Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2 Review

I’ve always associated Plantronics with business-grade headsets, the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a call centre. Apparently they do consumer headphones too, and they aren’t afraid to show off their expertise in features, audio quality and functionality.

Plantronics make headsets, headphones and earphones which appear to many to be uniformly ugly, but if you can look past the styling you’ll find easily some of the best and most feature packed products with relatively moderate prices.

The Backbeat Pro 2 are the successor to the Backbeat Pro, a similarly feature-packed but unfortunately comically oversized set of over-ear, wireless headphones which were also lauded for their decent sound quality, solid battery life and comprehensive features while also panned for their confused design.

The Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2 are among the best bluetooth headphones on the market and sport a diverse range of features of varying utility. These include active noise cancelling, pass-through microphone audio, dual device support and even the interesting but (in my experience) unreliable “smart sensors” that pause your music when you take them off. They’re good. I’d recommend them. But let’s break them down in detail;

Noise Cancelling

The noise cancelling is excellent, and the difference in external noise level can be easily identified when switching ANC on and off
even without any music playing. Just make sure you look both ways before crossing a road.

In our warehouse, with the laser-cutter extraction fans running full blast and various other loud and regular noise patterns a little rain relaxation track on Spotify, coupled with the noise cancellation, absolutely transformed the soundscape from ear-assaulting noise to gentle splashing rain.

In the few days I’ve been testing the Backbeat Pro 2 I haven’t turned the noise cancelling off and while it uses extra battery life, they still run for a good 3 days before needing a charge. I find that in the office they’re handy for taking the edge off the bass of whatever music happens to be playing, and they do a really stunning job of this. In fact low frequencies seem most affected by the ANC (presumably because a long, slow waveform is easier to catch, invert and cancel than a shorter, faster one), and in general repetitive sounds such a fan noise, hiss or rumble are most easily cancelled. Transient sounds such as speech, sudden loud noises or even typing on a loud computer keyboard are unaffected, generally whatever music you’re playing will drown these out.

On an almost 4 hour train journey the Backbeat Pro 2 were nirvana. Even with no music playing at all, or a podcast playing at relatively low volume, they cut out most of the deep rumble of the train leaving only the occasional squeals of the wheels and other less low-pitched sounds. They certainly don’t eliminate all repetitive noise, but they eliminate enough to make a really profound effect on your comfort level on long journeys. For me this is tremendously useful, since I’m often travelling late at night and am pretty tired so anything I can do to take the edge off the journey is a great quality of life improvement. I clearly need some black-out eye patches next because sunglasses are both uncomfortable- although the Backbeat Pro 2 don’t dig them into my head as much as other headphones have- and fairly ineffective at cutting out the garish train lighting.

I tried both switching the ANC on/off while in the office and on a train and removing the ear cup temporarily from my ear to get a feel for just how much noise they cut out. It’s significant, and easy to tell the difference. They are definitely head and shoulders better than the Sennheiser PXC350s I used some 10 years ago.

Smart Sensors

The smart sensors are temperamental. They seem like a great idea in principle, and are executed quite well. Taking off the headphones will, most of the time, quickly fade out and pause your music. Putting them back on will, most of the time, resume it. You’ll notice I said “most of the time”. In my experience the smart sensors aren’t completely reliable and will often fail to resume the music when the headphones are put back on, and sometimes fail to pause it. In some cases the sensors will override the play/pause button which can be a hassle when you actually wanted your music to pause or didn’t want it to pause at all. It seems the sensor is a proximity sensor in the right ear cup, and sometimes adjusting or squeezing the headphones will trigger a resume. Holding your hand over the ear cup will do so also.

Fortunately the smart sensors feature can be turned off, so if it doesn’t work for you and gets frustrating you can toggle it off and stick to manually playing/pausing. Easy! I’ve resorted to turning them off for now, although I did appreciate them when they worked since it saves an extra step when quickly whipping off the headphones to talk to someone.

Talk-through / Open Listening Mode

I’ve seen this feature on noise cancelling headphones before, and it always baffled me somewhat. The general gist is that you can flick a switch to connect the built-in microphone directly to the headphones so that you can clearly hear what’s going on without taking your headphones off. Personally, I’d rather just take them off since I’d consider it somewhat socially awkward to hold a conversation with – for example – a train conductor through a pair of obnoxious headphones. The feature works, though, but is slightly disconcerting- the microphone is in the right ear cup, and the resulting input audio is split out to stereo equally on each channel. This has the effect of amplifying things on your right side into your left ear which, for me, is doubly disconcerting since I’m deaf in my right ear (should I even be reviewing headphones? :D).

One use I’ve found for this feature is train announcements. There’s no rudeness involved in keeping your headphones on when listening to them, and being able to quickly switch open-listening mode on when the announcement kicks in is pretty handy. I’m a seasoned train traveler at this point, so most of the time they’re not telling me anything I don’t know. I’ll know I missed something soon enough if I end up sitting on a completely empty train and it’s *not* at the end of the route!

The open listening feature is on a shared switch with noise cancelling, meaning these features are mutually exclusive (for what I’d hope are totally obvious reasons). The middle of the switch turns both features off, pushing it up turns on “Open Mic” and pushing it down turns on “Noise Cancelling”. The switch locks in the up and down position firmly, but doesn’t hit the middle quite so well. More often than not I found myself switching “Open Mic” on as I tried to turn off “Noise Cancelling” and it takes a little practise to get used to the switch.

Audio / Microphone Quality

Like my Marshall headphones the Backbeat Pro 2 have built-in microphones for voice conversations (Facetime, regular phone calls, etc), they do not use a microphone boom or have any facility to connect one which always leaves me concerned that voice pick-up and environmental noise rejection will be poor. In reality the voice pick-up is astonishingly loud and clear- recording my voice into Garageband on the iPhone resulted in a loud, punchy result that certainly left my voice clear and recognisable. It does, however, have only moderate noise rejection; background conversations and noises were audible over the top of my recording. You should be fine fielding a call in most environments, but if you’re next to a busy road, or sitting in a noisy office you might want to go elsewhere. I talked to Plantronics about this after recording the video below, and they suggested that their Voyager 8200 UC fared much better in this department- aimed at allowing you to field professional conversations in a busy office. This microphone quality, plus a couple of other details, is what separates Plantronics consumer headset from their somewhat more expensive professional alternative.

Audio quality is great, with loud punchy sound that’s more than sufficient for me and much clearer than other Bluetooth headphones I’ve tried to date. It’s let down somewhat by being quite heavy on the bass, but apps like Spotify will let you tweak EQ this bias away if it bothers you (if you go into Library -> Settings -> Playback -> Equalizer and just hit “Bass Reducer” it sweeps the bass right away in a pinch). Me? I listen to plenty of music that – uuh – doesn’t exactly suffer from a bass boost. Still starting with “Bass Reducer” in Spotify and lifting the higher frequencies then moving the whole curve up a notch makes for some *really* crunchy sounding guitars (uh Twelve Foot Ninja and Slipknot if you must know)- at this point I’m getting super subjective though. I find “Spoken Word” in Spotify’s EQ gets pretty close to what I like, and a little tweak to level out 15KHz with 2.4KHz tops it off. This tweak to the “Spoken Word” EQ also lifts Post Malone’s vocals out of the bass and does wonders for progressive rock and metal. Overall these headphones sound good, and if you’re a Spotify mobile user and put in a little work to tweak them to your taste you’ll find them excellent.

A 3.5mm cable- supplied- will allow you to connect the headphones directly to your phone when they’re powered off or dead. It’s just a TRS jack, however, with no connection for the microphone so while you’ll retain music listening functionality you’ll need a 3.5mm TRRS to TRS with an inline microphone to get voice back. Incidentally the cord for their predecessor – the Backbeat Pro – was TRRS to TRS with an inline remote and, presumably, microphone support. I’m guessing this was dropped due to cost reasons, since – well – why have fancy wires for your *wireless* headphones? Plantronics themselves confirm as much- it’s an extremely niche use case in light of their excellent battery life.

Using with a PC / Multi pairing

Naturally I wanted to use the multi-pairing functionality to hook the Backbeat Pro 2 to my PC and iPhone simultaneously. However Bluetooth seems to have some drawbacks that make the Backbeat an unsuitable replacement to my wired Razer headset for gaming.

When connected to my PC the Backbeat Pro 2 will appear as two separate audio devices; “PLT BB PRO 2 Stereo” and “PLT BB PRO 2 Hands-free”. Either one or the other of these audio devices can be used. The “Stereo” device has high quality, stereo audio with no microphone support, while the “Hands-free” device has noticeably lower quality audio but with microphone.

Because of this mutually exclusive setup on the sound/microphone it’s very easy to accidentally have an app grab the “PLT BB PRO 2 Hands-free” device which silently renders “PLT BB PRO 2 Stereo” unusable. You can still select “PLT BB PRO 2 Stereo” as an output device, but there will be no sound until you stop whatever application you have running from using the microphone. In my case it was TeamSpeak, and switching from “Default” to “(Microphone) Realtek High Definition Audio” instantly fixed my sound output woes.

With the sound working, the volume controls would raise/lower the volume in Windows 10 and the transport controls would play pause and skip back/next in apps like Spotify Desktop even with the window in the background, but not in web apps like YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.

When connecting the second device an audible notification “Phone 2 Connected”. If I connect on my iPhone, it’ll glom onto the device and disable audio from my PC.

I also had no problem pairing them with an XPS 13 running Ubuntu 18.04, they maintained the original pairing with my iPhone and paired to the computer no problem. Presumably whatever slot is not presently connected is what’s used to pair a second device- using them with my laptop again would likely require re-pairing.

Wireless range is fantastic, and I’ve left a PC upstairs playing audio (a podcast edit I needed to do) while walking all around the house – including outdoors – and listening to it without disconnecting. When leaving the office for lunch I also get well across the road and down the opposite street before getting a “Phone 2 Disconnected” message indicating my laptop had gone out of range. Likely audio would have crackled out to nothing before then, but that’s a pretty good range.

Aesthetics

I’ve probably said enough, but I think Plantronics could do better in this department. The Backbeat Pro 2 headphones sport a baffling array of textures, colours and materials. They share much of their aesthetic with Plantronic’s business-focussed headset the Voyager 8200 UC which slightly refines the look. Plantronics have a blog post that explains their design rationale and attributes the metal grille as a nod toward more premium headsets with the mix of wood, metal and plastic attempting to be evocative of a car interior. I appreciate where they were going, but feel they’ve fallen slightly short. Of course- it’s just my opinion and design is highly subjective but this sentiment is echoed by others who’ve tested the Backbeat Pro 2.

The Backbeat Pro 2 stand in stark contrast to the Razer Kraken Pro V2 – which I praised for their uniform, colour-keyed design across a multitude of materials – and I’d love to see a Pro 3 drop the fake wood finish on the ear cups, colour key the metal grille to the colour of the headphones (or perhaps keep it steel but use that same colour elsewhere), remove the textured finish from around the ear cups and bring the number of material finishes and colours down to two at a maximum. A really good example are the Marshall Monitor Bluetooth Headphones which are terrible functionally compared to the Backbeat Pro 2, but are far more uniform and reserved in their styling without being monotone like the black Razer Kraken.

It’s probably that a majority of my dislike of their style is just my vanity rearing its head, and once the headphones are donned you can’t see them anyway. They also look pretty respectable from a distance, and it’s only under close scrutiny that the design seems confused. At first I started out loathing the design, but as I’ve worn and used them more, and got a feel for just how well they perform, I find myself more forgiving of its busyness.

Battery Life

Battery life is stellar, which I’d expect from large-ish headphones which I suspect could fit a fairly significant LiPo. I didn’t charge the headphones when I received them, and have been using them liberally since. They finally died after around 3 days of use, and let’s just say I wasn’t disciplined about turning them off when I wasn’t using them, and kept the noise cancelling feature on most of the time. 3 days is pretty good, and is a weekend away without needing to charge them.

Plantronics quote the Backbeat Pro 2 as having 24 hours of talk/listening time and they certainly live up to expectations, contrasting starkly to my Marshall headphones which I don’t dare leave powered on when I’m not using them.

When the batteries are depleted a notification will say “Recharge Headset” a couple of times before they power off, indicating you’re running right to the end of the usable battery life before they shut off to avoid any nastiness.

Accessories

Every good pair of headphones these days comes with at least a carrying pouch, and wireless headphones should come with a 3.5mm cable to use them in wired mode, plus a microUSB cable for charging. Plantronics deliver some pretty good examples of these, with perhaps the best carrying pouch I’ve ever had with a set of headphones. Why? It has a separate pocket for the cables, ensuring the metal ends never scratch or scrape the headphones themselves.

The 3.5mm audio cable looks, at first glance, fairly low quality but some careful consideration has been put into the design- the ends are extended, giving plenty of room to grip for connecting/disconnecting the cable, and the cord is thin, flexible and lightweight so it doesn’t make a nuisance of itself. It’s also appropriately long, more than making the run from laptop to ears, or from a pocketed pocket, but not long enough to connect to a floor-bound desktop PC.

The USB cable is similarly thin and flexible and gets the job done. I charge my Marshall Headphones pretty successfully from a Raspberry Pi Power Supply and I expect I will do the same with these since I have those supplies everywhere.

The ear cushions are replaceable although I couldn’t find anywhere selling them when I looked up the SKU. The part is listed on Plantronics.com but isn’t linked to any distributors.

Final Thoughts

Much of the functionality on the Backbeat Pro 2 is top notch, and switching various features or connecting/disconnecting phones is all punctuated with a clearly spoken, vocal announcement that lets you know exactly what’s going on. When powering on you’ll hear an audio tone, followed by “Battery Medium” and “Phone 1 Connected” then “Phone 2 Connected” if you have both devices in range. When you power off you’ll hear “Power Off” before they shut down. Turning on ANC will give you a “Noise Cancelling On” message, and turning it off will do the opposite, the same applies for “Open Mic”.

All of the controls are grouped neatly into groups, with the mutually exclusive switch between ANC and open-mic, the slide-up-to-pair power switch and the rotary jog dial volume control all providing a different but intuitive tactile experience that helps you to control everything at a touch without getting lost in all the features. This leaves just 5 buttons for play/pause, prev/next, mic mute and call.

Although I’m not sure if the headphones are splash proof or not, they shrugged off some light rain this Friday gone (we haven’t had much of it lately) and I suspect most water incidents will do them no harm. Don’t go swimming with them on, though!

Comfort levels are great, although in hot weather they can get a bit warm and cozy after a few hours. They more than make up for this with mental comfort, though, cutting out some of the brunt of travel or office noise. It’s a shame we haven’t found a way to noise cancel drunken rambling or screaming kids yet, but perhaps one day!

Overall I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend these to people. While the busy design can be offputting the excellent sound quality and feature set will make all but the most staunch of haters look past it.

You can grab the Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2 from AO.com for – at time of writing – a very reasonable £229 and for just slightly more you can get the grey version for £249.