This week we?re testing the Plantronics BackBeat Pro + headphones, a Bluetooth aptX compatible model featuring an active noise canceling system. The perfect occasion to see what the latest wireless transmission technologies have to offer and to determine if this highly regarded brand can compete with the great names in the world of portable hi-fi.
The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + Bluetooth headset is a closed-back and over-ear model featuring a Bluetooth receiver, a stereo amplifier and an active noise canceling system. Its battery may be charged via a micro-USB cable (supplied) and will enable about 24 hours of continuous use, which is rather rare for this price range. The Bluetooth controller is compatible with the SBC, AAC and aptX codecs. By way of reminder, SBC audio compression is universal, AAC (higher quality) is integrated into the iPhone and the iPad, and aptX (even higher quality) is integrated into many smartphones (Samsung, LG, Sony, etc.). A 3.5 mm mini-jack-to-mini-jack cable is provided for wireless listening.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: active noise cancellation
The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + headset benefits from a system which cancels out surrounding noises. This doesn’t mean all noises, but most of all low frequencies, which are commonly encountered in the street or while using public transportation. Active noise canceling technology relies on an integrated amplifier to make the transducer?s cones oscillate, and it uses a phase inversion technique across a range of low frequencies to cancel ambient low-frequency noises (by compensation). As such, active noise cancellation is applied to a precisely targeted frequency range and not to the full audio spectrum. The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + is no exception, and all headphones which benefit from active noise canceling technology share the same working principle. As a result, midrange frequencies, such as voices, remain audible. The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + headset?s left ear cup is fitted with a switch which is easy to access while the headset is in use and allows the user to activate or deactivate the noise canceling system.
In terms of performance, the Plantronics BackBeat Pro + is on par with models in its price range, but is no match for more expensive models (the Sony MDR-1000X, for example). Without performing astonishing miracles, the active noise canceling system offers a superior listening experience when activated. The passive acoustic insulation system is actually rather satisfactory. The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + headset?s frequency response is modified when the active noise canceling system is switched on, which seems to us to increase its effectiveness. We?ll get back to this later when we share our listening impressions.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: USB Bluetooth emitter with aptX
The Plantronics headphones come with an aptX compatible USB Bluetooth. The aptX codec uses a very efficient compression method which is superior to both the AAC codec used by iPhones and the universal SBC codec. Very compact, the adaptor is totally plug and play. We used it running Linux Mint and the USB adaptor functioned just like a USB DAC. The only step necessary is to choose it as a playback device in the OS (same goes for Mac OS and Windows) and play the selected audio source (audio file, Deezer, YouTube, etc.). All of the computer?s audio output is wirelessly transmitted to the Plantronics BackBeat Pro + headset. It is not necessary to pair the emitter with the headset, and a voice message confirms the connection between the two.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: dual connection and Bluetooth range
The Plantronics BackBeat Pro +?s Bluetooth 4.0 controller can handle two connections simultaneously: smartphones, computer, TV, etc. A concrete example: while listening to music on your smartphone at work, you?d like to also listen to a video on your computer. No need to unpair the headset and the smartphone and then pair the first with the computer. Simply stop playback on the smartphone and begin playback on the computer. It?s just that easy.
The wireless range obviously depends on the power of the emitter. The USB model we received functioned efficiently at a distance of about 10 m without any obstacles. Our Xiaomi Redmi Pro smartphone proved more effective, with a range of about 15 m despite an assortment of obstacles (concrete wall, glass door, wooden garage door). The smartphone?s Bluetooth transmission technology adopted the SBC codec.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: wearing comfort
The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + Bluetooth headset is rather heavy and imposing. However, its ear cups are comfortable, and the amount of pressure applied to the head is acceptable. We listened to it for several hours without interruption.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: non-touch controls
The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + Bluetooth headphones don’t have any touch controls. Each ear cup is fitted with a large, notched control wheel which is easy to use even when running or riding a bicycle. The control wheel on the right ear cup may be used to adjust the volume and is not overly sensitive to the touch. The control wheel on the left cup may be used to switch between tracks (previous, next). By pressing each potentiometer, the user may either take a call or pause playback.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: voice call quality
As an experienced specialist in the world of Bluetooth ear cups, Plantronics has extensive knowledge of hands-free calling. It comes as no surprise, then, that the integrated microphone is very good and that the person on the other end of the line will hear you very well with both a 3G or 4G connection, regardless of ambient noise and without having to speak too loudly. It is also easy to hear whomever is speaking to you, and the sound is very clear and well articulated. A flawless performance.
Note that the sound picked up by the microphone during voice calls is played by the headset?s drivers, which allows the user to hear his or her own voice and adjust speaking volume while also hearing surrounding noise.
When not making calls, the user may activate the microphone in order to hear surrounding noise by simply pressing the microphone button. The volume potentiometer may be used to adjust the gain applied to the microphone. While carrying out this operation, the volume of the music is very low. Once again, it?s all smooth sailing.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: proximity sensor
The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + headset is equipped with proximity sensors which sense the presence of the user?s head. These sensors automatically stop playback when the user removes the headset. Playback begins again immediately when the user puts the headset back on. The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + goes into sleep mode if not used for an extended period of time.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: test conditions
We fully recharged the Plantronics headset in just one hour, and we waited for all 5 blue LEDs to light up. It takes three hours to recharge the headset when its battery is completely depleted. A voice message confirms that the headset is powered on, and it also notifies the user of the charge status. We paired the Plantronics BackBeat Pro + headset with its USB Bluetooth emitter connected to a desktop computer, as well as with a Xiaomi Redmi Pro smartphone (a long press on the Call button established the wireless connection). We listened in our office, as well as while walking, riding a bicycle, driving around in a car and strolling through a shopping mall. The majority of files we played were in FLAC format (SBC or aptX protocols).
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: listening impressions
We?re going to present each of the three listening modes individually: wired, Bluetooth, and with active noise cancellation, as each offers a different listening experience.
Wired: Frankly, this isn’t the best mode to choose when listening to the Plantronics BackBeat Pro +. As bizarre as this may seem (especially since it prevents Bluetooth compression), the listening experience is less engaging than in wireless mode. Whether it?s because there just isn’t enough energy, enough lows, or enough highs, the listening experience is lackluster and bland. We got bored quickly. We didn’t keep trying, partly because we knew that this headset is optimized above all for wireless use, and partly because of the fact that manufacturers often use the headset?s integrated amplifier to equalize the frequency response curve.
Bluetooth: When the integrated amplifier is working, the Plantronics BackBeat Pro + headset offers an entirely different listening experience?one that is much sharper and livelier. Lows are positively spectacular and dive very, very far down with an enormous amount of impact. Even so, this doesn’t detract from the mids, which are carefully detailed. Highs are soft, yet don’t reach the same level of smoothness as a good pair of hi-fi headphones. It would be a shame to be too picky, though, as the Plantronics BackBeat Pro +?s sound signature is very enjoyable and, above all, intelligently designed.
In fact, the appeal of a wireless headset is the possibility to use it while on-the-go, and very often in a noisy area where low and medium frequencies may negatively impact the listening experience. Certainly, there is always the BackBeat Pro +?s active noise canceling system, but even this has its limits. To compensate, a well-adjusted tonal balance at high volume is a must. While our ears are exponentially sensitive to mids as the volume is turned up, it is essential for a wireless headset to offer powerful lows. If the correct adjustments are not made, the listening experience at high volume will be unbalanced and quickly become irritating and tiresome.
Bluetooth with active noise cancellation: the EQ is different with the active noise canceling system switched on. The low-mids and the mids are immediately brought slightly forward, at the expense (if only slightly) of the lows. We were surprised by this new tonal balance, but it proved beneficial when listening in noisy environments. Voices were easier to understand. On a bicycle, in a car, or in the shopping mall, the Plantronics BackBeat Pro + always delivered in terms of noise isolation. Listening to Chet Baker without competition from the wind blowing past our ears was a real delight.
SBC, AAC and aptX: we tested all three codecs with different smartphones. While the aptX codec offers the best listening experience, the Plantronics BackBeat Pro + doesn’t lose any of its luster when the Bluetooth SBC transmission codec is applied.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro +: conclusions
What we liked: the expressive and balanced audio restitution, the very wide stereo image, the powerful amplifier, the battery life, the USB Bluetooth emitter (included), the protection from wind interference (even on a bicycle), the quality of the integrated microphone and the listening mode with extra gain, the quality of voice calls, the motion detectors to optimize battery life? etc.
What we would have liked: a few grams less in terms of weight
The Plantronics BackBeat Pro + headset may not be the best-looking or the most discreet pair of Bluetooth headphones available, but it?s clearly one of the most user friendly models. Its dynamic and physiological sound signature, along with its openness, will win more than a few hearts. A very well-designed headset, very practical, long-lasting and, quite frankly, a pleasure to listen to.