Digital Life

REVIEW

Why Plantronics' BackBeat SENSE headphones are the only ones you'll ever need

Over the past year I've tested far too many headphones.

Some were fantastic for specific uses, like the phenomenal Bose QuietComfort 25s, the best noise-cancelling headphones I've ever used. Others fit a single task well – like headphones for running or gaming – but failed in most other situations. A few pairs of headphones were incredible, but were too expensive for me to recommend. Others just plain sucked.

I'd given up on finding a pair of headphones that were light, comfortable, affordable, connected via Bluetooth but also delivered high-quality sound. Then came a pair of headphones from Plantronics.

Until a few weeks ago, I only knew of Plantronics as the boring Bluetooth phone headsets I see at work, and the odd gaming headset I'd seen in stores. I hadn't realised they entered the consumer headphone market, so finding their BackBeat SENSE was a pleasant surprise.

The BackBeat SENSE connects to your phone via Bluetooth, allowing cable-free listening. Even if you're just using the headphones in an office environment, you'll appreciate the convenience of being cable free. Battling with cables across your keyboard is no way to live in 2015.

But Bluetooth can be far less reliable than regular old cable. The sub-$100 bluetooth headphones I've played with have stuttered, randomly disconnected, or run out of battery long before the advertised time, so it's worth spending a little more when buying Bluetooth. I had none of these issues with the SENSE.

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Plantronics estimate the SENSE battery life at 18 hours listening time. I was able to comfortably beat that. I was able to use them all day and charge them every few days, and was never caught out with flat cans. Plantronics claims the BackBeat SENSE can hold a charge for up to six months in "deep sleep" mode.

The BackBeat SENSE are incredibly light. They weigh in at just 140 grams but feel even lighter, thanks to a sling across the top of the band that helps lift the cups off your ears. The lightness makes them comfortable enough to wear all day, perfect for long days trapped in the office. They're comfortable enough to wear around your neck in small doses when you're not listening to them, and they can fold flat to easily stow away in a bag.

Most importantly, sound quality is fantastic. There's a balance to the sound that is missing from some high-end headphones. Most seem a little muddy and bass heavy, but the SENSE deliver as much clarity in vocals and treble as they do thumping bass.

Some will prefer the sound from active noise-cancelling headphones and an enclosed, over-the-ear design. But as a frequent commuter and pedestrian in Sydney, I much prefer on-ear headphones that muffle most of the outside world, while still allowing you to be aware of your surroundings. Over-ear headphones just make me feel a little claustrophobic in the office, and completely unsafe walking around.

The on-ear pads are comfortable, with the right mix of cushioning and breathability. They didn't leak sound unless turned right up, so I had no complaints from my office cubicle buddies.

Great sound quality extends to the dual noise-cancelling microphones, which make you sound clear to others when on a call. This makes sense, given Plantronics' history in phone headsets.

Another nifty feature of the SENSE is they can be connected to two devices at once, switching between whichever is currently in use. You can listen to a podcast on the way to work on your phone, then switch to Spotify when you're in front of your work computer, and go back to the phone take a call. The BackBeat SENSE will keep up, switching between each device without prompting you.

The remote control features are the best I've used, too. Volume is controlled with a jog-wheel on the left ear and there's just the right amount of tension in the wheel for the movement to feel oddly satisfying.

The left ear cup also holds play, pause and skip buttons. They're physical buttons, not the touch controls that seem to be in fashion right now. I prefer the physical buttons as they're easier to use, and less likely to be accidentally brushed with long hair. The controls have been designed to work best with iPhones, as most high-end headphones are, but still work well with Android, Mac, and PC.

Outside of these controls, the SENSE will automatically pause your music when you remove them from your ears and resume playing when you lift them back up. It's one of those features you become used to immediately, so much so I found myself expecting other headphones to behave this way.

The BackBeat SENSE's fantastic battery life, simple controls and great sound quality adds up to a pair of headphones that are perfect in almost every situation. They're light enough to wear all day, making them the best headphones I've tested this year. Plantronics may not be the sexiest brand on the market, but the BackBeat SENSE are the current cans to beat in the Bluetooth headphone market.

The BackBeat SENSE go on sale in September and have a recommended retail price of $249.

Peter Wells is a technology commentator who works in IT at UNSW Australia.

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