It would be easy to say that the most important thing about a pair of headphones is how they sound. Without it, they're just earmuffs. But headphones are one of the earliest pieces of modern wearable tech, and comfort is one of the biggest hurdles any audio outfit faces when putting out a new pair of headphones that it wants to differentiate from the competition.
And that's why I'm so disappointed with JBL's E65BTNC noise cancelling headphones. Let's dive in and talk about how they look and feel, what makes them special, and how they sound, and what is and isn't worth the $200 price tag you'll see at the register.
Build & Comfort
The E65BTNCs are available in black, blue, and grey/white – we received the latter of the three. They're primarily plastic and faux-leather texturing with some mesh fabric and metal here and there.
On the left earcup is the USB Micro charging port, while the right cup has all the controls and the 3.5mm headphone jack. On that side are the power button, volume up and down button, a play/call button, and the buttons for Bluetooth syncing and toggling the noise canceling element of the headphones.
The whole thing feels generally pretty sturdy. I never felt like I was going to break them during normal usage, and even tugging and pulling on them in various directions never got the headphones to a point where I thought they might be permanently affected. The only part of the headphones that looks at all worrisome is the hinge that lets the headphones fold into a more compact form factor for travel and where that meets the headband for size adjustment. I didn't have any trouble with it during use, but it feels cheaper than the rest of the headset.
And that's where things start to unfold a bit for the E65BTNCs.
As I mentioned, I was shipped is a white set. They're attractive – JBL makes good-looking cans. But they're bright white and feature this light-grey mesh on top, and the whole thing feels like a recipe for dirty, grimy-looking headphones a year from now. Heaven forbid you wear them with dyed hair or gelled hair. That mesh feels like it's going to pick up everything. That the headphones don't come with a case at this price point seems like a huge oversight. Even just a pouch would've been appreciated.
Perhaps my biggest problem with them, though, is comfort. Compared even to JBL's Everest Elite 750nc headphones, which offer a very similar form factor, I found the E65BTNCs downright unpleasant to wear. The ear cups are just this side of too small for my extremely average-sized ears, and the headphones were constantly reminding me I wear glasses despite being over-ear cups. Those are two mortal sins for any headphones. My daily driver headphones are AKG's K240 MKIIs, while my "listening" headphones are Audio-Technica's ATH-M50x headphones, and both are significantly more comfortable for extended wearing. Even the 750s have noticeably bigger ear cups and better pressure for staying on the head.
I can wear any of those aforementioned headphones, or my Shure SE215 earbuds, for hours at a time without it stressing me out, but an hour with the E65BTNCs leaves me massaging red ears, and I find myself fiddling with them more than other headphones.
Being that these are noise canceling headphones – we'll get to that – seal is also important. This was never really an issue with the 750s, but it feels like the seal on the 65s is breaking constantly unless I'm sitting still. Totally apart from how well they actually cancel noise, the sound of a particularly rambunctious table at the cafe I hang out was continually finding its way into my playlist just because of that broken seal.
The feature set of the 65s is pretty similar to many of JBL's recent noise-canceling headphones. They offer active noise canceling in closed-back over-ear cups. They can transmit over Bluetooth 4.1 with or without noise canceling or via an included 3.5-mm cable that allows the headphones to be used passively even if the headphones are completely drained, giving them a nice bit of flexibility that some other headphones don't offer.
The noise canceling itself isn't bad, but it's not great, either. It does cut out a significant amount of background noise, but it's mostly the low-end stuff. The hum of the background and low chatter. If someone's playing music or having a loud conversation, that will still leak through. If you're looking for airplane noise canceling, though, these will get the job done.
The battery does perform pretty close to what JBL promises. If you have Bluetooth and active noise canceling, you'll get about 15 hours of playback, and my experience is pretty close to that. If you turn off one or the other, that time extends significantly, and they only take a couple hours to charge up to full.
Comfort aside, how do they do with the other major pillar, sound? Pretty good – conditionally. I listened to them with noise canceling on and off. When turned off, the headphones have a pretty full, warm sound. Turning on ANC, though, gives a feeling akin to listening to music through a cold. You can still hear the music fine, but it's not as lively. It feels decidedly stuffy. The bass shallows out and the high notes sound like they're hitting a ceiling and some detail is noticeably lost.
With the noise canceling off, though, the 65s sound pretty good. If I get them placed just right, bass has a nice punch in tracks like Eric B. & Rakim's "Let the Rhythm Hit 'Em," though again that seal problem meant that was constantly shifting as I wore them. The iconic piano at the beginning of "Still D.R.E." is crystal clear on these, though the bass isn't quite up to snuff compared to my Shure SE215 earbuds or ATH-M50x headphones. The trumpet in Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" sounds clear, though it loses out in some depth compared to headphones with a better seal.
With that said, the sound is far from bad. Listening for problems with sound on these is a matter of extreme nitpicking. These are good-sounding headphones purely in terms of how the music sounds in a good listening environment, as you'd expect from JBL.
If you can try these out in a store before you buy them, I highly recommend it. At $200, they're good sounding headphones with a pretty nice set of features and nice styling. For noise-canceling headphones, the pricing is competitive, and that shouldn't be overlooked. But if you're like me, you'll find them uncomfortable even compared to other JBL headphones. For me personally, the E65BTNCs are a disappointment just because they're so danged difficult to wear. If your heart is set on active noise canceling and you can save up a few more bottle caps, go for something a bit pricier. JBL's own Elite Everest 750NC headphones fit the bill, for example, as to offerings from companies like Bose and others.
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