JBL Live 650BTNC Review
Pros: Good sound quality, good active noise cancellation, less expensive than competitors
Cons: Not comfortable for those with larger ears/heads
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Our Analysis and Test Results
Noise cancelling headphones tend to fall into one of two camps: premium models that offer great performance at correspondingly high prices, and low-budget models whose active noise cancellation leaves a lot to be desired. The JBL Live is one of the few models to occupy a middle range, and it does so with aplomb. Sure these headphones cost significantly more than those budget models, but their performance can at the very least be considered in the same league as that of the much more expensive premium models.
The JBL Live's overall sound is good, but falls a bit short of being audiophile approved. It will almost certainly be a significant improvement over the earbuds that came with your phone, but lacks some of the definition and nuance that top-tier models possess.
We would call the Live's sound bass-forward. These headphones are able to produce deep and rotund bass notes. Notably that low end is able to control its power, keeping its articulation tight and well-defined where many comparable models fall down the slippery slope into muddled roars.
The bass is clearly the strength of these headphones, and they accordingly lean into that aspect. Just as the natural laws of acoustics tend to make live concerts sound bassier, the JBL Live tends to find the low end in any composition and pull it to the forefront. This strategy works well for many types of music, and is great if you're in need of some motivating tunes. It also tends to create a more robust and engrossing sound than most of the comparable models on the market.
Music that negates this bass-boosting strategy, namely acoustic arrangements, can sound a bit thin with these headphones. Luckily the clarity is good enough that these songs maintain a good amount of resonance despite the lack of low end. That clarity does tend to degrade a bit at higher volumes, however, so don't expect great results when blasting your favorite acoustic album.
Overall, though it has some weak points, we think the JBL Live does more than enough to provide a good listening experience for pretty much any type of music.
The JBL Live's active noise cancellation and noise isolation in general are both above average. The noise cancelling technology particularly excels with consistent low-pitched hums, like the background noise of a plane or bus. Even without music playing these noises almost disappear, though they are still discernible if you're actively listening for them. Turn on even low-volume music and those noises are rendered completely inaudible.
While no pair of noise cancelling headphones can completely filter out higher-pitched and less predictable sounds like talking, the JBL Live lets in noticeably more of these noises than the top noise cancelling headphones on the market. However, these noises take on somewhat of an ethereal, disembodied quality, almost like you're hearing them whilst underwater. We generally found the noises that made their way through the headphones to be fairly easy to ignore. Additionally, the active noise cancellation allows you to drown those noises out with lower-volume music, which is all most people will need to stay focused while working in a noisy office, or to remain engaged while watching a movie on a long flight.
We feel most people will find the JBL Live to be quite comfortable, but if you're planning to wear them for hours on end and you have a larger head, you may want to go a different route.
In an effort to make their headphones look sleeker and be less cumbersome, many headphone manufacturers have trended towards designs that are most comfortable for those with smaller heads and ears. The JBL Live certainly fits into that category. The design is fairly ergonomic and though somewhat stiff, the padding on the earcups feels quite comfortable during wear. However, both the earcups and the headband are just small enough that all of our testers with heads and/or ears that are even slightly larger than average reported a feeling of constriction when wearing these headphones. Most of those reports came in the form of the earcups pressing up against the ears and creating some uncomfortable hot spots, but others reported the headband also feeling annoyingly tight. It should be noted that all of these complaints came after wearing the headphones for multiple hours. Even those with larger craniums had no issue wearing the headphones for an hour or two.
The JBL Live offers a fairly seamless and intuitive user experience, and offers a few extra convenient features not often seen in this price range.
The controls on these headphones keep things simple with an on/of switch, a play/pause button, and two other buttons for adjusting volume. Long presses on the volume buttons allow you to skip tracks, and a long press on the play/pause button can summon virtual assistants. Active noise cancellation turns on by default when you turn the headphones on, and there is a dedicated button if you'd like to turn that function off. All of these buttons are located on the right earcup. They are quite small, making it easy to mix them up at first, but we got used to the layout after just a few music sessions. There is also a touch-sensitive control on the left earcup solely for interacting with virtual assistants.
Perhaps the most convenient feature is the Live's ability to pair with two bluetooth devices at once, allowing you to switch between the two seamlessly. It's important to note this doesn't mean you'll be able to listen to both devices simultaneously, or even hear alerts from both devices when wearing the headphones. It just means you don't have to dig through Bluetooth menus every time you switch from listening to music on your phone to watching movies on your laptop.
You can also download the My JBL Headphones app if you'd like to adjust the EQ of the headphones. The app includes Jazz, Vocal, and Bass EQ presets, as well as the option to customize the EQ.
One minor thing to note: these headphones charge with a standard micro-USB cable, so those looking to make a complete switch to USB-C may be disappointed.
These headphones fold up fairly small and flat and come with a soft-lined canvas bag for storage and travelling. A hard case would provide some extra peace of mind when stuffing these headphones into a bag, but that would be a bit of an unrealistic expectation at this price point.
All things considered, we believe the JBL Live offers about 70-80% the performance of the field-leading headphones at (in many cases) half the price. This combination makes them one of the best deals currently on the market.
The JBL Live stuffs good sound, functional noise cancellation, and user friendly features into a fairly economical price tag. If you're looking for good sound and active noise cancellation but don't want to pay a premium price, these headphones are a great middle ground.
— Max Mutter and Michelle Powell