Better known for gaming headsets and call centre equipment, Plantronics isn’t a company you typically associate with high-end headphones, but the company’s newest addition to the BackBeat family – the premium quality over-ear Bluetooth noise-cancelling BackBeat Pro – does a lot to change that.
Big and Bold
At first glance, the BackBeat Pro isn’t going to win any awards for compact or subtle design. It’s a big, aggressive, and chunky product with a complex look owing to controls found on almost every surface. When you put the headphones on though, you’ll find they’re lighter than they look at 340g and comfortable to wear. The controls are in (mostly) sensible places, and the fact that you’ve got about 6cm of audio equipment sticking out from either side of your head is really only important to the people around you.
Plantronics has gone with a rather attractive black/purple two tone approach for the BackBeat Pro, with the inner padding on the earpieces a pleasing dark purple (with large L and R indicators on them so you know which way they go on). There’s also a metallic grille design around the earpieces and concealing things like microphones and power LEDs, while the headband and foam padding are constructed from high quality leather. The headphone cable is also purple, and there’s a soft bag included which has a tough outer layer with an amazing soft purple felt inside to ensure your headphones are kept safe. The bag is quite spacious too, so you can fit other things in there if needed.
The BackBeat Pro manages to avoid the tendency for over-ear headphones to clamp down on your ears with only a light grip being felt during normal use, although it may have done so at the expense of spread – folded down, my BackBeat Pro review unit had a spread of over 20cm, making it a little more awkward to pack around than my usual Sony MDR-10RBTs.
Smarter and Longer
There’s a few neat tricks packed in, too – the headphones can pair to multiple devices (so you can use them connected to a tablet, while still receiving calls on your phone), and they’ll automatically send play/pause commands over Bluetooth when you take them off. That last trick is simply accomplished with a pressure sensor in the earpiece foam, but it’s still pretty cool.
Battery life is excellent, even on Bluetooth with noise cancelling switched on. In the month I’ve had the review units I’ve only had to recharge them a couple of times, but they never ran flat. Plantronics says it’s designed to last through the day (and at 24 hours they actually mean a day). If you do run short of battery power, you can plug the headphone cable in to use the BackBeat Pro as a standard set of headphones.
Charging is accomplished via a Micro USB port on the left earpiece, so if you’re carrying around a USB battery like me you’ll never be short of juice for the headphones. Regular charge time is about 3 hours.
Finally, Plantronics has also included a feature called OpenMic, which uses the microphone in the opposite way to noise-cancelling – it’ll actually play outside audio for you. This is useful if you need to hear your surroundings, or if someone starts talking to you while you’re wearing the headphones.
Turn the headphones on and you’ll hear a small chime and brief spoken status from a kindly English woman telling you the battery level and bluetooth status. When a device connects, you’ll hear another voice prompt to tell you. You can change the status voices into other languages.
It’s always hard to quantify headphone performance because everyone hears their favourite music in their own way. What I can say is that my music sounded just right, at least as far as I expect it to. The headphones fit around my ears well (something for which Plantronics is well regarded), and didn’t move around if I moved my jaw while eating or drinking.
The headphones feature strong bass, but you don’t need to pump the volume up high to get it – a welcome change. The maximum volume is perhaps not quite as loud as you’d like, but the noise cancelling makes up for this. You don’t need to push the volume as high as you might otherwise, though you might have to fight your tendency to do so.
Activating the noise cancelling function is quite a revelation. It doesn’t completely remove outside noise (because you really can’t do that), but the effect is like a bubble around you that expands to push external noise sources a little further away. When I activated it on a flight to Brisbane I almost immediately switched it off again because it removed the sound of the engines.
In a normal environment it’ll remove constant background noise, but anything that varies away from a consistent level will still make it through, with the edge taken off. You’ll still hear people talking to you but they’ll be quieter than usual. OpenMic was built for that situation.
When you need to pay attention to an announcement or to someone speaking to you, a tap on the OpenMic button will let you hear anything going on around you. It pushes your headphones audio into the background instead, pretty much reversing the normal functionality. It might be a little rude socially to not take your headphones off, but that’s for you to work out with your friends or colleagues.
If you do decide to take the headphones off, the pressure sensor will pause your music and restart it when you put them back on. In practice this worked pretty well, although occasionally it’d misfire as the headphones sat around my neck instead. You can just tap the left earpiece’s Play/Pause button as you take them off, anyway.
One area I found a bit awkward was in adjusting the headband or the positioning on your ears. Because both earpieces are giant buttons, and the location of controls around them both, I found I had to place my fingers very carefully to adjust them – at least, contracting the headband by pushing the earpieces back up towards the top if it was too big was more fiddly than it should have been (you can always pull them down pretty easily to extend).
Otherwise, my only regret with the BackBeat Pro review units is going to come this week – giving them back. I’m rolling around in my head any number of ways to justify the purchase, and my beloved Sony cans (which lack noise cancelling) have been sitting on my desk for a few weeks now, feeling unloved.
Plantronics has taken a serious shot at the high end headphone market for music lovers. The price might seem high, but it’s far from the most expensive we’ve seen for the features they’ve packed in. Bluetooth, noise-cancelling headphones with amazing all-day battery life? You could do much worse for your money.
Plantronics is selling the BackBeat Pro at Officeworks, Telstra stores and Tech2Go. Since launch, we’ve seen the usual price drop to $299 (Officeworks), and you might do even better if you look around online. At the launch price of $350 the BackBeat Pro was just a little out of impulse buy territory. At just a shade under $300 they should be flying off shelves.