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PC Mag “Best of the Year 2016”

Publish Date:

Monday, November 14, 2016 11:44 am PST

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PCMag

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Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2

$199.99
Plantronics packs balanced sound and active noise cancellation into a comfortable, wireless set of over-ear headphones. If you want better noise canceling, be prepared to pay twice as much.

The original BackBeat PRO$187.95 at Amazon headphones from Plantronics were ambitious, offering noise cancellation and Bluetooth connectivity almost two years before Bose would try it with the QuietComfort 35$349.00 at Amazon. They impressed us on a technical level, but the noise cancellation itself fell a bit short. The BackBeat PRO 2 fixes that issue, and improves everything else about the headphones in the process. They're less bulky, more comfortable, sound fantastic, and at $199.99, just over half the price of the QuietComfort 35. Bose is still the brand to beat when you want the best noise cancellation possible, but for value, comfort, and performance, the BackBeat PRO 2 is our Editors' Choice for affordably priced noise-canceling wireless headphones.

Design
The BackBeat PRO 2 is noticeably slimmer and sleeker than the original BackBeat PRO, and the brown color scheme is striking in a retro sense (a silver Special Edition is available for $249.99). The over-ear earcups are about two-thirds the size of the original, with the chunky control wheels on either side completely removed. Now playback and volume controls are built flush into the back of the left earcup, which holds a textured ring around a large, smooth circle around another, smaller circle. The ring adjusts volume, while the big circle can be clicked left or right to jump forward or rewind a track. The center of the circle is the play/pause button.

The headphones are very comfortable, offering a better fit than the BackBeat PRO thanks an oblong earpad design that more naturally covers most ears. The faux leather earpads are plush and well padded with just enough padding along the headband make the headphones easy to wear for long periods of time. The earcups also contain a generous suite of sensors to detect when you're wearing the headphones, automatically pausing your music when you take them off or answering calls when you put them on.

A small three-way toggle switch on the side of the left earcup controls active noise cancellation, which can be turned on, disabled, or put into an Open Listening mode that uses the noise cancellation microphones to pick up rather than process and block outside noises (more on this in the next section). The back of the right earcup holds a large, circular button for answering and ending calls. The left side of the right earcup features a power switch that can be held for a few seconds to put the headphones into pairing mode, plus a microphone mute button. A micro USB port sits at the bottom of the right earcup for charging with the included cable (a wall adapter isn't included), along with a 3.5mm port that lets you use the BackBeat PRO 2 as a pair of unpowered, wired headphones with the included 3.5mm cable. A set of five LEDs hidden on the back of the right earcup light up to show battery level, and display when the headphones are turned on, pairing, and connected.

Besides the two cables, the BackBeat PRO 2 comes with a zip-up cloth carrying case. The earcups pivot 90 degrees to let them fold flat and fit comfortably in the pouch.

Plantronics claims a 24-hour battery, and that certainly seems to be the case in testing. I've taken the headphones back and forth on my commute over three days, used them in our test lab, and come home to see all the power LEDs light up and the voice prompt in the headphones confirm that the battery level is still high. Depending on your listening habits (I mostly listen on my commute), you can probably get a week or more of use before needing to plug the headphones in again.

Noise Cancellation and Audio Performance
Active noise cancellation technology measures outside sounds with microphones mounted on the headphones and generates an inverse wave to effectively cancel out the noise and let you focus on your music. The technology was pioneered by Bose, and its noise cancellation in the QuietComfort 35 is currently the best you can get. The BackBeat PRO 2's noise cancellation isn't quite as powerful, but it's very capable at dampening street and subway noise. The QuietComfort 35 can effectively eliminate outside noise rather than just significantly dampen it, but it's also nearly twice as expensive as the BackBeat PRO 2.

The Open Listening mode turns on the mics normally used to pick up and dampen outside noise, and instead pipes it through the headphones. It's useful if you want to keep an ear out for announcements or other important auditory cues, but don't want to have to take the headphones off to listen. Simply turning off noise cancellation still leaves the passive noise dampening of the earpads, so the Open Listening mode is handy.

For audio, the headphones can handle deep bass with ease. On our bass test track, The Knife's "Silent Shout," they reproduce the low, rumbly bass synth notes and kick drum hits at maximum (and unsafe) volumes without a hint of distortion. I could practically feel the bass vibrating my ears as I listened, which I don't often experience with headphones.

he steady, eerie drumbeat in Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" gets plenty of prominence in the mix, but the atmospheric background noise and Lindsey Buckingham's breathy vocals are still clear and hold their own. Even when the USC Trojan Marching Band's cacophonous percussion builds up near the end of the song, the other elements can still be easily heard.

The classic hair metal sound of Cinderella's "Gypsy Road" also sounds clean and balanced through the BackBeat PRO 2. The upbeat electric guitar is crisp and full, and Tom Keifer's screeching vocals get plenty of edge. The bassline and drums remain present in the mix, but sit properly in the background to let the guitar and vocals take center stage.

The BackBeat PRO 2's clean, well-balanced sound comes through on Yes' "Roundabout" as well. The acoustic guitar plucks get enough high-end crispness to bring out the texture of the strings in the opening of the track, and the electric slap bass sounds full and energetic when it kicks in. Even when the vocals come into play, you can hear the acoustic strumming in the back of the mix, really bringing out its complexity.

Conclusions
The Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2 headphone are a major upgrade over the original. They're smaller, sleeker, and sound better, with improved noise cancellation technology. The Bose QuietComfort 35 still offer the best noise cancellation out there, but the BackBeat PRO 2 is a far better value, and stands as our Editors' Choice if you're looking for something more affordable. If you want to spend even less and don't need noise cancellation, the Sony MDR-XB650BT$98.00 at Amazon offer powerful bass and balanced sound for half the price.

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