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Striking the Right Cords: 4 Great Wireless Headphones of 2015

Publish Date:

Monday, December 28, 2015 9:00 am PST


News Organization:

SF Weekly

Source URL:

Plantronics BackBeat SENSE ($199) and BackBeat PRO+ ($299)
PROS: Smart features conserve already lengthy battery life; call quality is top-notch; audio response is lively and easy to slip on and off.
CONS: PRO+ is on the bulky side; SENSE sacrifices some pump for portability; using the highest fidelity Bluetooth performance can take up a USB port.

When it comes to properly implemented Bluetooth, Plantronics is no stranger to the market. Well-known for office and mobile headsets, the company has aggressively expanded into the premium headphone segment and released the BackBeat SENSE and BackBeat Pro+ this year. 

The BackBeat SENSE is a lightweight 140g on-ear headphone with an unobtrusive look that fits as easily in a cafe as a cubicle. It also has the ability to lay flat for transportation. Its easily adjusting band and leatherette-lined memory foam earpads make it comfortable for any head size. The company promises and almost delivers an 18-hour battery life (charged for 2.5 hours via microUSB), and the headphones contains proximity sensors that pause playback when it detects the set has been removed from your head. There are controls on the exterior of the cups for skip/pause/play, volume, call answering/hangup, as well as activating an OpenMic feature that allows you to hear (at a slightly augmented level even) what’s around you without taking off the headphones.

Tested for Bluetooth 4.0 connection stability and clarity, the SENSE maintained a strong signal and great call quality with iPhone 6S+, as well as with a MacBook Air. And as for music, the response from the 32mm drivers is bright and punchy without being harsh. It doesn’t have the most power, but it maintains good poise. It also offers the option to connect via AptX, a codec that delivers higher fidelity from devices that support it.

The SENSE is definitely geared toward an on-the-move groove, while its big brother the 340g PRO+ offers more of everything in a package more suited for a rooted workstation. A much larger, over-ear set of headphones, the PRO+ has all the smart and calling features of the SENSE, while taking advantage of a larger footprint to pack in more battery life (24 hours, still charged by microUSB), more range, NFC pairing, expanded physical controls (a volume dial rounding the right earcup, for example), a selectable active noise canceling feature, as well as substantially more bass. 

The PRO+ is so named because it builds on a previous model and adds a dedicated Bluetooth USB dongle to the package. Already paired with the headphone out of the box, the USB nub can be plugged into any computer, assuring a more robust connection with negligible latency. This Class 1 connection extends to the headphone’s signal up to 330 feet and adds AptX functionality to any laptop, desktop, etc., allowing more audio bandwidth and therefore better, near-CD fidelity for those listening to downloads or discs. The dongle isn’t restricted to the PRO+ (it will work with the SENSE), and the PRO+ still connects to any phone, tablet, etc., without the need for the additional hardware. 

Audio performance is crisp and lively, though somewhat boomy at times. There is drive without excessive force, meaning the earcups themselves offer a fair amount of passive noise reduction. Turning on the active noise cancellation narrows and tames the moments when low-end threatens any imbalance. There is a hint of “telephone” effect on the sound, as it’s obviously being compressed through a circuit, but it doesn’t introduce any distracting artifacts. And, hey, it’s optional. If you’re fighting a noisy office, flight, etc., the PRO+ cuts through the crosstalk.

As a just-in-case measure, both the SENSE and PRO+ can be used with a cord. However, unlike the Sennheiser Momentum, Plantronics headphones obviously took consideration of wireless first, and they sound better powered and paired than when they are plugged in.

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