Review: Nokia BH-905 Bluetooth Stereo Headset
In this latest accessory review, we investigate Nokia's new BH905 high end noise-cancelling headset. How does it fare for listening to delicate music in noisy environments. In the style of 'The Gadget Show' (and its budget!), to test the BH905 properly, Ewan booked himself on a Boeing 777 to the USA to see if even jet engines could be 'blocked'. It's a positive review, although it seems that good in-ear-canal headphones still block extraneous noise better at the end of the day.
When going for mobile, wireless music, there are the little in-ear Bluetooth headsets – the ones that make you look like a Secret Service agent, and then there are the monster headphones, which seem more like an accessory for whoever is the currently cool hipster/rap star than for a humble Bluetooth headset toting writer. But with music and multimedia consumption playing an ever increasing part in the life of a smartphone, it makes sense for the hands free kits to accommodate the rockers as well as the white collar office managers.
It's in this space that Nokia announced the BH-905 at Nokia World. They certainly look like the sort of headphones you'd have hooked into a record player in the 1970's to listen to the wonder of Rick Wakeman's “The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table“ (seriously though, kids, check it out), with a massive headband, lots of silver and black cushioning, and a bundle of switches on the casing of the right ear.
Because, as well as the speakers which sit comfortably over your ear (and the aforementioned cushioning means they can sit here a long time without being uncomfortable), the headset also packs ten microphones around the construction. Some of them are for your voice when you use it as a hands-free headset, but the rest tie in with the rest of the electronics to provide a 'soundscape' of everything around you. Throw that input into the active noise cancelling circuitry with a flick of a switch under your ear, and the BH-905 throws a cacophony of white noise into the mix, cancelling out a large portion of any external ambient noise. Ambient noise such as a Boeing 777's engines on a transatlantic flight, which is where I've been testing them (now this is what I call a challenge, Rafe - can I claim this on expenses? Rafe? ...)
Now this means that these are up against a tough challenge – my headphones of choice are a set of custom in-ear monitors constructed from a perfect mould of my ears. They may only be passive, but they block a huge amount of noise. Can the active noise cancelling competition prove as effective?
Mostly. For all the electronics and signal processing that could be done, it's not the same as a perfect seal in your outer ear. While listening to music it makes a lot of difference. My guess is that it covers 75-80% of the external noise, and then the brain mentally covers up the rest of noise while you focus on "The Ying Tong Song". Go for something more delicate, such as "Dear John" by Kirsty MacColl, and the tinny rhythmic rumble in the background is more distinct. It's not enough to put you off your music, mind you, and flipping the noise cancelling off to hear what you're missing and you won't wait to put it back on. The BH-905s are not a magically perfect solution, but they do perform as well as similar noise cancelling headphones on the market. If I was offered these to help on a long flight (or in any constantly noisy situation) then I would seriously consider them. They dull enough of the noise to make the environment habitable, and once you put some music on, you'll find that you're safely wrapped up in your own world, with only a handful of external cues for your brain to audibly latch onto.
I've no complaints about the audio quality, either over Bluetooth or the (optional, see below) corded connection. As has been the case for some years now the quality of the audio files plays a much bigger part in the experience thanks to the quality of the playback hardware, but even to my ears the BH-905 is replicating the audio to a high degree of quality over the wire, and the Bluetooth transmission had no drop-outs or compression artefacts.
These are high end accessories, coming with a smart and sturdy case, but also a bundle of connecting cables as well – these can be used to bypass the Bluetooth connection and provide a cable connection either to your smartphone or any other music device you might have to hand. While flying this is my only choice to listen to music on the X6 or Zune, but it also saves on battery power. The headphones have their own internal battery which is used both for Bluetooth connectivity and also to run the active noise cancelling. There will be times when all you need are the speakers and nothing fancy, in which case go with everything off and a cable plugged in. And here's one of the tiny complaints I have on the unit – once you add in the connectors to get a standard 3.5mm jack wired in, you've got a couple of inches of plastic hanging out the headphone socket. It's not that pretty or practical. Perhaps this is a design cue to push you towards Bluetooth?
Bring all the tricks online (and frankly if you're not going to be using all these, why are you buying something of this spec?) and you will be reliant on the battery to give you around a full day of use as a Bluetooth headset, and dropping to about ten hours with noise cancellation on. The good news for travellers is that it uses the standard Nokia charger, so you don't need to carry more than one charger if you're smart and organised. The BH-905s are a pricey solution, but I would see them as an investment in your own comfort, a good advert for Nokia's accessory line, and they comfortably do the job as advertised. While I wouldn't say they are essential, I suspect that once you've used them in anger, you wouldn't want to hand them back to the IT Department on your return from foreign shores.
Ewan Spence, AAS, 14 Oct 2010.