Motorola MotoRokr S9 Bluetooth headphones
Wireless headphones without the baggage
Review Lacking additional boxes, dangling wires or ear-dragging weights, Motorola's S9 is what a set of Bluetooth headphones ought to be - as long as your head is the right shape for them.
The problem with Bluetooth headphones is the need for bulk, mainly for the battery but also the receiving circuitry and controls - not to mention some sort of connection between the ears. Various designs have incorporated oversized ear pieces, dangling toggles and even 1970s style on-ear boxes to accommodate the necessaries.
Motorola's S9: bulging with electronics
The Motorola S9 gets round the problem by putting all the electronics in a bulge that rests on the back of the neck. Anyone with hair down to their shoulders will find the headphones almost invisible, though non-hippy types will find themselves sporting an apparent carrying handle, which friends and colleagues may find irresistible.
Other innovations are less welcome: while some headphones sport pads that rest on the ears and others fit snugly into the ear, Motorola has managed to make ear pieces that fit into the ear a bit - but not enough to offer any benefit. They offer all the comfort of ill-fitting in-ear headphones, without any muffling of external sounds that such 'phones normally provide. Three sizes of earpiece sleeves are supplied, but none of them seemed to fit our ears as well as they should have.
The unusual shape of the S9 is also non-negotiable. They don't fold up or compress in any way, but are at least robust enough to drop in the bottom of a bag without fear of damage.
Whether you find the S9 headphones comfortable will depend on the shape of your head. If it matches then they are very comfortable, otherwise it feels vaguely as though one's head is being held in a clamp for x-raying - not exactly uncomfortable, but a bit weird. The clamping effect may be down to the importance of their staying in place during exercise, and the rubber construction would certainly place them well in such an environment where the 'phones could easily survive sweat and knocks. The six-hour battery life was longer than anyone at Register Hardware could work out for, but an equivalent number of shorter sessions seemed to bear out the quoted capacity.
Once you get used to the shape the 'phones are as easy to use and operate as they should be. The bulge conceals a standard mini-USB connection for charging, and a power button which is held down for Bluetooth pairing. Once the S9 was charged we were paired up and working within seconds.
The controls are on the ears, with three buttons on each side. On the right there's Previous, Next and Pause; on the left you'll find the volume controls and a button for making or answering phone calls. Stereo sound is carried over the Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP), and if your player supports AVRCP (Audio Video Remote Control Profile) then you'll be able to control playback too. We had no problems connecting and controlling a variety of devices supporting both profiles - the only challenge being to remember what each button does.
Motorola's S9: comfortable? Depends on the shape of your head
The bulge also houses the obligatory blue flashing light that such devices always seem to sport, though all the longhairs should be able to conceal it.
Sound quality was good, though as the volume increases the bass drops away until the S9 starts to sound like a cheap set of in-ear buds, but that's only at very high volume. In general, they were comparable to a normal set of earbuds, but nothing spectacular.
The range of the headphones was impressive, though somewhat dependent on the transmitting device. We had no problems listening to music from an adjoining room, and certainly anywhere in the same room, despite considerable 2.4GHz activity in the area.
We had intermittent sound problems until we established that putting more than one body part between transmitter and receiver completely breaks the connection - wrap a hand round your mobile phone and the signal breaks up badly. The same effect can be achieved by placing a hand over the bulge in the headphones. This was more acute than we've seen before on any Bluetooth device, but should rarely be a problem in normal usage.
The headphones do have a microphone hidden somewhere on them, and can be used with the normal headset profile for answering and making phone calls. The sound switches to mono, and comes only from the left ear piece, while the microphone picks up a rather blurred version of your voice. Adequate for taking an unexpected call while travelling, but not up to replacing a decent headset.
If your hair goes down to your collar, and your head is more round than long, then Motorola's S9 is what Bluetooth promised to deliver: stereo audio wirelessly. You'll get better sound out of a decent pair of buds, but they won't look so good or let you wander around freely without wires to hold you back.