Stereo Bluetooth headsets have become a big business in the past year, particularly as more cell phones with stereo Bluetooth profiles hit the market. That's certainly a welcome change from the not-so-distant past when most music phones still required a wired headset. Nokia is one company that has jumped on this trend with headsets such as the Nokia BH-501. Designed to accompany handsets such as the Nokia 5700 Xpress Music, the BH-501 brings stereo sound for both music and calling functions without the tangle of wires. On the whole, the fit was secure, and performance was admirable, particularly when listening to music, but we had a few complaints with the comfort and the call quality. At $149, they tend to be more expensive than other stereo Bluetooth headsets, so we suggest that before buying, you give them a try to make sure you like them.
The BH-501 headset has a fairly standard design that's meant to be worn behind the neck. Generally we favor this wearing style, as it tends to be both secure and comfortable. The foam-covered ear pads are designed to rest against your ear, rather than inside them, so they slip on and off with ease. We had mixed feelings about the small rubber protrusions that arc over the top of the ear. While they prevented the BH-501 headset from slipping off accidentally, they began to rub against our ears somewhat uncomfortably after long wearing periods. Your experience will depend on your own personal preferences, however, as users with smaller ears didn't report the same issues.
The headphones are connected by a flexible neckband that bends to accommodate heads of all sizes. Though we were worried at first that the neckband didn't extend, it didn't seem to be a problem for any of our testers. On the other hand, you can fold the ear pads inward to make for a more compact carrying arrangement. The neckband is gray, and the earpads come in two colors: white and black. The color is a personal preference entirely; we liked our white test model, but other users may find it to be too conspicuous. And speaking of which, the 2-inch ear pads are far from small. The BH-501 isn't a headset for the understated.
The right ear pad holds the spacious control buttons, the microphone, an indicator light, and the charger port. Two controls adjust the volume, while the third is a multifunction button that turns the BH-501 on and off, readies it for pairing, and handles calls. You can't use the BH-501's controls to listen to music; rather, you must do that on your phone. The multifunction button takes a few minutes to get the hang of, but once you get it, there's no need to go back to the manual. The buttons are easy to press when you're wearing the BH-501, and we had no trouble finding them by feel. Our only issue was that it took us a couple tries to memorize the tactile markings on the buttons. Otherwise, we couldn't remember which control did what.
We tested the BH-501 headset with the aforementioned Nokia 5700 Xpress Music. The pairing process took just seconds, and we were ready to go with no problems. Audio quality for music was more than acceptable; we enjoyed satisfying clarity and volume with no static or distortion. Deep bass was lacking, and there was a slight background hiss from some tracks, but on the whole, it was a pleasant experience. Yet it is disappointing, though, that while you can adjust the music volume with the BH-501's controls, you can't use them to interact with the music player. As a result, you have to use the phone to change tracks and stop music play. To us, that's important, as it sort of defeats the purpose of using a wireless headset.
When using the music player, your tunes will pause automatically when you receive a call. And they'll start from the same point after you hang up. Yet call quality over the BH-501 headset wasn't quite as good as when listening to music. Though volume was fine, and we could understand our callers plainly, voices didn't always sound very natural. At times there was an echoed effect, and other times they just sounded a bit harsh. It wasn't exactly a deal breaker, but it was noticeable just the same. On the other hand, callers didn't report any problems, and voice-automated systems could understand us. Also, the B-501 didn't pick up much wind noise.
Other calling features include voice dialing and last-number redial. Voice commands on the headset worked pretty well, but they performed better when we were in a quiet room. The Samsung BH-501 promises 11 hours of talk/music time and 6.25 days of standby time. Fortunately, the headset uses the same charger as do many Nokia phones.