FOX11 Los Angeles - I remember doing a review on another product some time ago and a friend of mine brought up how much in love he was with his Plantronics BackBeat PROs. At that time, my only exposure to Plantronics was my bluetooth earpiece of choice, the Voyager Pro. My pal is a fellow tech reviewer so his opinion carried weight and now that I’ve had the chance to sample the BackBeat PRO 2, I can understand the infatuation.
The Backbeat PRO 2 Hardware
The BackBeat PRO 2 is a Class 1 Bluetooth 4.0 pair of headphones with on-demand Active Noise Cancelling. It’s feature-rich and looks great! Unboxing the PRO 2 is a satisfying experience as the product is packaged rather nicely. In the box you’ll find the headphones, a charging cable, an aux cable complete with microphone for analog use, and a travel sleeve. I’m always a fan of hard cases with headphones, but this travel sleeve is rather lux. It comes with a pocket for your cables, a loop to attach to a backpack and is lined with a soft touch material that I wouldn’t mind being ensconced in. Seriously, I need a sleeping bag lined with this stuff! Anywho, my only issue with the included accessories is the analog cable. It’s thin, and doesn’t match the premium feel of the rest of the product. Unfortunately, most of the vendors selling wireless headphones that come with cables are providing analog cables of this quality. I guess the logic is that you’re not going to be using them that often, so having a heavier cable isn’t a necessity.
Unlike the Beats Solo 3’s I recently reviewed, the outside of the cans where the controls are placed, are “busy.” There are a lot of controls on these headphones! Most you won’t be touching that often, but it’s worth noting that other than using the play/pause and volume controls without having to look, you’ll probably be pulling these off of your head to get at the other toggles. Having said that, the design of the vast majority of the feature set is rather smart. Let’s start with the left earcup -how do I know it’s the left one? Because Plantronics has placed a huge “L” on the inside of the cup. Smart! Most other cans have some small “L” or “R” somewhere on the band but you don’t have to look for the demarcation on the BackBeat PRO 2. It’s in your face when you pick them up. The BP2’s are closed back, over-the-ear headphones (passive noise cancelling) which also feature Active Noise Cancelling for those times when you need to completely drown out the outside world, but if you need to go in the other direction for some reason, they’ve thought of that as well. Well, kind of. In this instance, the “Open Listening” mode allows you to hear what’s going on outside your headphone encapsulated world. For example, you’re taking a phone call on the headphones and when you’re finished with the call you need to say something to someone close to you. You can turn on Open Listening mode and then you’ll be able to clearly hear them. Activating Open Listening mode pauses your music as well. This is great if you’re putting in some hours in a coworking space and someone walks up to talk to you while you’re locked in and getting things done. No need to pull the headphones off, just click into Open Listening. What Open Listening doesn’t do is turn these closed back headphones into an open back design, allowing you to hear what’s going on outside your world while still listening to your tunes.
Also on the left earcup are the volume controls which are on a rotating circular slider along the inner rim of the outside of the cup, and the play/pause button in the center of the cup. The buttons which allow you to skip back and forward a track are on the left earcup as well. On the right side -again marked by the massive “R” on the inside of the cup- you’ll find the power/bluetooth pairing slider, the mute button, call button, charging port, 3.5mm port and LED charge indicators.
Now, these aren’t your average headphones with cup mounted controls. You may not even need to touch the controls at all in some cases! These headphones have a premium feel all the way around and feature active sensors in them which will pause music when you take them off of your head. Those same sensors will also mute the mic when you’re on a call. Put them back on, music resumes, mic unmutes. Additionally, you can answer a call by putting the headphones on when connected to your phone.
The only issue I noticed with the sensors was that they didn’t respond to removing them and pausing the music when using different phones. For example, this feature worked flawlessly no matter which app I was using to play my music, VLC, Amazon, or Play Music on an unlocked Moto Z. On Google’s Pixel XL, same experience. LeEco’s LE Pro 3 however, it worked flawlessly with the Play app, not so consistently with some other apps. I didn’t have occasion to test with an iPhone but I did test with my iPad Pro 12.9 and it worked flawlessly while playing music from a variety of apps as well. Only other interesting glitch I found was that when turning my head to the extreme right (looking over my shoulder), the music would sometimes pause. This didn’t happen when I looked over my left shoulder. Haven’t quite figured that one out yet. The only thing I can think of is that the sensors are in one of the ear cups only and turning in that direction activates them. I figured that because when I lift the headband enough that it is no longer in contact with my head, the music still plays as long as the cups are over my ears, so it would appear there are no sensors in the headband.
The Experience: Heavy Backbeat, Clear Highs
Up until now, Sennheiser has been my Gold Standard for sound in this price range. That includes their Urbanite XL wireless, but after listening to the BP2 I have to say that I have a new number one. Putting them on for the first time, I’ll admit that they feel heavier than many of the over-ear headphones I’ve tested as of late. The BP2 weighs in at 289 grams compared to the Beats Solo 3 Wireless which weighs in at 219 grams, the Urbanite XL Wireless is 300, Audio Technica ATH-WS99BT 275 grams and Bose’s Soundlink II at 195 grams. Though the Urbanites are almost 11 grams heavier, they feel lighter due to the size of the earcups and how they fit. This is all relative though because the BP2s are no slouch in the comfort department! Long periods of listening did not produce any wear fatigue at all. The band tension wasn’t too tight and the earcups fit just right, completely over my ears. Although, not heavily padded, the headband is padded enough to complement the fit of the headphones as the over-the-ear cups really hold things in place, taking much of the pressure off of the headband. Again, I was able to wear these 2 to 4 hours at a time, comfortably. Adding to that comfort is the fact that the cans slightly swivel on the vertical axis and swivel about 100 degrees horizontally.
The Backbeat PRO 2 supports aptX, but the device you’re streaming from must also support it. In case you’re using an iOS device, which won’t support aptX, Apple’s lossless AAC is also supported. Given that, I listened to .FLAC files on a Moto Z, Macbook Pro and on my iPad Pro 12.9 - it has a different audio chip in it than the 9” iPad Pro using the same files played through VLC media player on all devices. Audio quality from the iPad Pro seemed slightly more crisp, with the Pro seeming to drive them better (they felt “louder”) streaming my FLAC files over Bluetooth than what what was reproduced from the Moto Z which supports aptX. Of course, with aptX enabled on my 2015 Macbook Pro, the sound was divine. I listened to everything from Paul Simon, to Skrillex, to my 90’s Hip Hop list and some more current Hip Hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and all was handled with aplomb.
What sets the sound reproduction apart from my previous pick is the tone. The BP2’s are warmer without burying the highs. Where they can be a little too crisp from time-to-time with the Urbanites, the BP2’s feel a bit more natural. Depending on your ears and listening tastes that can be a good or bad thing. While these aren’t muddy by any stretch of the imagination, they are not neutral. What they are is well balanced with a tuning that favors those into a bass-rich listening environment. As I listened to my usual tracks which really show how well headphones handle the frequency range and highs in particular, I was hard pressed to find any glaring flaws. Down To The River To Pray really shows you how well headphones reproduce highs and the breadth of the soundscape they present. Paul Simon’s stellar audio engineering on Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes gives you a clear picture of a headphone’s ability to recreate the digital image just as the artist and engineers meant it to be. A strong pair of headphones will allow you to hear the faintest separation in instrumentation from right to left, front of the room to the back, the layers. Well crafted headphones allow you to close your eyes and immerse yourself in the layers of instrumentation and vocals. The Backbeat PRO 2’s were able to do all of these things but with one caveat for those listeners who are not inclined to the “urban tuning,” these 40mm drivers push the low end frequencies hard on some tracks. Listening to Kendrick Lamar’s The Blacker The Berry and Alright, the low end was pounding so hard from any device I listened to that a prolonged exposure would definitely produce fatigue. One of the things I’ve noticed about those two tracks off of his To Pimp A Butterfly album is that the sound production was quite tight, producing tracks with great clarity and very rich beats and basslines. Extended listening to tracks mixed like that would have me setting an EQ which backs the bass off a bit.
For me, the listening experience of the Backbeat PRO 2 Bluetooth headphones is right on the money. Bass tuned without sacrificing lyrical content. I know there are a lot of folks who listen to music for the instrumentality but couldn’t tell you the words to a song, whereas I’m one of those who actually listens to the lyrics, so having a pair of headphones which are able to give me a balanced sound which is able to produce punchy mids, bass with a healthy rumble and highs which are clear and don’t fight the other frequencies is of great importance when I’m recreationally listening to music, whether that’s passive or active listening. Monitoring sound in a video production or from a video editing standpoint would be a different story, but that is different listening all together.
As you’re looking at the Backbeat PRO 2 for possible purchase if you’re in the market for headphones, you might also look at the Special Edition version if having a hard case is important to you. For $50 more you’ll get that and they’ve thrown in NFC pairing to make it easier to connect ot your Bluetooth devices. Not that it is difficult to to do without it, to be honest. Other than that, for the amount of features you get, the level of comfort and the premium fit and finish, I’m going to have to put the Backbeat PRO 2 at the top of my list for headphones, both for sound, and for value in this case. Some of the competition in this range will cost you $50-100 more, while there are other headphones which sound just as good and also have solid Active Noise Cancellation, but will cost you upwards of $200 more.
Disclosure: Plantronics provided me with a demo unit for the purpose of this review.