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Plantronics BackBeat 903 Review

Plantronics BackBeat 903 17

What’s under review: Plantronics BackBeat 903 Stereo Bluetooth Headset, MSRP $99.95, current street price approx $60-90

What we like: Excellent sound quality; lightweight and comfortable to wear for extended periods even with glasses; easy to learn controls

What we’d like to change: Can be fiddly to put on intially; we would prefer separate track skip and volume controls

Our verdict: An excellent contender; the BackBeat 903 should be high up on the shortlist of anyone looking for an in-ear stereo Bluetooth headset

Our full review follows the video summary:

Plantronics has plenty of history in the Bluetooth market, including several stereo headsets in its Pulsar 260/590 ranges and the recent Voyager 855 hybrid design.  Plantronics upped the ante in when it paired up (Bluetooth pun intended) with its subsidiary Altec Lansing to release the BackBeat 903 and 906 models.  The BackBeat 903 was subsequently named as a CES Innovations Design and Engineering Awards Honoree in November.  While we had only listened to the BackBeat in noisy environments previously, Plantronics was kind enough to send us a BackBeat 903 so we could spend some quality time getting more acquainted.

First impressions of the Plantronics BackBeat 903

Let’s start by clarifying the difference between the BackBeat 903 and 906.  These are Plantronics BackBeat 903 1essentially the same headset capable of hands-free call management, audio streaming using A2DP and remote control using AVRCP.  The difference between the BackBeat 903 and 906 is that the latter ships with a headphone plug Bluetooth transmitter, so that it can be used with non-Bluetooth devices.  So our review of the BackBeat 903 will cover the 906 as well, just not the headphone plug transmitter.  There will be occasional comparisons along the way to the Motorola S9-HD, which is a similar lightweight in-ear headset design.

Taking the BackBeat 903 out of its box, it’s immediately apparent how light the headset really is.  Since it has a built-in battery like most headsets, what you feel is what you get from the first moment.  The BackBeat 903 is two solid units, one at each ear, connected by a flexible but substantial cable so there’s minimal weight apart from the earpieces.  There is also a certain mount of flex in the earpieces along with a clever telescoping design which allows the wearer to make them fit snugly.  The exterior end of the earpieces house the controls while the business end has a rubber fitting which directs sound into the ear.

The right earpiece hosts music playback controls; play, pause, track skip and volume.  Play/pause is controlled a button, which also activates a bass boost when held in.  The track skip and volume control is a rocker switch, with a Plantronics BackBeat 903 5quick flick engaging a volume change and a longer hold activating a track skip.  While this arrangement works, it makes track selection a little slower than ideal as you need to hold the rocker in place for a couple of seconds for the BackBeat 903 to register a track skip instead of a volume change.  We prefer the setup on the Motorola S9-HD which has separate controls on the left and right earpieces for volume and track selection.

There’s less going on at the left side where the call button and microphone live, which could explain the reason why there is no rocker on that side as it would interfere with the microphone placement.

On the back of the left unit is the BackBeat’s power button with a red/blue status light, along with the charging port.  The BackBeat 903 gets it juice through a micro USB connection, high praise to Plantronics for choosing USB over a proprietary connector.  This is great for owners when away from home as the headset can be charged from a standard USB cable or a micro USB phone charger.

Setting up the Plantronics BackBeat 903

Pairing the BackBeat 903 is a simple process, initiated by holding the power button until the headset is in pairing mode and then searching for it on a Bluetooth enabled device.  During the pairing process the BackBeat 903 advertises it hands-free, audio streaming (A2DP) and remote control (AVRCP) services to the device and most modern Bluetooth enabled phones should be able to make use of all three.  During testing I successfully paired the BlackBerry Bold and T-Mobile Dash with the BackBeat 903.

Something to bear in mind for iPhone owners is that although A2DP support was recently added to the iPhone, the AVRCP implementation is incomplete and the iPhone does not support track skip over Bluetooth AVRCP.  I have had correspondence from many iPhone owners who have bought a stereo headset and believe its track skip function is faulty, whereas in fact the headset is working correctly and the issue is the incomplete implementation of AVRCP on  the iPhone.  Hopefully Apple will rectify this.  So iPhone owners can use the BackBeat 903, but the track skip function will not respond.  This is correct and is not an issue with the BackBeat 903.

Wearing the Plantronics BackBeat 903

We tend to wear stereo Bluetooth headsets for longer durations than mono designs, as we use them to listen to music over a sustained period of time rather than for brief calls.  Consequently comfort is important; nobody wants to spend big bucks on a headset which ends up hurting their ears after extended use or being unwearable with glasses.

Plantronics BackBeat 903 19

Motorola S9-HD on the left, Plantronics BackBeat 903 on the right

As with many headsets since you can’t actually see yourself, the BackBeat 903 was initially fiddly to put on but the action quickly became second nature.  This was similar with the Motorola S9-HD, although  that headset is easier to get accustomed to as it has a more rigid design.  The BackBeat 903 feels both light and secure when worn, and also surprised me by accommodating my sunglasses with ease.  The S9-HD by comparison only allows for glasses to be worn resting above the headset’s earpieces.

I found the BackBeat 903 to be comfortable for extended listening periods, causing no uncomfortable stress on my ears.

Making calls with the Plantronics BackBeat 903

Once the BackBeat 903 is paired to a phone, making a call is simply a case of dialling a number and letting the phone engage the headset.  The BackBeat 903 can also initiate a redial of the last number and also supports voice dialling.  If a call comes in during music playback then pressing the call button on the left earpiece will accept the call and pause music playback.

Call quality was very good within controlled indoor environments, with voices coming clearly through the headset.  Call recipients could also hear me well.  As expected there was degradation in noisy outdoor environments, where the microphone had more difficulty picking out my voice, but the BackBeat 903 still managed to do its job.

Listening to music with the Plantronics BackBeat 903

Music playback is more likely to be a primary driver for buying the BackBeat 903 and this headset really sings.  Listening indoors with the bass boost off, the BackBeat 903 delivers an open, driving and energetic sound which encourages extended and sometimes enthusiastic listening (read “dance fans will love this headset”).  Uniting Nations’ Ai No Corrida bounced through the BackBeat 903 with firmly resolved bass and clear treble, with none of the muddy low end which can plague some headphones.  Sugarland’s Everyday America sounded clean and open, while even at low volume Jorge Ben Jor’s Mas Que Nada was engaging.

Plantronics BackBeat 903 6Turning the bass boost on certainly gave the bass a boost, but indoors it was not necessary and led to some muddiness of the low end.  However outside where the ambient noise of New York streets masked some of the bass frequencies, the bass boost actually helped to provide a more balanced sound.

Comparing directly to the Motorola S9-HD, which incidentally sound great in isolation, the BackBeat 903 has a more open sound and allows the listener to hear more of the music.  After listening to the BackBeat 903, the S9-HD sounded a little muddier at the low end and not quite as clear in the treble range.  That’s not to say the S9-HD is a poor headset, it’s actually very good, but the BackBeat 903 was the headset I kept reaching back for.  The bass boost on the BackBeat 903 was also less heavy handed that the SRS WOW enhancement of the S9-HD.

The playback, track skip and volume controls worked well and correctly paused and resumed music when a call came in.  I would have preferred a separate track skip control to avoid having it combined with the volume control, similar to how the S9-HD which puts the separate controls on the left and right earpieces.  This might have made track selection quicker, as the rocker needs to be held in place for a while before the BackBeat 903 engages track selection.  I hope that perhaps I could skip multiple tracks by holding the rocker in place but this only skipped two tracks at a time, so skipping a track or two works fine but browsing a whole playlist can take longer than it might on other headsets.

Walking around with the Plantronics BackBeat 903

Stereo Bluetooth headsets can be more picky about device placement than mono headsets because they need to receive a constant data stream to deliver uninterrupted music.  Every stereo headset I’ve used responds slightly Plantronics BackBeat 903 8differently to this challenge.  The Sony DR-BT50 for example doesn’t like crossing wide roads, while the Motorola S9-HD prefers you to walk close to other objects.  Some headsets have more capacious buffers than other to compensate for occasional transmission dropouts.

Like its competitors the BackBeat 903 works best when you learn its placement preferences.  I found that with my phone in my top pocket I had a great experience walking outdoors listening to music on the BackBeat 903.  However as I move my phone to my trouser pocket it struggled to deliver a consistent transmission to the headset, which is the same experience as with the Motorola S9-HD.

Indoors within the same room as the phone, the BackBeat 903 held a strong signal.  As I introduced walls between my phone and the headset, there were occasional dropouts as would be expected.  Subtle pitch changing was also noticeable as, like many other headsets, the BackBeat 903 attempted to compensate for a weak transmission by time stretching the music stored in its buffer.

Is the Plantronics BackBeat 903 a music legend?

As a lightweight stereo Bluetooth headset the BackBeat 903 is an excellent choice, delivering superb sound quality and good comfort over long listening periods.

Neil Berman


Feb 27, 2010 - Posted by | Audio, Hardware, Mobile, Reviews, Video Features | , , , , , ,


  1. Hi, I want to know if the in ear aislament of noise, its better or equals that the S9HD please

    Comment by Rodrigo | Jun 7, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Rodrigo, not sure what you mean…are you asking if the BackBeat 903 keeps external noise out better than the S9HD?

      Comment by theONbutton | Jun 8, 2010 | Reply

    • if i wanna use those headphnes for talkin the mesenger, it works or not?

      Comment by enrique | Jun 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. In Ipod Touch??

    Comment by Rodrigo | Jun 10, 2010 | Reply

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