Plantronics has been moving in to the wireless stereo headphones market with the BackBeat line, of which the BackBeat PRO is the first full-sized, over-ear model. It’s a good start. The PRO is comfortable, has good sound and amazing battery life. It’s not cheap, nor is it the most fashionable-looking headset in the world, but we can see it making many a happy customer.
The PRO isn’t the what you'd call funky, but it’s not an eye-sore either. It’s definitely aimed at the more professional end of the market, and doesn’t seem to be taking on the Beats crowd directly. At least not from an aesthetic standpoint.
As far as functionality goes this is some well-designed gear. Everything can be controlled blindly. Pause/Play and phone Answer/Call buttons are on the left and right ears respectively. Volume and track skipping is handled by the dials surrounding each of those buttons.
Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) can be turned on and off by a switch on the left, power is oppositely-positioned on the right, and underneath the ear cups is where you have your 3.5mm headphone jack, USB micro port and OpenMic button.
Nothing on feels loose or delicate. The adjustable sliders click in to place with a reassuring firmness and the whole rig has a flexibility that feels like it could hold up to a decent amount of pressure before succumbing to any damage.
As is common these days, the cups turn 90 degrees to fold flat. This is great for transporting the BackBeat PRO around in its soft carry back, or to keep you comfortable when worn around your neck.
Lastly, comfort, of which there is an abundance. The lining around cup edges is far enough apart so as to not pinch any part of the ear, which can be a killer if you’re planning on a marathon stretch. It’s also very soft, as is the top part that rests on your head.
The only real drawback is on hot days, where things can definitely get a little steamy. This can’t really be held against the PRO, however; it’s an issue faced by all over-ear headsets by the nature of their form factor.
The sound on the BackBeat PRO is impressive, but a little aggressive. Treble is a bit forced and bass is fairly intense even at low levels. That being said you won’t be able to melt your brain. Maxing volume or bass doesn’t take things to ear-crushing levels, but you can definitely crank it beyond what many would call comfortable without a hint of distortion.
Then again, aggressive sound is in vogue at the moment. A lot of big-name headsets go for a similar profile. It’s not necessarily worse than the warmth you get from a more-traditionally balanced setup; it’s just different. Almost like putting a subtle filter on that holiday photo. Sure, it’s less realistic, but in a lot of ways it’s more fun.
First and foremost, they’re wireless. That’s worth reiterating. There are a lot of contenders in the same price range that don’t have wireless support. Not only that, but the Bluetooth connection goes an incredible 100m (300 feet) before it cuts out, which is impressive to say the least and makes it great for an office environment, assuming you want to avoid talking to your peers.
Walking from room to room in a house is a little different. The signal isn’t fantastic at penetrating walls and doors. You’ll make it in to the next room, but go any further and it’ll cut out quickly.
You can pair with two devices instead of one. This works very well, although it does refer to everything as a “phone” when it turns on and informs you of your connectivity status, even if it’s a PC or tablet.
To switch between paired devices, pause playback using either the headset or the device itself and just start the next device playing anything that uses sound. If you run both devices at once it’ll only give you the sound of the first one that started playing, but pausing to switch between two makes for easy train journeys if you’re a tablet-user, or is great if you have it synced to your computer at work but like to listen to tunes from your phone on the way in.
Getting devices connected is easy. Hold the call button on the right earpiece for five seconds and it’ll announce that it has begun pairing. Then either tap your phone against the left earpiece if you have NFC capabilities, or look through nearby Bluetooth devices if you’re using an iPhone.
Battery life is absolutely amazing. Plantronics says 24 hours of playback with ANC on and we don’t doubt it. After two and a half weeks we’d recharged twice. That’s with around two to three hours use each week day and a little more on the weekends.
Better still, accidentally leaving them on does no damage. Once they’ve been inactive for a while they enter a standby mode. After that there’s a deeper sleep mode that can apparently hold charge for around six months.
One last little touch is the voice interface that announces battery level every time you turn them on along with your connectivity status, so you'll never be caught unawares.
There are two options for managing how much the outside world makes its way to your ears: Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and OpenMic mode.
ANC works fairly well. As luck would have it, we’ve been having a bit of construction going on around the office lately which was a great chance to test it out. With ANC on (but music paused) the construction noise instantly disappeared, but everything else in the office was still audible.
As is usual with ANC there was some pressure build-up on the eardrums while it was running. I’m personally not a fan of ANC in general, so most of my time was spent with it off. This had the advantage of providing better sound quality. Once again a common problem with the feature is a drop in performance, which was definitely audible here.
OpenMic mode is an interesting addition. It employs the use of an on-board microphone to thread sound from the outside world through the speakers and in to your ears as if it were part of some reality track. It’s a little spooky thanks to a very minor delay and can throw you off if you’re watching someone’s lips move.
Activating OpenMic also drops your music down way low. The entire point of the feature is to let you quickly talk to someone like a store clerk or person on the street that stops you for directions. Then again you could always be polite and slide your headphones off for a second. At least now you have the choice.
Cords and bags
The built-in mic also doubles as a call mic. Hitting the right-cup phone button to answer will let you use it, but answering directly on your phone won’t. You’ll still be able to hear the call, but for some reason you’ll need to use your phone to talk, so just remember to use the button on the headset.
Unfortunately it transmits with pretty poor voice quality. If you’re planning on making a lot of calls it’s better to use the mic attached to the spare 3.5mm headphone cord.
The carry bag isn’t a hard case, which depending on your personal taste is a good or bad thing. We're in the "good" camp. Hard cases take up a huge amount of room. The fabric PRO case is still decently firm and has a super-soft purple lining that should protect your gear from scratches.
One very cool addition is the motion sensors. These have one job: to pause whenever you take the headphones off, even if it’s to place them around your next. This is a great way to save battery, especially if you forget to hit pause yourself when you throw them on a shelf after a long day.
There’s only one problem, one that sounds silly and probably won’t affect people without a specific hair length, but it became frustrating enough to disable the feature for at least one of our team (me, actually).
I find that, after a half hour or so, I need to readjust any over-ear headphones I use. The problem is that as they slide slightly forward and backward along my head they burrow under my hair, eventually leaving me with an upward-sticking tuft that sticks around after I take them off.
The readjustment manoeuvre is simple: a quick flick back and a slow slide forward again. This, it seems, is exactly far enough to activate the pause, but is too fast to register for unpausing. A minor annoyance to be sure, and one that would affect only people with my follicular characteristics, but one worth noting to the wary traveller.
These are some seriously awesome headphones with only one possible drawback: that aggressive sound profile. If that’s your jam then there’s nothing to worry about, but if you prefer a more-balanced approach then it’s worth giving these a go in-store to make sure you’re ok with them before making up your mind.
Battery life is incredible, the features are all awesome and build quality is solid. All in all the BackBeat PRO is a fantastic piece of hardware, although it could probably do with at least a minor make-over in the looks department if it’s going to attract the younger crowd.