Review #10: Sony SBH54 Bluetooth Headset (October 2017 update) ★★★☆☆

Good design, let down terribly by software and connectivity
Update #6 (Oct 30, 2017): For the first time in a long time, an update is not about the latest firmware. I recently got my hands on the Fiio BTR1, so stay tuned for that review later in the week. However, over the course of testing that device, I revisited the SBH54 and finally checked its codec support. Sony only lists support for the A2DP v1.2 profile, so the exact codec support isn't clear and I can't believe that I didn't test for it until now. Guess it's better late than never.

1. SBH54 has AAC support, so Apple Music and local AAC files are directly transmitted to the SBH54 without re-encoding.
2. The device doesn't support the optional MP3 codec, so direct decoding of it fails. Since the SBH54 also lacks aptX support, MP3 files are re-encoded to SBC prior to transmission.
3. Similar to MP3, Spotify streams in Ogg Vorbis are re-encoded to the much inferior SBC prior to transmission to the SBH54.
There you have it. The complete list of codec support includes the optional AAC in addition to the mandatory SBC. I assume that Sony also didn't include support for its proprietary ATRAC codec, but even if it did, it's redundant and doesn't have any practical usage. So, AAC (Apple Music) files are the best way to go on the SBH54 as they are played back natively, to the best of the device's ability. Meanwhile, if your MP3 collection and Spotify didn't sound so good on the SBH54, then you know why.

Update #5 (Oct 19, 2017): As I was primarily using my iPhone and had sold off my OnePlus One, I hadn't checked for updates for a while. However, with a Redmi Note 3 being temporarily in my possession, I decided to check for an update and sure enough there was one available. Since the app updates are in sync with the firmware ones, I am assuming this one came out in May 2017 and bears the version number 1.6.A.1.6./2.

Out of the block, things didn't look too promising as the SBH54 failed to connect to an already saved radio station. Thus, I took recourse to resetting the device. Thereafter, I paired it first with my iPhone on iOS 11.0.3 and then with the Redmi Note 3 running LineageOS 14.1. After the reset, FM tuning worked fine and I was able to easily switch between Apple Music running on both the devices and the FM radio. However, the stuttering on initial switch was quite profound on the iPhone and for some reason the track details are unavailable on the SBH54 when using the Redmi Note 3.

As far as calling in multi-point mode was concerned, I was able to get it to work as intended after some effort over the course of which I either received "number unreachable" messages when calling the iPhone or the auto-disconnects on the Note 3 without the voice being audible. Calling from one connected device to another simply shutdown the device which indicates that Sony didn't even bother to test this scenario.

Thus, my recommendation stays quite the same. It can be used as a single device bluetooth headset and FM tuner. Calling is touch-and-go but even when it works, the microphone is below par. Multi-point mode is most definitely a bug and not a feature. Even the 'Next Track' button seems to be giving way as it responds only intermittently, when pressed in a specific area. If I were to do things all over again, I definitely wouldn't purchase the SBH54 but would rather go with a set of dedicated bluetooth earphones, if being wired is not an option.

Update #4 (Dec 23, 2016): Sony released the 1.6.A.0.4/2 firmware update on Dec 12 and I updated my headset to the same about 3 days later when I opened the app on my Android phone. As always, the change log continues to be as useful as a bald man's comb with its description mentioning "bug fixes" and "notifications improvement". Since it was months since the last update, I was elated to see Sony still support the device. However, the elation was short lived as it seems that Sony has learnt precious little and continues on its "fix some, break some" approach. Following is my experience of with the latest update:

1. iOS pairing now requires a PIN and isn't as flawless as before: I had previously mentioned how flawless the device's performance was with the iPhone 7, not considering the fact that it doesn't have notification support on account of the absence of an iOS app. Since the iPhone 7 is my primary device, I continued using the device after the firmware update and found no difference at all. However, after that I paired the device with my Android phone and Windows tablet which meant that I had to re-pair it with my iPhone. It was then that I came in for a rude shock. On doing a factory reset and selecting SBH54 on my iPhone 7, I encountered the "Enter PIN" screen for the first time whereas previously it would connect directly. Since I had also updated my iPhone to iOS 10.2 at the same time, I was initially under the impression that Apple must have changed something in iOS but when I encountered the same behaviour on an older iOS 9 device, I realized it was Sony who had changed the way the device is presented, at least to iOS. I tried the generic "0000" and "1234" pins and while the former worked, the latter didn't. If this was the only inconvenience, I could have sidetracked it. But, I immediately found the SBH54 not responding to any buttons other than "Play/Pause". This meant I couldn't change tracks or accept calls. I tried resetting the device a couple of more times but to no avail and in despair, I simply stopped using the device until today.

Earlier today, I reset the device once again but paired it first with my Android phone. After that, I paired it with my iPhone (with the "0000" PIN of course) and to my amusement found that all the buttons worked like before. After that I reset the device once again and connected it to my iPhone as the primary device and found it to work as before which leaves me clueless to the happenings of the past week where the device only responded to the "Play/Pause" key. I encountered the intermittent issue where the screen would only show the device name and not the track details or the incoming caller ID. This sort of inconsistency just wants me to split my hair apart as I cannot imagine why the device would behave so differently in different scenarios. It is as if the testing team had tested this device only on limited devices (I presume Sony flagships) and with limited use cases. This kind of quality control (or lack of it) is simply unacceptable.

2. Multipoint connectivity is still a big mess: I connected my iPhone and Android phone in multipoint mode and had Apple Music running on both the phones. Although I encountered an initial stutter on both the phones, I was able to seamlessly switch between the FM Radio and music player on the phones, something that didn't work well on earlier versions. However, all hell broke lose when I received a call on one of my phones (iPhone). Thereafter, the other phone (Android) went in a constant connection-reconnection trance and I could constantly hear the tone corresponding to the same in my earpiece. On trying to call the iPhone a second time, I found that while I could accept the call, the voice redirection didn't work and the call would auto-disconnect after 8 seconds. Also, playing/pausing of the music players worked very intermittently. All in all, multipoint mode is not a feature but a bug on this device. Even if you have two devices paired, I would suggest that you use the SBH54 only in singlepoint mode.

3. Android performance is still lagging: I feel it is a bit unfair to compare my iPhone 7 with Bluetooth 4.2 and the official iOS 10.2 with my OnePlus One (OPO) that has Bluetooth 4.0 and is running the unofficial CyanogenMod 14.1. However, it still surprises me that the Android performance is still not on par with the iOS one considering the fact that it happens to be Sony's OS of choice as well. Firstly, I still encountered the initial stuttering and sometimes loss of connection on the OnePlus One when the SBH54 is switched on, something that doesn't happen with the iPhone. Here, I also found the iPhone to connect with the SBH54 in about 2-3 seconds while the OnePlus One took double the time. Secondly, the OPO enters the "device name only with no track and caller ID details" mode far too often compared to the iPhone. This didn't happen at all on the iPhone on the previous firmware so I think this is a bug introduced with the latest firmware. Thirdly, when switching from multipoint to singlepoint mode, the iPhone would re-connect immediately, but in the case of the OPO, I found it to be stuck in the "...." mode far too often where the SBH54 doesn't respond to any buttons apart from the power one. Comparisons aside, Android does offer an advantage in terms of notification support but I always found it illogical to check them on the minuscule screen of the SBH54 and hence haven't tested the "improvements" stated in the changelog. Looking at the state of affairs, I can presume it to be another hit or miss affair.

It simply befuddles me how every firmware update ends up being a see-saw ride. Normally, you would expect every latest update to be the greatest but it is simply not the case here. I can only imagine this to be the case because Sony might be testing it with the latest version of Android on their latest flagship device. This means that the performance on all other devices is simply unpredictable considering the diversity of Android devices and the lack of official iOS support. At the end of the day, the only advantage the SBH54 offers over other Bluetooth headsets is the ability to take and make calls along with the caller ID. However, with its unreliability and inconsistency, I wouldn't recommend the SBH54, especially if music happens to be a priority (in which case you might question the use of Bluetooth itself).

Update #3 (Nov 14, 2016): I have been using this (a lot!) with my iPhone 7 for a month now and it works absolutely flawlessly even though Sony has not released any further firmware update and doesn't even have an iOS app for the SBH54. You have to pair it like any other bluetooth device and reconnection (when either device is first switched on) happens in a matter of 2-3 seconds. Call quality is great, all the controls work fine and my pet peeve of not being able to seamlessly switch between my phone's music player and the FM radio is simply not an issue with iOS. It leads me to believe that some of the fault lay with Cyanogen OS. Having said that, the SBH54 is not completely faultless because as soon as I pair another device in Multipoint mode, the audio starts stuttering on my iPhone even when the other device is switched off. So, Multipoint mode may in fact have been the culprit all along. Either way, it seems that the best way to get the most out of the SBH54 is to use it in Singlepoint mode (along with an iPhone 😉). 

Update #2 (Apr 23, 2016): I updated the Android app to v1.3.34 today and with it came the mandatory firmware update to 1.4.A.1.9. The app changelog strikes the right cord with the following details:

1. Stabilization of BT connectivity functionality
2. Improvement for incoming notifications

3. Host application crashes fix
4. Stabilization of Multipoint functionality
5. Bug fix

However, it failed on a couple of accounts within 5 minutes of my testing the update. Firstly, I switched the multipoint connectivity within the app to select my switched-off tablet as the primary device and immediately lost the connectivity to my phone. After selecting my phone as the primary device on the SBH54, I momentarily regained connectivity on the app, only to lose it again. The only recourse then was to restart the SBH54. Secondly, my pet peeve of not being able to seamlessly toggle between FM and the music player on my phone still exists. On switching to FM with the music player still active, I find that the phone player goes in a continuous play-pause loop. When I switch back to the music player, it manages to reconnect to the phone in this continuous play-pause state which I would term as an improvement since previously I couldn't control the phone player at all on reconnecting. A manual play-pause on the SBH54 restores normal operations. Otherwise, on day-to-day usage, I haven't had much connectivity issues since the last firmware update, so I hope Sony didn't fix what wasn't broken. But, it is still a bit disheartening to see the slow pace of progress keeping the device rating in the region of 3.5 - 4 out of 5.

Update #1 (Feb 7, 2016): Sony dropped an update today (1.3.A.0.9) and it seems they were indeed paying attention. Almost all of the annoyances seem to be taken care of.
The connectivity has improved by bounds to the extent where I can use Tasker to flawlessly connect and disconnect the headset based on various scenarios. There were intermittent instances of failure to re-connect after manual disconnection, but the whole situation is monumentally better now.
Another thing that Sony has addressed is the low output volume of the speaker. It is much easier to hear the other side now when using only the headset. However, the headphone volume continues to be on the lower side, ostensibly as some sort of loudness protection. Also, the mic continues to disappoint to the extent where one of my friends likened my conversation to an astronaut speaking from space.
The best thing about the update for me is the fact that notifications finally seem to work. I can see the notification count on the headset screen and read the messages as a single line scroll. Two or more messages from the same app like GMail can't be read, but otherwise having a feature finally function deserves some elation.
On the whole I am inclined to rate this device something like 3.8/5. If Sony keeps up with the update a bit more, I am sure the device will realise its full potential.

Original Review:

I have previously used MW600 from the erstwhile Sony Ericsson and found it a really convenient option when travelling or even roaming around the home. However, the screen gave up on me after a couple of years due to some drops it had encountered over its life. Although it is still functional, it is quite a pain to use it without the screen and hence I logically decided to purchase the latest iteration of Sony's Bluetooth Headset. The setup was initially done on whatever version the device was shipped with but the performance review is based on firmware version 1.3.A.0.6.
Design and Aesthetics: (4.5/5)
Sony has always been a company that excelled in industrial design and that stays true for the SBH54 as well. It is a mix of metal and plastic but elegant nonetheless. The specifications to pay attention to here are: Weight: Core unit with upper part: 26.8g; Dimension: 17.7 x 16.8 x 70 mm incl. clip. This makes it quite a convenient thing to carry in your shirt, trouser pocket or even clipped to the collar or shirt border. The clip extends to about 2/3rd of the length and gives quite a secure fit unless it is subjected to a substantial pulling force.The micro-USB port and 3.5mm socket are located on either sides. I really do appreciate the volume buttons after coming from the enormously fidgety slider control of the MW600, but 8 buttons (2 volume, 1 power, 1 back, 1 call and 3 media controls) spread all across the body is a bit too much to handle when operating on the basis of touch alone, which is something you would do a lot when travelling.

Setup: (2/5)
The device comes with NFC for a quick setup. However, although I could feel the vibration of the NFC contact being recognised, there was no response on my phone running Android 6.0.1. I had to manually connect the device using Bluetooth. However, after I installed the accompanying app from the Play Store, it wouldn't detect the device as being connected. Pairing again didn't help and I finally restarted my phone to get things working.

Connectivity: (2.5/5)
One word to sum it up would be "flaky". It is grossly inconsistent and sometimes disconnects randomly. I hate the fact that the device loses connection to my phone if I switch to FM. On switching back to the phone, it fails to reconnect automatically and I have to manually disconnect and reconnect Bluetooth for it to be recognised. Why Sony continues to use Bluetooth 3.0 across its devices is still a mystery to me. For one, it certainly sacrifices battery life and range. Speaking of range, it seems to barely extend to 15 metres before I lose connectivity. I can't even use it to listen to music on my phone when roaming around my house. The headset does connect to more than 1 device at a time using the multipoint mode. In this, you can select a primary device to receive notifications from and a secondary device to stream media from. The switching was at times troublesome but it worked for me on most occasions.

Battery Life: (3/5)
The specs state 8 hours of playback time or 4 hours of talk time or 300h stand-by time. The figures may be true but with my usage this translates to less than 2 days of battery life. Having yet another device to charge every day seems quite a burden.

Audio Quality: (3.5/5)
I would like to bifurcate the audio quality into music and speech. Being Bluetooth 3.0 (A2DP 1.2) without aptX, it isn't the top of the line specification, but the "HD Voice" seems to be enough for most discerning ears. On the other hand, call quality is a troublesome affair. Only in few conditions did I get clear voice from the other end and the single mic (with noise cancellation) results in the other side being barely able to hear you when you are using it in the mini-phone mode.


Features and Display: (4.5/5)
Half baked it may be, but it certainly packs in a lot of the features. The mini-phone mode I referred to previously allows you to use the headset as a phone which seems cool, at least when you see it in pictures. It even allows you to stream music to the ear speaker if you so wish. The FM comes in handy with phones foregoing that feature now-a-days (though you need to attach earphones as an antenna). The two-line display is more than useful, although it is slightly recessed and hazy because of the overlying cover. The fact that you can see the track, artist when playing music and the caller name and number when receiving calls is to be appreciated. You can change the orientation of the display if you prefer one side over another. The app says it is capable of displaying notifications but that hasn't worked for me yet, so I don't know whether it a compatibility issue because I certainly given notification access to the app and selected the apps from which I wish to receive the notification. The vibration intensity is quite adequate and notifies you of any requisite alerts.

Conclusion: (3/5)
Considering Sony's (including Sony Ericsson's) heritage with such headsets, you would be naturally inclined to pick this. Sony has done a good job of incrementally adding features to each iteration which makes an upgrade worth it. However, time and again, Sony's hardware is let down terribly by the software. The fact that a wireless device can't flawlessly retain its connectivity significantly reduces its utility. Sony's app too seems to indicate the device's potential if it actually manages to do what it is supposed to. Towards the end, it becomes an exercise in frustration. There is hope that Sony can fix things since this device is capable of receiving updates unlike the old MW600. However, that is a big hope to rely upon. Even with this drawbacks, when the device works it is a pleasure to use. Too bad, such moments don't last long. Still a good bet if you are in the market for a Bluetooth headset that allows you to use your own earphones.

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