LIVE music

Good sound, effective smarts, nice price...

JBL’s wireless noise-cancelling Live 650BTNC headphones have just picked up an award from EISA’s Mobile Devices Expert Group, a particularly impressive achievement given that the price here of $249.95 is significantly below the sweet-spot of $399/$499 around which so many wireless noise-cancellers group themselves. Yet these seem to have the full gamut of abilities — Bluetooth, active noise-cancelling, an app which allows customisation, even a direct connection to the voice assistant of your choice (well, Alexa or Google). So do they suffer on sound quality or build to balance the books?

We’ll cut to the chase, and tell you that the answer is ‘no’. Indeed we warmed quickly to the JBLs, as these proved a pair of headphones which just got on with the job. There was no fumbling with a quick-start guide, since the on-headphone buttons are clear and self-explanatory, with a slider you push up to power on or off (which is better than a button as it’s harder to power them off accidentally). The Bluetooth pairing button is clearly labelled, compared with many rivals which require you to discover that two particular buttons pressed together for several seconds will invoke pairing mode. The noise-cancellation button is similarly marked (although inexplicably in black-on-black, instead of the Bluetooth button’s clearer white-on-black), so you can easily turn off the noise cancellation when it is not required. And the three-button volume and play/pause array have the standard multi-use convention where holding down the volume buttons selects previous or last track. The play/pause button also answers/ends or rejects phone calls. All good so far.

We also like the build quality; the fabric headband seems durable and there was sufficient adjustment for the metal sliders to bring the earcups down over larger heads; they are just a little firm fitting but the ear-cups are comfortable leatherette-covered memory foam (these also proved able to resist a bit of sweat after long walks). The headshells are durable moulded plastic; they both swivel and fold in for neat storage. There are three fairly muted colour choices of black, white or blue.

There are even big ‘L’ and ‘R’ markings inside the earcups in case you forget that the controls are all on the right headshell — oh, except one. That’s the voice assistant button. To activate this, you touch the outer case of the left headshell (the JBL logo position). But this will only work if you’ve first set up either Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant on your connected device, along with JBL’s own app.

The ‘My JBL Headphones’ app doesn’t do a vast amount, but it’s an essential download. For one thing it can firmware update the headphones to make sure they’re operating with the latest software. The main screen when using the headphones just allows the easy toggling of noise cancellation on or off. But there’s also an EQ section which allows you to select and usefully edit four EQ modes — Jazz, Vocal, Bass, and ‘My EQ’. Even better, if you choose to edit, say, ‘Bass’, it resaves as ‘Bass 2’ rather than overwriting the original, and you can rename them as well, so in this way you can create a wider selection of EQ to suit your tastes.

JBL’s Australian site also advertises a functionality called ‘Personi-Fi’, which “allows you to tailor your sound profile based on your gender, age, preferences” but this didn’t seem available in the local version of the JBL app.

Nevertheless, the tailored EQ options proved a useful way to combat the one slightly tricky characteristic of the 650BTNC headphones, which is that their sound differed quite dramatically with or without noise-cancelling, and with or without the cable.

The noise-cancelling seems to default to ‘on’ every time you start them up. But we found it quite a strong delivery of noise-cancelling, which is good for cancelling noise, but can also create that slight feeling of having your eyeballs sucked in, or of creating pressure in your ears. You’re unlikely to notice this sensation over music playback, but more so when listening to spoken word podcasts or to music with plenty of space in it, be it classical or chill. Furthermore the process of inverting external sound and adding it to the music signal is also potentially harmful to music quality as well, so we usually prefer to turn off noise cancelling when it’s not required. This is, as noted, pleasingly easy on the JBLs (there are a few NC designs where you can’t turn NC off at all, which is an instant fail for our money).

However, turning off NC does change the sound quality significantly. The ‘NC on’ sound is far thicker in the upper bass, more rounded in the treble. With ‘NC off’ the sound is thinner but more natural. Whether JBL planned it this way or not, these two balances are quite suitable for their purposes; a bit of extra bass will be handy along with noise-cancellation against the rumble of a daily commute, whereas the cleaner more revealing sound without NC better suits more critical listening in a quiet environment.

And with that EQ option available, we were able to dial up a bit of bass support and save that profile as ‘no-NC EQ’, and to dial in a bit of presence and save that as ‘NC-on EQ’. So even if either sound signature doesn’t deliver your ideal, you can tweak it — within limits, of course, though the EQ allows a fairly detailed adjustment with 13 points across the spectrum, four for each three-octave band.

A cable is also provided with the JBLs, always useful in case you exhaust the battery, which is quoted as giving 30 hours music playtime with BT on, or 20 hours with BT and NC on. The cable connects, unusually, to the right headshell rather than the left, using a 2.5mm minijack plug, and the nicely fabric-braided cable has a control lozenge a few inches down, although the button didn’t do anything when connected to our iPhone. More importantly, using the cable disables the Bluetooth connection to the app, so you lose the ability to have EQ or to operate your smart assistant. But you can still select and deselect noise cancellation using the button on the headphones (important for using in-flight entertainment, where you’re likely to be wired, but will definitely want NC).

The good news is that the cabled sound doesn’t need the EQ — it beats both wireless options for clarity and detail. While noise-cancellation still adds that slight thickness to the sound, the non-NC wired sound is delightfully musical, and also allows a few extra stops of volume. So if you want to hear the very best of which the 40mm drivers are capable, or if you’re playing quiet material and find you’d like a little more level, the cable may be your friend.

We noted one quirk of the noise-cancelling when out walking on an unusually windy sunny Sydney day. The microphones used for noise-cancelling proved quite sensitive to the wind, and would cause the NC circuit to crackle and sputter over the music. This stopped as soon as we turned the NC off — so there’s your solution (and we struggle to think of scenarios which are both noisy and windy, unless a luggage handler wants to use the JBLs on the tarmac downwind of a jet engine).

The implementation of Google was successful enough — press and hold to speak, asking a question, checking your calendar, requesting a joke, anything Google can do. Pressing the button twice shuts it up again. When linking with Google’s Assistant app you can allow notifications from a variety of other apps, and pressing the earcup button will then invoke the latest notifications as well. It all works fairly swiftly and smoothly, though we found pressing the button to be perhaps a bit too easy (especially when leaning against the headrest on a plane), so we were regularly hearing the time and notifcations unbidden. And if you like your music playing loud, you’ll get an even louder Google Assistant shouting in your head; as with Google speakers there seems no way to set Assistant volume independently of music.

Conclusion
With nothing omitted except a hard case (a soft bag is provided) and that Personi-Fi option from the app, and everything performing beyond its price, we can see why EISA’s mobile experts group chose JBL’s LIVE 650NCBT as a bargain among wireless noise-cancelling headphones. JBL likely benefits from the sheer scale on which it can sell headphones, so you benefit from the impressive combination of quality and features they’re thereby able to include at the price. 

JBL LIVE 650BTNC
Price: $249.95

Type: active, noise-cancelling, Bluetooth, overear dynamic
Driver: 40mm
Impedance: 32 ohms cabled
Bluetooth codecs: unstated
Quoted playback time: 35 hours cabled with NC; 30 hours BT no NC; 20 hours Bluetooth with NC.
Weight: 260g