Wireless wonders

headphone_personAs a music lover with a large music collection, I like to listen while exercising, doing yard work, or performing a host of other activities. It makes the activity that much more pleasurable.

Of course, digital music and portable players have made music listening while on the go not only possible, but downright easy.

There is one occasional irritant to this activity, however. Sometimes the headphone cord gets tangled, tugged, or violently ripped out of the jack, and I think, wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of the bloody headphone cord!

The wireless alternative

With the advent of Bluetooth, and more recently, Bluetooth LE (Low Energy), a wide selection of wireless headphones and earbuds are now available. This week, we take a look at the BackBeat GO 2 wireless earbuds from Plantronics.

I’ve been testing the BackBeats over the last week, and have found a lot to like and only one or two minor nits.BB_GO2_box

Plantronics promotes the BackBeats as providing high fidelity audio, sweat-proof durability, and versatile usage for music, video, and phone calls.

One small thing to clarify: the earbuds are not truly wireless. There is a short wire that connects the right and left earbuds. The wire wraps loosely around the back of your head, so is pretty much out of the way and unlikely to catch on anything.

Of course, the important “wireless” aspect is you don’t have to plug the earbuds into your Bluetooth-enabled music player or smartphone. The music source can remain in your pocket or bag completely untethered from the earbuds. In fact, you can continue to listen up to about 30-feet away from your music source.

Unboxing the Backbeat GO 2 earbuds and accessories

package_insert_formPlantronics provides the earbuds, charging cable and plug, documentation, and three sizes of ear inserts.

The package is nicely designed and somewhat minimalist, made mostly of recycled cardboard with a tiny bit of plastic. No blister packaging here, thank goodness.

The BackBeats are form-fitted into an interior pack, which slides out. The earbuds are fitted with the medium of the three sizes of ear inserts that come in the kit.

The other two pairs (small and large) are held in a cardboard insert inside the box. Also housed inside is a short USB charging cable and plug, which is fitted for U.S. (120 volt) electrical outlets. (More on charging later.)Other_backbeat_items

The printed materials in the box include a warranty card and the small foldout “Get Started” guide. The instructions are short and sweet, and easy to follow.

There are instructions for pairing the earbuds with either an iPhone (and by extension an iPad and iPod Touch) or an Android device.

There doesn’t appear to be any problem with pairing the earbuds to multiple devices.

Design features

The design of the BackBeats is fairly minimalist. As you might expect, the earpieces are a bit larger than wired earbuds, as they house a rechargeable battery, charging port, and Bluetooth LE radio. bud_close_controller

The earbuds look a little large in the ear, but not grotesquely so. Plantronics did a very good job squeezing all the technology into a fairly small housing.

As mentioned, there is a wire about 18-inches in length connecting the two earpieces, and just below the right earpiece on the wire is a three-button controller, with start/stop, volume up, and volume down functions.

The earbuds are said to feature “military grade” moisture resistance, and “rugged, tangle-free” cabling. You can swap interchangeable earbud inserts to find a secure fit for your ears.

Auditioning the BackBeat GO 2 earbuds

I auditioned the earbuds using three sound sources: music, a movie soundtrack, and phone calls.

♦ Music

For this review, my most extensive audition of the BackBeats was music listening. In fact, I listened in both noisy (airports and airplanes) and quiet (at home) environments, both while sitting stationary and moving. The earbuds performed very well.

In any critical listening situation with earbuds, it’s important to maintain a tight seal in one’s ears, or sound quality can be tinny—lacking in depth, stereo separation, and low end—and exterior noise can intrude. With a bit of experimentation, I was able to adjust the rotating mounts and establish a tight seal that blocked most outside noise and enabled critical (and enjoyable) music listening.

The types of music I listen to include mostly classic rock, jazz, and electric blues. For the purposes of this review, I chose representative tracks and listened to them multiple times with my reference headphones (Sony MDR V6), wired earbuds (Shure SE215-K), and the BackBeat buds. Here’s what I heard:

Sony MDR V6 Shure SE215-K BackBeat GO 2
Volume required
90% full 75% full 45% full
Bass Tight, authoritative, good low end, better articulated, crisp Tight, a bit more authoritative than the BackBeats, and not quite as muddy Fairly tight if a bit muddy, not boomy or overbearing, however.
Keyboards Smooth, articulate, less “digital” sounding Comparable to the BackBeats Blend well in the mix, good articulation
Percussion Crisp, better articulated in the mix, no muddiness Better articulated than the BackBeats, not quite as muddy Fairly crisp and well articulated, if a bit muddy
Voices “Analog” quality, more natural sounding, vocals clear in the mix A bit less “digital” sounding than the BackBeats, but not as smooth or well-articulated as the Sony headphones Clear, not strident, backup voices a little thin
Reeds, Guitars
Harmonics of the instruments more clearly heard, less strident, less “digital” sounding A bit better articulated, including instrument harmonics, than the BackBeats Authentic sound quality, if a bit less articulated
Soundstage Wider and deeper, each voice/instrument better localized in its own space; delay and reverb well-defined Somewhat wider and deeper than the BackBeat buds, with better voice/instrument articulation in the sound field Nice separation and a good sense of depth. Delay and reverb not as well articulated in the sound field
Overall 92/100 88/100 85/100

If listening to music in Carnegie Hall would score a perfect 100 out of 100 points, the overall scores give you some indication how, in my opinion, the various devices fared in the auditions.

Interestingly, the Sony headphones, which were first introduced in 1985, are said to be a favorite of sound professionals. Therefore, much of the music I like to listen to might very well have been mixed and mastered with these very same headphones. Maybe that’s why they sound so good to me.

A good pair of headphones will almost always win out against good earbuds, so perhaps the better comparison is between the highly-rated Shure wired earbuds and the BackBeats. Except for a few minor differences, the BackBeats held their own in the music listening tests.

Another plus is that the BackBeats generated significant volume with my sound source, an iPhone 5S, turned up to only about 40%. For both the wired earbuds and headphones, the volume had to be turned up significantly higher to generate the same volume level as the BackBeats. Higher volume levels will impact the battery life of your sound source.

♦ Movies and TV

This test was a lot less rigorous than the music listening test. I didn’t actually compare the other listening devices to the BackBeats. Normally, I listen to TV through an amplified Yamaha YAS-101BL speaker surround system. But I thought it would be good to audition the BackBeats as a way to watch and listen to TV silently.

I watched a recent UK science fiction movie rented from iTunes entitled The Machine. The movie has a fair amount of dialog interspersed with explosions, gun shots, music, and other loud audio, so is probably a good representative sample to make a judgement.

Bottom line: the BackBeats are ok for movie/TV listening, but the dynamics are such that voices can often be somewhat drowned out by the other audio occurring in the soundtrack. Most movies these days are mastered in 5- or 6-channel Dolby Digital surround sound, so small stereo earbuds are just barely sufficient for this use case.

♦ Phone calls

The BackBeats provide very good audio for phone calls. On my iPhone 5S, I can hear the person on the other end of the line quite well, and they say they can hear me fine. One nit: If I’m listening to music when a call comes in, although the music is muted automatically, I still have to select the Bluetooth sound source to hear the call through the BackBeats. This is an issue that needs to be corrected.

Final thoughts and recommendations

Following are some items to consider and my recommendations.

♦ Charging

The BackBeats come with a two-prong electrical plug with a full size USB port and a short USB charging cable. There is a small mini-USB port on the right earbud for charging purposes.

Personally, I dislike mini-USB because it can only go into the receptacle one way, and it takes a fair amount of fussing to get it plugged in on these earbuds.bt_charging

It takes about two hours to fully charge the BackBeats, and the charge provides pretty much five hours of uninterrupted listening.

The BackBeats can be purchased with a combination carry case and battery pack for charging on the go. I didn’t purchase this option, so can’t speak to its effectiveness, but you can find some reviews on Amazon if you’re interested.

♦ Price-performance ratio

At $70 delivered, and given the remarkably good sound quality combined with the tethering freedom, the BackBeat GO 2 earbuds offer very good bang for the buck, and they serve their purpose very well, at least for me.

♦ Electromagnetic concerns

Bluetooth technology uses pulsed radio frequency signals, essentially the same as microwave ovens, although at significantly less power. There’s some concern that frequent exposure to any radio-emitting signals near the head and body adds the risk of potential health issues such as brain tumors, impotence, and cancer.

The scientific community does seem to agree that Bluetooth radios near your brain are probably safer than holding the cell phone next to your head. A cell phone’s electromagnetic frequencies are stronger than Bluetooth devices.

Importantly, the BackBeats use Bluetooth 4.0, also known as Bluetooth LE or Bluetooth Low Energy. Bluetooth LE is said to use a much lower-powered radio than classic Bluetooth. So perhaps it is safer.

For me, the occasional use of the BackBeat headset while exercising or performing some other activity is a risk I’m willing to take. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that the wires in wired earbuds can serve as a delivery mechanism of EMFs from your cell phone, as well.

So, does this mean I should never listen to music on headphones? Personally, I’m not willing to give that up.

As I always recommend about any technology: Educate yourself and make an informed decision.

♦ Recommendation

I have no problem recommending the BackBeat GO 2 earbuds to anyone who might be looking for a versatile wireless headset. The buds are well made, the sound quality is very good, and the price is very fair for all the technology that you get.

These buds are made in Malaysia.

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