I’ve been trying to find a good solution for listening to music at work, and decided that a Bluetooth solution connected to my phone would probably allow me the best range of motion while also delivering decent music quality. Sure, it uses extra battery draw, but I’m sitting at my desk, so I can just plug my phone in. The kind folks at Plantronics offered to send me a pair of the Plantronics 903 BackBeat to review and see if they fit the bill.
The headset itself is quite simple. There are two moderately small earpieces, connected with a 4mm-thick cable that is 8.25-inches long. This cable is sturdy, yet flexible, and does a great job of not bouncing around too much while you’re wearing the headset. The flexible cable makes it easy to wear the BackBeat around your neck when not in use, but with a t-shirt or other non-collared shirt, there’s nothing to hold it on, and I found myself just sticking the headset in my pocket instead. While at work, though, the collar on my shirt served as a barrier, making it quite comfortable and natural to wear the BackBeat around my neck when not in use.
The earpieces fit over your ear, with the main body of them resting behind your ear and only the earpiece part going over and into your ear. The tips are fully adjustable, so that regardless of how big/little your ears are, you can find a good fit. You’ll find the power button and indicator light along the body of the left earpiece, and the call button on the actual earpiece. The right earpiece is where you’ll find the music controls – play/pause button on the outside, and a rocker for volume/skip track on the bottom. If you flick the volume/skip track rocker, it’ll adjust the volume – hold it in either direction to skip forward or reverse. You can also press this switch in while on a phone call to mute, the headset, which is good for conference calls and such.
The Plantronics 903 BackBeat charges via microUSB, which is definitely convenient, and has an indicator light that shows red until the headset is fully charged, at which point it changes to blue, so you know when to disconnect the charger. The microUSB port is on the bottom of the body of the left earpiece and is covered by an attached door, to keep debris out.
The biggest variable when looking at Bluetooth headsets of any sort, really, is the eargel – the part that actually goes into your ear. I was ecstatic to discover that the Plantronics BackBeat uses a similar style eargel to my treasured Bose in-ear earphones. Unfortunately, the Plantronics’ ones aren’t interchangeable, so you’re stuck with one size, but luckily for me it was the right size (similar to the grey Bose ones, for reference).
The reason I like these eargels the best is two fold. For starters, they fit in your ear, but not so much that they cause discomfort at all. I was able to wear the BackBeat all day at work with no soreness or anything. The second reason I like these eargels is that due to their design, they keep your music in and keep outside sounds out (for the most part). I tested this in a number of situations and confirmed that even with the loudest techno music, folks within a comfortable distance could not hear my music. This included the person in the next-over cubicle, folks riding an elevator, and my wife sitting next to me on the couch. If you’re wanting to jam out without disturbing those around you, the BackBeat is seriously up to the challenge.
Now, while I did enjoy the ability to not hear outside noise, there are obviously situations in which you’d like to. You can, of course, just turn your music down – with the volume around half, I was able to use the BackBeat in my office and still hear when coworkers tried to talk to me. This would be a similar situation if you used the headset while jogging or exercising or something. Plantronics also included a brilliant feature, called OpenMic. To use this, you simply press the button on the outside of the right-hand earpiece. This pauses your music and uses the headset’s built-in microphone to pump in music from around you.
By using OpenMic, you eliminate the need to move the headset or remove it from your ear – it’s incredibly convenient, and a simple button press makes it easy to toggle on and off, as well. I can’t believe this is the only headset that I’ve used to think of this type of capability using the microphone.
Music quality through the Plantronics BackBeat is similarly awesome. While there is limited bass, the overall sound quality is excellent, and not tinny or weak by any measure. The headphones do have a built-in ‘Bass Boost’ feature, activated by pressing and holding the Play/Pause button on the right earpiece for 2 seconds. While there is a noticeable difference in audio with and without this activated, it seemed more like a loudness booster than a bass booster to these ears.
I tested the Plantronics BackBeat with my Nexus One and my laptop and had no issues using the hardware buttons to skip to the next track or play/pause the music. While listening to music, I also didn’t have any ‘drop-outs’ where the device lost connection with the Plantronics 903 BackBeat – except for one situation. For whatever reason, while walking through our parking garage at work, the audio would consistently skip unless I held the phone right up to my chest. Aside from that, I was able to walk around my office and home with my Nexus One in my pocket and the headphones on with no issues whatsoever – it was only our parking garage, and I haven’t figured out a correlation yet.
When a call comes in, you can simply press the button on the left earpiece to answer the call, and the same button to end the call. Voice quality is decent – I’ve never really been impressed by any stereo Bluetooth headsets’ capability for voice calls, and the BackBeat is no different. It works, but it’s obviously not really a key feature – I found the headset susceptible to various disruptions, such as wind noise and other background noise. If you happen to get a phone call while listening to music with the Plantronics 903 BackBeat, you’ll be ok, but I certainly wouldn’t plan to use them for a conference call or anything.
I’ve reviewed nearly half a dozen stereo Bluetooth headsets, including the Nokia BH-214, Nokia BH-903, Nokia BH-905, Plantronics Voyager 855, Nokia BH-604, and the Plantronics 903 BackBeat is easily my favorite. The eargels are a proven winner for me and the OpenMic feature is a major plus in a work environment for me. While I wouldn’t mind being able to get a few more hours of use from the headset, the 7 hours is generally enough for a typical day at work, given a few meetings here and there when I’m not able to listen to music anyways.
The best part of the Plantronics 903 BackBeat is the price – these bad boys are available on Amazon for only $50 – that’s a steal compared to other stereo Bluetooth headsets! Don’t whip your credit card out yet, though! My friends at Plantronics were kind enough to send me a pair of the Plantronics 903 BackBeat to give away as part of this review! To enter, simply leave a comment below with the artist and title of a song containing the word ‘Backbeat’. It’s that easy – you need to enter before midnight CST on Sunday, August 8th, and I’ll pick a winner sometime shortly after that.