The SyberSay headset: A usable hands-free headset

April 3, 2003
©2003 Rich Stillman, Waystation Partners

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Update 4/24/04:

About a year ago, the SyberSay disappeared from the face of the earth. The domain expired, and there was no mention of new places to find any of the SyberSay products. I had heard a while earlier that SyberSay had planned to discontinue their entire line of wired headsets and exclusively sell Bluetooth devices - a strange decision considering the slow adoption rate of Bluetooth in the cell phone market or, for that matter, anywhere else.

I went in search of SyberSay again in February, at the request of someone who read my review. Again, I came up with nothing. So it appeared the company, and its excellent products, had become another good idea orphaned by unfortunate business decisions, the general economic climate, or maybe even their decision (it made sense at the time) to give away several months worth of inventory at the Comdex Fall 2000 trade show.

Most good products that are rendered extinct stay that way. But a couple of weeks ago I was at Boston's Logan Airport with time to kill, and stopped into the Airport Wireless store in Terminal C. There in a blister pack on the wall, I found the SyberSay Earlite 540, changed in only two ways: the addition of a mute button on the wire, and a Body Glove logo on the headset itself. I didn't buy the headset, although I will get one this week when I'm back at the airport and report on whether it's as good as the original - or maybe even better.

If you're not flying anywhere soon, BodyGlove's updated SyberSay is also available online from 1-800-mobiles.

If you happen to be a Bluetooth adopter, there's still a solution for you. The Bluetooth portion of the SyberSay line has also been resurrected by Step Communications. They also sell Bluetooth converters for those who want to use these headsets with their current non-Bluetooth phones.

How about a quick show of hands? Raise yours if you use a cell phone in situations where hands-free operation would be helpful. Now put your hand down if you don't have a headset within easy reach in those situations.

If the informal drive-by surveys I perform every day on the highway are any indication, there aren't many hands left in the air. It seems as if half the drivers on the road have one hand on the wheel and the other on their phone. Others perpetually stare out their windshield at an angle, cell phone wedged on their shoulder, as they create more business for the chiropractor. Or the undertaker, should something other than a phone call suddenly demand their attention.

I've heard all the excuses. Good headsets are bulky and difficult to carry. The sound quality doesn't measure up, particularly when the microphone is dangling on the headset wire somewhere south of the user's chin. Some headsets mess up your hair. Boom microphones hanging off the ear make the caller look like a telephone operator, and no one wants that kind of downscale image. (I feel fairly safe making that remark, given that human telephone operators are a nearly extinct species. But if you're a telephone operator and feel offended please email me and I'll be happy to apologize to you.)

The Earlite 540 headset from SyberSay Communications of San Jose, California may change your opinion about headsets. The Earlite is a self-contained unit that fits over the ear. The microphone is inside the over-the-ear unit, and the speaker fits inside the ear like an earplug. The whole apparatus weighs about an ounce (I don't have a scale to get an exact measurement), and the only hard plastic component is less than two inches long. The whole thing rolls up into a small plastic pouch that can be easily carried in a shirt pocket, ready for use. When needed, it can be out of the pouch and in the ear within a few seconds.

Comfort and sound quality

The Earlite is easily the most comfortable headset I've ever tested. The speaker is acoustically fairly transparent, and the unit fits unobtrusively over the ear. After five minutes, it is easy to forget the headset is there. The sole annoyance is the wire that connects headset to phone. A Bluetooth version of this headset would be pretty near perfect, but so far all of SyberSay's products remain wired.

The sound quality of this headset is as remarkable as its comfort. The noise-canceling microphone, despite its position behind the ear, is extremely good at picking up the user's voice while discarding just about all external sound. In tests performed inside a moving car, the Earlite did not pick up road noise, and the sound of the car radio was almost inaudible on the other end of the conversation.

About the only drawback to the Earlite's acoustic design is its susceptibility to wind. Conversations tend to fade in and out if the headset is exposed to significant wind. This makes the headset close to unusable in a moving car with the window open, and when walking outside on a windy day you'll be turning your head to keep the headset downwind. If you drive a convertible, this headset may not be for you - at least in the summer. But in most circumstances the sound quality is excellent, indoors or out, to the degree that many people don't even realize I'm using a headset.

Unobtrusive design

Along with the excellent sound quality and comfort, I really appreciate the near-invisibility of the Earlite. The main part of the device pretty much disappears behind my ear. If I route the cable under my jacket, you'd have to look pretty hard to see anything at all. I've had many conversations walking down the street, or driving my car, looking to all the world as if I'm talking to myself.

In fact, the biggest problem with the Earlite may be the looks you get when using it. Those who manage to see it may think you work for the Secret Service, while those who don't see it may be tempted to ask a different branch of law enforcement to check you out. But if you can get past the public perception that you're talking to yourself, the Earlite's comfort, sound quality and near-invisibility offer nearly the perfect package for those who need their phone and their hands at the same time. A Bluetooth model could almost be worn full-time; let's hope SyberSay is working in that direction.

The SyberSay Earlite 540 is available online for between $20 and $30.