extra 14 hours of talk time while protecting the headset inside a sturdy carrying container. But adding this case bumps the total price of the Voyager 5200 up. (Car commuters can also get the official Plantronics car charger, but any Micro-USB charger will work fine.) The Voyager 5200 takes less than two hours to recharge fully.
Using the headset is simple. The headset has physical buttons for on/off, volume level, call answer and voice command, each of which is easy to find and press. But you can also answer a call by simply saying “Answer” if the headset is already on, or if you’re not currently wearing it, by putting the earpiece in your ear – the Voyager 5200 has sensors to determine when you’re wearing it. In either situation, it answers the call and sends the audio to the headset.
The Voyager 5200 supports Bluetooth 4.0 plus NFC pairing with compatible smartphones. In our tests, pairing the headset with an Apple iPhone SE was quick and easy, and the Plantronics smartphone app made it simple for us to adjust settings and update the firmware.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
At first glance, it’s not immediately clear exactly how the Voyager 5200 is supposed to fit. In fact, while trying to swap in a new ear tip, we broke the first model we tested for this update. Employing a more delicate touch with the second model – the issue we ran into is covered under the warranty – we appreciated the flexibility the Voyager 5200’s design offers: in addition to choosing from multiple tip sizes, you can adjust the orientation of the tips for a better fit.
In a previous round of testing, some testers with long hair or glasses found that the Voyager 5200’s bulk made it harder to put on. During our 2018 testing, Daniel Varghese did not find that his glasses presented any issues, but if you have long hair, putting the headset on might require two hands. After getting the headset on and adjusting the fit, all but one of our testers over the past few years have found it to be perfectly comfortable to wear.
One very minor complaint is that the Voyager 5200 doesn’t support volume mirroring. On a headset that does, pressing a volume button on the headset is exactly the same as pressing the corresponding volume button on the phone. With the Voyager 5200, the two volume controls work independently, so, for example, even if the volume is all the way up on your phone, you may also need to increase the headset’s volume to get maximum volume. We prefer mirroring because it leads to less confusion, but the lack of this feature isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
Runner-up: Plantronics Voyager 3200
The audio quality of the Plantronics Voyager 3200 isn’t as consistently clear as that of the Voyager 5200, and this headset isn’t as comfortable to wear for long periods of time. But the Voyager 3200 is the next-best option if our top pick isn’t available, thanks to good performance and many of the same software features that we like about Plantronics headsets overall. The 3200 also has slightly longer battery life than the 5200, and although it doesn’t give you the same secure and comfortable fit, it’s easier to put on with one hand than the 5200, especially if you have long hair or wear glasses with thicker temples.
The quality of both the speaker and the microphone on the Voyager 3200 is decent, and during our tests in quiet environments its incoming audio was even a little better than that of the Voyager 5200. But in a crowded coffee shop and on a train, we found that we had to increase the volume in order to comprehend the voice on the other end of the line. The microphone picks up audio that’s clear enough but not particularly crisp. Someone on the other end of a call should be able to understand you, but you might sound a little muddled or distorted.
If you have longer hair or wear glasses, the Voyager 3200’s fit and design might be more convenient for you than that of the Voyager 5200. The 3200 has a more conventional Bluetooth headset design, with no built-in earhook. So to adjust the fit, you can only swap out one of the gel earpieces or attach an optional brittle-plastic earhook. Especially if you forgo the earhook, this means that hair and glasses don’t get in the way, and the 3200 is easy to put in with one hand. The trade-off with this setup is that it’s harder to get a secure fit with the 3200. So in our tests, it occasionally felt like it was going to fall out. The 5200 fits better on most people, but you can still wear the 3200 for an entire workday.
In our battery tests, the Voyager 3200 slightly outperformed the Voyager 5200, with a talk time of six hours, five minutes. That amounts to an additional 20-minute call on a single charge – not nearly enough of a difference to make up for the 5200’s more-secure fit and better sound quality. Unless the 5200 is unavailable or its fit with glasses or long hair is a dealbreaker for you, our top pick is a much better option.
Budget pick: Jabra Talk 2
If you need hands-free calls only occasionally, the Jabra Talk 2 will save you some money, but in turn you give up comfort and audio quality. The Jabra Talk 2 is smaller than the Plantronics Voyager 5200, but its battery lasts over an hour longer.
The Talk 2 includes two ear tips and two plastic earhooks. Finding a combination that fit securely in our ears was pretty easy, although the headset pinched when we first put it on; after about 15 minutes of our having the headset in, the slight pain subsided and the headset felt comfortable enough to wear for the entirety of its seven-hour battery life in our tests.
Sound quality on budget-priced headsets can be bad, but the Talk 2 actually sounds decent in the right environment: during our testing in a quiet office setting, the speakers and microphone worked as well as those on the Voyager 5200. But in noisier environments, like in a coffee shop or a subway station, the differences between the Talk 2 and our top picks became clear. For example, in our microphone tests in a moving car, the audio was clear enough for us to make out the words, but it sounded muddy and occasionally robotic. On a real call, that means you might need to repeat yourself. We don’t recommend the Talk 2 if you’re frequently on the phone, but for the occasional hands-free call, it’s the best headset we tested in the price range.
What about stereo Bluetooth headphones?
If you’re considering a Bluetooth headset but you also regularly listen to music or other stereo audio, you might consider getting a pair of wireless stereo Bluetooth headphones instead (or using a set that you already have). You’ll be able to talk hands-free as you go about your day, listening to music in between calls, and you’ll likely find it easy to hear and understand whoever is on the phone with you. But it might be harder for them to understand you: the microphones on stereo Bluetooth headphones are usually not as good as those on wired headsets or Bluetooth headsets specifically designed for calls. That said, if you won’t be talking on the phone regularly, a set of over-ear or in-ear Bluetooth headphones will sound better when you’re listening to music than the picks in this guide.
Another related category that’s growing in popularity is “true wireless” headphones, which are stereo Bluetooth headphones without a cable connecting the left and right earpieces. Good true wireless earbuds actually sound quite good on phone calls and are often just as comfortable to wear as Bluetooth headsets, but the ones we recommend are much more expensive than the picks in this guide, and they don’t usually last more than five hours on a charge (though most include a charging case that can extend the battery life in between full charges). These are mainly worth considering if you want to listen to stereo music wirelessly throughout the day and plan to regularly take calls through the same headset – and if you’re willing to spend the extra money.
Plantronics Voyager Edge: Previously our top pick, the Voyager Edge appealed to us because of its excellent sound quality and comfort. We also appreciated that it came with a charging case that extended the headset’s talk time to up to 10 hours. Unfortunately, Plantronics has discontinued this headset. It’s still available at some retailers, but you can expect it to go out of stock soon.
Plantronics Explorer 500: We previously recommended this headset as a budget pick because of its clear sound, particularly in noisy environments. But the Jabra Talk 2 offers a similar audio profile and lasted longer in our battery tests.
Jabra Stealth: We liked this headset’s incoming audio quality and battery life, but its microphone quality was middling.
Jabra Storm: In our previous listening tests, the highest praise the Storm received was “pretty good.” It’s also much bigger than other headsets, which limits its appeal.
Sennheiser Presence: The Presence was a runner-up to the Voyager Edge in an earlier version of this guide because of its audio performance in a quiet office environment and its 10-plus hours of battery life. But it’s now far more expensive than any of our picks.