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Plantronics BackBeat GO 3 Headphones

Plantronics BackBeat GO 3 Bluetooth Headphones
$100 [$90 at Amazon]

If you want to plunge into the tech-savvy world of Bluetooth headphones, the BackBeat GO 3 is a good place to start. 

Specs: 

Listening time: Up to 6.5 hours. This is about average, but can be improved (see below).
Standby time: Up to 14 days.
Audio: HQ custom SBC codec, 6 mm custom dynamic drivers, frequency response: 20-20,000 Hz, 20 db passive noise reduction, total harmonic distortion: <3%, sensitivity 102 dBspl/mW @ 1 kHz.
Noise reduction for calls: MEMS microphone with digital signal processing (DSP) and full duplex echo noise reduction.
Charge connector: micro USB.
Charge time (maximum): 2.5 hours (power requirements 5V DC – 180 mA).
Battery type: Rechargeable, non-replaceable lithium-ion polymer.
Bluetooth v3.0: A2DP 1.2, AVRCP v1.5, wideband audio HFP v1.7, HSP v1.1. (Odd they still use v3.0, when v4.2 is available with its improved range and other benefits.)
Headset battery meter onscreen for iOS devices.
Weight: 19 g/0.67 oz.
Operating + storage temp: 14°F to 122°F/-10°C to +50°C.
Operating distance (range): Up to 33 ft/10 m from phone or tablet.


Bluetooth’s been around for almost twenty years, but didn’t make much of a splash in the headphones industry until fairly recently.  However, it’s come a long way since v1.0 came out. I remember the range being particularly bad in the old days, as well as those frequent dropouts due to low power output; now 33 feet broadcasts are common in Bluetooth v3.0. (Bluetooth v4.0 has 50 feet.) And dropouts? As with current RF headsets, they rarely happens.

First, before I say more about what you hear, this is what you see: snazzy looks. Plantronics has designed these headphones well.  If you manage to stick them deep into your ear canals, I found that they isolate ambient noise so well I couldn’t hear my wife ask me to clean the kitchen floor.  More importantly, you don’t have to jam them in anymore. They have these soft rubber flanges (“eartips”) that nestle against your antihelix (top of outer ear) so that they mostly can’t fall out, no matter how furiously you wiggle your head. They may feel insecure, but runners say that the buds stay in place even while jogging downhill. Impressive. I remember when earbuds were first released, they were so round and ill-fitting, it was a devil of a job to keep them in.

The inline controls are efficient, even more so than the specialized ones that work only on iPhones.  They let you adjust volume, skip tracks, take a call, or ask your smartphone to start running a playlist.  And a middle switch makes pausing easy.  You don’t have to load the music player on your device and mouse around for its software pause switch.

The BackBeat GO 3s are comfortable to wear, with a choice of three sizes of ear tips. I wish they’d included Comply memory foam tips, which really isolate noise.  Whenever I wear those, I can’t hear my own footsteps.

These headphones have generally clear sound, but only if you give them good solid music to emit.  I played Chrissie Hynde’s Stockholm album through them on my Sanyo tablet, and the sound is as perky as Hynde herself.  Bear in mind that I was playing the song in the MP3 format, which can produce unsatisfactory results.  The song “Dark Sunglasses” was recorded at 320kbps, which is the only bandwidth I’d ever use on files of this type. Somebody gave me Amy Winehouse’s signature song “Back to Black,” recorded at 192kbps, and the sound came through quite tinny.  Then I listened to the bop-style jazz of Lennie Tristano, who played primarily in the 1950s and 1960s. His cuts were in FLAC uncompressed format and sounded more full-bodied and engaging, particularly in such cuts as “Background Noise” and “My Melancholy Baby,” in which Tristano’s piano playing and Warne Marsh’s sax came through with a vengeance.

Like many earbuds in this price range, the bass is a bit weak.  The job gets done but just barely.  The midtones are much better, and that includes the lower midtones, a fact that somewhat compensates for that deficient low end.  The highs tend to be detailed without being too harsh, but this may depend on what you’re playing.  A high dynamic range piece like Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony (Ozawa, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, RCA Red Seal) places so many demands on a set of earbuds (particularly when I paired them to a computer) that I wouldn’t recommend playing it without some equalizer adjustment.  I found my recording of Shostakovich’s Eighth Sym. (Haitink, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Decca) fared better, reproducing detail without much harshness. The sound still didn’t reveal the subtle nuances like my Sennheiser RS-170s RF headphones does.

Plantronics provides a couple of other accessories you may like (with caveats):

  • An app that runs on iOS and Android. Primarily, it allows you to download new firmware, switch players, and run their HD Voice applet, which enhances dynamic range . . . somewhat. There’s not much more to it. Couldn’t they have grafted on a sound profile builder or a simple equalizer?
  • An optional charging case/pouch that’s useful after a long period of music playing.  The pouch provides a hefty eight hours charge; it takes about two hours. It’s a clever extra accessory, and well worth getting if you stray long distances away from a charger. Because of these reasons, it probably should be included in all shipments, not as an extra.

It’s too bad that these small headphones, and others even in higher price ranges, can’t improve substandard sound the way that sophisticated RF circumaural headphones can, like my Sennheisers.  (But even they can’t perform miracles.) The default software on tablets and phones doesn’t help either, with its noticeable lack of sound equalizers.  You will definitely miss some details in any MP3s, whose sound quality often sinks into the proverbial garbage-in, garbage-out quandary.  My advice is to start right off by playing WAV or FLAC files and small headphones like these will produce better output sound.

If you want to plunge into the tech-savvy and rapidly maturing world of Bluetooth headphones, the BackBeat GO 3 is a good place to start. Unlike circumaural headphones, they barely feel like you’re wearing them, as you traipse around your house away from your sources.

—Peter Bates

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