Review: BTunes lets you leave the headphone cable at home
We were mighty impressed with V-Moda's Crossfade M-100 closed back headphones when we reviewed them just over two years ago. Wouldn't it be great, though, if we could just unplug the bright orange cable with inline mic/controls and enjoy the same spacious soundstage and top notch signature with wireless freedom? The successfully-crowdfunded BTunes plugs into the audio input jack on the headphone cup and gives Bluetooth superpowers to previously wired-only cans. One of the first very limited batch of production units made its way to Gizmag, and wireless music has been on the menu ever since.
Listening to music through headphones can be an exhilarating, emotive and immensely pleasurable experience, but getting tangled up in cable spaghetti or suffering a painful jolt as wires snag on furniture can make Bluetooth cans quite an attractive proposition. Streaming music through the air from player to headphones can lead to its own set of problems though.
Range anxiety, signal dropouts, poor audio reproduction and in some cases, such as with 808 Audio's Performers and the Icon headphones from A-Audio, audible background hiss between, and sometimes during, tracks can all serve to spoil the wireless audio party. And even if you shell out some serious cash for top performers like Parrot's Zik 2.0 wireless headphones, you may find yourself tweaking EQ settings on your Bluetooth music source device just to get something approaching the kind of listening experience you know and love on your go-to wired personal audio throwers.
Providing the audio cable of your favorite headphones can be unplugged from the housing, BTunes offers the chance to enjoy the kind of sound signature, stereo imaging, instrumentation and spacing of your favorite headphones over Bluetooth. The roughly lipstick-shaped device also promises up to CD quality audio, long battery life, NFC tap-to-connect wizardry and the ability to take calls when paired with a smartphone.
Bopping over Bluetooth with BTunes
Gizmag was sent one of the first 100 BTunes plugs to be produced. Since we were using V-Moda's headphones for this review, the version we were sent had a 3.5 mm audio jack (which also makes it compatible with headphones from Beats, Audio Technica, Sony and Skullcandy). There's a 2.5 mm variant for the likes of the Bose QC 3, AKG's K545s, and Sennheiser's Momentum and Urbanite models. The Bose Quiet Comfort 15 headphones, however, get a special adapter.
"Our original plan is to do the same with QC25," Voxoa's CEO Dp Deng told us. "But it turned out that to make an adapter for the QC25 is a challenging task, and we will need much more time and it will cost much more. So we just made a special BTunes for QC25."
The BTunes plug runs Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX/AAC codecs for up to 16-bit/44.1 kHz audio resolution over an operating distance of 10 m (33 ft), and boasts support for A2DP/HFP/AVRCP profiles. The specs state that it has ability to simultaneously pair two devices, though attempting to do so during the review resulted in playback and control on one music device and control but no sound on the other.
We didn't have a great deal of success with the NFC touch to pair functionality either. We got a beep confirming a connect when the Huawei Ascend and Sony Xperia Android smartphones we used were placed on or near the symbol on the nose of the BTunes plug, but then the phones stubbornly refused to handshake – meaning we had to pair manually via the system settings.
Pairing manually proved a fairly painless affair, however. Pressing and holding the multi-function button to the rear of the BTunes plug for 6 or 7 seconds after powering on put it into pairing mode. A scan on the source device revealed the plug's name and a quick click allowed them to talk to each other. Success was announced through the headphones in a recorded human voice. Announcements for powering on, powering off, battery charge level and disconnecting from a BT source device were also made through the headphone drivers.
Oddly, the only way to pair subsequent devices was to power off the wireless plug, push and hold the button for 6 or 7 seconds and scan. BTunes is reported capable of "remembering" the last eight devices.
We've already detailed the kind of listening experience offered by the Crossfades in our review two years ago so won't stomp carelessly over old ground here. Let's just say that, other than a very few Bluetooth dropout blips when on the move, the sound quality of MP3s on a tablet or smartphone and CDs on a BT-enabled music system or laptop via BTunes was pretty good. Bluetooth limitations meant that audio files of a higher resolution than CD quality were obviously not as detailed, expansive and richly textured as when cabled. But that's only to be expected.
Playback of the source music was paused by pushing the multi-function button once. As with other BT headsets, there was a slight delay between press and the desired action firing. A double press resulted in a track being skipped and a single long press hopped over to the previous track. The BTunes plug can't be used to control volume though, so users will still need to alter that at the source device.
Multimedia entertainment while using the BTunes plug also proved issue free, with audio managing to keep pace with both stored and online videos watched on an Asus all-in-one computer, a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone – though not all at once obviously.
And if you're wondering about the background hiss, well there wasn't any at all during our testing. The BTunes plug definitely gets an all clear in that regard, even when listening to quieter songs and inbetween tracks. Deng told us that this is achieved with the help of a special digital-to-analog circuit that's employed after the streamed audio signal is received.
A built-in microphone allows calls to be taken with the push of the multi-function button, if paired to a smartphone. In tests, the caller's voice came through loud and clear. Though my voice was accompanied by some background hiss at the other end, it was still heard clearly. Calls over Skype for desktop running on my laptop were similarly well received at my end, but my dulcet tones where reported muffled at the other end.
The wireless plug is powered by a 190 mAh Li-Pol battery, and Voxoa says that it should be good for up to 10 hours continuous playback at "moderate volume." At comfortable listening levels, we got a good 11 hours per charge (usually more). It took just over an hour and a half to recharge over micro-USB using the supplied cable and a 5 V/500 mA wall plug (not supplied), a full top up being signified by the red LED status light going out.
The bottom line
Many music lovers spend a fortune searching for a pair of wired headphones that sonically and stylistically match personal taste. Unless the manufacturer makes both wired and wireless models, finding Bluetooth headphones that offer a similar sonic performance as your go-to cans may prove to be a fruitless quest. Even when a company does make essentially the same headphone model in cabled and cable-free versions, as with the Legacy and Icon circumaurals from A-Audio, the listening experience can be disappointing when wireless mode is engaged.
The BTunes plug promises to Bluetoothify your favorite wired headphones. And, when plugged into the high-end Crossfade M-100s from V-Moda, it delivered. The advantage of Voxoa's little device became evident as soon as the first tune was wirelessly transmitted from the source device – immediate familiarity. With BTunes, listeners don't have to make do with alien-sounding wireless headphones. They can listen to favorite tracks through favorite headphones.
And the built-in DAC and included codecs meant that the quality of the audio was high. Not as full-bodied and rich as when cabled, but high enough to accept the limitations of Bluetooth and view the possibility of wire snag as more trouble than it's worth when out and about.
Though the build quality of the BTunes plug certainly looks and feels high, we can't help worrying that the gold-plated audio jack jutting out from the shiny black casing is just a snap off waiting to happen. A concern that's heightened by the pressure that the operation of the multi-function button must surely place on the angular joint. Deng assures us that the plug has been designed to stand the test of time, able to easily sustain a minimum of 10,000 plug ins-and-outs. Only long term use (and abuse) will determine if our fears are justified.
That said, we reckon Voxoa has a winner in BTunes. The majority of the Kickstarter backers are currently patiently waiting for their BTunes plug to be shipped. Once that's done, the next batch will go to those who pre-order on the website. That pre-order price is shown as US$79 as of writing, rising to $99 when mainstream sales begin in the coming weeks.