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In which Colthor shall mostly wibble on about his Plantronics Backbeat 903+ headset.

Wednesday the 11th was very much the anti-Tuesday. Not only were my headphones delivered, but they arrived early enough that I could go and buy some bread. Hurrah! My favourite Country Grain tasty bread, too. Work-wise, I not only didn’t discover any more ancient Triassic bugs coming to bite me, but received an email saying that something I’d done months ago had, in fact, worked as we’d hoped. So that was pretty good too. And, in the evening, I made my triumphant return to the gym. I was running (ha) a bit late, so didn’t do as much as I may have liked, but it was still a success and meant I could try out my new headphones in one of their intended surroundings.

But before we get there, doesn’t the word “triumphant” make you think of a large, dignified, three-trunked pachyderm? Maybe even with a crown. Yep, definitely a crown. And with a slightly aloof air about it. I’m not sure if normal elephants can look aloof – they managed it in Dumbo, but I don’t believe the film is entirely historically accurate – but then that would be another way of telling elephants and triumphants apart. If they’re standing sideways so you can’t count the trunks, I mean. It probably wouldn’t help if they were facing away from you, though; I’m not sure bums can look aloof.

Anyway, my Plantronics Backbeat 903+es. Incidentally, names with symbols at the end of them are now banned, because it makes doing anything grammatical with them a nightmare. I’m not even sure why it’s there; presumably to distinguish them in the most trivial way from the plain 903s, although why they couldn’t just call them, for instance, 904s – it is literally impossible to run out of numbers, after all – I don’t know. Maybe it signifies something. Hypoallergenicity, probably, and that would be a claim that I could not dispute!

Headset

The first thing you notice is that the earpieces are weird. I was expecting them to be normal in-ear ‘phones with the rubber bit that seals in your ear, like the Sennheiser CX300-IIs and suchlike I’d had before, but no. The translucent bits are made from rubber, and the sound-tubes just poke into your ear canal. They don’t, however, make a tight seal as normal earbuds would, so they don’t block nearly as much sound. In an area with loud background noise you may well need to pump up the volume more than you’d like so you can still hear them. They do go more than loud enough for this, although piping loud noises directly into your ears really isn’t ideal.

The second thing you realise is that you’ll have to charge them up. Not a major problem; they use the same micro-USB connector as my ZTE Blade/Orange San Francisco (and most other mobile ‘phones), and come with a micro-USB charger with both UK and continental-style plug pin attachments. A nice touch, I thought. A full charge takes about three hours, and claims to last for seven. I’ve not timed it, but that doesn’t sound too far off; it took quite a lot of listening over two days to run them down to the low battery warning.

By now you’re probably ready to put them on, so you do, and then you realise that the headphones talk to you. Not your ‘phone – the headphones themselves. They make a few boops and beeps to tell you things, but there’s a lot of “Listen time remaining: three hours”, “connected”, “track forward” and so on. If you’ve ever wanted a pleasant American lady to hang from your ears and talk to you, these headphones could’ve been especially designed to sate your somewhat odd desire. She sounds a lot like the Star Trek computer woman, if that helps make your mind up.

Sound quality’s pretty good, in my estimation. In a horribly unfair test of listening to the same OGG of the Eagles’ Hotel California on both my AKG K240 Studios attached to my Asus Xonar soundcard, and the Backbeat 903+es attached to my Orange San Francisco by BlueTooth, obviously the K240s were better. They had thumpier bass and sparklier cymbals. But, sound-quality wise, I do like the 903+es more than my Plantronics .Audio 470 headset; the 470 has slightly thumpier bass, but sounds much flatter, and like you’re separated from the music slightly (and I suppose that’s literally true; the 903+es pipe noise right into your ear canal, rather than through foamy pads sitting on the outside). The 903+es do have a bass boost mode, which makes music sound much warmer (and bassier), but also more muffled and a bit crackly. I’m not a fan, but then I’m not a fan of bass boosters in general.

Bluetooth can have some weird effects on the sound, though. The advantage of wirelessness is obvious; no cables to get in the way, or break, aside from the short one that goes between the earpieces behind your head (which seems very thick and sturdy). The trade-off is that occasionally the signal will be interrupted, and sound will drop. The weird thing is that after this happens, and the headphones have reconnected, the timing seems to get mucked up for a few seconds. This causes the audio to increase in pitch, like it’s rushing to catch up with itself. For some reason, this often happens at the start of songs too – as if it stopped and started playback between songs, and the first fraction of a second were cut off in a reconnection. Maybe that’s the audio player (although both TTPod and the default rubbish Android player do the same thing), or some weirdness in the BlueTooth audio specification. I don’t know. Anyway, usually it’s just a bit odd, but after a longer cut-out it can almost reach Alvin and the Chipmunks levels, and I’m sure it’ll annoy some people quite a lot. As I usually listen to podcasts, it’s not much of a problem for me.

Figuring out a few tricks solved most connectivity issues; the headset much prefers the ‘phone to be in a left-hand pocket, as that’s the side its radio’s on, and when wearing a heavy coat it preferred being in the left breast pocket. As the headset can control playback and there aren’t any wires to get in the way I’ve not found that a problem. Slightly more annoying is that having WiFi turned on seemed to cause brief drop-outs about every fifteen seconds in some circumstances. In others it’s been fine; watching YouTube videos over WiFi while making dinner, with an induction hob spitting out who-knows-what EM interference, worked flawlessly. This might be a side-effect of my San Francisco being fairly slow, having a mere 600MHz CPU (and occasionally feeling a bit sluggish anyway); shiny, fast telephones might not have a problem. But if I keep the ‘phone in a left-hand pocket (or on a worktop), and leave the WiFi off if I’m not using it, it almost never cuts out and has a respectable range. 10 metres might be pushing it, but in my house line-of-sight seems more of a problem than distance.
One big advantage of BlueTooth over wired headphones is that my ‘phone’s crappy audio hardware can’t affect the sound. No more irritating background hissing or crackling, hurrah!

Right, the other features. The headset has call, play/pause, volume up/track forward, volume down/track backward and power/battery status/pair buttons, all on the left earphone, aside from the play/pause button which is in the middle of the right earpiece. Having the volume and track-skip buttons on the same control works fine; volume is the default, and you have to hold it down for two seconds to skip track, so I’m yet to skip from halfway through a podcast because I wanted to knock it up a notch. I used to do that on my old MP3 player all the time, and it also had fast-forward/rewind mapped to the next/previous track buttons, for added hilarity. Something I have done quite a lot is turn the headset off when I meant to change track (which pauses playback, so is only a minor annoyance), because the power button is only a centimetre or so from the next track button. They do feel different, as long as you remember to check (power is smooth, next track is lumpy), but it’d be better if they were on different earpieces. The other problem with the power and volume buttons is they take a lot of force to press; I can’t do it with one finger, because my ear doesn’t offer enough resistance to be pressed against without considerable pain. I’m hoping they’ll loosen up a bit with use, but at least you won’t press them by accident.

I suppose the only thing left to mention is fitting and comfort. They offer a surprising amount of adjustment (although it is a bit fiddly to expand and contract the ‘legs’), and cling to my lugholes firmly, even when shaking my head with unreasonable violence. The price being that, after a couple of hours, I find they start to pinch a little bit. I wear glasses (Oakleys with legs like an Olympic cyclist, which can squeeze a bit tightly by themselves), which interferes with the headset slightly, but they all fit together fairly well. For short periods they’re not a problem, but if you’re likely to have them on for several hours at once they might get uncomfortable, especially if you accidentally put them on a bit tight. I’ve only had them for a week, though, so may become more used/hardened to them in time.

And there we go. That’s what I think, and have noticed, about my Plantronics BackBeat 903+es over the past week or so. Overall I quite like them, but would probably prefer the earpieces blocked more sound. They certainly make listening to things on my ‘phone more pleasant and convenient than crappy earbuds, though, especially as they skip the ‘phone’s dodgy audio hardware. Oh, I’ve not tested their microphone, or how they cope with calls; that would involve spending money and talking to people, and, well, eww. I do know the mic works, though, because they automatically use it to pipe in outside noise when you press pause.

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Posted 19 January 2012 by Colthor in Diary

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