Whether you’re looking for a quieter plane flight or to mute the in-laws, a pair of wireless headphones with noise cancellation matched with superb sound might be the solution you’re searching for. And when it comes to wireless, noise canceling headphones, the affordable and impressive Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 don’t miss a beat. Plantronics have been a leading manufacturer in wireless headsets and systems for decades. This know-how just pushed up the bar on what to expect from a $200 wireless headset.
One of the strongest selling points of the Backbeat Pro 2 – besides the audio, of course — is the active noise cancellation. Active noise cancellation refers to the technology of capturing ambient noise, inverting the signal and playing it back through the headphones to neutralize your auditory surroundings. My strongest take away with my time with the BackBeat Pro 2’s noise cancellation was the subtle variance in potency, depending on the source and type of noise. Steady or constant sounds coming from things like car engines and planes become dampened the point of isolation. But with sporadic sounds, like coffee house chatter, present a greater challenge for Plantronics’ noise cancellation algorithms. A coffee house will still be hushed, but not muted in the same way the ambient noise of something like an airplane cabin would be.
Taking a Tour of the Plantronic BackBeat Pro 2 Headphones
The Plantronic BackBeat Pro 2 is a blend of modern and classic design and materials. The headphones are constructed of materials ranging from leather on the ear pads and headband to pseudo-carbon fiber for the ear cups. The visual aesthetic might not be for some people, but it’s sleek enough to fit in anywhere from an airplane to the office. Thanks to the metal frame and high quality plastic, the BackBeat Pro 2’s build feels marvelous with no creaking. Adding to this bonfire of praise, Plantronics took comfort into account. The headband is padded and positioned well and the leather pads are like pillows for your ears. The pads are made of a memory-foam-like material that’s super supportive and malleable. However, I did find that it will slowly compress the longer you wear them. After about one-and-a-half to two hours, my ears began to come into contact with the driver grill.
Beyond noise cancellation, the BackBeat Pro 2 is packed with other handy features, like an “open mic mode” and smart sensors. The smart sensors detect if you’re wearing the headphones and pause your music automatically when you remove the headphones and resume when you put them back on again. Push the switch on the ear cup beyond noise cancellation off and you’ll activate open mic mode. Open mic mode uses the headset’s built in microphone to let ambient noise in and allow you to remain aware of your surroundings or answer an inquiry at the flick of a switch.
Running the headphones wireless over Bluetooth, your connectivity range is generous. I was able to walk around a 700-square-foot apartment at ease with no interference. As a test, I was even able to walk to the detached garage with only a handful of pops and static at the very apex of my trajectory
Stellar sound to isolate and immerse
As far as sound goes, the BackBeat Pro 2 headphones are stellar for their price, especially with the nest of additional features. The highs are smooth and present, yet they moderate themselves far before they reach a level of unpleasant sibilance. There’s definitely a roll off contrasting with other headphones, as guitar solos or vocals start to ascend into the higher frequencies. Cutting these more piercing frequencies help craft the BackBeat Pro 2 a sound that’s fun, yet not harsh on your ears.
The bass is exaggerated yet tightly controlled, with minimal distortion and most impressively, an incredibly tight seal preventing the lower frequencies from leaking into and muddling the mids. This impactful bass makes for an exciting gaming experience. Virtual gunshots, sword strikes and dog fights gain a magnified certain weight. These headphones obviously weren’t designed for gaming; Plantronics has a whole line-up of well regarded gaming headsets, but it’s still able to push out an immersive experience. There’s relatively nominal sound stage and the imaging is average, but if you’re on the go with just a single pair of headphones and want to play a few games, they’ll more than do the trick.
I’ve found that the middle frequencies, or the ‘mids’, can often be the hardest to explain. They don’t need to have the weight of the low end or bright detail of the highs to be good. Yet they’re not something to just be over looked as a filler between the bass and treble. They’re the fundamental glue holding the sound signature together. Plantronics evidently didn’t skip class during that lesson. Much attention is seemingly put into the mids as the far more marketable highs and lows. The mids have a strong presence, keeping them from being bled into or buried by the bass or treble. The BackBeat Pro 2 is not only able to represent a large range of acoustic instruments with detail but able to present vocals with a stunning clarity and presence.
The unfortunate weak point, I discovered, of the BackBeat Pro 2’s sound is its reproductions of rock guitars. Across dozens of tracks in my testing, rock and electric guitars come off as loose and out of focus. They’re big, but not tight, and hard to distinguish the details on. In songs like Jeff Williams’ “I’m the one” and “I Think I can” by The Pillows, you can hear the guitar front and center. But it’s really a struggle to pick up on each string and chord as the guitar just comes off as a big blob of sound. Fortunately, acoustic guitars and other instruments aren’t affected by this muddying in the water of the sound signature.
For me, the best showcase of the BackBeat Pro 2’s acoustic capabilities was with my time with downtempo music. The genre highlights the shining elements of the headphones. From the pounding bass beats and diversity of sampled instruments to the female vocalists. While the BackBeat Pro 2 will shine with almost anything you can throw at it (except maybe electric guitars), I highlight downtempo because not only does it highlight the driver’s strengths, it also works with functionality of the headphones as a whole. In my last review of a pair of noise canceling headphones, the Audio Technica ANC70, I also highlighted downtempo music. The chill waves of soothing music craft a unique experience when paired with noise cancellation. Plug in, flick on the noise cancellation, click play and close your eyes. With the comfy pillow like ear cups, ethereal music and auditory isolation I become engrossed and isolated deeper into audio than anything else has ever been able to for me.
My praise for the BackBeat Pro 2 doesn’t falter moving onto functionality. Outfitted throughout both of the ear cups are an array of buttons providing the full set of playback and connection controls at your fingertips. On the side of the left ear cup you have a full set of individual buttons for media skip forward, back and play. This is my ideal layout and I really love this implementation. Surrounding the individual playback buttons is a large textured plastic ring that you can easily turn with your finger to adjust the volume. When making adjustments you can see the current battery status via a four dot LED indicator just above the volume ring. Though I don’t have a personal hour metric for the battery life, using the BackBeat Pro 2 daily, I only needed to recharge every week to week and half. Spread across the back of both ear cups, the switch to turn on and off wireless and noise cancellation. On the bottom of the right ear cup you also have 3.5mm and micro USB ports for wired listening and to recharge the headphone’s battery.
If you’re looking to use these for making a call, you’ve also got a suite of controls. On the side of the right ear cup lies a large circular button for accepting phone calls and on the back of the ear cup below the on and off switch lies a mute microphone button. Oddly, the mic doesn’t connect over wired, but if you’re running wirelessly, the microphone detects instantly and was recognized by every recording and VOIP program I could test it with. The mic quality is average and perfectly fine for work or casual phone calls with enough vocal clarity for a listener to pick out all of your speech. If have even the smallest thought about using the microphone for hobbyist of professional recordings, use the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 as a pair of headphones and keep it that way. The mic pick ups large amounts of static and distortion and just isn’t suited for more than informal conversations and meetings.
With the BackBeat Pro 2 getting so many things right, the hand-full of head shaking decisions sting so much more. The most obvious of which is that if you’re out of juice or conserving battery and running the headset wired, the cable comes out the right ear cup. Why? Nearly all headphones have this cable run out of the left ear cup. I’m sure it was done for a reason, but really? It fights against years of muscle memory and means hooking or getting hooked on the cable is inevitable and because of the headphones angled cups it’s not like you can just wear the headphones backwards to fix the problem. Adding to the bizarre cable is the fact it terminates in a three poll connector on both ends, meaning the headphones cannot transfer the microphone in wired operation. In the end, the BackBeat Pro 2 is a pair of wireless headphones, and I expect most of people’s time with them will be spent in that mode. It’s just frustrating to see such an interesting oversight on such a well designed product.
And the BackBeat Pro 2 does get so many things right. Plantronics expertise in wireless audio shines through with a feature set and sound quality of a product costing far more than $200. If you’re searching for a pair of noise canceling headphones with stellar build quality and sound with a killer price tag, these might just be the perfect choice.
*Testing was conducted roughly 70% wireless and 30% wired. No amplification was required. The majority of testing was done through foobar2000 v1.3.14 with high quality MP3s (256kbs to 320kps) and a scattering of FLACs. I also did significant testing with mobile streaming services like Spotify and Soundcloud.