Review: Plantronics' feature-filled BackBeat Sense headphones

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Gizmag reviews the latest from Plantronics, the BackBeat Sense headphones(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag.com)

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Plantronics, well known for communication headsets and Bluetooth earpieces, has been showing more of its casual, active lifestyle side over the past year. The Plantronics BackBeat Pro, BackBeat Fit, and BackBeat Go 2 have been targeted at consumers looking for portable audio gear. But with the market so saturated these days, it takes more than Bluetooth wireless to turn heads. We get some quality time with Plantronics’ latest BackBeat Sense headphones to see if the added features truly make a meaningful difference.

Design & Connectivity

The Plantronics BackBeat Sense headphones are what happens when you bring the best of Plantronics’ BackBeat Pro and Blackwire headphones together. Those familiar with those two products will immediately see the genetic heritage in the Sense. As a result, the BackBeat Sense headphones are feature-packed and good for all-day listening, thanks to the comfortable on-ear pads and ample internal battery. While mostly made of plastic, the design neither looks nor feels flimsy.

Although there are a few glossy parts that peek through, most of the plastic presents a matte finish. Along with the flexible steel band, protein leather-covered cushioning, and copper mesh accents (white/tan model) on the ear cups, the BackBeat Sense complements office attire or street clothing equally. Those who prefer minimal bulk will appreciate the BackBeat Sense’s slim band and low profile. Despite the seemingly-meager materials, the cables linking the ear cups are reinforced for durability, which also adds mass to the padded band. In fact, most of the BackBeat Sense's physical aspects are smart and/or thoughtful.

One neat addition to both sides of the metal band is a series of engraved marks, with each number corresponding to a click-adjustment of the ear cups. Those who tend to throw headphones on with minimal fuss may not care, but anyone with a bit of inner OCD just might delight in this detail. In another subtle move, Plantronics has labeled the right and left ear cups with slightly larger perforations in the leather material. Some headphones, like the Audio-Technica MSR7, emblazon these labels for all to see, which can be puzzling from a design/style viewpoint.

A dimpled play/pause button and raised repeat/skip buttons lie underneath soft silicone on the left-side ear cup. They're set atop a dial that provides (separate) volume adjustment for announcements and media. The headphones' levels, each accompanied by appropriately-pitched "boops", is in addition to a connected device(s) volume. The red button located on the bottom of the left ear cup toggles the Open Mic feature. If you’re unfamiliar with Plantronics’ Open Mic, which debuted with the BackBeat Pro, it activates the headphones' external microphones so you can hear ambient noise almost as if you weren’t wearing them.

The right ear cup's silicone-covered button announces battery life and pairing status when pressed. This button also answers the phone when someone calls, while a press-hold will activate a connected device's voice commands (e.g. car mode, Google app, S Voice, etc.) for user input. Each time battery life is announced, a series of five blue LEDs, hidden underneath the silicone, light up as a visual indicator. The bottom of the right-side ear cup hosts Micro USB and auxiliary ports for charging and cabled audio. The power switch, located at the top of the right cup, also serves to enter Bluetooth pairing mode by giving it a nudge towards that icon.

Just as with the Plantronics BackBeat Pro, the Sense's right ear cup has a sensor that automatically pauses music when no force is applied (ie. you take the headphones off). Putting the headphones back on resumes music playback. This feature is better in practice than how it sounds on paper. Sometimes, depending on the connected device's active app at that moment, play/pause buttons won't work to control the music. So far, the BackBeat Sense's sensor has successfully paused/resumed music each time, no matter the active app. Also, when a connected smartphone rings, putting these headphones on automatically accepts the call.

The BackBeat Sense can pair with two devices simultaneously, and it's smart enough to know when to automatically switch back and forth. Thanks to the Class 1 Bluetooth, users can roam further away from devices while maintaining an audio connection. The listed Bluetooth range of 330 feet (100 m) is not some puffed-up spec. During line-of-sight tests in an open field devoid of obstructions, the BackBeat Sense handily proved its wireless prowess. In most situations, the vast majority of users likely wouldn't need the near-full length of an American football field for range. But for day-to-day use, the BackBeat Sense can navigate multiple walls, floors, and obstacles for uninterrupted music streaming. While standard Bluetooth might have an effective indoor line-of-sight range of 28 ft (8.5 m), the BackBeat Sense can do that through a floor, two walls, and a full-sized refrigerator.

Not only does the Bluetooth have substantial reach, but it's also very fast. Many Bluetooth speakers and headphones aren't ideal for wirelessly watching video or playing mobile games because of the latency. With the BackBeat Sense, any playback delay is nigh on imperceptible, almost as if you had an audio cable connected. And if high-quality Bluetooth connectivity wasn't enough, the BackBeat Sense can last for slightly more than 18 hours of wireless playback on a single charge (which takes about 2.5 hours) with moderate (or less) volume. Higher volume levels and/or frequent use of the microphones (either via Open Mic or hands-free conversations) reduces this uptime by 2 to 4 hours, depending on usage. And if the headphones have been on and inactive for some time, they automatically enter a hibernation state to save power.

The BackBeat Sense comes with a Micro USB charge cable, a 3.5 mm audio cable with in-line remote, and a fabric carrying case. Yes, we are sympathetic to grumbles for protective hard cases for our beloved headphones, but this fabric is durable, comfortable like a favorite pair of jeans, and lined with fuzzy goodness. Two zippered pockets provide ample space for the headphones and accessories.

Comfort

At only 4.9 oz (140 g), the BackBeat Sense is lightweight and easy to wear for extended periods. Although the padding feels thin, its springy and pliable form sits well on the head. Some headphones, although heavily-equipped with memory foam, create fatigue due to inflexible headbands bearing down upon a single spot. Since the BackBeat Sense separates the cushion from the metal band, weight and force are distributed evenly through greater surface contact, and the snugness of fit and clamping force can be fine-tuned by shortening or lengthening the cups. One can go a step further for custom comfort by carefully bending/adjusting the steel band.

The BackBeat Sense uses rings of memory foam to cushion the outside parts of the ear, leaving the middle free. The vertical play and 180-degree swiveling of the ear cups provide natural adjustment to all sorts of head shapes and sizes. The open flexibility of the band, gentle yet firm clamping force, and movement of the cups practically eliminates pinching or uneven pressure. Although the headphones are comfortable to wear for hours at a clip, some may still need brief breaks. The memory foam and protein leather tend to warm up after a while and, depending on size and style, glasses stems can generate points of fatigue.

Although the cups lie flat to make the headphones easy to wear around the neck, it can feel a little constricting at times. Also, those who want to ensure that music pauses properly will have to turn the right ear cup upwards. Just that little bit of force pressing against one’s neck or chest is enough to make the downturned cup think someone is actually listening. And those who are concerned about how they look while wearing headphones will be glad to know that the BackBeat Sense keeps a pretty slim gap between the band and the head.

Audio Quality

While listening with the BackBeat Sense, you'll want to make sure they don't touch or rub up against anything. The resulting noise echoes all the way through the frame, right into the ears. As such, adjusting the volume dial and/or pressing any of the on-board buttons will also generate and transmit some noise. Unlike some other wireless headphones, the BackBeat Sense does not reach a true-zero sound with its volume dial, with the minimum volume output still being audible, depending on how high the connected device volume is.

Those who are more concerned with high volume and distortion will be happy to know that Plantronics has kept it under control. Even when both the headphones and connected device have maxed-out volume, the result is bearably loud, right below the point of being painful. They may not be able to compete against the noisiest of environments, but they're going to keep your ears safe from harm. Incredibly, the BackBeat Sense can maintain this output across a wide variety of music genres with practically no distortion. At the worst, the lows bloat a bit, the highs sharpen in surplus, and the mids generate grain for the trouble, but at moderate listening levels, users can expect to hear music defect-free.

When it comes to shutting out the world around you, the BackBeat Sense is only ok. The isolation provided by the ear cups are average for the on-ear design, dampening ambient noise while taking the edge off. Even though it’s not hard to get a good seal with the round ear pads, you can still hear the surrounding environment. While this may be great for those who need situational awareness while wearing headphones, commuters might prefer closed-back over-ear cans to diminish the sounds of travel. However, they succeed very well at keeping sound from leaking out. With music playing on the louder side of moderate (headphones set to 68 percent and Samsung Galaxy Note 4 set to 70 percent volume), someone sitting a few feet (≈1 m) away won't hear a thing.

The BackBeat Sense doesn't have the biggest soundstage, although the width-to-depth proportion is very good. Despite being on the cozier side, instruments and voices do have sufficient room to flex. The imaging is clear with clean edges that help maintain separation between the various elements, even when they overlap into each other's space. Blurred notes are kept at a satisfactory minimum, most notably when track complexity increases. The BackBeat Sense capably handles fast changes in volume and tempo while maintaining a firm grip.

Clear audio reproduction is a theme with these headphones. It also has a great dynamic range that captures big and small details alike, making sure little gets lost in the background. The hit and scratch against guitar strings are evident, especially with higher-quality recordings. The tone is also superb, whether it be the twang of fiddle strings, the burnished brass of saxophones, or Axl Rose's melodically-raspy voice. All of this ties in well with the active movement/imaging between the left and right sides, which, despite the cuddled-up soundstage, lets the BackBeat Sense maintain the excitement and energy of songs.

The headphones deliver solid highs that are crisp and slightly sweet, with the crash of cymbals and hi-hats maintaining their accuracy with light sizzling heard only here or there. This occasional tinny aspect comes forth at the end of hits, mostly from notes in succession. Lighter instruments, such as bells, triangles, or hammered dulcimers, are driven delicately, just as violins and harps assert lush intensity. The highs have just a touch of extra emphasis. The main drawback to having this added sparkle is that music can end up sounding too bright in the upper registers. And it can make some transition between the highs and upper mids a bit coarse at times.

Vocal reproduction is clear throughout, however it can sound slightly laid back in the mids. This is likely an illusion due to the highs (and lows) having that before-mentioned emphasis. It's a subtle difference, with the sound signature more of a u-shape as opposed to a sharp v-shape curve. It takes knowing a song very well or having the right combination of instruments present in order to really catch it. But even with this u-shaped curve, the mids carry and deliver a welcome balance of vibrance and energy. Instruments in the lower-mids benefit from a hint of warm coloration from the lows, which helps to offset the less-than-full sound. As a whole it all works, because the music still gets you moving and bobbing to the beat.

For a set of on-ear cans, the BackBeat Sense pushes some pretty respectable lows. Drums are punchy with a good bounce for character. Flurries of hits come out snappy with a decently-tight decay, while the kick drum hefts a surprising amount of impact. Some may feel that the lows are too lean, which can be true. Although the BackBeat Sense’s lows aren’t the most muscular, the headphones know their limits and don't try to overdo it. The lows are reasonably deep, yet controlled to maintain a proper balance with everything else going on, and the quality of drums and bass are all the better for it.

Those with sharper ears may be able to hear the occasional lack of mid-bass nuance when it comes to drums and (especially) bass guitar. With drums, the impact and envelope of sound are there, but lacking a bit of characteristic flavor. The bass, while throaty, can skimp out a bit on the textured purr that comes from deep chords within the lows. But considering how well the BackBeat Sense pulls everything together, these aspects can be dismissed and filed under "nitpicking." For on-ear headphones that make no claims toward high-end listening, not having full-bodied and completely-articulated lows is forgivable.

Open Mic & Hands-free

The Open Mic feature on the BackBeat Sense is situationally useful, mainly because the ear cups provide only modest sound isolation. It’s convenient nonetheless, since the microphones pick up and amplify quieter sounds while very slightly diminishing white noise (e.g. the hum of appliances or whooshing air from AC vents). Although the audio comes through clearly, it can be a little sharp and artificially-electronic sounding, especially with higher frequencies. Versus the human ear, the sound imaging/placement is a tad rough. But for surreptitiously tuning into the surrounding environment, especially when people might think your ears are tucked between music, the Open Mic is a very welcome feature to have.

The BackBeat Sense’s built-in microphones are more effective for voice communication than anything else. During phone conversations, a user’s voice sounds present and clear, with background noises diminished. There should be few, if any, complaints from the other side. However, voices coming through to the user tend to sound distant, slightly veiled, and too quiet, even with the volume turned up. While hands-free talking with the BackBeat Sense headphones is a bit better than average, it’s not as good as Plantronics' dedicated Bluetooth earpieces.

The Verdict

Suffice it to say, the Plantronics BackBeat Sense have plenty to recommend them. These headphones are jam-packed with useful features and smart controls at a very attractive price point. The powerful Bluetooth connectivity and long-lasting battery eliminate the hassles of cables and users can enjoy all-day audio, thanks to the slim, lightweight design and exceptional comfort. Switching between two connected devices is a breeze, and the built-in microphones add convenience for open listening and hands-free conversations.

Although the audio quality may not be the fullest-sounding around, the u-shaped curve, clarity, dynamic range, and low levels of distortion deliver a superb and enjoyable experience. The BackBeat Sense does transmit touch-related noise through its frame, and the isolation is only ok. While it may not quite be considered audiophile-grade, these headphones are guaranteed to please casual listeners, audio enthusiasts, and most in between.

But what makes the BackBeat Sense so great is the US$179.99 retail price. For all the built-in features and power housed beneath the ear cups, you might expect them to cost much more. This makes the BackBeat Sense a fantastic choice for those who are on a budget (e.g. students) or simply want a quality set of Bluetooth wireless headphones without having to pay through the nose. The Plantronics BackBeat Sense headphones are available to order now in either White/Tan (reviewed) or Black/Espresso (also looks great) color options.

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