Short tech takes

Review: Two lightweight headphones for music-loving travelers

The feature-filled BackBeat Sense and low-cost Moto Pulse both offer good on-ear listening.

melody
Credit: OpenClipart-Vectors

First, let me admit: I haven't, until recently, been a user of headphones. I've always found them heavy, awkward and isolating; as a result, I've never enjoyed the close-up audio experience that they offer.

That, however, may change.

Two lightweight and relatively low-cost Bluetooth headphones recently hit the shelves: the BackBeat Sense from Plantronics and the Moto Pulse from Motorola. These offer on-ear (not over-the-ear) listening, along with built-in microphones for phone calls and ear cups that can be rotated flat for easy packing.

These are not complete equivalents. The BackBeat Sense lists for $180, three times the $60 price of the Moto Pulse. With that in mind, how do they compare?

BackBeat Sense

backbeat white

BackBeat Sense

Plantronics is a company that is centered on sound; its portfolio includes high-end wired headphones for gaming, wireless audio gear for athletes and a variety of headsets for business. The BackBeat Sense is a lower-cost and lighter-weight version of the company's premium Bluetooth headphones, the BackBeat Pro.

The Sense is a very nicely designed device that is simple to use, even for non-audiophiles; it comes either in black with brown highlights, or white with tan highlights. The two ear cups are protected by plastic coverings over memory foam; the same materials are used for an elastic band that stretches under the flexible metal band holding the headphones together. The result is a very comfortable fit.

Plantronics has obviously learned that it's the little things that make a device worthwhile to the consumer. The left and right ear cups have large "L" and "R" letters picked out on the inside plastic, making it immediately obvious which goes on which ear. The volume control on the rim of the left ear cup is easy to find and moves circularly back and forth to raise or lower the volume. A small indented button on the outside of that ear cup lets you play or pause, while slightly raised symbols on either side of the button allow you to move forward or back a track.

The right ear cup, meanwhile, has the power switch on its rim, while a button at the outer center lets you make or stop a call. Hold it down, and you can activate Google Now (or whatever other voice assistant you use).

There are other features that I would classify under "unnecessary, but really handy." A small red button under the left ear cup activates an inline mic so you can hear external sounds (something that this paranoid New Yorker liked having). The device also includes sensors that can detect when you take the headphones off and put them on again, and will then pause or restart the audio.

According to Plantronics, the Sense will last up to 18 hours of wireless streaming and up to 21 days in standby. It also comes with something called Deep Sleep mode, which goes into effect if the headphones haven't been paired for more than 90 minutes and which is supposed to keep the batteries charged for up to 180 days.

The company says that the headphones have a range of about 330 feet from the audio source; I didn't test it that far, but it did very well walking around my house and leaving my phone in place.

The Sense also comes with a cable for non-Bluetooth audio devices and a travel bag.

Audio quality

The Sense may not offer the same level of audio quality as higher-end devices, but what I heard, I liked. I tried it with a range of musical types; the sound was clean and distinct, with a great deal of detail in the quiet solos and very satisfactory (if not fabulous) basses in the heavy rock selection. For on-ear headphones, they perform very nicely indeed. There was some distortion at higher volumes, but not much.

One thing: I did notice that when it reconnected to at least one of my devices, there was often about 10 seconds of slight skipping in the audio before the connection was complete. There was no trouble with the sound after that.

Unlike its BackBeat Pro sibling, the Sense doesn't come with active noise cancellation, so you're going to get a little more background noise during phone calls. When I took a phone call, my caller's voice was a bit tinny and she reported the same, but it was certainly adequate to hold a fairly lengthy conversation without any strain at either end.

Bottom line

The $180 BackBeat Sense comes with a wide variety of easy-to-access features; I also found it a very comfortable fit and was quite happy with the sound quality. If you're not an audiophile but simply want a good, reasonably priced set of on-ear headphones for your cubicle or travel, the BackBeat Sense is definitely something I'd consider.

Moto Pulse

moto pulse black Motorola

Moto Pulse

Motorola is, of course, best known among consumers for its smartphones (such as the Moto X and Moto G) and has recently introduced a number of other products, including a new version of its Moto 360 smartwatch and the Moto Pulse, a pair of lightweight on-ear headphones that sell for $60. For that price, you're not going to get the same features as in something like the BackBeat Sense -- but the Pulse does offer a nice low-cost alternative.

The Pulse is available in white (or "chalk" as the company calls it) or black. The metal headband is covered by layers of foam and fabric, while the plastic ear-cups are cushioned sufficiently to protect your ears. That being said, I didn't find the Pulse terribly comfortable; it took a while to adjust them, and while I did finally get them to a point where I could wear them for a time, they always felt a little snug against my ears.

Interestingly, while the Pulse actually weighs less than the Sense (about 3.9 oz. as opposed to the Sense's 4.9 oz.), it feels heavier, probably because the headband itself lies directly on your head. As with the Sense, the cups rotate flat so you can wear them around your neck or pack them in your suitcase.

Also like the Sense, the Pulse offers a maximum of 18 hours of play time; its range is a shorter (but perfectly adequate) 60 feet.

The headphones offer basic controls, all of which are located on the right ear cup. The power, volume and play/pause buttons, as well as the USB port (for powering up the Pulse), are all on the rim of the right ear cup, while an indicator LED is on its back. The left and right ear cups are labeled with small letters on the inside of the band (and are subsequently a little hard to find).

Audio quality

As you probably guessed, the sound quality was not at the same level as the Sense, but for something at this price point, it quite good indeed. There was all the volume you'd want without much distortion at the higher levels and the sound was clean and reasonably detailed. Although the bass line wasn't quite as distinct as you'd get with a higher-end pair of headphones, it was, quite frankly, better than I expected.

Interestingly, when I used the Pulse during a phone call, the audio at my end was a bit muddy, but my caller reported that my voice was recognizably clearer and less tinny than when we spoke using the Sense.

Bottom line

The $60 Moto Pulse offers good sound quality and simple controls, especially for the price, and could be a fine possibility for somebody looking for a low-cost pair of headphones. It also has a good mic, something to keep in mind if you'll be fielding a lot of business calls. However, I found it uncomfortable to wear for any length of time; I'd suggest that you might want to try it out at a local store before buying.

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