I've struggled to find a pair of good commuting headphones for a while now. Most are too large and bulky, some Bluetooth models require expensive consumable non-rechargeable batteries, and a lot just don't sound very nice to listen to for extended sessions. But I've found my perfect match — Plantronics' new BackBeat Sense headphones are small, light, compact, portable, and pack in surprisingly good sound for their size along with excellent and headache-free Bluetooth.
What Is It?
- Bluetooth: Yes, Bluetooth v4.0 + EDR
- Battery Life: (up to) 18 hours
- Wireless Range: (up to) 100m
- Weight: 140g
The $249 Plantronics BackBeat Sense is a small, light, compact pair of headphones with integrated Bluetooth wireless, with a 3.5mm stereo analog audio backup, promising 18 hours of non-stop audio playback from its internal battery pack. You can hook two devices up simultaneously to the Sense's Class 1 Bluetooth-compatible receiver, which should give you a solid connection from up to 100 metres away (as long as your phone or tablet is compatible, and under ideal conditions — 20 to 30 metres is far more likely). Beyond that, there's a talk-through button on the headphones' base that cuts off music temporarily and amplifies outside sound, helping you hear someone next to you or giving you a bit more situational awareness to cross a busy street.
Power, playback and other control buttons are distributed across the BackBeat Sense's two earcups — on the left, you have play/pause and forward/backward skip, as well as a volume control jog dial around the headphones' outer cup. On the right, there's a tactile power/pairing switch, which works to either power the headphones on and re-pair to existing devices or to add new ones, and a touch sensitive pad that works to answer and hang up phone calls. Microphones are hidden away inside the earcups, too, with Plantronics incredibly well tried and tested — their headphones have been to the moon, y'know — environmental noise cancelling built in.
There's a little activity sensor in the Plantronics BackBeat Sense's right earcup that pauses any currently playing music whenever you move the headphone's leatherette right earpad away from your ear. It'll start playback again when you've replaced the earcup, too. This is one of those features that doesn't bear much explaining but — in the real world — works wonders for convenience. The headphones will sleep whenever you've removed them, so you don't even really need to switch them off if you're intending to use them in the next couple of hours.
Those leatherette earpads, by the way, are supremely plush. They're super-soft, and have memory foam inside that conforms very carefully to the contours of your ears — and the result is that they're extremely easy to wear and have precisely zero fatiguing effect over longer periods of wear. The BackBeat Sense is also lightweight at only 144g, too, despite the strong and inflexible aluminium headband that is adjustable over a couple of centimetres on either side and will fit anything from reasonably small to reasonably large heads (although the extremes are likely out of the question). It's the leather-wrapped elastic-suspended headband that functions to cushion the BackBeat Sense against the top of your head.
What's It Good At?
These headphones are just the perfect size if you're a traveller. The earcups swivel flat over a full 180 degree range — so you can rotate them whichever way is most comfortable whenever you take them off or whenever they're hanging around your neck — and that means you're able to store them flat in a carry-on bag or briefcase while taking up extremely little room. When you're wearing them, too, they don't feel at all cumbersome or heavy, and that means you'll wear them longer without breaks (a god-send for long-haul international plane flights and marathon movie-streaming sessions, obviously).
More importantly, the Plantronics BackBeat Sense just sound good. They're not going to blow you away with their maximum wireless volume, or blow you away with the soaring clarity of high notes and mid tones, though — what they are going to do is have enough well-rounded bass and more than enough bright, warm treble detail to make your music sound nice and clean and enjoyable. They're at their best when playing back some high quality electronica (like Shawn Wasabi!) or guitar-driven acoustic tracks (like, um, Death Cab) where you're able to pick out intricate notes within a larger track.
These headphones are super-sturdy, too. The central, metal headband that runs from earcup to earcup, adjustable over a small range, is very strong despite being thin and being exposed metal. The plastic is equally dent- and scratch resistant, and its matte finish does a good job of resisting dirt and stains. Importantly, you can twist and bend the BackBeat Sense over quite a distance and it won't remain distorted or damaged; you can be confident of your $249 cans staying in the shape they're meant to be and keeping good clamping force on your head. Two nice colour options are available — I actually don't know whether I prefer the white and tan or the black and espresso finish, since both are attractive.
Being a Plantronics headphone, you'd expect the BackBeat Sense to have good voice quality during phone calls, and it delivers. The headphones' internal mics on both earcups do a good job of tracking and blocking out external noise, only activating whenever you're actually talking or making significant near-field noise to whoever or whatever you're on the phone to. It's just a pity those microphones don't function for external noise cancellation through the headphones themselves — they're strictly for voice chat only, and not for blocking out the noise of the outside world through active noise cancelling like the larger BackBeat Pro.
What's It Not Good At?
The sensor pack inside the BackBeat Sense's right earcup is not perfect at monitoring when you're actively using the headphones and when you're not. There were a couple of occasions in my fortnight of testing where I'd be out for a walk, and whatever podcast or audio track I was listening to would be paused because the sensor would erroneously trigger as if I'd removed the BackBeat Sense headset. This became more obvious when I was running wearing the BackBeat Sense — it's possible, although not the most comfortable thing in the world — and it's an occasional annoyance. It's great for saving battery, though.
You'll get impressive battery life out of the Plantronics BackBeat Sense — I clocked roughly 16 hours from full to empty at moderate listening volume levels, although not non-stop — but charging back to full takes quite a while. Off a charger capable of 10 Watts output, I juiced up the BackBeat Sense for three hours only to find they were still at "battery medium" level according to the voice-over you get when powering them on. Four hours made sure they were completely charged, though, and I'd full expect to get that sixteen-hour listening figure again if not more.
Being relatively open-backed headphones and on-ear headphones (rather than closed, over-ear cans like the Bose QuietComfort 25) the BackBeat Sense 'phones do leak a little bit of noise, which might annoy your cubicle- or carriage-mates if you're a fan of loud music or if you're compensating for any kind of hearing loss with higher volume. And because they're open, they let a little more sound in and that necessitates higher volumes to compensate. And in a busy office, when you hit that talk-through button you'll hear everything amplified — it can be a bit unsettling and creepy, albeit useful.
It's also worth mentioning that the maximum volume out of the BackBeat Sense isn't completely mind-blowing; you won't be able to crank these to extremes over Bluetooth like you can a pair of Beats. The maximum volume is more than loud enough for casual listeners — I certainly wouldn't recommend them at full power for sustained listening unless you want to damage your hearing — but it's nice to have a high peak volume for listening to quieter audio sources. You can, of course, just plug them in and power them heavily from an external source if you especially need that extreme volume and power.
Should You Buy It?
I don't use Bluetooth headphones often. In a way, because of this, Plantronics' $249 Backbeat Sense are the perfect Bluetooth headphones for me. They're small enough to be easily carried to and from work in my regular shoulder bag in its soft carry case, with the charging cable and 3.5mm adapter. When I want to use them, I'm certain of them having enough charge to be usable, because the internal sensors mean they're not wasting electricity when I'm not wearing them. They're super comfortable, too, with sturdy plastic joined by soft leatherette and a very strong metal headband that is more than adjustable enough for big or small heads.
The sensors are not always perfect — I did encounter a couple of situations where my music or podcasts paused temporarily when I was out for a brisk walk or a jog. But for the most part, they're very useful. The lack of any active noise cancelling and an open design means that you can hear the world around you, which can be a great thing sometimes — in an office, where environmental noise is relatively low, it's actually useful. On a train or bus or plane where the ambient noise is loud, you'll have to boost the volume to accommodate and that means less battery life and more fatigue for your ears.
The headphones' Bluetooth is perfect, and never once broke connection, even when it had two devices connected simultaneously and vying for attention. Range is excellent as long as you have a relatively modern device — laptop or smartphone or tablet — capable of Class 1 Bluetooth and with aptX codec support, then you're set. And the wired connection is equally useful, as long as you can get used to it being on the right earcup rather than the left. The controls are simple enough whether you're making a call or just skipping Spotify tracks back and forth.
And, most importantly, they sound good. Plenty of mid-bass for on-ear headphones, backed up with clear and bright treble — exactly what you'd want from a headphone of this kind. That, combined with comfort and convenience, means that the Plantronics BackBeat Sense is a pair of headphones that I'll happily keep using, and getting more than enough usage out of them in the variety of situations in which I need headphones, for a long time. I'd happily recommend the BackBeat sense to a friend or family member looking for a pair of Bluetooth headphones that hit all the necessary compromises — size, battery life, design, features and price — just right.