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Review: Two lightweight headphones for music-loving travelers

Publish Date:

Thursday, September 10, 2015 11:18 am PDT


News Organization:

Computer World

Source URL:

First, let me admit: I haven't, until recently, been a user of headphones. I've always found them heavy, awkward and isolating; as a result, I've never enjoyed the close-up audio experience that they offer.

That, however, may change.

Two lightweight and relatively low-cost Bluetooth headphones recently hit the shelves: the BackBeat Sense from Plantronics and the Moto Pulse from Motorola. These offer on-ear (not over-the-ear) listening, along with built-in microphones for phone calls and ear cups that can be rotated flat for easy packing.

These are not complete equivalents. The BackBeat Sense lists for $180, three times the $60 price of the Moto Pulse. With that in mind, how do they compare?

BackBeat Sense

Plantronics is a company that is centered on sound; its portfolio includes high-end wired headphones for gaming, wireless audio gear for athletes and a variety of headsets for business. The BackBeat Sense is a lower-cost and lighter-weight version of the company's premium Bluetooth headphones, the BackBeat Pro.

The Sense is a very nicely designed device that is simple to use, even for non-audiophiles; it comes either in black with brown highlights, or white with tan highlights. The two ear cups are protected by plastic coverings over memory foam; the same materials are used for an elastic band that stretches under the flexible metal band holding the headphones together. The result is a very comfortable fit.

Plantronics has obviously learned that it's the little things that make a device worthwhile to the consumer. The left and right ear cups have large "L" and "R" letters picked out on the inside plastic, making it immediately obvious which goes on which ear. The volume control on the rim of the left ear cup is easy to find and moves circularly back and forth to raise or lower the volume. A small indented button on the outside of that ear cup lets you play or pause, while slightly raised symbols on either side of the button allow you to move forward or back a track.

The right ear cup, meanwhile, has the power switch on its rim, while a button at the outer center lets you make or stop a call. Hold it down, and you can activate Google Now (or whatever other voice assistant you use).

There are other features that I would classify under "unnecessary, but really handy." A small red button under the left ear cup activates an inline mic so you can hear external sounds (something that this paranoid New Yorker liked having). The device also includes sensors that can detect when you take the headphones off and put them on again, and will then pause or restart the audio.

According to Plantronics, the Sense will last up to 18 hours of wireless streaming and up to 21 days in standby. It also comes with something called Deep Sleep mode, which goes into effect if the headphones haven't been paired for more than 90 minutes and which is supposed to keep the batteries charged for up to 180 days.

The company says that the headphones have a range of about 330 feet from the audio source; I didn't test it that far, but it did very well walking around my house and leaving my phone in place.

The Sense also comes with a cable for non-Bluetooth audio devices and a travel bag.

Audio quality

The Sense may not offer the same level of audio quality as higher-end devices, but what I heard, I liked. I tried it with a range of musical types; the sound was clean and distinct, with a great deal of detail in the quiet solos and very satisfactory (if not fabulous) basses in the heavy rock selection. For on-ear headphones, they perform very nicely indeed. There was some distortion at higher volumes, but not much.

One thing: I did notice that when it reconnected to at least one of my devices, there was often about 10 seconds of slight skipping in the audio before the connection was complete. There was no trouble with the sound after that.

Unlike its BackBeat Pro sibling, the Sense doesn't come with active noise cancellation, so you're going to get a little more background noise during phone calls. When I took a phone call, my caller's voice was a bit tinny and she reported the same, but it was certainly adequate to hold a fairly lengthy conversation without any strain at either end.

Bottom line

The $180 BackBeat Sense comes with a wide variety of easy-to-access features; I also found it a very comfortable fit and was quite happy with the sound quality. If you're not an audiophile but simply want a good, reasonably priced set of on-ear headphones for your cubicle or travel, the BackBeat Sense is definitely something I'd consider.

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