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MWC: (Quick) review: Altec (Plantronics) 903 / 906 A2DP Bluetooth headphones – wowz, they rule! + Sennheiser

Guest Menneisyys

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Guest Menneisyys

Altec Lansing, a branch of Plantronics, revealed their brand new A2DP Bluetooth headphones, the Backbeat 903 (without a Bluetooth transmitter dongle) and the 906 (with a dongle) in early January (see THIS for the report). The new model has just hit the shelves for $100 and $130, respectively. That is, they aren't particularly cheap - but, it seems, they are worth every penny.

Just like the Gear4 BluPhones reviewed in my last, very thorough roundup (A REAL, MULTIPLATFORM Bluetooth stereo (A2DP) headphones roundup: FIVE headphones), this is an earbud model with a flexible, thin neck-band.

At MWC (more specifically, MobileFocus, which is an invitation-only [meant only for the best tech writers and the like, not for the Average Joes] party on, traditionally, the first day of MWC), I've been given such a set.



(Altec Lansing's / Plantronics' booth. The shots also show how the headphones look when worn.)

Frankly, given the low maximum volume and not the best frequency response of the Gear4 BluPhones (or, in general, anything earbud), I didn’t have high hopes of the new model before starting to test it. I was absolutely sure that, simply because of the design, it just won’t be able to match the audio quality of the alternatives (including Plantronics’ earlier models: I expected both the supra-aural Pulsar 590 and the canalphone (in-ear monitor) Voyager 855 deliver a much better audio quality simply because, physically, the technique they utilize is far superior to anything “simple” earbuds are able to deliver.)

How wrong I was! I simply couldn’t believe my eyes when listening to this set of headphones. It delivers very good bass – and the maximal volume is pretty nice too! Also, the headphones are really easy to wear. If you are into A2DP, you will want to give these headphones a try - they are, as it seems (don't forget I haven't run the very time-consuming battery life and call compatibility tests as yet) certainly worth it.

In the following, I provide a list of the pros and cons. Please consult my earlier A2DP-related articles (start with THIS) for more info on the testing methologies and the compatibility and other problems earlier Plantronics models had. I, for example, won’t explain here what for example the Symbian compatibility problems have been.

Nope that I surely post a more detailed follow-up to this article as soon as I make some real battery life and recharging time, handsfree mode compatibility and quality, in-street signal stability (something for example the Gear4 Bluphones severely fail at) etc. tests (the current article “only” discusses A2DP quality and compatibility, not that of “simple” calls).


- Unbelievably good sound quality; most importantly, great basses – and all this in a “plain” earbud model!

- Much higher maximal volume than with some? all? of the earbud alternatives (tested against the Gear4 Bluphones)

- Built-in, easily (de)activeable megabass – you don’t need to fish out your phone to change the equalizer settings

- Easy to wear, unlike, say, the HT820

- People who hate canalphones (in-ear monitors) like the Plantronics Voyager 855, will be delighted to see this pair of headphones is an earbud; that is, no problems associated with earbud will be present

- As it’s not a supra-aural (like the Pulsar 590) pair of headphones either, problems (in cases, too thick – see the “Leila Morgana” HT820 –; “teenager-like”, easy to spot, “non-professional looking”; ears getting too hot on warm days; in cases, hard to wear) associated with them aren’t present either

- At last, fully compatible with Symbian phones (this has been problematic with Plantronics’ all three earlier A2DP headphones). Of course, it’s 100% compatible with the BlackBerry 4.2+ and the two (Microsoft and Widcomm) Windows Mobile BT stacks – as has always been the case with all the previous Plantronics headphones.

- Seems to be more weatherproof than the Pulsar 590; the latter had the recharger shot at the top. A single drop of water was sufficient to render the entire pair of headphones useless. The new phone seems to be more weatherproof.

- Standard microUSB charger (as opposed to the 590 sporting a proprietary one)

- It doesn’t weigh much (34g; I’ve measured this myself too)

- No annoying LED blinking on either the headphones or the dongle; it is only lit when you press (some of) the button(s). In this respect, it’s way better than the Pulsar 590 and the Pulsar 260.

- Considerably lower processing lag (delay) when used together with the dongle compared to the previous models – now, you will be able to watch movies with the dongle without having to use a player that can introduce some kind of a lag between the video and audio tracks to countermeasure the processing lag introduced by the dongle + headphones combo

- The dongle is much smaller than that of the 590 (and doesn’t blink unnecessarily - unlike with the previous model)


- Some people (like me: I prefer over-the-head ones because the headband doesn’t stop me from fully tiling my neck when necessary) may dislike the behind-the-neck design.

- Because of the design, as with all similar headphones, it takes a bit of time to put on / remove the headphones, unlike with over-the-head ones

By the way, speaking of MWC, the Sennheiser folks have showcased their new A2DP designs (slated for release later this year). While there was no sign of the MM200 (see my last year's HERE), the new models (shot below) sounded pretty nice and the (passive) noise canceling worked pretty good (these headphones, unlike the MM200 last year, could be tested).



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Guest Menneisyys

UPDATE (22/02/2009 9:34AM CET): I’ve also very thoroughly tested the headphones under the current (build 7000) of Windows 7, using the default Bluetooth support (all this done on an IBM Thinkpad T42p with the factory Bluetooth module and automatically installed BT driver).

I’ve encountered no problems with AVRCP-capable programs (the built-in WMP and, after enabling AVRCP by checking in the Options / Preferences / Global Hotkeys / Enable default multimedia key support checkbox – note that, as of the current version of Videolan VLC doesn’t support AVRCP): everything worked. This is a great step from the Pulsar 590, which has the same problem with Windows 7 as with Symbian: resuming from the paused state simply doesn’t work. A big thumbs up to Plantronics for this – now, I can make use of my N95 (by far the best all-in-one multimedia handset right now in my opinion). (Note that, while the Voyager 855, Plantronics’ last-year model, is still incompatible with Symbian, it has no problems with resuming under Windows 7 – unlike its predecessor, the Pulsar 590.)

Two screenshots follow; the first shows the automatic driver installation for the BackBeat and the 590; the second shows the automatic, additional handsfree driver install after a reboot. Note that, after this, the Voyager 855’s drivers have also been automatically installed.



Finally, don’t forget I’ll still post a lot on these headphones after doing some thorough singal interference durability, battery life and handsfree usage tests.

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UPDATE (22/02/2009 10:35 CET): I’ve continued testing the headphones outdoors to find out whether

- it’s sensitive to interferences and quickly changing signal reflections (no, it isn’t)

- it’s capable of delivering sufficient volume in a very noisy street so that the podcasts I listen to still remain understandable (yes, it is; naturally, you might want to disable the built-in megabass when turning up the volume that high)

- wearing it for an extended length of time turns out to be tiring (no; it’s as easy to hold as for example the Gear4 BluPhones with the exception of they staying on the ears and your not having to be afraid of their dropping)

- the call quality is sufficient in handsfree mode (it is; tested this on my N95. Everything went just OK) and the switching between A2DP and handsfree mode is seamless (on the Nokia N95, it is).

Currently, I don’t see any point in NOT recommending this headphones. Sticking to its category (earbuds), again, it produces way better sound quality than even the Zune 8 GB earbuds. I consider the latter one of the best, but still cheap earbuds. Yes, I know they are considerably worse than even the Zune 80 GB ones, let alone for example some of the Sennheiser earbuds, but I won’t pay THAT much for any cabled headphones just to be able to compare its sound quality to the A2DP headphones I test now and then. (Nevertheless, they’re still considerably better than the factory earbuds coming with both the iPhone 3G and the Nokia N95.)

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