plusSound Exo BT: A Premium Wireless Experience

Greetings!

Today we’re checking out a Bluetooth cable from plusSound, the Exo BT.

plusSound is pretty well known in the world of portable audio for their premium cables. This year they’ve branched into the world of Bluetooth modules with the Exo BT. Given the prevalence of cell phone users and the slow removal of 3.5mm aux jacks from many flagship products, plusSound’s offering of a premium Bluetooth module seemed like a logical step to take in advancing their product lineup.

I’ve spent two weeks with the Exo BT and while it’s not perfect, it’s a great sounding Bluetooth module that makes a worthy addition to a premium portable earphone setup. Let’s check it out in greater detail, shall we?

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Disclaimer:

I would like to thank Christian at plusSound for sending over a sample of the Exo BT free of charge for the purposes of review. There has been no monetary incentive provided to cover this product. All comment and feedback within is my own and does not represent plusSound or any other entity.

At the time of review, the Exo BT’s retail price for the standard copper (type 6 Litz) cable version shown here was 149.99 USD and could be picked up on their website; http://www.plussoundaudio.com/customcables/bluetooth.html

In addition to the MMCX version shown here, you can specify your preferred connector from a surprisingly extensive list, in addition to the quality of the cable which adjusts the price accordingly.

Cable optionsConnector options

Edit: If you don’t like the module to one side, they can place it in any position, including in the middle like a pendant, simply by requesting it. You can also specify desired length if you want the module hanging down or up more. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at how customizable the Exo BT is given it’s handcrafted. Good on plusSound for giving customers those options.

Personal Preferences:

I listen primarily to various EDM sub-genres (liquid drum and bass, breakbeat, drumstep, etc.), hip hop, and classic rock. While I enjoy a variety of signatures in my headphones I generally lean towards slightly warm with elevated treble and sub-bass, an even and natural mid-range response, with reduced mid-bass. The HiFiMan RE800, MacaW GT600s, and thinksound On2 offer examples of signatures I enjoy.

Sources Used:

On a daily basis, there are three sources I use as my main listening gear. My phone which is an LG G5, my portable media player, a Shanling M1, and my laptop which is an Asus FX53V. All three of these sources are Bluetooth capable, while to my knowledge only the LG and Shanling support aptX. In terms of music, I didn’t go with anything specific this time running everything from basic MP3 CD rips to FLAC, Youtube, Soundcloud, etc.

Some Features:

The Exo BT is a fairly feature rich module and utilizes Bluetooth 4.2 for greater efficiency and stability over older versions. AptX is also supported which is intended to improve sound quality over non-aptX supported devices. It also improves on latency and reduce the delay time in transmissions.

My laptop does not support aptX so while watching Youtube and Netflix with the Exo BT, there was a minimal delay between movement on screen and what you were hearing. Compared to most of my other Bluetooth devices it was an entirely acceptable level of delay and perfectly watchable. That said, compare it to watching the same video while paired to my LG G5 which does support aptX and the results were immediately noticeable in that everything synced pretty much perfectly. It was impressive actually.

The Exo BT also supports pairing with two devices at once, and auto-pairing on startup. Both of these features worked flawlessly. The auto-pairing feature was unusually quick too, usually reconnecting with the device in less than a second after the Exo BT turned on.

The inline controller also includes a microphone which in the two weeks I’ve had this device I never had the opportunity to use. When this happens I usually record a few quick videos in various environments to see how the mic sounds, but my G5 refused to recognize the Exo BT as the mic. I’ll update this section as soon as I can. The rest of module works well. The buttons can be located without looking and are easily discernible from each other, though I found it slightly unintuitive to place the volume up button on the bottom, and volume down up top. This consistently led to me to changing volume in the wrong direction or restarting a song when I meant to skip to the next. It’s definitely something you’ll adjust to in time, if it’s an issue for you at all.

All-in-all the Exo BT has the sort of modern feature set you would expect to see in a premium device and it all works about as well as you would expect.

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Range and Connection Quality:

A 40 foot range is also advertised, but unless in a open space I don’t really see that happening. While building our new dinner table I left my phone in the dining room and walked over to the spare room to grab a different tool. This trip is only around 25 feet and with zero obstacles. My tool box is on a shelf beside the doorway, and to get to it I had to break line of sight with the phone by turning the corner. The moment I lost sight of the phone the connection broke. If I stepped back into the doorway, it was fine. While it’s a dedicated Bluetooth device, this was not an issue experienced with the Nuforce BE6i which maintained a solid connection regardless of where I was in my apartment in relation to my device.

Connection quality for the most part was rock solid in regular use, with only the occasional stutter here and there that I expect from any Bluetooth device. The connection only dropped fully when entering and exiting my apartment building. There’s a ton of security equipment monitoring the entrances so I’m not entirely surprised at the interference. It’s annoying sure, but not something that carried over into regular use.

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Battery Performance:

Depending on where you look, the Exo BT has a battery life from 10 to 12 hours. I got closer to the 12 hour mark shown in the Quick Start guide plusSound will send to you after you make your purchase. To put that time into perspective, I’d generally leave the transmitting device on 50% volume and adjust volume via the Exo BT’s buttons. Out of 20 volume steps, I would generally listen at around 6-8 dependant on the track and earphone.

PlusSound doesn’t seem to document the time to charge anywhere, but via USB out on my laptop around 4 hours seemed to do the trick. The Exo BT to my surprise supports quick charging, so if in a pinch you can quickly juice them up pending you’ve got a quick charger on hand. Also a plus is that you can use the Exo BT while it’s charging though it’s cumbersome to do so and increases the already lengthily charge time. Still, even if you aren’t likely to listen while charging having the option is nice.

Lastly, the Exo BT supports a battery life indicator on some devices. My LG G5 is one of them and at the top of the screen places a tiny battery icon beside the Bluetooth logo. I never realized just how helpful such a seemingly obvious feature could be. Whereas on other devices after a couple hours I start dreading the appearance of the low battery warning, that little indicator gives me an idea of when the Exo BT is going to run out. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to alleviate any “range anxiety”.

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Build and Comfort:

Give the Exo BT can be so readily customized at the time of order, I wasn’t surprised to read they were constructed by hand in California. PlusSound’s crew does a great job because the Exo BT feels like a well put together and durable product, though fit and finish isn’t quite as tight as some other products I’ve used. Again, they’re handcrafted so I can forgive some slightly off kilter cuts on the heat shrink surrounding the MMCX plugs. Unlike Head-fi’s resident basshead, the left and right indicators on my sample were properly marked with the standard blue for left and red for right. Given the Exo BT is designed for over-ear use only, left and right indicators are more a luxury than a necessity since you can really only use the cable one way.

Since the earphone you choose to pair with the Exo BT will affect how they fit, I’m going to to focus on a couple specific characteristics, namely the elephant that is the control module, and the hook shape preformed into the cable.

(See my edit in the Disclaimer section above. Seems a couple of my concerns about  module placement can be avoided.) The module is massive as a result of holding the battery and electronics. It is positioned on the right in a place that keeps it sitting just a couple inches from your ear, lightly resting up against your jawline or the back of your cheek. While it is huge, it’s not a heavy unit so it doesn’t imbalance the cable which was something I was afraid of on first unboxing. Still, such a gigantic module seems wholly unnecessary. With the next version of the Exo BT would love to see plusSound take a different approach, such as splitting the battery and electronics into two separate modules on either side. Or, maybe just centre the module on the cable, though that would make using it less convenient.

The preformed hooks are a bit of a mixed bag. With some earphones like the MacaW GT600s and Fidue Virgo A85 the angle of insertion ended up being a little extreme requiring some finagling to get the right fit. Others like Campfire Audio’s Polaris and the Brainwavz B400 sat just right without any fiddling. If the cable extrudes from your earphone at a 45 degree angle or more, you might find fitment with the Exo BT less than ideal.

Whether you opt to dangle the cable behind your head or under your chin will likely have a significant effect on comfort as well. For me personally, I had to wear the Exo BT under my chin. The length when worn behind my head meant the cable kept catching on my collar or jacket and tugging which got tiresome. Wearing it under the chin with the cinch pulled up was much more stable and comfortable.

Overall they’re pretty well built. Comfort can be very good, dependant on the earphone you’re pairing it with and the orientation of the cable; under the chin or behind the head.

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Earphones Used For Testing + Sound:

Campfire Audio Polaris:

Impedance – 16.8Ω @ 1 kHz

Sensitivity – 97.5 dB SPL/mW

1+1 hybrid

Fidue Virgo A85:

Impedance – 20Ω

Sensitivity – 107dB

1+2 hybrid

Brainwavz B400:

Rated Impedance – 30Ω

Sensitivity – 115dB

Quad BA

MacaW GT600s:

Impedance – 16Ω

Sensitivity – 98dB @ 1kHz

1+1 hybrid

Hilistening HLS-S8:

Impedance – 16Ω

Sensitivity – 99db

1+1 hybrid

ADVANCED Model 3:

Impedance – 16Ω +/-15%

Sensitivity – 100dB +/-3 dB at 1kHz

Single dynamic (6mm)

TinAudio T2:

Impedance – 16Ω

Sensitivity – 102dB

Dual dynamic (6mm+10mm)

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The Exo BT does a great job of staying out of the way, retaining an earphone’s stock signature. It doesn’t colour the sound, but it reduce micro-details somewhat. It’s not particularly noticeable with every earphone, but in some like the Campfire Audio Polaris it does slightly smoothed over and slightly less precise. In the case of the B400, it’s magical imaging and layering qualities are wonderfully preserved. Being able to take an earphone with those qualities on the go without having to worry about a cable is simply awesome.

My only qualm with the way the Exo BT sounds comes down to background noise. Impedance and sensitivity certainly play a part of course. Of those earphones I tested, the Model 3, GT600s, and HLS-S8 were the only ones that played free of any static. The Brainwavz B400 displayed some, but it was very minimal and easy masked even at the low volumes I tend to listen. The Virgo and Polaris definitely picked up more static than the others and needed more volume to mask it, but the listening experience wasn’t compromised. Last but not least, there is the TinAudio T2. In my preview I noted the T2 suffered the most. Over the last couple weeks I went back to it a few times and in the end, couldn’t pair it with the Exo BT any more. The background static was just too prevalent.

Overall the Exo BT works well with a number of different products, it just seems to be a bit of a luck of the draw situation as to whether you’ll experience static or not.

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Vs. ADVANCED Model 3 Module:

My only other Bluetooth module is that included with the Model 3 from ADVANCED. If you’re looking to upgrade from a more budget friendly module like that included with the Model 3 to something more premium, is the Exo BT worth it? The answer is yes.

In favour of the Model 3, I find it to be the more ergonomically sound of the two with a better layout in terms of control and battery placement. The Model 3 uses an odd figure 8 style design with two modules. The bottom half loops around your neck and houses both modules. The lowest module rests on your chest and houses the inline controls and wireless tech, while the upper module rests behind your neck houses the battery and microUSB port. Protruding from this battery compartment are the cables that lead up to the MMCX connectors and some preformed memory guides. It’s a bit awkward to use at first, but once you’ve gotten the hang of wearing it the Model 3’s module is a great example of how to divide and hide all the components that go into a Bluetooth product.

In the Exo BT’s favour is pretty much everything else. It feels tougher and more durable. It pairs better with a wider variety of products. The Model 3 really only works with single dynamic earphones. The BA’s on hybrids just do not sound right. The Model 3’s battery life is decent, but at five hours is less than half of what the Exo BT can achieve. The Exo BT’s connection quality is also notably more stable. The Model 3 pairs well with some devices, and terribly with others. Lastly, while both support aptX the Exo BT simply sounds better regardless of the source. Listening to them back to back the Model 3’s module sounds more digital and less natural, and it lacks the pushing power of the Exo BT.

The Model 3 is a good product and for the price and you get a lot for your 79 USD. That said, it’s budget nature really sticks out when comparing it to something that’s designed for a more discerning listener. The Exo BT is more stable, lasts longer, pairs better with a wider variety of products, and it feels more durable.

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Final Thoughts:

After spending a couple weeks with the Exo BT and pairing it with a number of different earphones, using it outdoors and in, and in general treating it like I would had I bought it myself, I’ve come away pretty pleased. I think the module could be handled differently in a future revision, but that’s about the only major concern I have with it beyond static when paired with a few specific earphones. The sound quality is there, it’s well built, battery life is pretty good, and it paired well to great with most of the earphones I tossed it’s way. It doesn’t blow me away in any particular regard, but that’s fine because it works as it should.

If you opt to pick up one of these Bluetooth cables, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. PlusSound has a solid product here.

Thanks for reading!

– B9Scrambler

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