Bluetooth headphones were suppose to give us the benefits of their physically connected counterparts but without the entanglement and limitations of wires. Outside of a select few brands Bluetooth headphones have mostly been a non-starter among audiophiles of many levels due to uncomfortable designs, poor sound quality, and flaky bluetooth connections. Designs can be improved and changed but for most there is no one size fits all solution. And when you start comparing price points, Bluetooth headphones usually don’t get the same speaker refinements as equally priced wired headphones either. So we are left to rely on and hope that manufacturers implement better available Bluetooth technologies. Fortunately, faster connection speeds, lower latency rates, power optimizations, and other improvements that are in the Bluetooth 3.0 specification have already been incorporated into many recent products. Another of these improvements which has been making its way into various devices is the aptX codec that is claimed to deliver near CD-quality sound. It’s because of technologies like these that require little or no tampering with by manufacturers and recent hardware offerings that I’m considering taking a slightly different approach to bluetooth audio streaming. Instead of searching for yet another pair of bluetooth headphones my aim is to use BlueAnt’s latest Bluetooth device called the Ribbon.
Introduced around mid-year 2012, the Ribbon is a simple looking stereo bluetooth streamer. You can connect it to any set of headphones, speakers, etc. using a standard 3.5mm jack and the audio source is received via a Bluetooth connection. Add in the standard media controls, about 6 hours of battery life and the ability to use it as a handsfree device and you’ve got a very versatile accessory. To complete the package, is the inclusion of a USB cable, wall charger, 3.5mm adapter and earphones.
Admittedly, the Ribbon is the first bluetooth streamer I’ve given any real attention. Its small size and what seems to be the most thoughtfully designed device of its kind I recall seeing is probably the culprit. My first thoughts before trying it out was “even if it falls short of my expectations, it’s probably still better than most current bluetooth headphones on the market.” I can’t see how it could be any worse considering you have to use your own headphones with it but you never know. Therefore, I set out to put in some serious time with the Ribbon over a two week period.
Initially, the plan was to spend just the first few days (about 3) seeing how well the wearability and overall usability of Ribbon would fair in daily use. Turns out all that ended up being reduced to one day thanks to its great design. The Ribbon can be attached to most any piece of clothing whether it’s a pocket, collar, sleeve or wherever it can be slid onto. Spending most of the time on my scarf the Ribbon easily blended in until needed like an adornment. Reaching to use it reminded me of the communicator badges worn on the Star Trek: The Next Generation series but requiring more of a press than a tap of its raised buttons to operate. Nonetheless, cycling through music tracks, answering calls or adjusting the volume was effortless all while requiring no visual assistance.
The Ribbon’s design gives you the freedom to use any headphone you like and like myself you probably already own your favorite one. For that reason I opted for my regular headphones, the Shure SE535LTD and the BlueAnt Embrace over what is included. If the Ribbon works well with both of these headphones then it should work just fine with any other headphone. Two weeks goes by quickly when you’re enjoying yourself and the Ribbon had no problems keeping me happily entertained. Because it uses the aptX codec which eliminates the artifacts in compressed-music, the resulting sound was good enough where I would relax and forget I was listening through a bluetooth connection. Uncompressed WAV files sounded very close to CD-quality, almost indistinguishable to a wired connection. More importantly and equally as enjoyable were my regularly used 320-bit AAC audio files. Although, having less fidelity than the uncompressed WAV files, the Ribbon still delivered a listening experience that is well above what the majority of bluetooth headphones will give you. Also contributing to the fantastic listening experience are the diminished connection drop-outs and flakiness that has regularly plagued past Bluetooth 2.1 and older devices. In fact the Ribbon made connections to all of my devices much better and faster than any other I’ve used prior. This of course, doesn’t mean all interference and fluctuations in the Bluetooth connection are gone but it does mean the connection is more stable, and more reliable bringing it ever closer to a what we get from a wired connection.
Keeping all this in perspective, the Ribbon is, in my opinion an excellent device that delivers great performance and versatility. It doesn’t solve all the inherent limitations of Bluetooth but it does address some major ones I think should make any music lover who’s on the go happy. Given a choice between this and any current Bluetooth headphone on the market not only would I pick the Ribbon every time, it’s now part of my mobile setup. It’s a solid performer, has superior audio streaming ability, is a good handsfree device, and because it uses a standard audio jack it can be used with just about any headphone or audio capable device you choose. Designed into an excellent form factor, with easy to use controls, I think the Ribbon is a very compelling alternative to Bluetooth headphones, especially for those who can’t be torn away from their higher-end wired headphones. Currently priced at $69.99 it’s a bargain in my book because along with the standard charging equipment, and 3.5mm adapter, you also get a set of earphones to get you going right out the box even if you will ultimately choose to use your own.