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Lifewire / Jason Schneider
Solid call quality
Great sound response
Impressive battery life
Lackluster fit and finish
Somewhat shaky setup process
Firmware update issues
With surprisingly good sound quality, and unsurprisingly good call quality, these are the true wireless earbuds for those Bluetooth headset junkies.
The Plantronics Backbeat Pro 5100 true wireless earbuds are a lot more than just earbuds—they are earbuds that aim to put call quality top of their list. These aren’t the best sounding earbuds around, nor are they the most stylish. But from a brand like Plantronics, that has staked its claim on the Bluetooth headset market, you’re likely looking at the on-board microphones as a marquis feature. The call quality really was superb on these earbuds, with a couple of caveats I’ll get into later in the review. Read on to hear how they fared in about a week’s worth of real-world testing.
These earbuds don’t really look all that special. When you put them in your ear, they’re essentially just glossy circles with the PLT logo on the outside. There is a small plastic grille around the outer edges that peeks out, but this is obviously housing the four-mic array at the center of Plantronics’ call quality.
The eartips themselves look a little different than you might expect, sporting a more Bose-style, flattened oval shape. However, the full construction of the eartips actually snaps physically into the earbud housing further up the back, extending it a little higher on the housing than usual. This provides some interesting points for fit, but also gives the earbud a distinct look on the backside.
The case sits somewhere between an Apple dental floss type and the flatter matchbook-style you get with a brand like Jabra. On looks alone, Plantronics isn’t trying to make any statements, choosing instead to toe a line between sleek/simple and utilitarian.
One of the most polarizing categories for a true wireless earbud is the physical fit in one’s ear. That makes sense because if you don’t get a good enough seal, you won’t get the best sound isolation and you could even risk dropping the earbud down onto the sidewalk. The Backbeat Pros don’t use standard, perfectly round silicone ear tips. Instead, their eartips are shaped more like flattened ovals—a shape fans of Bose will recognize. Unlike Bose, there’s no secondary point of contact like an ear wing or fin.
However, I found these earbuds to be mostly secure because the eartip doesn’t attach only at the edge of the earbuds’ enclosure. Instead of that grippy, rubbery material actually extends further up the cylindrical housing to coat the part that rests against the outside of your ear. This provides a subtle extra bit of stability in fit, and because the earbuds are only about 0.2 ounces like most in the range, that was plenty of grippiness for me. There are more ear tip sizes to choose from, too, in case you want a tighter or looser seal.
What impressed me most about sound quality on the Backbeats was how balanced they sounded. Many earbuds I’ve tried that offer a lot of volume tend to suffer in the midrange, giving you an ultimately muddy sound.
One area where the Backbeats definitely suffer a little is in the fit and finish. As is the case with a lot of Plantronics products, it seems an emphasis was put on functionality over style and build. For instance, the case closes with a springy, push-button clasp rather than a snappy magnet, so there’s a little more fumbling required to open it.
While there are magnets to keep the earbuds in place when inside the charging case because the eartips are so wide and the earbuds themselves are bigger than most, it takes a little more fiddling to get them lined up properly. The case’s plastic isn’t the most premium I’ve felt, and the rubber of the ear tips is a lot more prone to picking up dirt and grime than I’d like. There is IPX4 waterproofing in the earbuds, so workouts and light precipitation shouldn’t cause any concern. But if you want a premium-feeling product, these aren’t quite it.
The large, perfectly round construction of the Backbeat Pros gives me a bit of a clue as to why the sound quality is so excellent on these earbuds. This size and shape allows for a full 5.8mm driver in each earbud. That might not seem like much, but compared to a lot of competitors on the market, this is a lot bigger. A bigger driver means reasonably better bass response and fuller mids.
What impressed me most about sound quality on the Backbeat Pros was how balanced they sounded. Many earbuds I’ve tried that offer a lot of volume tend to suffer in the midrange, giving you an ultimately muddy sound. Whether I was listening to podcasts, heavy bass music like hip-hop or EDM, or was winding down with delicate folk tunes, the Backbeat Pros were right at home.
The good sound quality, in some ways, is surprising considering Plantronics is known almost exclusively as a headset brand, not a earbuds brand. But with four microphones, a degree of DSP to help isolate your voice during calls, and what Plantronics calls WindSmart technology, I can report that call quality is great. It is, perhaps, more detailed than you might expect, however. Some people I spoke with on the phone commented that they heard more detail on the call than they usually do, and it was a bit distracting. I also found that in noisy environments like the subway, the WindSmart tech seemed to be working hard, and this caused a bit of distortion. But overall, I was impressed.
With so much of an emphasis on call quality, and with the inclusion of four microphones and some more advanced digital signal processing to go with it, the batteries on-board need to be capable of handling a big power draw. There are 60mAh batteries in each of the earbuds, which is larger than you’d tend to see in true wireless earbuds, and there’s a massive 440mAh battery included in the charging case.
Plantronics clocks the totals in at about 6.5 hours with just the earbuds and 13 additional hours with the case (though the description does lower the 6.5 hours down to 4 hours in phone call talk time). I actually found these estimates to be a little bit conservative as I was tending to get almost 8 hours of standard listening on the earbuds alone. These totals are pretty impressive for true wireless earbuds, as even the gold standard AirPods provide about 24 hours of total listening time.
It’s particularly impressive because the sound quality the Backbeat Pros provide is so substantial, which would have otherwise led me to assume they’d suffer in battery life. One other quick note is that, though the battery case connects via micro USB and doesn’t give you an insanely fast charging time, Plantronics has optimized the case to give you about an hour of listening with a 10-minute charge—a fact that’s helpful if you’re rushing out the door and forgot to charge them up.
Setting up the Plantronics Backbeat Pro 5100 earbuds takes a little more doing than you want. Right out of the box, they were not fully charged, which meant that I had to plug them in before pairing. This is important because, at the starting stage, you need both earbuds to have a significant amount of charge for them to automatically go into pairing mode. Once set up, the Bluetooth connectivity is average compared to most of the earbuds I’ve tested.
While there is Bluetooth 5.0 on-board, and the latest hands-free audio profile (to match most of the Plantronics headset line), I found that in high-traffic areas, these earbuds were somewhat prone to interference and skipping.
This is, unfortunately, a common side effect of true wireless earbuds, because in most cases the technology requires Bluetooth connection between one earbud and your phone/computer, and then another connection to pass from that main earbud to the secondary one. This handoff is often prone to issues, so I can’t fault Plantronics too much on this. But, if you’re going to be in high traffic areas with lots of wireless connections, and lots of physical moving objects, these might give you some slight issues.
Plantronics clocks the totals in at about 6.5 hours with just the earbuds and 13 additional hours with the case (though the description does lower that 6.5 hours down to 4 hours in phone call talk time).
I was a little surprised to see such a glossy-looking app available with the Backbeat Pro 5100 headset. I’ve owned a few other Plantronics earbuds, and there was never a robust accompanying app. The Backbeat app is certainly not the most full-featured software out there— that crown goes to Sony. But there are some light customization options within the app, such as changing what each earbud’s tap function does, and there’s even a “Find My Headset” option. I also like how detailed you can get with the battery life totals. However, there don’t seem to be any EQ options and no transparent listening mode like some competitors.
On the “extra features” front, there are also a few of the usual suspects, such as the voice DSP for phone calls I mentioned earlier, and sensors on each earbud to detect whether they’re in your ear or not, pausing/playing music accordingly.
One final note of frustration is that, even though the Backbeat app prompts me to update the firmware on the earbuds, I was never able to actually do so. This doesn’t affect the performances of the buds, but having a firmware update get stuck in an install limbo requires you to remove and re-pair the earbuds via Bluetooth. It’s something I’d hope that Plantronics will solve as it doesn’t allow for a great user experience. Overall, I’m satisfied with the offering here, even though the Backbeat Pros don’t provide anything flashy like noise cancellation or transparent listening.
True wireless earbuds still occupy a premium category of tech products, so you have to adjust your expectations a little when it comes to how much earbuds like these cost. For about $169 at the time of this writing, I think they provide a good amount of value for the average consumer.
To put it in perspective, the more common Bose SoundSport Free earbuds go for about $200, with worse battery life but slightly better sound. $169 feels reasonable for the Backbeat Pro 5100 considering how good they sound, but it certainly isn’t a bargain.
Though Jabra has recently released an updated version of the 65t earbuds (called the 75t, naturally), I think the older generation matches up better with the Backbeat Pros. For one thing, both earbuds put call quality, a four-mic array, and voice DSP at the center of what they do. Both have a subpar battery case without any fancy fit or finish. The Jabra Elite 65t do provide some transparent listening modes, but the Backbeats have a better fit for my ears. Right now you can get the 65t earbuds for $20–30 less (see on Amazon) than the Backbeat Pros, thanks to the newer 75t.
Great true wireless earbuds for phone calls.
If call quality is your number one priority, but you also want a capable pair of true wireless earbuds, you’ll get a surprising amount of satisfaction with the Backbeat Pro 5100 earbuds. They aren’t the flashiest, fanciest, or best designed out there, but they hold their own in call quality (as expected) and sound quality (perhaps not as expected). As long as you don’t need a “premium” brand, you’ll find great value in this offering from Plantronics.