I’ve had the unbelievable fortune to have had the opportunity to trial the indomitable Sony WH-1000XM3 (SGD 549) and Jabra Elite 85h (SGD 428/USD300) in quick succession in the past months. Both sublime Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) headphones were put through the full battery of tests: plane, train, bustling cafe – you name it.
The ANC realm, which once was dominated by Bose, welcomes yet another contender. To pit itself against such heavyweights, Jabra has packed a few unique features into the Elite 85h. Remove-to-pause, automatic environmental noise recognition, and twist-to-power are some of the most prominent of these, but the most important question remains: is it subjectively better than the competition?
Form Factor & Build
Every bit as sleek, the Jabra Elite 85h is, too, every bit as iconic in its design as the venerable Bose QC 35 with its unmistakable hardware switch and the Sony WH-1000XM3 with its trademark metallic trimming around the top mic port. The Elite 85h’s distinct silhouette got me several compliments – a few actually recognising it despite it being launched rather recently.
In terms of build quality, the Elite 85h isn’t much different from its Bose and Sony rivals. With a frame constructed out of solid plastic, it maintains sufficient rigidity and great comfort while still remaining rather lightweight at 296g (10.44oz). Its fabric exterior, however, is markedly distinct from the leather/leatherette exterior of competing headphones.
I’m usually a very tidy eater but a minuscule splotch of chilli oil had managed to find its way to the surface of my headphones on my last trip to Shanghai. For those who hang their headphones around their neck for temporary storage, this might be a real-life concern. Thankfully, the splotch was easily addressed with a smidgen of hotel soap and warm water.
Which brings us to the next point. The Jabra Elite 85h has an edge over the competition, with an IP52 rating protecting against rain, along with a warranty that covers water and dust. This is because the headphones offer a water-resistant nano-coating that protects its internals. Having peace of mind when using the headphones in inclement weather is a welcome change.
Comfort-wise, the Elite 85h is on par with the competition. Comfortable soft leather cups provided sufficient isolation but inevitably feels a little hot if worn while navigating the great Singaporean outdoors. There was zero strain on my crown due to its lightweight form factor; even with spectacles, the clamping force did not cause any discomfort on a six-hour flight and commute.
The headphones come with a leather-clad hard case, which is slightly smaller than the one provided by Sony. In the centre, a velcro-adjustable divider had hoops to contain a short USB A – USB C charging cable, 3.5mm – 3.5mm analogue audio jack and a two-pin flight adapter – all very handy accessories to pair with the headphones.
Controls and ergonomics
The headphones pack flat with both cups rotated 90 degrees inward. The included leatherette carrying case accommodates them with one cup flipped inside the headband.
Adjustments come in the form of a clickless arm extension, along with a full tilt-swivel mechanism that is well-integrated into the design of the headphones.
To turn on the headphones, simply rotate the ear cups into its playing position. I found that the Elite 85h always connected to my device by the time I twisted the earcups and placed the headphones on my head. On the right ear cup are three tactile buttons.
With a mild depression, the centre controls play/pause and pairing, while the top and bottom buttons with a raised nipple control volume with quick presses, and switch to the next and previous tracks with a long press. This produces a very satisfying percussive double tap as confirmation.
This thoughtful design means that I can easily resume tracks by picking up the earcups from the “off” position on my clavicles up to my ears, and then press the centre button to resume the audio.
For quick interludes, like when purely colleagues approach you for a word, the Jabra Elite 85h lacks the fancy tech of the Sony. No cupping your headphones to hear through, but the Elite 85h automatically pauses your music when you remove your headphones.
This likely utilises gyroscopes to detect the actual removal, instead of pressure sensors like the ones used on the Parrot Zik line of futuristic headphones. Thus, I found that the 85h missed some cues to pause, but this only occurred when I actively tried to bamboozle the sensors by moving slowly.
Behind the earcups and operated with either thumb are two additional hardware buttons that cycles through ANC, ANC off, and hear-through noise-cancelling modes (left ear cup) and voice assistant (right ear cup).
However, I found the placement of the buttons a little too ergonomic – switching noise cancelling mode by accident on several occasions. Voice assistant support is handy, but comes with the usual lag.
The button worked well with both Siri and the Google Assistant. However, the microphones were lacking a fair bit for a company that prides itself on professional communications. Don’t get me wrong: they’re still as good as the next pair of flagship noise-cancelling headphones.
Owing to design limitations, voice pickup quality for calls was rough. On three separate calls, my recipient found my voice to be unintelligible.
Sound and Noise Cancellation
I also had the opportunity to trial the Jabra Elite 65t in-ear earphones, and am glad that the 85h headphones are markedly different with regard to its sound signature.
Where its tiny blockbuster true wireless in-ear sibling has a flat sound signature, the Jabra Elite 85h is far more unabashed about an enjoyable listening experience. I found that vocals and mids were particular standouts, and that the low end had sufficient texture to make for a great overall experience.
The fat bass on Tahiti 50’s Hurts sounded full and lush, while retaining clarity in the mids and highs. Masego and Fkj’s seminal hit Tadow was rendered with tight guitars and rich saxophones.
I wasn’t particularly bothered by the lack of AptX and AAC support, and I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t perused the marketing material.
In terms of noise cancellation, however, the Jabra Elite 85h seems a notch under the Sony WH-1000XM3 that I had on hand concurrently. It struggled to keep pace with older, smaller, noisier places like those used on budget routes.
When used on rickety vehicles with severe vibrations, the Elite 85h emitted a loud rattling noise. That’s not the most ideal especially for those who frequently commute by bus.
I found that low rumbles like plane engines were not attenuated as well as speech and the general cacophony you expect in crowded places. This means it’s perfect for café hoppers and those who work on the move, along with those who more frequently take trains, trams and cars.
But I could only tell that when testing both headphones side-to-side. In reality, the Jabra’s noise cancellation lacks the vacuum-like sensation that the more powerful Sony WH-1000XM3 delivers. That might actually even be more comfortable for some users.
Personally, I’m all about noise-cancelling performance. Screaming children and over-enthusiastic cabin crew quickly suck the joy out of travel, and the Jabra does let the worst of it through, especially if you’re the kind that listens to music at low volumes.
The Jabra Elite 85h does offer a companion mobile application, the Sound+ app, that is well-designed and intuitive, but I had a few issues accessing the Elite 65t and the Elite 85h with both devices paired to my iPhone simultaneously.
The app, interestingly, offers the ability to switch noise-cancelling modes automatically to adapt to the environment. For example, the headphones will ramp up to noise cancelling (which can only be turned on and off) when it detects the sounds of a commute with the eight onboard microphones, or switch noise-cancelling off when it detects that you’re walking outside. It can even activate HearThru for heightened situational awareness for better safety.
However, I found that this automatic detection did take a little too much time to switch noise-cancelling modes, and that the headphones really sounded subpar in any other mode than with noise cancelling activated. Again – that’s true for literally every noise-cancelling headphone out there.
The battery life on the Jabra Elite 85h is simply astounding. I managed to get far over a day of battery life with intermittent listening on these bad boys. In fact, it lasted me two successive week-long overseas trips even with flights of approximately 5 hours each way.
Another decisive advantage the Elite 85h has over the Sony is its ability to pair with multiple devices – an invaluable function for someone who is constantly on multiple devices and commutes regularly. I can switch from my iPhone to iPad to MacBook to Mac Pro desktop within seconds with a tap of a few buttons.
At SGD 428, the Jabra Elite 85h is significantly more affordable than the Sony WH-1000XM3. However, it comes with some shortcomings that buyers really have to take note of.
Frequent fliers (I mean, really frequent fliers) might find the noise-cancelling performance on the Elite 85h insufficient, and might opt for the more premium Sony cans.
But perhaps you’re more an earth-dweller with a regular job and too-few days of leave, and thus only travel a couple of times a year. Noise-cancelling on planes is a fantastic idea, but you might want to cancel some café noises while you’re reading a novel or doing your taxes. Perhaps you want to switch from Spotify on your phone, to Netflix on your tablet and to Skype on your laptop.
For what it’s worth, the Jabra Elite 85h does offer stellar performance at an attractive price. From its sturdy build, to water resistance, to convenient features like twist-to-power and remove-to-pause, the Jabra still finds room for ridiculous battery life and for assistant support.
If you’re sold on the benefits of an ANC rig, but can’t think to fork out the dough on one, the JBL Live 650BTNC is an even more budget-friendly alternative as far as brands with a strong audio legacy go.