Altec Lansing BackBeat 900
Editors' note: The following review is for the Altec Lansing BackBeat 903. The BackBeat 903 and 906 headset models are identical. The products are differentiated by a Bluetooth 2.0 audio adapter that is included with the 906 model only.
Bluetooth headphones can be a confusing product to shop for. Some Bluetooth products come as single-ear headsets meant strictly for mobile phone calls, while others are only for music playback. The Altec Lansing BackBeat 903 ($99) offers the best of both worlds, combining music-grade stereo sound with the call-quality and features you'd expect from a high-end mobile phone headset. For an extra $30, a BackBeat 906 model is available with a Bluetooth 2.0 transmitter for adapting any audio source with a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack.
As a company, Altec Lansing is uniquely qualified to bridge the gap between Bluetooth headphones and voice-only headsets, drawing on over 70 years of audio experience and the Bluetooth expertise of the Plantronics Corporation, which acquired Altec Lansing in 2005.
The BackBeat 903 is comprised of two earpieces connected by an 8-inch, soft, rubber cable that runs behind the neck. Just like competing headsets from Motorola and Jaybird, each earpiece wraps up and over the back of the ear and is held in place with a slight pinching tension. The headphone fit is also helped by asymmetrically shaped silicone ear tips that hug the opening of the ear canal. All that pinching and hugging may sound uncomfortable, but the BackBeat 903 is actually one of the most lightweight and unobtrusive stereo headsets we've ever tested. They're not quite as invisible as the Sony Ericsson HBH-IS800, but at half the price, the difference is negligible. Also, unlike the Sony Ericsson headset, the ear tips on the BackBeat are deliberately designed to allow ambient sound to filter in, making them safer to use outdoors and eliminating the low-frequency rumble that can be heard while walking or jogging with in-ear headphones that seal the ear canal.
Just because the BackBeats aren't designed to seal your ears off from external sounds doesn't mean Altec Lansing spent any less time designing them for a snug fit. In fact, the BackBeat 903 is the first stereo headset we've seen that has earpieces that can both rotate and extend up and down for improved comfort.
As much as we appreciate all the design nuances of the BackBeat 903, there are a few elements that some people won't be thrilled with. For example, those with sensitive ears may dislike the way the BackBeat's earpieces wrap over the top of the ear and place two 0.25-inch thick slabs of rubber-coated plastic against their heads. Also, with no way to adjust the length of the cable running behind your neck, we were occasionally annoyed with the way it caught our shirt collar.
Altec Lansing conveniently packs all the controls for the BackBeat 903's call answering and music features onto the left and right earpieces. On the outside of the left earpiece, you'll find a single, relatively large call answer button placed parallel with the ear. A single press of the call answer button picks up incoming calls, while a longer press sends the call to voice mail.
Controls for playing and pausing music are placed similarly on the right earpiece, with an additional switch on the bottom edge of the earpiece for controlling volume and track skip. Holding down the BackBeat's play button for a few seconds engages a bass boost feature that emphasizes lower frequencies, but has a tendency to sound overdriven.
The BackBeat's music controls conform to the AVRCP Bluetooth standard, allowing the headset to communicate remotely with other AVRCP-compatible devices. Popular Bluetooth music devices such as the iPhone and iPod Touch, unfortunately, recognize only the play-and-pause features of AVRCP and are unresponsive to track skip controls using Bluetooth.
The Altec Lansing BackBeat 903 isn't the best-sounding, best-fitting, or best-looking stereo Bluetooth headset we've tested, but it strikes an impressive all-around balance. Calls sound natural and the microphone was sensitive and nuanced enough to prevent us from shouting like a lunatic. Music quality is about what you'd expect from a decent pair of $50 on-ear headphones: an open sound with good clarity, but lacking the dramatic lows offered by over-ear cans and sound-isolating in-ear headphones. But while the sealed-ear design of a headset such as the Sony Ericsson HBH-IS800 offers a more dramatic and private sound, the BackBeat 903 is a better choice for active users who prefer not to be shut off from the outside world.
As the closest competitor to the BackBeat 903 in terms of design, price, sound, and features, the Jaybird JB-200i distinguishes itself with a tapered earpiece design and a thinner cable connection that some may find more comfortable than the Altec Lansing design. When push comes to shove, however, we'll give the advantage to Altec Lansing for its more intuitive on-ear controls.
Altec Lansing rates the battery life of the BackBeat 903 at 7 hours of continuous music playback or talk time. A charging adapter with a lengthy cable and interchangeable prongs for foreign sockets is included.