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A 'Hi-Fi' Bluetooth adapter doesn't help Plantronics' new headphones

The BackBeat Pro+ sounds good, but a custom USB adapter makes them overpriced.

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When you're looking for stylish premium headphones, Plantronics probably isn't the first company that comes to mind. It's best known for its PC headsets and Bluetooth earpieces -- not exactly Beats territory. But I can still remember the first time I heard the company's first over-ear wireless headphones, the BackBeat Pro, in 2013. At $250, they sounded as good as far more expensive cans from Beats and Bose, and they even packed in noise-canceling to boot. Now with the $300 BackBeat Pro+, its pseudo follow-up, Plantronics has added a USB dongle for high-quality Bluetooth streaming audio from computers. But is a tiny accessory worth an even higher price? Not quite.

Gallery: Plantronics BackBeat Pro+ | 10 Photos

Plantronics didn't go through any major redesigns for the BackBeat Pro+. It looks exactly like the original model, except it's now gray instead of black. That's not a bad thing, though, as its subdued design is a nice alternative to the plethora of increasingly garish headphones on the market. If you're looking to make a style statement, these probably aren't the headphones for you.

The BackBeat Pro+ is mostly made of plastic, with metal arms connecting the headband. You can twist the cans to make it lay flat, but unlike more-portable headsets, you can't collapse it any further. Be prepared to leave plenty of room in your bag, then. The earpads, while a tad thin, are surrounded by a comfortable layer of foam. Together with the foam-covered headband, I didn't have any trouble wearing the BackBeat Pro+ for hours at a time.

Unlike with many headphones these days, Plantronics hasn't put together any special companion app. But that's perfectly fine, since you can do everything you need right on the cans. On the left cup, there's a large play/pause button, a switch for activating noise cancellation and a dial for jumping backward and forward through tracks. You can also pair NFC-equipped Android phones with the BackBeat Pro+ by holding them up to the left cup while in pairing mode. There's a standard headphone jack on the bottom of the cup (a cable is included in the box), as well as a micro-USB port for charging.

On the right side, there's a large Call button for accepting calls (which you also hold down to activate Bluetooth pairing mode), a volume dial and the power switch. There's also an OpenMic button on the bottom of the right cup, which pipes in external audio from the real world while lowering the volume on your music input (for when it's simply too hard to take off your headphones).

But back to that USB dongle: It's just that, a tiny Bluetooth adapter (the Plantronics BT600) that instantly connects Windows PCs and Macs to the BackBeat Pro+. It comes pre-paired from the factory, so all you need to do is plug it in and turn on the headphones to make a wireless connection. While most laptops and desktops these days already include Bluetooth support, Plantronics says its dongle ensures a higher-quality experience (it helps to have an external Bluetooth antenna, for example). A software update will eventually allow the dongle to support even better wireless audio using the aptX codec, which is a step above typical Bluetooth streaming.

I noticed slightly more detail and nuance in songs with the Plantronics dongle on my MacBook Air after switching back and forth between it and built-in Bluetooth. "Like a Dog Chasing Cars" from the Dark Knight soundtrack had more bass oomph and instrumental detail with the BT600 adapter, whereas the bass seemed boomier and less defined with built-in Bluetooth. I noticed the same thing with "Bim Bam Smash" from the Bourne Supremacy soundtrack, as well as with songs from Bowie, Bjork and Arcade Fire. It's not that the BackBeat Pro+ sounds bad with normal Bluetooth -- it's among the best wireless headphones I've heard -- but the company's dongle just adds a bit more detail.

Beyond Plantronics' Bluetooth adapter, the BackBeat Pro+ works exactly like the previous model. Flipping on the noise-cancellation mode while on the subway effectively reduced outside noise a bit, though not as much as when I tried other headphones that offer the feature. The headphones also lasted over 22 hours on a charge with wireless listening from computers, smartphones and the new Apple TV. (Plantronics claims 24 hours of battery life.) You can stream higher-quality Bluetooth audio with devices that natively support aptX (plenty of high-end Android phones and Macs offer it but no iOS devices). It's debatable how much aptX makes a difference, though. I can hear a slight improvement, but the difference might not matter much to some listeners.

As useful as Plantronics' Bluetooth adapter is, the higher $300 price for the BackBeat Pro+ makes it a tougher sell in the headphone market. Samsung's wireless Level Over headphones, which also include noise-canceling technology, currently retail between $200 and $325, depending on where you look. Those are one of The Wirecutter's preferred noise-canceling headphones, and, based on my testing, they sound pretty darn great.

An even stronger competitor is Plantronics' original BackBeat Pro headphones, which now retail for around $166 on Amazon. That's a steal, considering they originally retailed at $250. You could also snap up the BT600 adapter for $60 separately and still end up paying far less than the BackBeat Pro+. (There are cheaper Bluetooth USB adapters with aptX out there, but I haven't had a chance to test them.)

At its current price, it's hard to recommend the BackBeat Pro+. Sure, it's a solid performer for wireless music listening, and the included adapter makes it easier to connect to PCs over Bluetooth. But it simply can't compete against an identical set of headphones selling for nearly half the price.

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