Going wireless usually involves some level of compromise and with Bluetooth earphones like anything else, it's a question of whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Does the convenience of cutting the cord trump the potential downside of a Bluetooth audio experience? We've been spending time with Plantronics BackBeat GO wireless earbuds in an effort to find out.
Single-ear Bluetooth headsets designed for taking calls have long been a staple product, but the technology has been slow to make the leap into the mainstream when it comes to soaking up your music collection. The technology is improving though, and with many of us now carrying about our music catalog on our smartphones, the situation seems ripe for change.
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While this isn't the first tilt at wireless earphones from Plantronics, its latest offering - the BackBeat GO earbuds - seem much more likely to appeal to a wider audience than the earlier, and somewhat clunky looking BackBeat 903+ model. The result is a very lightweight design (13 g) that's easy to set up and use, delivers a long enough battery life (specced at 4.5 hours listening, 10 hours standby) to make them practical, and backs it up with a solid sound performance through 6mm neodymium speakers featuring Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and noise reduction.
The GO's are slickly designed without being over the top - you get the impression that these things are built to do a job, not act as a fashion accessory. They do protrude a little further than your run-of-the-mill wired earbud, but they're still unobtrusive and quite comfortable to wear.
To keep the earbuds fixed a little more securely in your ear, patented in-ear stabilizers that sit against the back of your ear to hold the buds in place are included in the bundle. This is the first time Plantronics has used this particular stabilizer design and while they can be removed if they don't work for you, I found myself leaving them on - you hardly notice them once you've pressed them into place, and while they don't necessarily lock things in tight, they are definitely effective at making sure the buds don't escape all the way out of your ear when you are moving about.
There's also a choice of three ear-tip sizes to help you get that all-important seal. These are a little light on cushioning (for my ears anyway) and I'd be opting to switch in something with a little more padding for extended use.
Speaking of extended use, the 4.5 hour battery life proved accurate in testing with the iPhone 4S at around 80 percent volume. Unlike Plantronics' recent single-ear Bluetooth headsets, there's no voice telling you how much talk time is left each time you switch them on, but a battery meter bar automatically appears on the home screen of the iPhone and iPad (you need to download this for Android 3.0 tablets, and Android 4.0 phones and tablets). Charging takes around two hours from empty using a mini USB port concealed at the back of one of the buds and in terms of range, we found that the Bluetooth range could be pushed out to around 40 feet (12 m) before losing the signal.
The in-line microphone and controls are a stock standard layout found in many headphones - volume up and down, with a button in the middle to play and pause audio as well as take and reject calls. Pausing the audio also pauses the track on your iPhone, so you can pick up where you left off without going near your smartphone. Another button on the side is for switching the earbuds on and off, with an ascending or descending tone letting you know which is which.
The buds are joined by a flat cord designed to avoid tangling. Like all "tangle-free" designs, it won't stop a small child with a sailor's talent for knots from turning them into a pretzel, but in the ordinary scheme of shoving the earbuds in a pocket or bag, the design works well. The length is also about right - it's long enough for the earbuds to hang around your neck when not in use, and to allow you to get the microphone somewhere near your mouth when making calls. We were pleasantly surprised by how effective the microphone was when making calls, a fact that points to Plantronics' expertise in voice technology.
So how do they sound? Our verdict is that they perform more than adequately, at least for the non-purist. Sure they're not on par with a high-end set of wired earbuds, the volume might not impress those who like to crank things right up there, and the bass end lacks punch. Plantronics says the volume level is about ensuring that you get distortion-free sound (as well as not suffering hearing loss), but they are certainly loud enough to satisfy my everyday listening needs and the output is well balanced throughout the frequency range.
Then there's the US$100 price. You can go out and spend a lot more on high-end earphones and you'll certainly end up with better sound quality, or you can buy a cheaper wired set that will equal the Backbeat GO's audio performance. But that's not the point - it's about the sheer convenience of being able to leave your phone in your pocket or bag while enjoying stereo sound. You also have to consider the extra strain Bluetooth puts on your smartphone battery (not that there's much Plantronics can do about this), but for those of us who use our smartphones heavily for audio consumption (not just music but podcasts, audio books etc.) there's definitely value in this proposition. They're wireless, they're wearable and they work.
BackBeat GO specifications:
- Talk/Listening time: Up to 4.5 hours
- Standby time: Up to 10 days
- Operating distance (range): Up to 10 meters from device
- Headphones weight: 13 grams
- Speakers: 6mm neodymium
- Noise reduction: Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and full duplex echo cancellation
- Charge connector: AC charger
- Battery type: Rechargeable, non-replaceable lithium-ion polymer
- Charge time (maximum): 2.5 hours
- Power requirements: 5V DC – 180 mA
- Bluetooth version: v2.1 + EDR
- Bluetooth profiles: A2DP 1.2, AVRCP, HFP v1.5, HSP v1.1
- Operating, storage and charging temperature: 0°C - 40°C (32°F - 104°F)
- Service and Support: 2-year limited warranty
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