STEREO GUIDE Verdict
+ natural hearing sensation
+ better spatiality than with in-ears
+ authentic reproduction of acoustic drums
+ long battery life
+ JBL Headphones app with equalizer and useful functions
- Earpiece and case not nearly as compact as in-ears
- no active noise cancelling
- problematic in connection with glasses
Sound: Tonal balance / Transparency9.3
Sound: Bass / Dynamics9
Ease-of-use / Conncetivity9
The brand-new JBL Soundgear Sense proves: Now even the society of headphone manufacturers is threatened by a certain split: While lateral entrant Dyson pursues the path of isolation from the outside world by extreme means with the Zone, a curious cross between noise-cancelling over-ear and air purifier, a counter-movement is starting, led by Shokz. With the Soundgear Sense, designed as an open-ear earpiece, none other than JBL joins the new freedom movement. The headphones, which were presented at a large party with countless influencers on the fringes of IFA Berlin, do not cover the ear like over-ears or on-ears, nor are they recessed into it like in-ears. Held in place by an adjustable hoop that runs behind the ear, they rest only lightly in the area around the ear canal. By far the largest part of the auditory organ remains free.
Thus, the open-ear achieves the following: The wearing experience seems just as airy as the spaciousness feeling, which benefits not least from a certain crosstalk between both ears. This concept also eliminates the sometimes high pressure that many in-ears exert on the ear canal. With a few exceptions, such as certain Bose earphones, a hermetic seal of the inner ear determines whether the bass is rich or dull. In the JBL Soundgear Sense, digital equalization in the DSP chip combined with a stately 16.2mm diaphragm in each earphone ensures powerful low-frequency reproduction. Thus, the drivers are almost twice as large as those of the Sony WF-1000XM5 upper-class in-ears. JBL is thus pursuing the goal of compensating for the pressure losses in the bass associated with the open-ear principle.
Fasten enclosed bracket if required
Additionally, the neckband, which is well hidden in the JBL Soundgear Sense’s packaging, provides some protection against slipping or losing the IP54-rated earpiece, which is protected against sand and splashing water. This makes the Soundgear Sense the ideal companion for sports activities. It pays off positively that it reacted quite insensitively to wind influences in our standard test procedure. Thus, the Bluetooth earpieces avoid an acoustic problem that manifests itself during outdoor activities not only in stormy weather, but also affects those who move quickly in the fresh air.
Principle-related waiver of ANC
JBL’s open-ear does without amenities like Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) for reasons of principle. Without a tight fit, this would also be a pretty hopeless endeavor for a number of reasons. Moreover, the renunciation not only contributes to the feeling of connection with the environment, which in certain situations also proves to be an advantage in terms of safety. Incidentally, electricity consumption also benefits from the elimination of the measures associated with the generation of antisound.
Thus, you can expect an operating time of up to six hours at a stretch from the JBL Soundgear Sense. Inserting the open-ears, which are quite bulky compared to the common in-ears, twice into the oval charging case, which is correspondingly bulky, results in a runtime extension of another 18 hours. The included USB-C cable can be connected to a suitable power source, such as a power bank, to recharge the battery for another four hours of gaming time in just 15 minutes.
The pairing with the smartphone required a lot of patience, which should not be overestimated, because we received the test sample shortly before the official release date of the JBL Soundgear Sense in September. After numerous resets, we gave up at first, but after a few tries, we were able to connect the TWS earpieces to a MacBook Pro. After that, it worked with the iPhone at some point. Afterwards, we were also able to upload the software version 2.0 via Bluetooth 5.3 using the JBL Headphones app, which is available for free for iOS and Android. With just under 10 minutes for the firmware update, the JBLs belong to the fast troop.
JBL Headphones app with equalizer and other useful functions
The JBL Headphones app also provides three different sound presets for different listening habits or sound programs: Jazz, Vocal, Bass, Club, and Studio. However, the five presets can also be adjusted to personal taste via the 10-band equalizer. And you can also save your own creation under “My EQ”.
Another important function of the app is the assignment of the two touch surfaces on the backs of the two earpieces, which can be assigned different functions for certain gestures. It makes a difference whether you tap the touch-sensitive surfaces once, twice or three times – for example, to accept incoming calls via the integrated four microphones. Finally, the JBL Soundgear Sense can be used as a headset. As ordered, a friend with an audiophile background called me during a listening session, and he was able to confirm the very good speech quality of the JBL Soundgear Sense right away. Even with light gusts of wind, we could still communicate well.
Custom Bluetooth transmission
Another useful feature is the adjustment to audio or video playback. The reason for this is as follows: If you want to watch movies or YouTube videos lip-synchronously, i.e. with the shortest time delay, you sacrifice some sound quality and range of the Bluetooth wireless link. This has to do with buffering. In the test practice, it had the effect that I could freely move around the entire apartment with the JBL Soundgear Sense in music mode without transmission problems without taking the smartphone with me. In video mode, we often experienced short sound dropouts. When the Smart Audio & Video function is activated, manual switching is not required.
Among the other functions are a balance control, language selection for the announcements and an automatic shutdown. If you do not insert the handset into its charging case after use and close the lid, it will thus switch off after a preselection in three time stages to save power. Forgetful people can also use the JBL Headphones app to locate their nearby surroundings by playing loud sounds. By the way, you can also pair a single open-ear with your smartphone and leave one ear free thanks to Dual Connect.
Listening test: Does the open-ear also make real bass?
Locating is also the keyword for the hearing test. Headphones always have a certain in-the-head localization, which is especially true for soloists placed in the center of the sound panorama. This is especially true of the popular in-ears, which bypass the outer ear transmission function by inserting them into the ear canal and act on the eardrum from a very short distance. In this way, they not only override the outer ear transmission function, which is crucial for localizing sound events. It also eliminates the sound pressure that can be felt with on-ears or over-ears, at least at the ear as with speakers.
The JBL Soundgear Sense can be angled up or down in three different stages by means of a joint on the two-axis pivoting temples and thus perfectly adapted to the ears by the sound radiation. If you want to listen to rock and pop with rich emphasis, you should place the two capsules with their generously dimensioned membranes as far as possible above both auditory canals. The adjustment options with two axes proved to be extremely useful. If, on the other hand, you swivel the Bluetooth open-ears upwards away from the auditory canal, you will reap the feeling of increased transparency and natural spaciousness. The price, however, is a thinned-out fundamental range with slightly peaked voice reproduction and a loss of punch in the lowest octaves. Finding the best compromise here for the music in question is the key to satisfaction with JBL’s open-ears.
The right fit is what counts
With the right fine-tuning, you can enjoy not only a rich bass with pop and electronic music. It also sounds like the Shokz Openfit somehow a whole shade more natural than with in-ears. Psychoacoustic effects certainly play a part in this. Somehow, acoustic drums in rock classics by Pink Floyd or Deep Purple seemed tighter and deeper with the open-ears, even if a bit slimmer than with some in-ears. In doing so, the JBL Soundgear Sense managed a better, more precise kick than with the usual Bluetooth in-ears in this class. This dry punch also inspires the drive of electronic beats. It had a positive effect that the rather large drivers of the JBL, which is quite bulky compared to the Shokz, did not choke on extremely fat electro beats even at high levels.
What the JBL also managed very well was the tonal balance and naturalness of voices, which did not lack warmth, although depending on the fit, they do not quite come close to very good in-ears in this discipline. The strength of the open-ear principle, which was also clearly evident in the Shoks Openfit, whose review we will publish on STEREO GUIDE shortly, lies in the spatiality of the reproduction. And the casual, unforced airiness of the sound panorama, in conjunction with the filigree, silky overtone spectrum and the quick response to the finest impulses, also inspired the reproduction of jazz and classical music. For example, guitars or violin concerts were pure joy with the JBL Soundgear Sense.
Conclusion of the review and alternatives
The JBL Soundgear Sense are about twice as expensive and bulky as the all-around great JBL Tune 230NC TWS, which is well suited for pop and rock music. In return, they offer a particularly airy feeling when wearing and listening, which goes hand in hand with the absence of Active Noise Cancelling. Especially the bass, which is not artificially bloated and can really emulate a drum kit, was something we really enjoyed. Where many in-ears tend to inflate the upper bass, JBL’s open-ear offers a hearty low-end and plenty of precision – at least if you take a moment to position it perfectly.
However, some like fat rather than precise bass and do not want to do without ANC. They can get a bargain with the JBL Tune 230NC TWS, which is also better to slip into your pocket with its comparatively tiny charging case. In addition – and this applies to in-ears in general – there is no conflict with glasses. During the review, I was able to use the Soundgear with sunglasses, but it was not comfortable or secure in fit (for the Ray Ban). These problems can be solved with the comparably priced Sennheiser Sport True Wireless, which is also optimized for sports and also fulfills the desire for more brilliance that some people have. An alternative with smaller dimensions but similar profile are the Shokz Openfit.