A great idea gets fatally hi-jacked by clumsy implementation.
WIRELESS IS TECHNOLOGY’S Holy Grail – wireless internet, wireless HDMI, even wireless power, so it’s no surprise that wireless earphones have been hitting the street for a while now. These devices make particularly good sense in the age of the smartphone, where they can easily fill the music, media and talking roles without the hassle of having a cable running to the phone.
At least that’s the theory. In practice however, there are at least two obvious issues with the concept. The small form factor of earphones makes it tough to cram in batteries, a receiver/transmitter, controls, indicator lights as well as a set of drivers. Compromise is inevitable, but the results may be worth it if the convenience factor goes sky high.
The BackBeat GO from Plantronics is an interesting device; not least of all because Plantronics is historically a manufacturer of business headsets and Bluetooth hands-free units, which is an area that doesn’t call for true fidelity to a musical signal – reliable, clear communication is the priority here. After all, the company’s trademarked motto is Simply Smarter Communications, not Simply Better Audio Quality.
Construction and Features
There’s not much to the BackBeat GO’s, and why should there be? Everything can be covered by two ear capsules filled with the necessary electronics, with a short length of tangle free cable linking them and a tiny inline microphone/control unit on the cable. For all their compactness, they feature A2DP Bluetooth support for high-quality stereo audio streaming, plus digital noise reduction to aid call clarity. The ‘phone are nicely packaged and the small user manual is easy to follow with a really basic setup and pairing procedure. Charging is by a Micro USB port in the right capsule – a cable is supplied but it’s way too short, so plugging it into a charger under a desk is a mission.
The styling is swoopy enough but the unit still looks as if someone used to making business tools – not consumer devices – designed it. There are some definite design-related issues that are obvious after only a short period of use. The ear capsules are quite long because they need to house all the aforementioned technology, not just a pair of drivers, so they stick out of the ear in a noticeable way and never really feel all that secure. Which is why Plantronics supplies a pair of small rubber “stabilisers” that clip onto the ‘phones to basically keep them in the ear.
Next on the list and perhaps the most concerning design issue is the extremely shallow depth from the end of the ear tips to the foam that covers the tube leading into the ear capsules. Why should this matter? Well, in a word: earwax. Manufacturers of high-end in-ear ‘phones supply delicate little cleaning tools to extract the wax that inevitably migrates into the ear tips and even into the capsules if users aren’t careful.
With the BackBeat GO’s, there’s zero margin for error as a small blob of wax only needs to move a millimetre or two to get onto the foam, and then it’s all over Rover, driver blocked! My first attempt to clean out a tiny piece of wax led to me destroying the foam, which left an open tunnel into the heart of the capsules. Which brings us to the next design flaw, the tube leading to the drivers is extraordinarily narrow, so it will clog up with almost no provocation and at that point, this device becomes a very light paper weight.
More issues? Yep, I’m afraid so: the rubber ear tips (three sizes supplied) are super soft, which exacerbates the slightly insecure fit (even with the stabilisers in place) and makes it hard to get a really good or consistent seal, which is vital for low frequency extension.
Then we have the short cable connecting the capsules – it’s designed to drape over the back of the neck, which makes sense as this supports the ‘phones, making it less likely that they’ll get pulled out. The rubber finish on the cable is quite grippy though, so it drags on clothing and every time you turn your head, there’s a slight dislodging of the capsules. This makes these ‘phones unsuited for gym or active use, and that’s a real pity as I like the idea of not having a long cable to snag on gym equipment. I found them to be impossible to keep secure even during my warm up, let alone through a kettlebell session, where they were as secure as a drunk on a bicycle on ice.
The little inline mic/controller works well enough (read the manual because the music controls are slightly different to the bulk of inline controllers on an Apple device), while the tiny indicator light in the right capsule is easy enough to interpret, since it’s backed up by audible tones to indicate power on or off.
In Use & Sound Quality
I had no trouble whatsoever in pairing the BackBeat GO’s to two iPhones and a MacBook Pro, but there was ongoing difficulty getting the stereo audio stream running from the MacBook Pro to the ‘phones and occasional hassles convincing the iPhone that it had actually paired with the earphones. Once it was streaming, the connection was rock solid, and the range was enough to get me all around my house and out to the pavement, even with the iPhone left on the top floor.
The BackBeat GO’s cleverly place a battery meter at the top of an iPhone or iPad screen and do the same for Android 3.0 tablets as well as Android 4.0 phones and tablets. At around four to four-and-a-half hours of talk and listening time, battery life isn’t exceptional – these ‘phones wouldn’t get me through a typical day’s use without needing to be charged, and the first time they died on me while I was standing in line at the supermarket or working in a café, I’d be tempted to stand on them.
The fact that they use a generic USB charger (not supplied) – albeit with a Micro USB cable – means that they can be charged virtually anywhere but frankly, who wants to manage that every couple of days or worse still, on a daily basis? They will need to be charged regularly by the way, because anyone who buys this type of device instead of the on-ear mono Star Trek-style Bluetooth hands-free units wants to listen to music on them, not just take calls for 15 minutes a day.
The first time you encounter a noisy environment, you’ll notice that the soft eartips make the BackBeat GO’s passive noise cancelling abilities average at best. So you end up cranking the volume to drown out the environment, which isn’t optimum but is by no means limited to these ‘phones – most in-ear models suffer from it to some degree, but there are any number of models with more rugged rubber or even foam eartips that do a much better job in this respect.
When it comes to music, the BackBeat GO’s sound quality is good as long as they’re getting a stereo Bluetooth stream, because a dire-sounding mono stream can be selected on the MacBook Pro. This “good” rating has to be qualified with a “for a Bluetooth device” proviso. The overall sound quality isn’t as dynamic as it could be but the bass is respectably deep (when you can get a good seal) and the midrange reasonably open. The treble has something of an edge to it though, and the Bluetooth codec is obviously compressing the audio signal and adding in a small degree of background hiss, which is most obvious at the top end of the frequency range. Put it this way, my el-cheapo reference ‘phones are Sennheiser’s MX460 model; they cost about $30 or so but they show the BackBeat GO’s a clean pair of heels in every sonic respect. This has a lot to do with there being no processing or streaming between the iPhone and the MX460’s – just electrons zipping down a cable.
Call quality was very good on my side, although my callers couldn’t really notice anything special about the calls I was making to them.
Plantronics’ BackBeat GO is one of the most frustrating products I’ve ever reviewed. Why? Because I genuinely do like the idea of a compact set of wireless earphones that can do double duty for music and for taking calls. However, I really do want and even need them to sound good, have a long battery life and especially not to have a long list of user interface problems. While I register that the job description is different for this type of unit than it is for music ‘phones, I still expect them to sound good and work well, if not flawlessly. Trying to offer it all in a compact design that weighs only 13 grams has led to these ‘phones simply being too compromised.
Perhaps the real wireless earphone Holy Grail won’t happen until battery technology improves to the degree that this type of unit can offer eight to twelve hours of continuous playback or talk time, plus support for CD quality Bluetooth streaming to narrow the sonic gap between wired and wireless ‘phones. Better quality speaker drivers are also in order at this price.
The BackBeat GO’s are definitely tiny, lightweight, portable and more or less do what they’re meant to do, but that’s just not enough at the price, considering their flaws. Given the quality of wired models at this price point, especially ones with inline mic/remotes for Apple products, it’s hard to recommend this model. ASHLEY KRAMER
The BackBeat GO is available now from Telecom and Vodafone dealers, Noel Leeming, Dick Smith and JB HiFi stores.