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Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 review: The most bang for the buck wireless noise canceling headphones

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Saturday, December 3, 2016 10:46 am PST

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The market for wireless noise canceling headphones has been booming over the past couple of years. One day, we were struggling to find one pair of headphones that offered both Bluetooth connectivity and noise cancelation, the next there were more choices than we could fit in one Amazon result page. Plantronics, Bose, Sony, Sennheiser, B&O, and more brands are coming on the market with their own take on the matter and the options can be a little confusing for everyone.

 

Do you go for the trusted noise cancelation of the $349 Bose Quiet Comfort 35, pay the extravagant sum of $499 to get a new Beoplay H9, believe the hype over the $399 Sony MDR1000X, or prefer the well-known $350-400 Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 or its newer offering, the $399 Sennheiser PXC 550? Oh... but what if you couldn't afford this kind of expensive gear? Well, there's the more realistic Plantronics BackBeat Pro, which hovers around $155 nowadays, but if you can muster the added dough, the newer $200 Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 are even better in a few key areas.

 

Hardware design and controls

Plantronics' packaging for the BackBeat Pro 2 is more conservative than the extravagant display of the Pro + that I have previously reviewed (which are just the regular Pro with a USB Bluetooth dongle for easy connectivity). Inside the box, you'll find the headphones, a 3.5mm cable to connect to any device, a MicroUSB charging cable, the carry pouch which is made from soft fabric on the inside and has a separate compartment to hold the cables, and some documentation.

 

The first thing you'll notice about the BackBeat Pro 2 is that they look and feel really premium. The black and dark brown mix give them an air of class, the pseudo-wooden finish on the controls is just gorgeous, and the embossed pattern around the earcups makes you forget it's just plastic. I was impressed before I even held them, and then when I did, I felt a smoother, less plasticky, less bulky pair of headphones than the previous generation Pro.

 

The controls are found on the outer side of the earcups. The right one has one huge call button in the middle. It's that wooden circle that you wouldn't think is a button until you press it. Around it, the black plastic is shiny and collects a lot of dust particles. I doesn't seem like it serves a purpose at first, but toward the bottom is where the LED lights for status and battery shine from.

 

The left earcup (pictured below on the left) houses the more useful controls. Here, the wooden part is divided into one small round button for Play/Pause and one larger that has FF and RW on either side. These are very difficult to differentiate at first since all three are flat, but with time you learn to aim your finger at the middle to pause and then you start feeling for the two little raised nubs on the side of the FF and RW buttons (enlarge the pic to see them) to tap just inside them. Yeah, I know, it doesn't sound intuitive and it really isn't. I think that Plantronics lost a few points in the intuitiveness department by over-simplifying the design and going for form over function.

 

Around the wooden center, the black ring is matte here and rugged with little dots rising from it. This is the volume wheel, which you twist forward to raise the volume or backward to lower it. When you turn it, you can feel it hitting a physical limit so if you just want to change one level, you release it. If you want to raise or lower the volume by several levels, you have to keep holding it at the limit until you hear, "Volume maximum," or "Volume minimum." It's another design choice you'll have to get used to at first until you have a feel for it and you can control the volume like you want.

 

The same left earcup has a toggle with three positions: middle for normal listening, low (white color shows on the top) for Active Noise cancelation on, and high (red color shows on the bottom) for activating OpenMic where you can hear your surroundings without taking off the headphones.

 

The right earcup has another similar toggle for power (low = off, middle = on, high = Bluetooth pairing) and a Mute button to turn off the mic while on a call.

 

The right earcup also houses the connectivity ports for the wired 3.5mm plug and the MicroUSB charger. And as I mentioned before, its glossy black plastic is where the LED lights shine from. There are five of them and when they all light up blue, you know the headphones are fully charged.

 

Like all headphones, the Pro 2's headband is customizable and can be extended on both sides. There are 10 levels of extension on either side, so it should fit most head sizes. With all headphones I've tried, I have never needed to extend the headband and the collapsed size always fit me, but in this case, I find that I have to go just a little bit larger to place the Pro 2 comfortably on my head. So if you have a tiny head and usually find that most headphones never fit you, this one could probably work because it seems to be compatible with even smaller heads.

 

The earcups rotate 90 degrees around the headband in one direction only, so you can store them flat in their carry pouch or, a little awkwardly, around your neck. The headband, however, is one of the reasons I love the Pro 2. It's very improved over the Pro, with softer, more premium feeling leather and cushiony brown suede on the inside. It's flexible, comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and doesn't exert pressure around the ears and head like the Pro did.

 

Another improvement on the ergonomic front are the earcups. Instead of the big bulky round earcups that never seemed to fit the full length of any ear really, the new oval earcups are longer, easily encircle my entire ear, and are tilted toward the front for better fit when you're wearing them.

 

They're also embossed with really huge L and R letters that I could see even in near total darkness. Some might find them tacky, I just think they're useful when needed and just invisible when you're wearing the headphones. The leather around each earcup is soft and cushiony too — none of the overstuffed effect seen on the first-gen Pro.

 

Size and comfort comparison

Would you just take a look at the image below of the BackBeat Pro+'s earcup (again, this is the same design as the Pro) and the Pro 2's earcup? You should clearly see which one wins the battle of ergonomics.

 

Where the Pro 2 loses, however, is in its compact-ability, or lack thereof. The only way to carry it is to fold it flat and keep it in that big pouch, whereas the Bose QC35 collapses against itself to become smaller and more travel-friendly. It even comes with a hard carry case. The BackBeat Pro 2 only has a fabric sleeve, unless you buy the Special Edition which comes with a rigid travel case.

 

In terms of size, weight, and comfort, the Bose QC35 remains unrivaled for me (check my full review here). It's the lightest of the bunch and it converted me to an over-ear headphones lover. I can easily wear it several hours without the slightest discomfort.

 

Among the headphones I now have and those I've tried before, the Pro 2 is the only one that comes close to the Bose QC35. It feels more substantial on your head, it grips it more solidly, but it's not uncomfortable at all. The headband is soft and holds my head at just the right angle while the earcups tilt and hug my ear. I have successfully worn the Pro 2 a couple of hours straight without wanting to rip them off my head, and that's a win in my book.

 

Considering that the older Pro+ were so heavy and so bulky for me, so tight around my head, and so uncomfortable around my ear, that I couldn't keep them on more than 10 minutes at a time, the Pro 2 are a significant improvement. Honestly, they feel like a completely different product, despite the insides and other features remaining mostly the same.

 

Performance, noise canceling, and sound quality

I've been using the BackBeat Pro 2 for several weeks now and only needed to charge them once. That 24 hours battery life is just amazing, even though the battery is sadly non-removable. But that's a trade-off a lot of brands are making lately, so I can't blame Plantronics for it.

 

The Bluetooth range on the Pro 2 seems similar to the older Pro+ and the Bose QC35. It's great when there are no obstacles and a direct line-of-sight with my phone or computer, but I can only put one wall between them. Two walls become a struggle, so I often find myself with cut-off sound while walking around the pharmacy's stock room with my devices left on my desk in the main store. Bluetooth is really awesome, until is isn't.

 

The "bonuses" Plantronics brings to the table with its headphones are always a joy in everyday use. The smart sensor is so intuitive that it ruins you. Once you get accustomed to it then go back to using headphones without any sensor, you start wondering why your music keeps playing when you remove said headset and why it doesn't resume when you put it back on. Oh, you mean I have to press a button?! What is this, 2010? The OpenMic feature is another option when you want to hear a couple of words without pausing and/or removing the headset. Flip the toggle and your music pauses then the mics kick in to bring in every word and sound around you. Flip it back and the mics turn off then your music resumes.

 

Active Noise Cancelation, however, is one area where Plantronics needs to improve further. The Pro 2 seem no different to me than the older Pro+. If music is playing, you're not likely to hear anything going around you with ANC on, but if there's no music, you can still hear things, even constant noises. I subjected the Pro 2 to the same test as the Bose QC35: the UPS power system's hum in my pharmacy. It blocked out about 50% of the sound, but I could still hear it. By comparison, the Bose reduces the hum to a whisper, barely leaving 10-20% of the sound.

 

As for the sound quality, if you've tried any Plantronics headphones before, or read any review on a headset from the company, you know what to expect. The sound profile here is tuned just a little toward bass, but not to a point where it changes the song's original feel. There's definitely more oomph and vibrance than the tamer sound profile of the Bose QC35, but it doesn't come at the expense of distortion or muddied notes. Low frequencies stay distinct, even at high volume, and high frequencies don't shriek out uncontrollably. Vocals are clear and enjoyable, and if you listen to podcasts, you'll start hearing even the smallest idiosyncrasies in the recording equipment if they exist.

 

All in all, I find the Pro 2's sound more lively than the Bose QC35 and on par with the Pro+, which means that it's likely still less bass-y and vibrant than some other brands. But at least it's more realistic and less artificially-enhanced.

 

Great value for the price

When I saw the features and design of the BackBeat Pro 2, I had expected Plantronics to slap a $250-300 price tag on them, just like the Pro+'s $300 MSRP. But at $200, it's seriously slaughtering the competition. With ANC, Bluetooth with multipoint technology, aptX support, OpenMic, smart sensor, and a 24-hour battery life, the Pro 2 has one of the largest spec sheets of any headphone in this class and one of the smallest price tags among renowned brands.

 

Sure, it's a little heavier and less compact than the Bose QC35, and the noise cancelation is less effective if you don't turn on music to help mask the remaining sound, but it's also about half the price of the QC35. Not to mention the other competitors i mentioned above that are even more expensive at $399 and $499. Do they have enough to justify double and more the price of the BackBeat Pro 2? That's your decision to make, but I am skeptical. I'd be happier buying the Pro 2 now, saving $100-300 over the competition, then getting the Pro 3 or 4 in a couple of years. That's literally more baaaang bang bang-bang baaaaang for my buck.

 

Even the original BackBeat Pro, which I've been recommending as the best value-for-money wireless ANC over-ear headset is dethroned. The Pro 2 is so much more comfortable and looks and feels so much better that it's worth paying the $45 price difference to get it instead.

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