The Sony Stereo Bluetooth Headset SBH20 does more things than probably any other Bluetooth headset we've ever tested. You can use it to make calls or listen to music, or you can connect it to a pair of exercise-friendly headphones and go for a run. Or you can use it for wireless audio on your home stereo system. It even has NFC to pair with compatible devices via a single tap. And it does all this for just £35. It could almost be our favourite new stereo Bluetooth headset, except the noise cancellation isn't great and it doesn't do voice dialling. But for a jack-of-all-trades stereo headset, this one's tough to beat.
It isn't hard to figure out Sony's design inspiration here. The SBH20 looks exactly like an iPod Shuffle. From the tiny, clip-on design, to the multitude of colours (black, white, pink, orange, and turquoise), it's easy to confuse the headset with Apple's portable music player. That's fine by me, since it's sleek and discrete. It's also reminiscent of the Jabra Clipper Bluetooth headset, which itself is a clip that attaches to your clothing. But Sony has bested both Jabra and Apple with its design here, as the clip on the back of the SBH20 can be rotated in a circle, which ensures you'll be able to secure it however you'd like, in whichever position you find most agreeable.
The device itself is a 33mm square that's 12mm thick. I tested the white model, which is made of sturdy plastic with a matte finish, and a silver clip on the back with Sony's logo. Depending on how you fasten it, there's a volume rocker on top, a power port on the right, and a power button, status light, 3.5mm headphone jack, and microphone on the left.
The face has a play/pause/call button in the centre, flanked by previous and next track buttons. Although these buttons are highlighted with a clear, shiny overlay, they're the same exact colour as the rest of the device, which makes them difficult to see. And they're completely flat, with barely any clicky feeling, so I never really knew whether I pressed the right button until I heard it through my earbuds.
The SBH20 comes with a set of in-ear headphones, with three different rubber tips so you can get a good fit. I found both the medium and large-size tips to be quite comfortable, and the in-ear design really helped block out surrounding noise. The earphones are designed to be worn around your neck, so one earbud wire is longer than the other.
But in general, the primary wire that leads up from the SBH20 is a bit short. You basically need to wear the SBH20 at chest level in order for the headphones to reach your ears. That's fine for making a call, but if you just want to listen to music, it would've been nice to have a longer wire so you could put the SBH20 in your pocket or clip it to your bag. Thankfully, you can still connect any pair of headphones you want. As long as they have a 3.5mm jack you won't have any problems.
Here's how it works: The SBH20 clips onto your shirt, then you plug a set of headphones in, so you're not tethered to whatever additional device you're connected to. I found the clipping mechanism easy to use, and wide enough to accommodate most types of fabric. The SBH20 is automatically set to Bluetooth pairing mode the first time you use it, but you can always re-enter pairing mode in the future by turning it on and holding the play button down for a few seconds. Once in pairing mode, you just pair it the same way you would with any Bluetooth device. An added bonus is NFC support – if you have a device with NFC, simply tap the SBH20 to it in order to pair.
For calls, the microphone is built into the corner of the SBH20 right next to the headphone jack, so you need to wear it as close to your mouth as possible for the best voice quality. I always find it a bit awkward to make calls using an in-ear headset, since the sound of your own voice is so prominent in your head, but that's inescapable here. For calls made indoors, voices sound somewhat digitised, but overall they’re clear and easy to understand.
Outdoors, however, is a different story. Noise cancellation is terrible. Voices became virtually inaudible over wind and background noise, even in areas that weren't terribly noisy. But this isn't the type of headset you should use in a car, since the in-ear headphone design would make for unsafe driving conditions. So as long as you don't plan to make any calls mid-jog you should be alright.
For receiving calls over the included headphones, the SBH20 sounds average. Voices are a little thin and robotic but otherwise clear. At top volume, the headset lasted for exactly five hours. At mid-volume, it should be able to reach Sony's quoted six hours of battery life, and Sony claims up to 200 hours of standby time.
When it comes to music, the sound quality is surprisingly good. All of the songs I listened to, across a number of genres, sounded rich, powerful, and clear, and the bass didn't distort, even at top volume. Don't get me wrong; these aren't headphones for bass fiends, but there's enough bass response to please casual listeners. And the best part is that you can always swap out the bundled earbuds for another pair you prefer more. For a brief comparison, Sony's bundled buds sound better than Apple's new EarPods, but can't hold a candle to a pair of Bowers & Wilkins C5 in-ear headphones.
All of the controls on the face of the device work as you'd expect. The only downsides are the aforementioned sticky keys, as well as the fact that there's no way to trigger voice dialling from the SBH20 itself. You can still use it to complete voice controlled tasks, but you need to initiate them on your phone first. Range is average; I was able to walk about 10 feet away from a paired phone before the sound started to stutter. Within another 10 feet it dropped out completely.
And here's a cool feature Sony doesn't highlight: You can connect the SBH20 to any set of speakers you like, provided they use a 3.5mm jack, to make them Bluetooth-compatible. That means your computer speakers, for instance, can be plugged into the SBH20, through which you can then stream music from your device.
You can even use the speakers to receive calls, although you still need to be clipped onto the SBH20 to talk back. Still, when you consider that devices created expressly for this purpose, like the Logitech Wireless Speaker Adapter, cost virtually the same amount, you’ll realise that this is a pretty good value piece of hardware.
The SBH20 does a lot more than most other stereo Bluetooth headsets, and in most instances Sony hasn't piled on features at the expense of quality. With better noise cancellation and less finicky controls, the SBH20 would be our top dog budget-priced stereo Bluetooth headset of choice.
As it stands, the SBH20 is still a very good choice for many buyers. The Jabra Clipper is a similarly solid option, with near-identical capabilities but a slightly different look and design. The Plantronics BackBeat Go remains our favourite budget headset, though, thanks to its superior voice performance, excellent noise suppression in both directions, and clear sound quality (although it is a tenner or so more expensive than Sony’s offering).