JBL has long been my go-to brand when asked for recommendations for great-sounding, feature-packed, yet affordable audio paraphernalia. Everything, from the Assistant-enabled JBL Link series of portable speakers, to the rugged, compact JBL Endurance series of sport earphones: the brand has got all bases covered.
Best known for its Flip and Charge portable wireless speaker families, JBL has made a name for itself in quality audio – and the JBL Live 650BTNC is no exception.
Build and Form Factor
Made out of plastic, metal, synthetic leather and fabric, the headphones feel rigid and certainly look more than they cost. The headphones are circumarual, meaning the cups completely cover your ears. This usually presents a bulky form factor since more material is required to comfortably encircle your ears.
However, JBL’s recessed design allows for a smaller surface (where the JBL logo attaches to) to join the comfortable ear cups with cavernous ear chambers to the headband. This makes for comfortable gripping when putting on the headphones.
The market for active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones has traditionally been dominated by Bose, although Sony has made great strides to dethrone it. The JBL Live 650BTNC quietly (pun intended) excludes itself from the higher echelons of flagship wireless noise-cancelling headphones that cost more than SGD 500, instead coming in presenting a more affordable SGD 249.
At half the price of those contenders, JBL has had to make some sacrifices. The headband is reinforced with a more rigid metal, which means clamping force is a little stronger. To compensate for this, the headbands are also manufactured to be a little wider than I was used to, which I felt looked a tad alien. Nevertheless, I still felt some fatigue around my temples after prolonged usage of around four hours, although it can be largely attributed to my spectacles.
The headband itself is lightly padded and covered in fabric – much like the material used to cover its signature wireless speakers. I found little issue with pressure on the crown and odours being trapped by the fabric material. Constructed from bent metal sheets, the hinge mechanism inspired plenty of confidence despite its combination folding-swivelling action.
The extension mechanism in the headband delivers to eleven satisfying clicks. For reference, I’m told I have a relatively big head for my size but comfortably use 2-3 clicks on each side. Coupled with the swivelling ear cups, the headphones is highly customisable for a large variety of head shapes and sizes. The folding action also allows for folding, although it only allows for one cup to be retracted; still presenting a large footprint for your bag.
The plastic used on the ear cups also seems to be made from a more scratch-prone material, with tiny, almost invisible micro-scratches appearing within a day of use despite being diligently kept in the provided carry case.
Sound and Noise Cancellation
At half the price of the most expensive wireless ANC headphones, the JBL Live 650BTNC still dishes out great sound and noise cancelling performance.
Large 40mm dynamic drivers deliver a full-bodied sound that does not skimp on bass. For most of the mass market, these pair of headphones would be a very appealing option. Jamie Woon’s Sharpness was a treat, with an intriguing bass line driving the music along.
The sparkle in the opening arpeggi in Fleetwood Mac’s classic Everywhere dulls when the thumping bass kicks in and overpowers it. This muddling effect can also be heard in Stan Getz’s resonant baritone in The Girl in Ipanema. With deep, bassy vocals at the forefront, the syncopated pizzicato guitar loses plosive clarity; it emerges unadulterated when Astrud Gilberto’s sweet crooning takes over.
The soundstage, however, shines on Getz’s seminal masterpiece. It is trivial point with eyes closed to Gilberto, or the raspy tenor saxophone. The large ear chambers on the headphones give plenty of air for Van Morrison’s Brown Eye Girl and George Benson’s Give Me The Night to breathe.
The headphones can be used wired, and with the option of noise cancellation. ANC turned off, the headphones do not provide much in way of sound isolation. As a result, the audio sounds airy, with a persistent, echoing wooshing that sounds somewhat like putting your ear into a conch. That’s not too big a deal: top-end Bose and Sony headphones suffer from this issue too. Unlike those top dogs, however, the ANC on the JBLs do not put any “suction” or pressure on the ears.
ANC activated, a decent chunk of the humdrum cuts out, though it is still relatively easy to make out words – I found it actually possible to have a conversation with the ANC on. However, it does do a good job of attenuating most of the low-end environmental noise from engines, footsteps and frappé blenders at the local Starbucks.
This means that the JBL Live 650BTNC is a viable option for everyday environments, and even for short flights in a pinch. However, I’d think twice about counting on it as insurance against unruly toddlers bawling on a redeye long-haul.
The microphone on the JBL 650BTNC, like on most other wireless headphones (even the best), is terrible. I’d rather slide off the headphones and pick up the call on my phone.
Despite coming in at only half the price of its top competitors, the JBL Live 650BTNC packs a serious punch. Battery life on the headphones is rated for around 20 hours with ANC and wireless enabled. We found that we only had to charge the cans around once a week for moderate daily use for commutes and brief café work sessions.
However, the JBL Live 650BTNC charges via previous-generation microUSB, which spells horror for digital minimalists seeking to live by a single cable to rule them all. However, it delivers quick charging with two hours of playback on a 15 minute charge, so forgetful souls like myself can sleep peacefully.
The integration of Google Assistant would also be a delight for most users. After setting it up within the JBL Headphones application, users can access it by holding the touch-sensitive left ear pad while talking, and releasing when finished. This eliminates the need to mutter the kooky-sounding “OK, Google” in public, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Tapping it once announces the time and active notifications (from pre-selected applications), also alleviating the need to wake your phone to check the time.
The touch panel on the left cup does not sense swipes or any other input: for track control, volume control, ANC toggling, power on/off and Bluetooth pairing, the JBL Live 650BTNC offers a full line of switches, buttons and toggles along the rim of the left earcup.
First is the power slider, which quickly turns the cans on and off, indicating status with a white/blue light. Below that is the volume toggles, that also double as a skip/rewind control with a pause/play or call pick up/reject button in the middle.
Under that is the 3.5mm jack for use with the included analogue cable, followed by the Bluetooth pairing button and the ANC on/off switch.
As seen on the images above, the headphones have ostentatious lights that help transform you into a lighthouse in the dark. The row of buttons placed all along the rim of the ear cup can be unwieldy for some, but I found it preferable to swipe-based touch controls on more expensive headphones in terms of reliability.
Cop Or Drop?
At SGD 249, the JBL Live 650BTNC offers some of the best features from top-end models while retaining a great form-factor. Where it lacks in terms of fit and finish and ANC performance, the headphones more than make up for it in build, feature set and sound quality.
Personally, I found it preferable in daily applications to the blockbuster Sony WH-1000XM3 that I posited to be the best ANC travel headphones. With a smaller package, and without the rattling issues of the ANC system on the XM3s, the 650BTNC’s weaker ANC is sufficient for casual café creativity where blocking out the drone is enough. Multipoint Bluetooth connectivity also means I can move seamlessly between iPhone, iPad, MacBook and Mac Pro without taking off my cans. Your move, Sony.
For frequent fliers and long-haul travellers, however, I believe the noise-sucking blackhole that comes with top-tier wireless noise cancelling headphones would be the best insurance against errant children and loud-mouthed seat-mates.