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Keep your ear on the road with hands-free cellphone solutions
As of July 1, a police officer can pull you over and give you a ticket for DWT -- Driving While Talking.
On a cellphone, that is, if it's held up to your ear.
Talking on cellphones in cars will still be allowed (otherwise, life as we know it in Southern California would come to a halt), but drivers must use a hands-free device while gabbing, according to a California law ratified in 2006 and finally about to take effect.
The law applies to drivers 18 and older. Drivers under 18 will not be permitted to use a cellphone on the road, except in emergencies.
If you don't have a car with a built-in, hands-free talk device, you'll need one to stay on the good side of the law while cell chatting.
There are three categories to choose from: wired headset, wireless headset and wireless speakerphone. Below are reviews of popular models in each category.
All of the devices tested had pros and cons. But don't expect any of them to make you a substantially better driver. There are scientific studies showing that hands-free talking while driving is no safer than with phone-to-ear. Phone conversation is the primary distraction.
These headsets, wired directly to phones, are old school. But the good ones still offer the best sound quality. And they're simple to use right out of the box.
On the con side is that darned wire. Getting out of the car with groceries and the dog while cell chatting is nearly impossible without snagging on something. And as for fashion, a wired headset gives you an air traffic controller look that's not likely to be featured in a "Sex and the City" sequel.
Although wired headsets are relatively inexpensive, beware of dirt-cheap models. They might not have acceptable sound quality for car use.
In testing, the Plantronics MX500C (about $30) offered great sound and a comfortable, under-ear attachment system that holds the lightweight unit in place without pinching. Even on an extremely noisy Gold Line train platform, with 210 Freeway traffic whizzing by on both sides, people I called had no trouble hearing me.
On the downside, the plastic mic on the unit can pop out and get lost, and the rubberized earplug cover eventually wears down.
The Plantronics MX250 (about $20) is more compact, but that's the only advantage. The clip-on fit system was unsteady, the sound quality substandard and the look especially nerdy.
Both these units are for cellphones with standard 2.5 millimeter jacks.
These wire-free headsets use Bluetooth technology that's a bit of a pain to set up, but not nearly as much as in years past. And although they don't offer the audio quality of the best wired units, they sound much better than they used to.
Some even manage to be ascetically passable, though many still look like discarded props from early "Star Trek" episodes.
The best lookers, by far, were the Motorola H12 (about $70) and H680 (about $50). With retro styling in black and silver, they look like stylish miniature radios from the golden era of that medium.
But, as in life, beauty isn't everything.
"It sounds like you're in a tin can," my friend Charlie Howell said when I called from the H12.
My cousin Marlene Goldman happened to come in on call waiting right then. "It sounds very echo-y," she said.
The H680 sounded about the same to them, although not quite as loud.
Both units were comfortable to wear.
Perhaps the most radical headset I tried was the Aliph Jawbone (about $130). With a black woven pattern on the earpiece and faux-leather ear loop, it looked relatively stylish.
As for audio performance, the Jawbone has a built-in noise filter that made it the best wireless performer on the noisy train platform.
But my voice was "muffled, like there is a handkerchief over the mike," Charlie said.
Also, the Jawbone wasn't comfortable to wear. To make it work properly, its mic portion is supposed to press against your cheek, above the jaw. It wasn't easy to keep it there, and a bearded friend said it was impossible for him.
The Cardo S-800 (about $30) is a compact unit with good sound quality. But I had trouble keeping the unit, designed to fit snugly, solidly in my ear. Folks with smaller ears might do just fine with it.
The Plantronics Explorer 360 (about $30), Voyager 520 (about $45) and Discovery 925 (about $90) all functioned well.
The relatively expensive Discovery model came with a protective case (an appreciated extra, because headsets get stuffed into backpacks and purses), and it has a cool, diamond-shape design.
In the sound-quality face-off, the Voyager was the clear winner. People I called said its sound came closest to that of a good wired unit.
The main disadvantage was a fit so loose that a jogor even a quick head turn made the headset flap against the ear. It's not for the athletic talker.
This category gets the award for most improved. Such add-on devices, which make your cellphone into a speakerphone, used to be unwieldy, ugly and practically unusable.
But these three Bluetooth models -- all designed to slip onto windshield visors like garage door openers -- provided adequate sound quality without headset hassles.
There are disadvantages. When you leave the car, you have to remember to turn off the Bluetooth or your cellphone's audio will still play in the car, not in your ear. Most important, it takes time to get used to operating these devices, and it's vital this not be done while navigating a 2-ton vehicle down the freeway. For your own and other drivers' sakes, practice while parked.
The Jabra SP5050 (about $60) is quite good, except for one unfortunate flaw.
Outgoing audio quality on the sleek unit is terrific. "I can't tell you're on a speakerphone," Charlie said.
Even my 93-year-old mother, who called from Florida, could hear me just fine.
The problem was the volume on the speaker. I could hear Charlie and my mom without strain when driving around town. But at freeway speeds, the noise inside the car made it difficult to hear them, even with the volume cranked up to the max.
Jabra says it's coming out with an updated version of the speakerphone in late summer. It will, like the Motorola T505 below, be FM-radio compatible.
The Motorola T305 (about $55) was plenty loud in the car. The problem was on the other end, where Charlie and others said the sound quality had all the bad characteristics of a speakerphone. Another annoyance: A blinking light on the unit was distracting, especially at night.
The Motorola T505 (about $95) provided a clever technological solution to weak sound inside the car.
The incoming audio can be played via the FM radio with plenty of volume. Suddenly, I was hearing my mom through all four car speakers, clearly reminding me I hadn't called over the weekend.
This feature could be distracting, especially when a strong radio station wipes out call audio, necessitating a frequency switch.
At those points, I had to repeatedly say to callers, "Don't go away, don't go away," as if I were lost at sea while trying to reestablish the connections.
So, which was my favorite of all the units tested? Call me low-tech, but I favored the wired MX505C headset, mostly because of the superior sound quality and ease of use.
But almost nothing you can do in operating these headset or speakerphones is as distracting as the other DWT -- Driving While Texting.
Unless you're an under-18 driver, the new law does nothing to prevent that.