PLANTRONICS BACKBEAT PRO 5100

The “Pro” moniker is really starting to get annoying.

I have A LOT of headphones and earbuds…and over the last year and a half, the count of “truly wireless earbuds” in my collection has grown more than any other tech. 

I recently tested the Jabra Elite 75t earbuds, Jabra’s update to the 65t, and was completely blown away.  Even last year’s 65t buds were great, and what was most exciting to me at the time was that they were as good as they were without being made by Bose, Beats, Jaybird, or any of the other frequently touted front runner brands (that also come with premium price tags).

Also exciting to me was that it was Jabra, who I had become familiar with because of their incredible business-class wireless headsets which I’ve used at several of my jobs over the years.  And in much the same way, Plantronics has been there for me in the past when I need to make clear calls at work—so a truly wireless offering from them was particularly compelling.

The case itself is of decent size; it has a physical (mechanical) button that opens the case, and the buds are secured in the case by magnets.  The shape of the buds is like many of the truly wireless buds being released now, designed to fit into the outer portion of your ear securely without the need for fins or hooks.  The tips of the buds have silicone funnels that help with noise isolation as well as comfort, since they don’t go too deeply into your ear canal.  The case charges via micro USB (because it’s not almost 2020 or anything…), and everything about the design of the case and the buds screams “understated.”

There are multiple ear tip sizes in the case as well; most often, I comfortably wear the “medium” size of ear tips on new ear buds, but I had to switch these out for the large ones to help keep everything in place.  Once that change was made, they were relatively secure.  They are by no means the tightest fit I’ve experienced in buds, but they are held in my ears just well enough to remain comfortable for a long, long time: this is probably one of the best features of these earbuds.  The buds also contain four exterior microphones to help with active noise cancelation…but more on that later.

On to the sound profile…this is entirely, frustratingly, terribly vanilla.  In most cases, I look forward to an earbud with a relatively flat sound profile, so that I can tweak and adjust with the companion app to my particular listening preferences (I find that bass-heavy headphones can become a bit unwieldly in the lower registers, and it’s nice to leave it simple so each person can customize. 

But, with the unchanged, flat sound profile, not surprisingly, the lows are….there, I guess.  It’s more of a “heard, not felt” feeling for most bass heavy music; when I hear the bass, I know that’s what the artist intended based on the sound, but I’m not entirely convinced.  It’s a very weird experience, to say the least, and unique to these headphones for me.  It’s not an absence of bass—but it’s far from a convincing presence for sure.  The mids and highs are just as plain; everything comes through clearly, but the sound is not exactly what I would call rich; the soundstage is kind of boring.  For what it’s worth, they get pretty loud, and the sound holds together remarkably well at max volume, but it’s not an exciting experience. 

So, I thought, maybe the app will help. 

Nope. 

The app is closer to a practical joke than it is a helpful tool.  No equalizer or sound customization of any kind.  No adjustments to the noise cancelation (pass through audio, no noise cancelation, etc).  There is some customization allowed to the controls on the buds, for instance, you can adjust it from default to launch voice assistant or start a timer (because that’s a super important function for my earbuds to support), a couple other uninteresting features (like changing the primary bud from one to the other….yes, these can be used individually), and that’s it.

The noise cancelation is OK at best. In quieter environments, you can very clearly hear a hiss, and in louder environments, you wonder if it even has noise canceling capabilities at all.  And because there’s no ability to customize the level of noise canceling, it’s hard to really know how well it does.  Honestly, with the included tips the passive noise isolation is quite good, but that’s about the end of the “good” features.

Typically, when I talk to others about wireless earbuds or headphones, I tell them they should buy them if they want great sound quality for recipients of phone calls…we’re just not (yet) to a place where this is a great experience.  But, because of the brand name, I had to try it out…but I was disappointed in that area as well: callers reported significantly more background noise when compared to using just my phone or a wired headset, and when compared side by side with the Jabra Elite 75t, callers indicated my voice seemed “farther away and quieter” on the Plantronics headset.

So, at least they’re cheap, right? 

Nope. 

At $170, they’re right in the thick of their competition…but I don’t think you’re going to like these more than that competition, namely the Jabra Elite 75t which is only $10 more (but far, far better). 

I think more than anything else, I built these up in my mind to be another really great option for those looking to get into the truly wireless market, and maybe that wasn’t fair.  But, at the end of the day, I just can’t recommend them over other options at a similar price point.  Even on sale, last year’s Elite 65t from Jabra outperform the Backbeats Pro 5100 handily.

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