Plantronics has been building fitness friendly earphones for a while now, but its latest Backbeat model may just perfect the formula, building a durable headset that is not only visible in the dark, but also sounds great, too.
The latest pair of Backbeat earphones from Plantronics changes the form factor a little from the previous generation, cutting out some weight and removing many of the hard plastics used in previous models, replacing it instead with softer rubbery materials that can flex and stretch without breaking from small amounts of wear and tear.
Because the materials are changing, so too is the battery, which now has up to eight hours of listening time, a standby time of up to 14 days, and a deep sleep mode which will make the battery work without use for up to half a year (180 days) of powered off time.
The earphones themselves rely on a 13mm neodymium driver, with Bluetooth acting as the connection to the handset or media player, working — according to Plantronics — up to 10 metres from the transmission device, supporting Bluetooth 3.0 (as a minimum) with music controls enabled through this technology.
A microphone is included as well, making it ideal for taking phone calls when you’re on the go.
An element of ruggedisation has been applied to the Backbeat Fit also, with what Plantronics calls a “sweat proof design,” while the P2i hydrophobic coating has also been applied to help stop liquid from getting into the core electronics.
Reflective paint has also been used in the construction of the earphones, making you light up if you’re running at night.
The Plantronics Backbeat Fit are charged through a microUSB port.
Bluetooth earphones are a must have if you’re going for a run, cutting the cord and letting your head swing freely away from your shoulder, chest, or arms, where the media player or phone would normally sit, but many of us have yet to discover why these are so good, sticking with the basic earbuds our media players and phones generally ship with.
Aside for the cut cord, paying for a new pair of wireless earphones generally means better sound across the board, giving you another reason to upgrade.
Enter the Backbeat Fit, a new entry in the Plantronics “Backbeat” range of wireless earphones, with this model a reinvention of the earphones that previously sat under the 900 series of products. The last time we saw one of those was a few years ago, so it’s about time the wireless fitness earphones underwent a change.
A different design earmarks the Fit, with the plastic ear-shaped products from the last generation changing to a softer and more flexible equivalent, smaller thanks to improvements in wireless and battery technology, and now looking like they’ll take more of a beating than ever.
Place the Backbeat Fit over your ears and you’ll find these earpieces are less from the “phone” variety and edge closer to “buds,” sitting just outside the ear canal and entering ever so slightly with a pinched tip.
In fact, they don’t really enter at all, not like the in-earphones that Plantronics has been using in its other earphones of late.
That said, the fit is quite comfortable, with the rubbery loop hanging just over the fleshy extrusions that you call lobes and sitting in place, held together by the small length of cord that wraps behind your head.
A head-shake test reveals the Backbeat Fit don’t come off easily, and if you move your skull often — as one does in exercise — these will hold their place well, which is good considering what they were designed for.
Over to the performance, because that’s the part that really matters, and if you love your music loud, you’re in for a treat, because the Backbeat Fit shine, and not just because of the reflective paint on the back of the rubber.
Yes, they’re a loud couple of earbuds, and even though they don’t go in all the way, there’s a lot of sound to be heard from these two pieces, with much of the audio bright, with a thoroughly balanced sound, though a little less bass than some energetic young people might prefer.
With that in mind, our regular headphone test played it’s part, and given the earphones design for fitness, we started with electronic and pop tracks, starting with Mooro’s “M66R6” and The Glitch Mob’s “Animus Vox,” which both had enough mids and highs, with just enough smattering of lows to make the thump of the bass as these synthy tracks rode out.
One of our delicate electronic favourites fared well, too, the introduction to EA’s “Mirror’s Edge” video game title, with plenty of high sounds dancing over each other, clipping as a mid-range electronic hum hits with some minor bass pops in the background.
Hip-hop was much the same, as the percussion in Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” was clear over the lightweight bass thump and low synth stings, with the vocals clear in the middle, while Pharrell’s “Happy” proved to be a touch lighter on the bass than we expected, while the mids and highs were very balanced outside of that.
Rock worked a treat, too, clear and distinct audio coming out as The Stones played “Gimme Shelter” straight into our ears, while Muse rocked “Supremacy” through our heads. Bass was a bit lacking for The Stones, but the mids and the highs were prominent, with the thud of the bass drum noticeable enough on the Muse’s track.
For bass-heads, it seems the Backbeat Fit won’t be an even match, but we’re impressed all the same, particularly because Plantronics is catering more to balance than overkill, which earns praise from us.
That same balance could be heard on some more delicate tracks, including Sarah Jarosz’s “Run Away” and the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crush,” where the instruments could be picked up distinctly.
It’s important to note the music is never really in your ears and totally immersive, with the outside world easily heard as your wearing them.
This is a good thing, and is part of the way Plantronics have designed the Backbeat Fit, making it ideal to hear people and your environment, something you’ll want as you go running or jogging, allowing you to get in your zone with the music but not miss out on sounds that the world needs you to hear.
Even the battery was fine from our point of view, with around 6 hours of life working for us in our tests before we decided to bite the bullet and put it back on charge.
Controlling the Backbeat Fit is one area that sticks out, because it’s a lesson in memorisation.
There are technically two obvious buttons, big round flat buttons on each ear, with the one on the left ear there for playback and pausing, while the one on the right is for answering calls. And yet above these big round buttons, there is a little ridge which also acts as a separate button, with the ridge on the left side working as volume while the right side ridge acts as a power button.
Any fuss around the controls being a little bit trying comes from trying to remember what each one does, and more so, how much of each one does what. For instance, skipping the track involves pressing the play button on the left ear twice, while going back means you have to hold it down, and volume works by pressing once to go up in volume while hold down sends your volume the other way.
From what we can tell, these condensed controls come from the Fit being smaller than its Backbeat predecessors, and we can’t really fault Plantronics for that.
Ultimately, provided you remember the differences between the ridge and broad buttons, you’ll be fine, but we can’t help thinking this is the one part of the Fit design that could have been refined a little.
With excellent audio and decent battery life, our only real complaints extend from the range of the Bluetooth, because if you’re an Android owner, you’ll likely encounter it first, especially if you leave the phone in your pocket and start to hear segments of the audio clipping in and out.
That was certainly our experience on the Sony Xperia Z2, and we even had a little bit of it on the Samsung Galaxy S5 and our in-case-of-emergency-break-glass Apple iPod Touch, the latter of which dealt with the range issue better than the rest, though it still had a raised pitch from time to time.
We’ve seen this before, and it generally comes from the wireless range being pushed to the limits of each device, and in the case of the Backbeat Fit, that wireless range appears to be smaller than normal.
The way around this issue appears to be keeping the smartphone or media player closer to your body, with the chest or arm being the distance that works best from our tests, and while that might bug people who like to walk or run with the media player below their waist level, Plantronics attempts to help here by making the included case double up as an arm-strap for their mobile handset.
Now it won’t work for every smartphone — Apple’s iPhone is obviously the intended design here, but with a bit of force, you’ll find it holds the larger phones, with up to 5 inches comfortable supported — and there is no window, so you’ll have to run without checking those tracks, but it’s at least something, and saves the need to buy a new fitness-friendly arm-band for their mobile devices.
While the controls can be a bit of a pain sometimes, the audio is really what interests us, and in that category Plantronics has done a fantastic job, providing stellar sound amidst reasonably solid comfort.
If anything, these might get us running more. Recommended.