They’re cool, they come with a charging case and their wirelessness makes them so damned convenient but, says Ashley Kramer, these earphones have issues.
IN AUGUST LAST year, Plantronics’ BackBeat Go wireless headphones were reviewed on this site (review here) and unfortunately, they were found wanting, and ended up with a two star rating. They showed that while wireless is definitely the future, the implementation of Bluetooth into ear bud style ‘phones is problematic. For one thing, there’s not much room for the batteries, and then there’s the simple fact that a bit of thin and inexpensive copper cable is better at moving an audio signal from A to B than a relatively low-fidelity Bluetooth connection. Still, some people are willing to deal with these limitations if it means they can do away with the inconvenience of the cable.
Given the scary predictions of smartphone designers doing away with headphone jacks just a few years down the track, it seems we might have to get used to wireless ‘phones as well as phones. So the manufacturers need to get these products sorted and soon.
The BackBeat Go model didn’t quite float my boat but there’s a new model available, the BackBeat Go 2, and it certainly seems that the Plantronics engineering team has been thinking hard about this product.
On first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the new model is just the old model in a new box, but there’s more under the skin than appearances indicate. The in-line remote has been improved with proper buttons, which are more tactile than the old version. Another step up is the inclusion of a “military grade nano coating” which protects against sweat and moisture – I used the BackBeat Go 2’s at gym (extensively in a sweaty high summer) and in the rain with no adverse affects at all, so it must do something.
The little red portable charging case is a thing of genius. The battery life is still only around 4.5 hours, and the addition of a “Deep Sleep” mode, which keeps the batteries from losing any power at all for up to six months isn’t enough to make a real difference, but the case is. It’s basically a case with a built in battery and a short cable with a charging connector on the end. So when you need some power on the road, you just connect the ‘phones to the case and you’re sorted. The case will charge the ‘phones at least twice, so it’s a handy way to get more life without needing to plug into a wall socket or computer (the ‘phones normally charge via a USB cable). On the other hand, the case is no help if you misjudge things and the ‘phones die at gym or on the train, but judicious use will prevent that from happening (the battery life icon on the smartphone screen is a great reminder of where you’re at).
According to the company, attention has been paid to the sound quality with new drivers, and this is certainly evident – they sound moderately clearer than the old model and the bass is better than before but again, a really good budget set of conventional earbuds will sound a little superior. If you dropped $149 or so on a set of wired in-ear ‘phones, you’d be streaks ahead in sonic terms. But that’s missing the point – there’s something very cool about not having to be wired to your smartphone, and the BackBeat Go 2’s have got enough range to make it easy to move around various rooms in the house while connected. Fit and comfort are much the same as before, with the slip-on stabilisers helping to keep the ‘phones relatively secure, but they’re still comparatively long and heavy so they tend to move around a bit during strenuous activity. Choosing the correct ear-tip helps in this regard.
With the charging case to get me through a full day, I found that I was using the BackBeat Go 2’s much more than I ever did the original model, and just enjoying the convenience of the things. Call quality was good, although noise isolation is average at best – again the convenience makes for a good user experience.
Well, it would if not for the little but annoying glitches. Occasionally the music dropped out while I was walking around the city, which I blamed on my old iPhone, but then they did it with a brand new iPhone 5S. That’s pretty off-putting but nowhere near as bad as their habit of slipping into Pairing Mode when you try to skip forward a track. This could sometimes be resolved by powering down and restarting the ‘phones, but sometimes the only way to get the BackBeat Go 2’s back to normal was to forget the device on the smartphone a re-do the pairing process. This is excruciating in the middle of a workout, and almost led to the ‘phones being discreetly placed under a 40kg dumbbell. To make matters worse, the remote sometimes just stopped working, even though the ‘phones were still connected.
So all up, this is a product that in some ways has been improved enough to take it from two star to four star status, but it’s held back by dubious reliability and a few operational issues. So at that level, three stars are all it can be awarded, which is a real pity and it’s not really a strong recommendation. Still, these ‘phones are a very good sign of things to come – get that battery life up to eight hours, put three full, quick charges in the case and we’re looking at an insanely cool product. It’s worth noting that the BackBeat Go 2’s are available sans case. I wouldn’t go that way – the case makes a big difference. ASHLEY KRAMER
The BackBeat GO is available now from Telecom, Vodafone, Noel Leeming and Dick Smith.