Plantronics BackBeat Sense review: An on-ear wireless Bluetooth headphone done right

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The Good The Plantronics BackBeat Sense is a lightweight, comfortable on-ear wireless headphone that delivers very good sound for Bluetooth and has a strong feature set, with dual microphones and a sensor that knows when you have the headphones on or off. Battery life is good and the headphone works well as a headset for making calls. The included carrying case is nice.

The Bad Low-end may not be strong enough for those looking for fatter bass.

The Bottom Line At less than $200 USD, the well-designed Plantronics BackBeat Sense is one of the best on-ear wireless Bluetooth headphones currently available.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Sound 8
  • Value 8

Plantronics isn't going to fool anybody into thinking it's Beats, but over the years the company -- best known for monaural headsets of the wireless and business/call center variety -- has been creeping into mainstream consumer headphones market and putting out some very respectable products, particularly in the Bluetooth realm.

We gave high marks to the BackBeat Fit , a wireless sports headphone, and also liked the BackBeat Pro , a full-size Bluetooth headphone that combines wireless connectivity with active noise cancellation. New for 2015 we get the $180 (£130) BackBeat Sense, a more mobile friendly on-ear Bluetooth headphone that comes in black or white and may very well be the best of the bunch. A special-edition BackBeat SE, which adds water-resistance, is available for $20 or £10 more.

For starters, it's lightweight (140 grams or 4.9 ounces) and very comfortable for an on-ear headphone, with a "self-adjusting" headband (the frame is metal) and memory-foam-equipped earpads that are clearly labeled "L" and "R." I found it to be as comfortable as the Bose Soundlink On-Ear Bluetooth (which, to be clear, is high praise).

The headphones comes in black or white. Sarah Tew/CNET

I also like the feature set. As with the Parrot Zik and Zik 2.0 , the Sense has a sensor that knows when you have the headphones on and when you have them off. It pauses your music as soon as you take the headphones off your ears and resumes playback when you put them on. (There is a way to disable the sensor, but it requires calling customer support to get a code -- a series of button pushes -- to turn it off.)

The headphone uses Bluetooth v4.0, and you can simultaneously connect two Bluetooth source devices and switch back and forth between them. The Sense also claims extended wireless range -- up to 330 feet/100m instead of the standard 33 feet/10m if you have a Class 1 Bluetooth device (most recent smartphones are Class 1 devices).

The control buttons are well placed and the headphones are easy to operate. Sarah Tew/CNET

However, to get that kind of range you'd have to be in an open field. In a more typical indoor environment, even an "open" office like CNET's in New York, where you have obstacles to contend with, you get some extended range, but it's more like 50-60 feet, not 330. Still, that means it should work fine in any reasonably sized room or backyard.

Those who have a phone that supports AptX will be happy to note that the BackBeat Sense is AptX-enabled, which is supposed to allow for better sounding audio streaming over Bluetooth (it's debatable much how it actually helps, but some people swear it does).

As you'd might expect from a Plantronics product, the Sense also works as a headset and works well. It's equipped with dual microphones so you can hear your voice in the headphones when you're talking. You can also press a button on the bottom of the left earcup and your music pauses and you hear the world outside your headphones through the microphone. This might come in handy if you want people to think you're listening to your headphones when, in fact, you're listening to them.

There are some other buttons -- a call answer/end button on the outside of the right earcup and a pause/play button along with track back/advance buttons on the outside of the left earcup. You adjust the volume using a ring control on the left earcup. In all, button placement has been well thought-out and it doesn't take long to figure out how to operate everything.

It's worth mentioning that I also connected the Sense to an Apple iMac via Bluetooth and I had no trouble with the connection but I couldn't advance tracks forward or back using the controls on the headphone (pause/play worked fine).

Press the little red button on the left earcup and you can hear the outside world through the headphones. Sarah Tew/CNET

The only thing missing as far as features go is noise cancellation (NC). It's not something everyone wants (like Bluetooth, NC tends to have an adverse effect on sound quality), but if you are looking for it, Plantronics does make the $300/AU$390 Voyager Focus UC, which is more of a business-class headphone with a boom microphone and PC connectivity through a USB dongle. It looks a lot like this model and should sound very similar but adds noise cancellation.