Nokia BH-905 Bluetooth Headphones – A Stylish Jack of ALL Trades

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There are many different ways to judge a pair of headphones. Are you an uncompromising audiophile? Are you an on the go minimalist who doesn’t like a lot of clutter? Are you just looking to take a step up from the pair of headphones that came with your phone or MP3 player?

With the BH-905’s, Nokia is taking a stab at the high end, trying to unseat feature laden “luxury” manufacturers like Bose. Do they succeed?

I often look at any headphone purchase as a series of compromises: sound quality, price, comfort, portability/convenience, design, features, etc. Ultimately you make a purchase based on which compromises you’re willing to live with. No set will be an absolute “perfect” buy, but if you do your homework you’ll get a set that will be “perfect” for you. The 905’s provide us with a very interesting set of compromises, and they’ll most certainly be “perfect” for some, but will they be perfect for you?
Features

Nokia has packed these phones to the gills with features, and I imagine the general design ethic behind creating them was “because we can”.

Connect via Bluetooth and cables? Built in rechargeable battery? Include adapters for MP3 players, airlines, and several variations of cell phone? Built in active Noise Reduction with EIGHT microphones sampling? Two microphones for phone calls and chat? Built in Media Player controls? High Quality materials, joints, and finish?

Yes. Because we can.

The 905’s seek to replace any and every other device you might wear on your head to send and receive sound. I actually can’t imagine a scenario currently in which they wouldn’t provide some solution.  Of all the sections in which I’ll list pros and cons, this is the only section where the 905’s are uncompromising. They can and will do everything.

Sound Quality

Generally very good, but these are not audiophile phones. If you demand the utmost in audio reproduction, you might as well stop reading now. With battery, radio, controls, microphones, and noise cancellation, these phones need to be closed back to include everything (just like competing Bose head sets). This introduces a few challenges for the audio, as closed phones can muddy up low frequency sound. You can hear the conscious effort made by Nokia designers to combat this with a rolled off low frequency EQ response.

Music that depends on bass is going to sound a little disappointing. My club mixes, hip-hop, and hard rock (especially bands mixed around a lot of kick drum) all sound weak. None of it had any punch. However, thanks to this roll off, mids and highs are generally very accurate and pleasant. If most of your music is comprised of classic rock, jazz, acoustic, classical, or the like, I think you’ll be very happy with the sound. Listening to my new set of Beatles re-masters was a very pleasant experience.

As a general rule they couldn’t quite match up to my Sennheiser HD-25’s ($200 professional studio headphones) or my Shure SE115-K’s ($100 inner-aural ear buds) when performing a direct side by side comparison. The HD25’s provided a FAR more accurate sound with much better bass, and I just plain dig the “IN your BRAIN” sound of the Shure 115’s, however those are both stand alone headphones that do nothing BUT play back audio. On their own, I genuinely like the sweet mid range of the 905’s for the music genres listed above.

Bluetooth

The 905’s are eager to make friendships with any device you own. Pairing was painless with a Blackberry Curve, HTC Touch Pro running Windows Mobile 6.5, an HP laptop, a desktop with a D-Link BT USB dongle, and a PS3.  Range is spot on for BT, about 25 feet give or take, depending on other wireless devices in the vicinity.

Call quality was generally excellent. With a week of use, I’d only had one caller complain of having a hard time hearing me (and in LA it very well could’ve been a network problem). Windows Mobile recognized all of the Nokia’s hardware buttons, and I rarely had to look at my phone to control music playback, volume, or give voice commands like placing phone calls. Playing a little Street Fighter 4 on the PS3, my opponent had no issues hearing me giggle as I threw Akuma’s Shoryuken in his face over and over again.  The 905’s are overkill for just phone calls and gaming, but they are a fantastic perk to add to their Swiss army knife-like repertoire.

The only downside for these phones is Bluetooth technology itself. Music playback did occasionally suffer from a little of the BT “whine” (a high frequency radio “hiss” whenever a connection is established). Nokia engineers have done a phenomenal job of minimizing this limitation of BT technology, but it is still there. Compared to my Jabra BT-3030’s (which can cause headaches if I listen on them for too long) it’s almost like having crystal clear audio. Compared to a direct cable connection… Not so much…

Design

When held in the hand, these things are a work of beauty. High quality materials, excellent finish, even the Nokia badge on the top scream luxury, and they certainly look like they’d be at home in an Audi. Even though I was not the first to receive this review unit, all of the adjustable pieces still had smooth but firm action, and they should accommodate all but the very largest of heads comfortably.

When worn on the head however, they make a slightly different impression. I think I’ll call this headband design “Cyberman”, and depending on what social circles you frequent, this could be either a pro or a con…

Keep in mind that these are not “cans”, as pictures of them online make them seem much bigger than they really are. The earpads are designed to rest ON the ears not around them. In a headset like my HD25’s this is usually done to create a seal by clamping the headphones down on top of the ear. That’s great for blocking out surrounding noise, but can be really uncomfortable if worn for long periods of time. Nokia has taken a different approach, and thanks to the “Cyberman” headband they’ve stressed comfort over acoustic isolation. I’ve easily worn the 905’s for several hours at a stretch with little discomfort.  This leads us to…

Noise Cancellation

Because the 905’s don’t create much seal on or around the ear, you will want to use the active noise cancellation. The less noise there is around you, the less you need to jack up your music’s volume, the less damage you‘ll do to your hearing. Active cancellation works by having a microphone sample the sound around you, and then creating a signal that will block the undesirable noise. Active cancellation is itself a mixed bag. It really only excels at blocking continuous noise, like the hum of airplane engines. Reading other reviews on the 905’s is frustrating as NO active cancellation solution can effectively block a sudden individual sound.

The best example of this occurred while using them at an outdoor café, the 905’s did a terrific job of reducing general traffic and engine sounds, but weren’t capable of predicting when someone would honk their horn, stomp on their brakes, or race by on a Harley.

Battery Life

I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the 905’s display battery capacity. There’s only one tiny light, and in other headsets it will usually flash a certain number of times to display remaining capacity, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the 905’s do this. They did however last me a day of moderate use (a couple hours of music and a half dozen short phone calls) with ease. As I’m a smartphone user, I’m just already in the habit of charging ALL of my gadgets at night. I think heavy users of the 905’s (subway commuters for example) will probably need to do likewise.  There are a lot of great tech perks in these Nokias, but tech perks always come at the expense of battery life.

Nitpickies…

There were three small drawbacks for me personally regarding the design of these headphones, that will most likely not affect many users, but I still feel I need to voice.

One, the 905’s can not connect via cable and Bluetooth at the same time. I don’t know of any BT headsets that can really, but it would be helpful to connect to my iPod via cable and still receive phone calls over Bluetooth.

Two, the 905’s use a proprietary charging plug. I really wish Nokia had gone with a USB plug instead. Having a non-user replaceable battery means you eventually will run into a situation where you’ll kill these before you’re done using them. USB cables are cheap, plentiful, and would allow you to charge these from a variety of sources instead of always needing to find a wall outlet.

Three, cabled playback SEEMS quieter than wireless playback. I can’t really prove this one, but using a cable seems to bypass the 905’s internal amp and volume control, and relies completely on your cellphone or MP3 player’s ouput.

Price

So did you like everything you read above? Well then how about this?

The Nokia BH-905’s are almost $300.

Specifically about $288 at the time of writing this review on Amazon. That’s a pretty fair chunk of change for a pair of headphones, but in their defense, I do feel they lead the pack of high end “feature” headsets. Comparing them to the Bose QuietComfort 15’s at $299, the Bose lacks Bluetooth (and the ability to make calls), will make you keep AAA batteries on hand to use the noise cancellation, and has (in my opinion) a flimsier build. The $10 premium on top of the Nokia’s will however get you slightly better bass response.  If you jump to the Bose QuietComfort 3’s (a $60 premium over the Nokia’s) you will get a better build quality and a rechargeable battery, but you’ll still be lacking Bluetooth.

Conclusion

I don’t grade products. If you’ve made it this far through my review, you should be able to tell that this is a personal preference purchasing decision, and you’ll need to decide whether or not you like the compromises Nokia is asking you to make.

Would I buy them? Living in LA no. I spend most of my time driving, and I find it irresponsible to drive with anything covering my ears. If I lived in New York, Boston, DC, or spent a lot of time walking around/commuting on a subway these headphones would be at the top of my list. I always want fewer gadgets, and for those gadgets to do more. I would happily trade disappointing bass in my hip-hop and hard rock for the ability to cut down on the number of gadgets I leave the house with. Plus they do the job of music listening and phone calling FAR better than my Jabra BT3030.