Review: Altec Lansing BackBeat 903 Wireless Stereo Headphones
With BackBeat 903 ($100), its first pair of wireless headphones to bear the BackBeat name, Altec Lansing has just moved into seriously interesting territory at precisely the right time. Thanks to iPhone OS 3.0, certain iPhones and iPod touches have gained the ability to perform stereo music wirelessly using Bluetooth, going beyond the iPhones' previous ability to use monaural Bluetooth earpieces for telephone calling. BackBeat 903 is a lightweight, simple pair of stereo Bluetooth headphones that work for both telephone calls and music, switching smoothly between the two features. While the fit and styling will appeal more to some users than others, 903's performance and general concepts are steps in the right direction for the future of wireless headsets.
Altec packages 903 about as simply as possible: a power adapter is included for easy recharging, but nothing else; the headphones are what they are. They come with sculpted cone-like rubber earpieces built in, channeling their 14mm speaker drivers’ sound in the general direction of your ear canals, and have telescoping, swiveling arms that can be stretched and repositioned to fit your ears. Each of the black headphones looks more than a little like monaural Bluetooth earpieces sold by Altec’s parent company Plantronics, minus their wand-like extending microphones; BackBeat 903 insteed includes an all but invisible dual microphone array inside the circular earpiece, enabling AudioIQ background noise filtering. Text and icons on the headset are a mix of silver and gold, the latter continuing Altec’s recent black and gold design motif.
On positive notes, the earpieces fit over and on the ear about as well as most of the common over-ear monaural Bluetooth earphones we’ve tested, and don’t feel heavy or uncomfortable. The right earpiece has a play/pause button that works to start music, and the left earpiece has a separate button that can take or end calls. A three-position, spring-loaded switch under the right earbud can be tweaked to change the volume level, or—with certain devices, just not the iPhone or iPod touch—used to change tracks. Altec’s black neck wire is rubberized, thick enough to feel durable, and basically unintrusive. The headset isn’t sexy in any way, but it’s also not ridiculous, either.
BackBeat 903’s earpieces enable Altec to incorporate some components that will benefit many iPod touch 2G and iPhone users. First, there’s a more powerful than average Bluetooth chip inside, capable of working at distances of roughly 60 feet from the iPhone 3GS before the signal starts to break up on both sides of a phone call; at distances of roughly 30 feet, callers reported hearing a little inoffensive static on their end, as well. The Bluetooth chip uses the 2.1 standard, pairing very easily—PIN-free—with all of Apple’s devices, and apparently drawing less power when used with 2.1-compatible products such as the iPhone 3GS. Up to seven hours of battery life for talk or listening are promised, and we ran 903 for comparably extended periods without needing a recharge.
Sonically, BackBeat 903 is a good performer, all things considered. Both monaural telephone and stereo Bluetooth music are clear, limited more by the tiny, inexpensive speakers and their positioning than the wireless connection. Unless you activate the bass boost feature, expect sound quality similar to Apple’s included wired iPod and iPhone earphones when you’re listening, minus a little in the bass department; turning bass boost on unfortunately results in unpleasant distortion, so we’d leave it off. Microphone quality is only a little off Apple’s packed-in hardware: callers reported that there was a slight treble boost for intelligibility, and that our voices sounded a little more compressed when heard through the headset, but good overall. There’s also a feature called OpenMic, which lets you hear your surroundings rather than the music that’s streaming wirelessly.
OpenMic and other control oddities are one of BackBeat 903’s two issues. When used with an iPhone 3G or 3GS, pressing the play/pause button to pause activates OpenMic and pauses the iPhone, while the iPod touch 2G activates OpenMic and cuts off the music without pausing it. As with other Bluetooth headsets, the track control buttons don’t work at all, apparently due to Apple’s lack of support for a Bluetooth remote control protocol. The other issue is more significant: like many of the over-the-ear Bluetooth headsets we’ve tested, the snugness and fit of BackBeat 903 can’t compare with in-ear headphones, and the sound quality will seemingly vary from person to person due to the shape and location of the earpieces relative to a specific user’s ear canals.
Overall, BackBeat 903 offers a number of very real advantages to users looking for wireless stereo Bluetooth music and calling headphones, including impressive broadcasting capabilities, a design that’s acceptable visually, and a reasonable price tag; its caveats are mostly in fit and secondarily in control, the latter an issue that Apple will hopefully sort out. If you’re willing to take a shot and see whether this pair of earphones will fit on and around your ears, you’ll almost certainly find the sound quality, weight, and battery life to be acceptable until the next major breakthrough in Bluetooth headphone technology comes along.