Anyone with a smartphone is essentially a super-spy, carrying around miniature surveillance-and-communication technology that would have made Connery-era James Bond so enraged by envy he’d have sipped his martini slightly too quickly.
Nonetheless, it’s well known that all primates have an innate urge to acquire possessions that make them feel like they’re on a secret mission for a clandestine government agency. Even bonobos, I’m pretty sure.
The Black Ops 2 Professional Tactical Headset from iASUS is designed to work with your iPhone to make you the perfect merc, spy or paintball hero. The device wraps around your neck like a dog collar, only slightly more butch, and the two pickups nestle up against your vocal cords.
This is supposed to provide two benefits. First, loud sounds from rushing wind or nearby airstrikes don’t get picked up by the mic, so you get, in iASUS’s words, “direct voice communication free from environmental and wind noise.” Second, you can speak in a whisper and still be heard, which could be handy in conditions where you don’t want your cover blown and you’re also wearing a turtleneck.
Rushing wind that makes a normal headset completely useless is merely a low roar with the Black Ops throat mic.
Of course, most of us aren’t involved in infiltration, incursion or assassination on a regular basis. But the prospect of a noise-free, whisper-sensitive mic opens up a lot of options, from a phone chat in a cafe that doesn’t disturb your neighbors, to calling in sick to work from the baseball stadium.
Taking the mic out of the box, you’re likely to be a bit confused by a manual that’s clearly intended for the non-iPhone version of the headset. For instance, it refers to a push-to-talk connector, but what it supplies is just a standard iPhone remote button; if you’re using Skype or making a phone call, it’s actually a “push to hang up” button.
It looks badass, at least, with a couple of black discs on a black piece of rubber that attaches to some black elastic with a black magnetic clip in the back, along with a black in-ear headphone with a curly wire just like the Secret Service. If nothing else, you’re going to look the part.
So how well does this spy-tech setup work? I took it for a spin in a variety of environments, from a noisy Seattle cafe to a windy freeway with the windows open. I didn’t actually see any combat, but I gave it a good run.
Unfortunately, while the noise cancellation is an improvement over a pair of standard iPhone earbuds with mic, it’s a lot more marginal than the catalog copy would suggest. Background noise is just reduced somewhat — music and conversations around you are still going to be picked up — and most of what you gain in noise reduction you lose in clarity. Speaking in a normal tone of voice into the Black Ops rig, you sound a bit like you’re recording into a circa-1986 boom box while recovering from dental anesthesia, pretty much nixing any attempt at podcasting or breezy conversation.
Whispering is even more of a disappointment. Actual whispers are completely indecipherable, and even a hoarse, Batman-like stage whisper is extremely difficult to make out. The standard iPhone headset is realms better, background noise and all.
The headset does, however, shine when faced with wind noise. Rushing wind that makes a normal headset completely useless is merely a low roar with the Black Ops throat mic.
Here are some sound samples. First, here’s the iPhone’s standard, bundled heatset mic. I recorded with it in a quiet environment, a noisy cafe, a noisy cafe with speech kept to a stage whisper, and in high winds.
Now, here’s how the Black Ops 2 throat mic performed in the same four environments.
There appears to be a niche here for motorcycle enthusiasts and other people who want to make calls on their iPhone while in a heavy wind. It’s not clear who else that would include. Parachutists? Tornado chasers? The host of the “Roller Coasters Live” podcast?
To be fair, the device is built as a combat mic, not a cafe mic or a van mic. If you’re playing paintball, and for some reason you’re really attached to your iPhone, then a coarse bark might be at least a bit more stealthy than a normal speaking voice, and if your communication is limited to phrases like “flank left” and “enemy sighted,” the loss in call quality might be worth the convenience — and, let’s be honest, coolness factor — of a black mic strapped to your throat rather than a pair of white earbuds.
But that’s a mighty thin slice of pie, and doesn’t live up to the claims of the enthusiastic ad copy on iASUS’s website, or the website of reseller ThinkGeek. If you want a spy mic for more mundane purposes like 24/7 podcasting or having phone sex without waking your roommate, the Black Ops 2 Professional Tactical Headset is more F/X than effective.
WIRED Looks the part. Reduces wind noise considerably. Would probably work well on a motorcycle.
TIRED Picks up considerable background noise. Doesn’t pick up whispers decipherably. Voice distortion interferes with communication.