Editors' note: The following review is for the Altec Lansing BackBeat 903. The BackBeat 903 and 906 headset models are identical. The products are differentiated by a Bluetooth 2.0 audio adapter that is included with the 906 model only.
Bluetooth headphones can be a confusing product to shop for. Some Bluetooth products come as single-ear headsets meant strictly for mobile phone calls, while others are only for music playback. The Altec Lansing BackBeat 903 ($99) offers the best of both worlds, combining music-grade stereo sound with the call-quality and features you'd expect from a high-end mobile phone headset. For an extra $30, a BackBeat 906 model is available with a Bluetooth 2.0 transmitter for adapting any audio source with a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack.
As a company, Altec Lansing is uniquely qualified to bridge the gap between Bluetooth headphones and voice-only headsets, drawing on over 70 years of audio experience and the Bluetooth expertise of the Plantronics Corporation, which acquired Altec Lansing in 2005.
The BackBeat 903 is comprised of two earpieces connected by an 8-inch, soft, rubber cable that runs behind the neck. Just like competing headsets from Motorola and Jaybird, each earpiece wraps up and over the back of the ear and is held in place with a slight pinching tension. The headphone fit is also helped by asymmetrically shaped silicone ear tips that hug the opening of the ear canal. All that pinching and hugging may sound uncomfortable, but the BackBeat 903 is actually one of the most lightweight and unobtrusive stereo headsets we've ever tested. They're not quite as invisible as the Sony Ericsson HBH-IS800, but at half the price, the difference is negligible. Also, unlike the Sony Ericsson headset, the ear tips on the BackBeat are deliberately designed to allow ambient sound to filter in, making them safer to use outdoors and eliminating the low-frequency rumble that can be heard while walking or jogging with in-ear headphones that seal the ear canal.
Just because the BackBeats aren't designed to seal your ears off from external sounds doesn't mean Altec Lansing spent any less time designing them for a snug fit. In fact, the BackBeat 903 is the first stereo headset we've seen that has earpieces that can both rotate and extend up and down for improved comfort.
As much as we appreciate all the design nuances of the BackBeat 903, there are a few elements that some people won't be thrilled with. For example, those with sensitive ears may dislike the way the BackBeat's earpieces wrap over the top of the ear and place two 0.25-inch thick slabs of rubber-coated plastic against their heads. Also, with no way to adjust the length of the cable running behind your neck, we were occasionally annoyed with the way it caught our shirt collar.