I was a big fan of the original BackBeat Pro, Plantronics' first foray into premium noise-canceling headphones in 2013. They were cheaper than the competition -- which typically ranges from $300 to $400 -- and they sounded pretty great, to boot. Last year's BackBeat Pro+ refresh aimed to simplify pairing with the addition of a Bluetooth dongle, but that didn't justify its higher $300 price. With this new model, Plantronics had to right a few wrongs. And for the most part, it succeeded.
While Plantronics' previous headphones were large with circular earpieces, the BackBeat Pro 2 is a bit less bulky with oblong ear-pad designs. The company claims it's 15 percent lighter than before, and the overall volume has been reduced 35 percent. You can certainly feel the weight difference just by picking them up. Not surprisingly, the BackBeat Pro 2 feels a lot more comfortable when you're wearing them, and they're also less comically large when they're actually on your head. As for that earpiece design change, Plantronics says it'll allow the Pro 2 to fit more comfortably for more people.
You'll also notice some design changes this time around. The headset is still mostly made of plastic, but Plantronics added a few flourishes to spice up its previously minimalist design. There's a pseudo-carbon fiber material around the outside of the ear pads, and the inner circle has a wood-grain plastic finish. I wasn't expecting much from the company designwise, especially since it was aiming for a lower price, but what we've got in the BackBeat Pro 2 is mostly dull. And in certain angles, they simply look ugly. I'm particularly turned off by the huge "L" and "R" on the inside of the earpieces. Next time, I hope Plantronics puts more thought into aesthetics (though I'm glad they were able to de-bulk the headphones, at least).
Controlling the BackBeat Pro 2 is simpler than with previous models. Instead of having track and volume controls spread across rotating dials on the left and right earpieces, the Pro 2 simply pushes them all to the left can. Turning the outer ring changes the volume, hitting the center circle plays and pauses the music, and hitting the inner ring lets you change tracks. While it seems confusing at first, I didn't have any problem differentiating between the buttons while wearing the the Pro 2.
When it comes to wireless sound quality, though, the BackBeat Pro 2 are stellar. They have more of a bass kick than the previous versions, but it's not overdone to the point of distraction. Most important, they sounded great across several genres of music, no matter if I was listening to David Bowie, Janelle Monae or Radiohead. When it comes to orchestral music, especially film scores, they convey a surprising amount of nuance for wireless headphones. They also sounded good while taking calls; I had no trouble making out what other people were saying, and the microphone did a good job of picking up my voice while ignoring background noise.
Plantronics' active noise-canceling (ANC) also did a good job of reducing subway and street noise during my commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan. It's not a feature I'd use all the time — in quiet environments, ANC can make things sound too quiet — to the point of being eerie — but it works well when you need it. Without ANC turned on, the BackBeat Pro 2 still sounded solid, while letting in a bit of background noise. For situational awareness, you can also flip on the "open listening" mode, which pipes external sound into the headphones.
When wired, the BackBeat Pro 2 sounds even better. They're best used when connected to a headphone amp (not just straight into a PC or phone), but with the proper power driving them they sound almost as good as headphones twice the price. Unfortunately, they don't work as USB headphones, which is a nice feature I've seen on other wireless cans (including cheaper non-noise-canceling options from Jabra). That feature gives you an easy way to connect them to PCs without going through the whole Bluetooth pairing dance.
As before, the BackBeat Pro 2 features sensors that automatically pauses your media when you take them off. That's particularly useful for things like podcasts and audiobooks where you don't want to miss out on anything. The BackBeat Pro 2 also automatically paused what I was watching when connected to the Apple TV, which was a lifesaver during recent binge-watching sessions. And yes, they sound great for film and TV watching, too.
For the quality hounds out there, Plantronics also included support for the AptX Bluetooth codec, which delivers even better sound wirelessly than the typical BT profile. AptX is supported by a handful of Android devices, PCs and Bluetooth accessories, though it's still missing on the iPhone and iPad. Surprisingly enough, the codec is supported on Mac OS. I noticed slightly more detail when listening to the BackBeat Pro 2 on my MacBook Air compared to the Pro+.
Plantronics claims the BackBeat Pro 2 gets 24 hours of battery life, and while I haven't clocked it closely, I'm surprised that they're still on a "medium" battery after using them for music and movies over the past week. The previous BackBeats also delivered solid battery life, so this is an area I know Plantronics has experience with. If you happen to leave them on accidentally, the company claims they'll last for up to six months in "Deep Hibernation" mode. Basically, they're ideal if you're anxious about battery life.
In the box, you also a soft carrying case, a micro-USB cable for charging and a 3.5mm audio cable. There's also a slightly more expensive "SE" version of the Pro 2 for $250, which includes NFC pairing and a hard case. Given how useless NFC pairing typically is, though, I'd recommend avoiding that model.
Overall, the BackBeat Pro 2 is a solid upgrade for Plantronics, despite its aesthetic missteps. It's a particularly good deal for people who prize quality and comfort over good looks. But here's the thing: Design does matter, especially if Plantronics wants to be considered alongside Beats, Bose and Sony. While it can certainly compete when it comes to sound quality, Plantronics would be a force to be reckoned with if it could hone its design chops.