iSkin Cerulean F1+TX Bluetooth stereo headset
For iPod. For PCs. For Macs. For mobile phones...
Review You know the problem: your iPod's safely stashed deep down in a pocket or a bag and you want to skip the current track or adjust the volume. Or you're just fed up of the earpieces dropping out as you're walking around. Accessory specialist iSkin reckons its stylish Cerulean F1 and TX combo is the answer.
The Cerulean set-up comprises a wireless Bluetooth stereo headset that ditches the usual headphones in favour of a pair of cable-connected earpieces that look like regular Bluetooth phone headsets. That's the F1 - the TX is the tiny transmitter that plugs onto a iPod dock connector.
iSkin's F1: comfortable to wear
iSkin is to be lauded for not only including extra foam pads for each unit's tiny speaker but also a set of alternative earclips for those who may find the standard ones uncomfortable. Not that we did - the F1's earpieces are light and pleasant to wear. The thin cable running between them means it's no problem taking one out and letting it hang down while you're chatting to someone.
The right earpiece is the business end, home to the F1's main, multi-function control button, track skip controls, volume keys and a physical on/off switch. Both the track-skip and volume controls are a pair of raised buttons, the latter on the bottom of the unit, the others on the top. iSkin has cleverly placed them so that if you use your thumb to support the F1 while you're pushing either of the track-skip buttons, you don't inadvertently adjust the volume too, and vice versa.
The link to the TX is initiated once the F1 has been charged for the first time. The F1's right-hand earpiece has, under a flap, a tiny four-pin mini USB port - not the standard variety - for which there's a cable to connect it to a computer's USB port for charging. Pairing the two is essentially automatic. It's just a matter of pushing a couple of buttons on the F1 and waiting for the TX to spot it.
iSkin bundles a second adaptor, this one with a full-size USB port on one end and a dock connector at the other, so you can connect your TX to your computer essentially as an alternative speaker. It's compatible out of the box with Windows and Mac OS X, and we tried the Cerulean set out this way first.
In Mac OS X, just select the TX as your preferred output in the Sound preferences pane. Windows is much the same. Fire up iTunes and you're ready to start listening. The TX and F1 use Bluetooth's A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) system for music transmission, but they also support the Audio-Visual Remote Control Protocol (AVRCP), translating F1 button presses into control signals the host system understands.
You can play and pause tracks, and skip from one to the next and back again, just by pushing the buttons on the F1. Led Zeppelin's new compilation, Mothership, came over clear and crisp, and if a little weak in the bass no less listenable for that. And we could click to hear Stairway to Heaven again and again. Track skipping, and pausing and resuming playback was quick with barely any lag between button-push and action.
Next, we tried the TX and F1 with our old first-generation iPod Nano instead. Again, the sound came over clearly and track skipping was very responsive. Just make sure to max the player's volume - the TX doesn't use the fixed line-out level.
iSkin's TX: compact transmitter
The TX has one of the set's four-pin USB ports to, to allow you to charge up your iPod - so that's one less cable to carry around. It's certainly a comprehensive package. The only thing it lacks is a battery for the TX so it can be used with an line-out source.
However, the USB adaptor has a 3.5mm-jack socket line-in, so with a common-or-garden 5V USB power brick and a suitable cable, the TX can be used to stream music from other sources.
When we described the F1, there's one feature we didn't mention: it has a built-in microphone so you can use it as a regular Bluetooth headset. Just leave the TX out of the equation and pair the F1 to your phone. Once linked, it's ready for wireless music and for making and taking calls. You can pair it up with a Bluetooth-enabled computer and use it with Skype or any other VoIP app.
The F1 will happily pair with the TX and a phone, so you're not limited to using one or the other. It'll pair with them simultaneously, allowing you to listen to your iPod wirelessly and still take calls using the headset.
It's a little tricky to set up: you have to connect the F1 to your phone then plug in the TX to make sure all the right bits of kit are talking to each other, but when it was all set up correctly, we could take calls coming in on our iPhone. We had a few such clicks and pops when the pulling the TX out of the USB adaptor too.
What the Cerulean didn't do was pause the music automatically, and we got a couple of sharp clicks as the call was ending and the the TX regained the link to the F1 from the phone.
Like other Bluetooth products, Cerulean has a range of about 10m, and we were able to go strolling across the open-plan Vulture Central office and still hear the Rolling Stones as well as if we were right next to the Mac the TX was hooked up to.
iSkin reckons the F1 will run after a full charge for up to eight hours' continuous music playback. But that's not the problem: the TX is powered by the iPod, and our Nano ran out of juice after the best part of five hours. That's about a third of the time we usually get out of the player, but no great surprise for this kind of peripheral. The F1 lasted for the promised eight hours.
Wireless iPod earphones, VoIP headset, mobile phone accessory - iSkin's neat Cerulean set is all of these at once, without the compromises so many multi-function devices make. The styling's great - the sound quality even better. The best A2DP accessory yet? We think so.