Sony SBH-50 bluetooth headset Review

I’ve always prided myself in not being a fanboy for any brand. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing innately bad about being a fan of some sporting club, they’re huge in Europe. But when it comes to brand fidelity, I’m a bit oblivious…

There is of course the one exception, the one brand that makes you read an article, watch a launch video, regardless of how lame their latest new product seems to be. For me, that brand is Sony.

I’ve always liked Sony, and even though I mostly can’t afford any of their fancier stuff, I still enjoy going to the Sony store regularly, where occasionally, I splurge.

Case and point, the SBH-50.

Overview

The SBH-50 is a bluetooth audio dongle that allows you to view notifications on it, wirelessly without taking out your smartphone from your pocket. It also allows you to listen to your music, and control it wirelessly. It’s water resistant, meaning you can use it in light rain and it won’t ignite into flames like for example an iPod Nano might. It has an embedded microphone to allow you to hold phone conversations or even dictate “speech” orders to your smartphone, if you swing that way.

So as such, assuming you’re someone, like me, that commutes by passenger train, its usefullness is immediately obvious. It’s small enough that you can keep it tucked INSIDE your gloves in January when the temperatures in Canada can go south of a mind-shattering -30°C, and you can then control it blind, as the buttons are quite obvious. However at that point, since it’s in your mittens, you won’t be able to see the notifications and other information displayed on the 128×36 monochrome OLED screen which is crisp, bright, and frankly, looks fantastic even though it’s quite small.

All this without taking off your gloves or taking our phone out of your pocket, purse or backpack. The unit has a clip behind it allowing you to clip it onto any piece of clothing you fancy, although the clip is nice and long, it doesn’t open very far and the pressure isn’t exactly that of a volcano and I found that it had a tendency to fall off when using it with thinner materials. Having said that, it’s probably fine for most people.

Function and form in bundle

Another brilliant thing about the SBH-50 is its standard 1/8 inch audio jack, that enables you to use whatever headphones you fancy with it. This is welcome because most of the other bluetooth headsets are “hardwired” meaning that they cannot be split into two entities: the earphones and the receiver, thus limiting you to using the earphones that came with them, and that are usually at the bottom of the list of headphones you’d buy separately, if at all.

Having said that, the bundled Sony are entry level earbuds similar to those you can find for about 20$ at any electronics store. They do have a shorter wire than we’re used to, but that’s simply because Sony expects you to clip the device breast-high outside your jacket and the wire just needs to go from there, to your ears. This would be fine except that the earbuds look a little too generic and, at least in my case, had to be swapped. The audio quality however is on par with anything you’d expect from Sony and I found it rather acceptable.

The connectors on the device are simple, you have the aforementioned standard 1/8 inch audio jack, and a micro USB charging plug. That is all. As far as buttons go, beyond the on/off button, you have a rocker type switch button with three functions for play/pause, skip forwards, and back. You also have a volume rocker button and a single push button at the front next to the display.

The box seems impossible to open without a cannon or some other kind of ballistics device but when eventually. you finally get passed the military plating, you’ll gain access to the contents: The SBH-50, the earbuds, a hilariously short micro USB charging cable along with the usual paperwork, warranty sheet, instructions booklet in more languages than actually exist, etc.

Sound quality

Sound quality is surprisingly good, even after using the device a little over a month, I’ve only experienced some very minor, and rare, clicking sounds and no distortion whatsoever. Volume is nice and loud and there’s no discernable compression in the audio. I’ve mostly used some Sony Swarosky earbuds knowing full well that they are slightly unbalanced towards the bass end of the audio spectrum and yeah, they sounded just as they would had they been plugged directly into my S3.

Pairing and NFC!

A nice touch is the ease with which the device pairs with any NFC enabled smartphone, just swipe it and it will pair. Sadly though, it refused to pair with my Avaya branded office phone mostly because it was impossible to locate the pairing code for the SBH-50, it’s not mentioned in the documentation and Sony seem to be hiding it so well that even Obama has no idea what it is. Eventually, after trying the usual pairing codes: 0000, 1234, 4321… I gave up trying to pair it with the Avaya phone.

Apps and messaging

Messaging is neat too, although it’s one way on the device, meaning you can receive messages but cannot send any. Using the Sony manager app, which can be downloaded from the Play Store, the kit can be configured to show emails, SMS and Facebook updates among others. Surprisingly, it can be configured to READ these messages aloud to you, in your earbuds, and it works well. Unsurprisingly, this function becomes annoying mere milliseconds after it’s enabled…

There seemed to be an issue with the app, which causes it to “intercept” your notifications and prevent them from showing up, at least in my case, on my standard Android notification bar atop my S3. The issue went away as soon as I removed the app, and since I’ve been using my Pebble as a side-notification display, I don’t see this as a problem but most people probably would. Also note that I’ve not tested the app on any other smartphones so it might be an S3 only feature.

Battery life is phenomenal, in over a month of use I never once came close to emptying the battery, I charge it every couple days and use it about two hours a day during my commute to and from the office. It also has a pretty decent charge rate allowing for a full charge from about a quarter full, in just over two hours.

Final thoughts and scoring

This little gem is probably not worth the 80$ asked for it, in fact had I known I’d wind up disabling all the notifications on it, and using it only as a sound dongle, I’d have bought the little sister to it, the SBH-20 which is supposed to do the same thing, including the NFC, except the messaging.

Pros

  • Nice design
  • Excellent sound quality
  • Easy to configure thanks to NFC swiping
  • Display is crisp and clear
  • Standard 1/8 inch audio jack
  • Water resistant (Not waterproof, you cannot bathe with it but it’s fine in light rain)
  • Available in many colors

Cons

  • Pricey at 80$
  • Apps can be annoying (voice reading) and buggy
  • Fastening clip has a weak spring

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