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Plantronics BackBeat Sense SE review: A lightweight, well-designed wireless headphone that's splashproof

This special-edition Plantronics BackBeat Sense adds water resistance to one of the best on-ear Bluetooth headphones currently available.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

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Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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Aside from the price, what's the difference between Plantronics' standard BackBeat Sense wireless Bluetooth headphone ($180; £130; AU$249) and the BackBeat Sense SE "Special Edition" ($200; £140; AU$280)? Two words: water resistance. The SE has a special "nano coating" technology that makes it water-resistant, which might come in handy if you're using these headphones outside, near the pool or just while you're sweating in the gym.

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8.4

Plantronics BackBeat Sense SE

The Good

The water-resistant Plantronics BackBeat Sense SE is a lightweight, comfortable on-ear wireless headphone that delivers very good sound for Bluetooth. It senses when you have it on or off, and it works well as a headset for making calls. Battery life is good, and the included carrying case is nice.

The Bad

Its low-end may not be strong enough for those looking for fatter bass.

The Bottom Line

The well-designed Plantronics BackBeat Sense SE adds water resistance to one of the best on-ear wireless Bluetooth headphones in its price class.

Note, however, that water-resistant does not mean water-proof. Don't go tossing these in a lake and expect them to survive.

As I said in my review of the standard BackBeat Sense -- which comes in black or white as opposed to the tan color of the SE -- this headphone is lightweight (just 4.9 ounces or 140 grams) and very comfortable for an on-ear headphone, with a "self-adjusting" headband with a metal frame and memory-foam 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.

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The BackBeat SE has a nano coating that makes it water-resistant.

David Carnoy/CNET

Since this model is sweat-resistant I tried running with it and it stayed on my head fairly securely. I can't fully recommend it as a full-on "sport" headphone, but it will certainly work fine for joggers and fast walkers, as well as general gym use.

Some people have complained that the tight seal of the earcups offers such good noise isolation that you can hear your footsteps while walking. That's true -- you can hear your footfalls -- but that's par for the course and a small downside to many headphones that do a good job passively sealing out noise.

I like the feature set. As with the Parrot Zik and Zik 2.0, the Sense SE 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 them off your ears and resumes playback when you put them on.

(Yes, you can deactivate it. To quote the manual: "To disable the sensors, hold both the Mute and Call buttons for more than 6 seconds until the LED flashes purple then red. Repeat to reactivate; the LED flashes purple then blue.")

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I liked the case, but if it was a little roomier the headphones would slide in more easily.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The headphone uses Bluetooth 4.0, 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 (100 meters) instead of the standard 33 feet (10 meters) if you have a Class 1 Bluetooth device, and most recent smartphones are Class 1 devices. Unless you're in an open field, however, you should expect to get more like 50 to 60 feet.

As you might expect from a Plantronics product, the Sense SE 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 that pauses your music, letting 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.

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I walked in the rain with them without any problem.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I go into more depth on performance in my review of the standard BackBeat Sense, but I'll sum up the sound quality as very good for Bluetooth. You can also listen to the headphone in wired mode, and it does sound a little better.

This is pretty well-balanced headphone with ample but not fat bass and good clarity, which should work well with a variety of music genres. Except for being a touch bright and a tad harsh in the treble, it's a fairly natural sounding headphone that plays loud at its highest volume but sounds better when it's restrained to about 75 percent volume. I wouldn't call it airy, but it's reasonably open for an on-ear model.

Battery life, meanwhile, is rated at 18 hours of music playback, which is quite solid for an on-ear Bluetooth headphone.

A great headphone that's now splashable

Again, for a deeper dive, check out our review of the standard BackBeat Sense. The big question about this special-edition model is whether it's worth paying the extra dough for the water resistance. If you're planning to use it at the gym or simply want to wear it in the rain without worrying about it, it probably is, especially if the price delta is $20. The only problem is that I've seen the standard BackBeat Sense cost $40-$50 less online. Hopefully this SE version also see a small discount to make the choice easier.

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8.4

Plantronics BackBeat Sense SE

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Sound 8Value 8