Over the last five years, wireless earbuds have gone from being a cutting-edge novelty piece of tech (or Technovelty if you will) to being completely commonplace and ordinary. The rise of Samsung Buds, Apple Airpods, Huawei Freebuds, and hundreds of others has seemingly justified the removal of the headphone jack from most phones nowadays. Among the many third-party audio offerings are the JBL Live Pro+ which I’ve been able to play with recently. While JBL have really made a name for themselves with incredible audio quality at affordable prices I have to say that these earbuds leave me conflicted. While they are fantastic in so many areas, there are a couple of massive shortcomings that mean that they probably won’t be able to contend with the big hitters of this generation.
Like all wireless earbuds, the JBL Live Pro+ buds can be connected to your phone directly via Bluetooth and used right out of the box, no hassle. However, as with many big-name brands, JBL have their own proprietary app that you can use to really unlock their potential. It’s through this app that you’ll program any and all commands you may need into the buds. From letting them know that a single tap means “Play/Pause”, or a long press means “Activate Bypass” or “Turn on Noise Cancelling”. These commands can even be mapped to either the right bud or the left one so a double tap on the right may mean “Volume Up” while a double tap on the left will mean “Volume Down”. This is the kind of customisation range that, to me, just makes sense. You’ve got two “buttons”, so why should they automatically do the same thing? So far, so impressive.
Once I was all set up, I fired up a couple of songs and podcasts to get the full experience. Royal Blood for the low-end, Joe Satriani for the high, and rounding it all out with some Fake Doctors; Real Friends for the Pod experience. The JBLs really pulled it out of the bag here. The sound was crisp and very well-rounded. The bass was booming without cracking at all; the highs were crystal clear and not at all tinny. The fact that the app also lets you choose from a variety of Equaliser settings (as well as setting your own custom one) goes a long way here. Listening to some 90’s Metallica? Set up a profile with the mids turned down. Going for some noughties pop? Turn the mids up again to make the most of it.
The Active Noise Cancelling (ANC), like the app, is a feature that there’s no turning back from once you’ve experienced it. We’ve all been in a situation where no matter what you do you can hear some level of background noise through your earbuds. Whether you’re on a plane, in a crowded place, or walking past roadworks there’s always a point where you debate whether it might be worthwhile to pause what you’re listening to until the disruption passes. Not with ANC. Now you can just activate one setting and the buds will use the built-in mics to cancel out most of the outside world (anyone who did Leaving Cert Physics will remember constructive and destructive sound waves). On the flip side, the bypass mode (which is a feature on most earbuds and headphones now) is a dream. If you’re in a shop or ordering a coffee, you just flip a proverbial switch, and you can hear everything that’s going on around you. No need to take the buds out and fumble around with getting them into the case or your pockets.
There’s no denying it, these earbuds look every bit as swish as some of the premium brands. The matt black with JBL’s signature orange splashes is a very strong look. They certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a line-up of even the most high-end pieces of tech. The charging case is small enough to go mostly unnoticed in all but the skinniest of jeans. An impressive feat considering that it’s able to boost the playback time of the buds to up to 28 hours.
However, once you get past the superficial pieces of the design the real trouble with the JBL Live Pro+ buds emerges. They don’t fit in my ears. Now I know this is more about me than it is the buds, but I doubt I’m the only one who will have this problem. My ears are slightly different sizes, meaning I sometimes need different-sized tips for each ear. This isn’t a problem because the JBLs come with a wide variety of tips that can be used in place of the standard-sized tips. But no matter how I twisted, turned, or cajoled them with all possible permutations of tips in use I could not get them to stay in place. If these were wired buds this would probably be less of an issue because at least when they fall out, they won’t go too far. Wireless earbuds are a different kettle of fish. If you’re out for a run and one falls out, who knows where it might go? Down a drain, into the road, underfoot? None of these are good scenarios. Even stationary I’m sure nobody wants to have to adjust the fit of their earphones every 30 seconds.
Compare them to the Samsung Buds, which have a little wing that sits in the conchus of your ear, completely anchoring them in place. I’ve been using them as my go-to listening devices for the last two years and I have never had an issue with them. I’ve been running, cycling, and hiking with them. They even survive jumping jacks and burpees in the gym. I’ve used them for hours on end without having to adjust them once, all the while never feeling any discomfort or pressure. They’ll happily stay put while the JBLs decide to go for a dive on a whim. This is why I’m so conflicted about the Live Pro+s. How can you be applauded for all your innovations when the fundamentals aren’t up to snuff?
This issue is made even more irritating when you notice that the mid-tier earbuds from Samsung and Huawei (the Buds 2 and Freebuds 4 respectively) both have ANC as well as a proper, secure fit. These cost in or around the same as the JBLs so there’s nothing here to set the third-party buds apart from the competition. It pains me to say that while the sound quality is fantastic, and the utility in the app is second to none, I wouldn’t feel good about recommending these over one of the other big-name brands.
The Goosed Verdict
When it comes down to it, the JBL Live Pro+ earbuds are a great piece of kit with speakers and features that will certainly stand shoulder to shoulder with their competition. Unfortunately, their poor ear-fit and comparable price to the competition means that they just can’t quite compete with the big boys yet. Hopefully, we’ll see a revision with a more snug tip but for now, I’d say to stick to what you know.