Review: nXZEN Plus 5500 Bluetooth earpiece

In the next few months, nearly a dozen companies will be unveiling Bluetooth stereo headphones with built-in microphones. These wireless wonders will allow cable-less enjoyment of your portable music player and cell phone. Bluetooth headsets make perfect sense in a world where MP3 players and cell phones, separately or combined, have become a fact of digital life. The nXZEN Plus 5500 digital wireless headset ($160 list) is one such headset. It aims to be a Bluetooth earpiece, a pair of headphones, and a noise-canceling device all in one.

The earpiece on this Rube Goldberg product is pretty standard. The raison d'être of this version of the nXZEN (how is that pronounced, anyway?) is to enable the creation of a "stereo" music headset for an MP3 player by connecting a separate wired earbud into a jack on top of the Bluetooth earpiece. Considering the more elegant wireless and wired solutions out there, not only is this a bad idea, it's badly executed — the gadget equivalent of the Pink Panther remake.

For instance, when you're syncing the earpiece to work with your phone, you have to get the sequence right. First, you need to pair the earpiece to your cellphone before attaching the stereo earbud — your phone won't pair with it attached. Then, when it is attached, you're mysteriously prevented from using the Bluetooth functions of the earpiece to answer a call, so you're left digging for your phone.

When it's operating, the earpiece gives you sonic and visual cues for the various functions, but you can't see the flashing-light cues if you're wearing it, and you can't hear the audio cues if you're holding it. And since it has no continually blinking light (like many other Bluetooth devices), you can't even tell if the earpiece is on.

Worst of all, the main earpiece and the separate earbud aren't physically or acoustically matched. It's the sonic equivalent of watching a program on a plasma TV with one eye and the same show on an adjacent rear-projection TV with the other eye.

The nXZEN Plus 5500 's big twist is supposedly its noise-canceling technology, which limits the amount of ambient sound that leaks in and muffles conversation. But considering what this product attempts — and fails — to accomplish, asking how well it filters out ambient noise is akin to asking Mary Lincoln how much she enjoyed Our American Cousin. Even that toilet-roll iPod speaker system makes more sense than this convoluted contraption.