The world of high quality wireless audio is rife with overwhelming bottom lines, products that cost users several hundred dollars and more than a modicum of buyer’s remorse. Like many consumer electronics, top-notch audio equipment (both wired and not) comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and price ranges, but cutting through the noise to find a product that is both high in quality and value can feel like a goose chase.
One company hoping to help users find their way is Plantronics. A leader in the world of communications hardware for more than 50 years, the company has made a name for itself in consumer headphones in recently, specifically by offering high quality wireless cans that don’t break the bank. You’ll often find its BackBeat Pro 2s on best wireless headphones lists for their combination of style, features and knockout price. The BackBeat 500s are the sportier, on-ear brother of the Pro 2s, and they offer a similarly enticing package for just $79.
Though a great value, the hardware of the BackBeat 500s doesn’t belie their price; everything here is plastic. On a budget smartphone, that fact would be worthy of a complaint or two but, in headphones, opting for plastic has a lot of benefits besides reducing cost. There are numerous higher-ticket cans using plastic construction, so you can’t lambast Plantronics for the choice it made and, really, there’s no reason to.
The plastic build is durable and, most importantly, light. The 500s are superbly comfortable, thanks in no small part to how light they are atop your head. I have long been an avoider of the on-ear form factor as they tend to squish down my ears, making hearing an issue, and cause more pain and discomfort than they can make up for with features. Plantronics’ on-ear cans are the best I’ve ever worn. The memory foam earcups are not enormous, but do a great job working in tandem with the light frame to offer great comfort over long listening periods. In the past, even with on-ears claiming to be at the forefront of comfort, I would have to take a break after an hour or two to stretch (or wiggle) my ears. Not so here.
They are also quite flexible thanks to the plastic, which should help with fit, but I have serious concerns in that regard. I have an average-to-small head and thus never have trouble with fit when it comes to headphones. Usually, I don’t even need to lower the earcups. With the 500s, however, I had to fully extend the arms in order for the cups to rest on my ears comfortably. If I left them suppressed, they barely covered the top half. For those who have large, or even medium sized heads, these present a serious problem.
Aside from that concern, nothing about the hardware gives me pause. I am not a fan of the grey and lime green design our review unit came in, but luckily, the 500s are offered in two other colors, White and Dark Grey, that offer a far more reserved look. The controls on the left earcup are responsive and easy to use, and Bluetooth pairing was a breeze. They can be connected to two different sources at the same time, and do a great job automatically pairing with devices the minute the on switch is flipped. Though they only boast a Bluetooth range of 10 meters, I had little trouble with connection when walking around my apartment, which has a host of walls and older construction materials that often mean trouble for connections. Certainly, you’re still likely to have some of the headaches all modern Bluetooth products present, but these performed better in this respect than some other wireless headphones I’ve used in the past.
Battery life is also quite good. Plantronics advertises 18 hours of listening time, and I’d venture to say they hit, if not exceed that number. I used them for roughly a dozen hours before the friendly voice that alerts you of the battery level when you power them on said anything other than “Battery: High.” That was about a week of heavy use for me, so I’d gather you could get several weeks out of the 500s with normal use, depending on how often you utilize your headphones.
Though the BackBeat 500s are looking like a solid value buy up to this point, the value argument isn’t complete until we mention sound. It’s not uncommon to find Plantronics’ headphones lauded for the sound they’re able to produce, and that’s not without reason. The 500s continue the company’s success in that regard by offering clean, well-rounded audio. They are not going to blow you away with detail, but the 40mm drivers do a respectable job delivering audio with well represented highs and mids and a healthy amount of low end. I like a bit of extra bass in my sound, and was pleasantly surprised to find the 500s able to deliver the bombast of Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA.” but also the ethereal vocals of Banks on “Crowded Places.” For $80, what you get here is a pair of cans that perform well no matter the genre or situation, and there’s not much more you can ask than that.
If you were to up your budget, you could find headphones with better detail, a wider soundstage and a more immersive sound. If I had my druthers, I would choose a pair like Blue’s Ella over the BackBeat 500s every day. But the former are $700. For the steep $620 discount you get by choosing Plantronics’ on-ear cans, the audio offered doesn’t sound that far behind.
Comparing those two isn’t really fair, and if you were to sit down and listen to the same song on each, there would be a clear, undeniable victor. My point is this: Plantronics has made a pair of headphones with the BackBeat 500s that offer audio quality you’ll be happy with, and you’ll have an extra few hundred dollars in your pocket to affirm your choice. If you want bigger and better and have the budget to make it happen, you can find superior sound. But, if you’re looking to be frugal without much sacrifice, these headphones are a great option.