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JBL Free Review: An Alternative to the Apple AirPods?

We’ve got to thank the disappearing 3.5mm port for the increasing prevalence of Bluetooth technology. For truly wireless earphones, the Apple AirPods have stood out right from the get-go; though the Jaybird RUN was a strong contender, especially for a specialised fitness earphone.

Priced at SGD249, the JBL Free would set you back as much as its two prominent competitors.

While truly wireless earphones have been an enticing piece of technology, it has remained out of reach for many owing to its prohibitive price. Just how much value are you getting out of this deal?

Unboxing and First Impressions

The earbuds came in a small box, peeking out with a cut-out near the centre. On it, a tray slides out from the bottom and opens from the back to reveal the charging case that delivers a total of 24 hours of battery life. My JBL Free in black came with a matching charging case, along with three sizes of black silicone ear tips and sleeves for added grip.

With an all-plastic exterior, the earbuds were sleek and light. The included ear tips and sleeves helped me achieve the perfect fit in no time (small ear tips, no sleeve – I’ve got tiny ears). A single button takes up most of the faceplate, ringed by a metallic trim and emblazoned with the JBL logo to help with orientation.

The case resembles a hockey puck and slips easily into your pocket. The case was pretty thick, and I don’t take well to shoving bulging objects down the front of my pants, so it resided in my bag most of the time.

The case opens along the middle with a neat divot along the seam and an etched JBL logo on the lid helping to orient the case. It might take several tries to open in the dark, unlike the Jaybird RUN. No chance of it popping open in your bag, however.

Inside are two slots for both earbuds, with a convenient cutout for easy retrieval. Helpful glyphs indicate functions unique to each earpiece channel. A single tap on the left skips the current track, two taps play the previous one. A single tap on the right pauses and plays the music, and also picks up and hangs up calls. A quick double tap brings up the Google Assistant or Siri with an audible tone.

Sound Quality

It was love at first sound: I immediately preferred the sound of the JBL Free over the Jaybird Run and the Apple Airpods.

JBL’s rich legacy in sound shone through on this pair of earphones. Despite their apparent lack of wires, the earphones were responsive and engaging to listen to. Barring some Bluetooth botherations, the JBL Free was a true joy to listen to.

What stood out was its extraordinarily rich and powerful bass register, a familiar signature from JBL. If I were to nit-pick, its mid-range could come across comparatively airy. No issue, however: this gave some room for the soundstage to stand out, a rather impressive trait for a pair of in-ear earphones, and truly wireless ones at that.

Songs with powerful bass and percussion best showcased what this pair of earphones were capable of. The iconic bass ostinato on The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back buzzed richly in my ears, while young Michael crowed his way to my heart.

Honne’s Just Dance felt like liquid. Driven by bass, the song’s high register in the form of sizzling high hats and shakers were not neglected at all.

It did get a little overpowering especially on songs like HUMBLE. by Kendrick Lamar. With a bassline that could rattle your teeth, it pushed the little nubs that were the JBL Free to their limit.

The JBL Free seems to work the best with most electronic and pop titles. Surprisingly, it sounded pretty good on more ostentatious classical and jazz pieces like Festive Overture by Shostakovich.

Functionality

The charging case’s 24 hours of battery life is incredible. With dedicated use, I only had to charge the unit once a week. I was also able to charge the case with my portable charger while using the earbuds themselves.

However, care must be taken when returning the earbuds into the case. Two sprung pins protrude from each slot, which is supposed to align to the ports on each channel. However, the cut-outs are not particularly tight and allow for the very occasional misinsertion. Granted, this only occurred once during the lengthy period, and I was unable to reproduce this issue when I tried.

I did prefer the more failproof design of the Apple Airpods and the Jaybird RUN, which does not allow for misinsertion, confirming charging with LEDs upon closure of the case. The Jaybird RUN, however, was prone to accidental release with its protruding button, resulting in uncharged earphones at best, and an in-bag earphone hunt at worst.

The earphones have an ring of light around the JBL logo/pushbutton to indicate mode. White means charging, a pulsing blue means it is switched on and connected, while a blinking Blue indicates pairing mode.

The single button on each channel provides limited remote control. A single press on the right for pause/play or pick and hang up a call, while a double press activates Assistant/Siri. A (very) long press is used to enter pairing mode. The left button houses the forward/backward track controls.

I found the right channel to be incredibly reliable, immediately connecting to my phone upon extraction from the case. The left channel, however, was a little sluggish, often requiring me to manually switch it on (by pressing on the button for 5 seconds). The left channel also frequently drops out, especially in areas with high RF intereferance, which can be a little frustrating.

The JBL Free allows you to utilise Bluetooth headset mode. Using the right channel alone allows you to listen in to calls while maintaining some situational awareness. While I could hear the caller perfectly, the JBL Free had difficulty picking up my voice, especially in noisy situations. Since it lacks any unsightly protrusions down my face to better pick up my voice (ahem, Airpods), that, to me is a reasonable tradeoff.

Conclusion

The JBL Free isn’t a cheap gadget, coming in on par with the Apple Airpods and the Jaybird Run. Like its competitors, it is not perfect. Its plasticky build, large charging case and Bluetooth connectivity issues might deter perfectionists. To these consumers, I say wait. Bluetooth, battery and audio technology at present is great, but still not perfect.

What shone was JBL’s stellar sound quality, incredible battery life, and good fit. For light fitness use, on your daily commute, or everyday use, the JBL Free is a reasonable purchase. True wireless earphones are still pretty expensive, so hold on to your socks – it’ll come to you soon.

Ian Ling
http://uncommontragedy.com
Ian is the resident Tech Monkey and Head of Content at VR Zone. His training in Economics and Political Science is at the basis of his love for journalism and storytelling. A photographer by passion, and an audiophile by obsession, Ian is captivated by all forms of tech that makes enthusiasts tick.

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