Active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones are designed to cut away external noise. Sometimes it's noise you don't really notice until it's gone - like the hiss of an aeroplane cabin or the hum of the London underground - and once you've experienced that, well, there's no going back. Thing is, ANC cans don't come cheap.
JBL, however, has a product that's looking to break the boundaries of the typically-£300+ headphones with its Live 650BTNC - over-ear headphones which come in at a far more accessible £180 asking price. Whether used wired or wirelessly via Bluetooth, easy pairing and Google Assistant built-in ensure these cans aren't scrimping on the features despite the gentler price point.
Design and comfort
- 2.5mm headphone jack (note: it's not 3.5mm!)
- Google Assistant & Amazon Alexa control
- Bluetooth wireless connectivity (v4.2)
- Volume, ANC & BT button control
- Weight: 260g
Upon pulling the 650BTNC out of the box and we're in two minds: there are a lot of logos scattered everywhere to excess, while the white finish of this review unit isn't the most discreet. But, having worn them for a week - both while in the office and when out and about travelling - we've found these over-ear cans to be fairly comfortable.
One of the great things about the JBL Live is how easily connectivity happens. Having turned the headphones on - and before we even switched our phone's Bluetooth - a Google sync prompted us to connect and did all the pairing for us. If you want Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa control activated then holding a hand over an earcup will kick it into motion; if you don't then either is easy to deactivate.
The connection remains nice and strong via Bluetooth wireless; we've had no drop-outs connected to MacBook Air and various phones we use for work purposes. And if you don't want wireless then the included cable in the box - note it's 2.5mm at the headphones site, 3.5mm at the other end of the provided cable - for wired connectivity, which is also handy if the battery depletes and you wish to listen passively (without Bluetooth and ANC, of course).
On the right earcup, the Live 650BTNC host a series of buttons: there's volume up, play/pause, volume down, paired together as a three piece; while Bluetooth and ANC controls live as a twosome towards the front side (the latter set you're unlikely to need to use often). Having the controls is handy, but we much prefer the rotational earcup implementation of the Microsoft Surface Headphones - a pricier option, but more elegant in this regard.
Overall, then, the JBL Live 650BTNC are well equipped in terms of features, comfortable for long periods of wear, but just don't look the part compared to what else is out there. That said, considering the price point is about half that of the other formidable over-ear noise-cancelling headphones on the market, these cans carve out an affordable niche that no other can compete.
Sound and battery
- 40mm drivers, 20Hz - 20kHz response
- 700mAh battery, to 30hrs per charge
- Micro-USB (orange cable included)
Of course the main point of headphones is the sound quality. On this front the JBL Live delivers plenty of volume and from the off you can hear the bass capability - the jingle when switched on finishes off with a couple of bass warbles - coming good on the promise of low-frequency delivery.
However, after longer use we can see why the JBL asking price is a little less. There's no doubting that the audio is big - it can go really loud and is independently amplified, so phone volume and headphones volume are separate - and the clout is often quite remarkable with lots of mid-range snap and high-frequency shuffle.
But it's a listen that's a little fatiguing. There's not the same definitive clarity that you'll get from some other headphones, like the Bowers & Wilkins PX. The bass isn't as warm as some competitors, like the BeoPlay H9i. Again, both headphones that cost upward of £3/400, so it's not the fairest of comparisons, but is representative of what else is available in the ANC market.
When it comes to the noise-cancelling, the 650BTNC is fairly capable. It's a binary on/off motion here, but having used the cans on both London Underground and a flight to Prague, we can confirm the hum and hiss is muted somewhat. It's not as adaptable as, say, the Sony WH-1000XM3, nor as considerable as the Bose QC35 II. But it does a good enough job.
Battery wise there's a 700mAh cell on board, said to give 30hrs life. Remaining life is well communicated through a phone connection, which is a nice touch, and we've been using around 20 per cent over four hours at a time, delivering around 20 hours of use per charge. Which is plenty. Recharging from dead takes two hours using the included (bright orange!) Micro-USB cable - which we do wish was a USB-C to keep in line with most modern smartphone connectors.
The JBL Live 650BTNC deliver noise-cancelling at a price no other can match - not at this level of capability anyway. No, you won't get the high-end build quality or noise-cancelling adjustability of its competitors, but then JBL is asking for half price or less than the likes of Beats, Bose, Sony, Bowers, or BeoPlay. And considering the sound output from JBL is big and bold, it'll be more than enough to please most.
Add easy connectivity, good battery life, and comfortable long-term wear and JBL has really done well to deliver this much. We just wish the overall look was a little less brash (with those logos everywhere) and that the Micro-USB cable was USB-C instead. Ignoring those minor points, however, the Live 650BTNC is otherwise an absolute bona fide bargain.
Beats Studio 3 Wireless
The Beats are pricier, but the design is less abrasive, the sound quality better balanced and the battery life lasts for an age. If you've got a little extra cash then well worth the investment.