Review: Plantronics BackBeat Fit Bluetooth Wireless Headphones
One year ago, Plantronics stunned us with BackBeat GO 2, a pair of Bluetooth wireless earphones sold for a remarkable $80 entry price. This year, it's offering a new model called BackBeat Fit ($130), which despite a $50 premium actually is less appealing than its predecessor in several critical ways, while making improvements in others.
Designed for fitness buffs, BackBeat Fit trades GO 2’s canal-sealing design for a different earphone shape — larger, circular speakers with horn-like rubber earpieces that channel sound into your ears, but provide no ambient noise isolation. The left and right earphones are connected by a flat cable that runs behind your neck and over your ears; each earphone also has an integrated stabilizer made to nestle inside one of your outer ear ridges, reducing the chance that BackBeat Fit will slip off of your head accidentally. You can choose from two color schemes: black with neon green accents, or black with electric blue accents. The outer accents are reflective, and match an included carrying case that folds out to become a similarly reflective iPhone armband - a fine pack-in that won’t let you access the device’s screen or controls unless unzippered.
Although we’re not generally fans of headphones like these, BackBeat Fit is comfortable by the standards of its genre. The semi-rigid stems above your ears are atypically soft thanks to rubberized coating, and the connecting neckband is just taut enough to be non-intrusive when walking or running. Users with extra small or large heads and/or ears may have some objection to the band length or ear stabilizers — there’s no way to adjust either of them — but we found both to be reasonable compromises.
Plantronics doesn’t pack in different sizes of ear tips, but does include a micro-USB cable to charge the unit’s eight-hour battery. BackBeat Fit promises 14 days of standby time, and retains power for up to six months when not paired. This added run time is BackBeat Fit’s single biggest advantage over BackBeat GO 2, which ships with a 4.5-hour battery, though Plantronics notably offers a $100 version of GO 2 that adds 10 hours of battery life via a packed-in case. It’s also worth noting that Fit’s wireless receiver works reliably well past the promised 33-foot distance; we were around 60 feet away before the signal began to drop out.
Our biggest issue with BackBeat Fit is sonic performance for the price point: in short, it’s not as impressive as its less expensive predecessor. Due to Fit’s one-size-fits-all earbud design, you’ll never get a proper seal between your ear and the tiny speakers, which makes music sound distant, bass-anemic, and somewhat radio-like by comparison with the sound-isolating GO 2 design. You’ll have no problem hearing your music, particularly if you push your device up to its peak volume level, but you definitely won’t enjoy anything approximating audiophile-quality sound. Users familiar with fitness headphones might not be surprised by this, and may even be fine with it — sealing one’s ears against ambient sounds means that bike riders can’t hear nearby cars, for instance — but despite stable wireless streaming and a lack of static, music just sounds flatter through Fit than it does through GO 2.
Apart from longer integrated battery life, the other noteworthy improvement in BackBeat Fit relative to GO 2 is phone calling performance. Although Fit’s talk time drops from the eight hours of music playback time to six hours for calling, the microphone issue we noted in GO 2 — a tendency for the microphone to become unresponsive in strong wind outdoors - isn’t an issue with Fit, though our test caller described us as sounding somewhat muffled during indoor and outdoor calls. You’ll sound better during phone calling using Apple’s free EarPods.
Fit also has somewhat awkward integrated controls, a step down from the bar-shaped three-button remote unit found on GO 2’s cable. While play/pause and phone call/Siri features each get large, dedicated circular buttons on Fit’s sides, Plantronics uses a super-thin ring and pinky fingernail-sized ridge for the power button, with another similarly tiny ridge on the other earpiece as a volume button. Tap the button and the volume keeps going up; hold it down and the volume steps downwards. We would never have guessed these buttons’ features without looking at a manual, and even after learning how they worked, we didn’t like the way they felt. It’ll take you at least a few tests before you remember which of the earphones contains the power button. (Hint: it’s not the side with the play/pause controls.)
Overall, BackBeat Fit is a good rather than great pair of wireless fitness headphones. They accomplish the key things one might hope for — solid wireless performance, reasonable stability, and comfort during fitness uses — and deliver enough sound quality that you’ll be able to hear music and make phone calls even when you’re outdoors. The included device-agnostic armband is good enough to use when needed, though far from the best we’ve seen for specific iPhone or iPod models. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a truly great pair of indoor wireless earphones, you’ll be better off with BackBeat GO 2, which offers a superior sonic experience at a better price point.