Plantronics BackBeat SENSE review

Some of the best wireless headphones come from ... Plantronics? Yup.

The BackBeat Sense are among the best wireless on-ear headphones you can find at any price point.
The BackBeat Sense are among the best wireless on-ear headphones you can find at any price point.
The BackBeat Sense are among the best wireless on-ear headphones you can find at any price point.

Highs

  • Balanced, detailed sound
  • Relaxed and comfortable fit
  • Good controls
  • Great phone performance
  • Impressive battery life/ wireless range

Lows

  • Neutral design
  • No Siri or Google Now integration

On-ear headphones are easy to find, and even the wireless variety are anything but needles in a haystack these days. Finding the diamond in the rough is where things get complicated because good sound and good design mean different things to different people.

Plantronics doesn’t have the kind of presence popular headphone brands have enjoyed over the last few years, but its slow foray into the consumer market — beyond its office headsets and Bluetooth earpieces — has turned out some interesting products. The BackBeat Sense are on-ear wireless Bluetooth headphones that are crafted to be light, nimble and easy to use for longer periods. Add to that some best-in-class features, and you’ve got a set of cans that looks great on paper. But how does that translate into real-world use? We found out.

Out of the box

Keeping it simple, Plantronics made the unboxing experience quick and painless. The box slides out from its cover, and lifts open from the bottom like a jewelry box.

A built-in sensor knows when you’re wearing the headphones and pauses streaming when you’re not.

The headphones were hidden under black wrapping paper, with a fabric carrying case underneath. The case has two zippers with separate compartments. The main one fits the headphones, while the second is meant for cables. The BackBeat Sense comes with an angled 3.5mm headphone cable with an in-line remote and microphone situated on the right, plus a micro-USB cable for charging the headphones.

There is a small manual included to explain the Bluetooth pairing process and the various controls located on the earcups, but nothing else is included or, frankly, needed.

Features and design

Plantronics isn’t known for being a tech fashion trendsetter, and the Sense’s understated form factor isn’t likely to change that. We received both color options: black with brown ear cushions and headband, and a similar white-and-brown combination, the latter of which stands out a bit more. The leather and memory foam used for the earcups and headband cushion is soft and supple, and feels good to the touch. To help orient users, the letters L and R are exposed in the perforations in the earcups.

The outside of the left cup houses playback controls. Play/pause in the middle, flanked by back and skip buttons, while the outer ring slides forward or back to adjust volume. The red button at the bottom mutes the music or audio and engages a microphone to pipe in sounds from the outside world. The right earcup has a main function button. Pressing it can accept or hang up on phone calls, but it also reveals battery level, prompting a 5-led indicator. Batter level is also generically announced by voice when the cans are turned, saying “high, medium or low.” A headphone jack and micro-USB charging port are at the bottom of the right earcup, while the power and Bluetooth buttons are up top.

A pressure sensor built into the right earcup knows when you’re wearing the headphones and when you’re not. Lifting the Sense off your head immediately pauses the music, though simply lifting off the right earcup will do the same. Bluetooth 4.0 is supported, and up to two devices can be connected simultaneously – think connecting to your Tablet to watch a video while connecting to your phone just in case a call comes in. Range is rated at up to 330 feet, but this number needs to be taken with a grain of salt as that is an optimistic line-of-sight rating (when connected to other class-1 BT devices), and goes down quickly any time an obstacle is involved.

Weighing in at an insignificant 140 grams, the BackBeat Sense are pleasantly light, making them extremely comfortable to wear for long periods of time.

Audio Performance

The BackBeat Sense are among the best wireless on-ear headphones you can find at any price point – the sense just happen to be a bargain. Without skewing too far on the equalizer, Plantronics didn’t try to alienate any listeners — except we’re not sure the Beats crowd will find enough thump in these cans. The bass is balanced, tight and musical, but not especially deep or overpowering. Any bass-heavy track sounds fine, and the lows do come through as the volume increases, making for a solid listening experience.

In our opinion, the best headphones don’t play to specific genres of music, they do them all well – and that’s what we’ve got here. Still, there’s a fine line for this sort of thing, which is partly why brands like Beats are successful. Pushing the Sense to max volume highlights its shortcomings because of the distortion that sets in. The bass is heavy at the higher volume levels, and at the expense of the highs and mids. It’s almost a distinct point where this uneven balancing act sets in as the volume goes up, and we’re confident any user who likes to listen loud will probably recognize it.

Still, when listening at extreme volumes, the Sense maintain a degree of clarity that’s welcome with any genre. We liked that vocals were never squashed by backing instruments, and while they could be a little warmer in the highs and mids, we didn’t come away feeling like too much was missing. On tracks where vocals are loud and pronounced, like Marc Anthony’s Vivir Mi Vida (Pop version) and La Gozadera by Gente De Zona, the Sense handled the chaos well, even if the bass didn’t rumble the way it could have. In a totally different feel, Peter White’s Who’s That Lady sounded nice and soothing as an instrumental jazz track.

Plantronics-BackBeat-Sense-sense-sideview

It didn’t matter if we played a classic rock, R&B or house track. Everything essentially sounded the same with excellent stereo separation. We did experiment with playing music through equalizer apps to get the most of the bass at louder volumes, finding some success, but this was only useful for music we had stored on a smartphone, tablet or computer. We weren’t able to replicate custom results on streaming services, like Spotify, Rdio and Apple Music.

There’s no noise-cancellation here, so the battery doesn’t have to pull double-duty to keep Bluetooth going for long. The noise-isolation is more than adequate though, as we found ourselves getting lost in our tunes and not the ambient noise outside.

The best headphones don’t play to specific genres of music, they do them all well – that’s what we’ve got here.

Speaking of battery life, we found the 18-hour estimate to be spot on when listening at reasonable volumes – certainly one of the best we’ve encountered with an on-ear headphone. At louder levels, we managed to get over 15 hours per charge consistently. Using them with the included cable was also convenient in cases where going wireless was neither an option, nor necessary.

As a headset for phone calls, we weren’t surprised to find the Sense excel, given Plantronics’ history with mono headsets. Calls were clear, the microphone stellar, and the controls perfectly fine for handling the basics. We weren’t able to get Siri or Google Now working using the function button on the right earcup, so functionality is limited to the basics as far as phone features go.

Conclusion

Plantronics didn’t really take a risky approach with the BackBeat Sense, leaning toward neutral with both the design and audio performance. We can’t say these are ideal for any particular genre of music because they aim to treat them all the same. Bass lovers may feel something missing, whereas those who don’t prefer a heavy hand will appreciate the balance and detail.

Being on-ear and wireless, the $180 price point is actually on the low side of the price spectrum, especially for such a well-featured headphone. We came away impressed at the performance and features, being able to listen to music for hours over a few days before needing a recharge. For what they do and how well they sound, the BackBeat Sense is a dominant contender in its category.

 Available at: Amazon

Highs

  • Balanced, detailed sound
  • Relaxed and comfortable fit
  • Good controls
  • Great phone performance
  • Impressive battery life/ wireless range

Lows

  • Neutral design
  • No Siri or Google Now integration
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