It was exciting when Jabra announced its latest Bluetooth headphones at CES earlier this year. The £279.99 Jabra Elite 85h look like a beefed-up version of the company’s well-reviewed Move wireless headphones, and inside there’s an intriguing surprise: artificially intelligent noise-cancelling technology that learns your routines and adjusts the feature accordingly. It sounds weird and almost like a gimmick, but after spending nearly a month testing the new Jabra headphones, I have to admit that I like them.
I also have to confess that it took me a couple of weeks to like the Elite 85h. They’re different in a handful of little ways that felt a bit frustrating at first, although I believe Jabra intended to break the mould a bit. To be clear, Jabra fixed a lot of the frustrations I’ve experienced with other wireless headphones.
Beautiful and inventive design
Noise-cancelling could be stronger
Let’s talk about noise-cancelling first, since it’s the marquee feature on the latest addition to the Jabra Elite family. Jabra sort of rocked the market last year, when it introduced the excellent Elite 65t truly wireless noise-cancelling earbuds. The noise-cancelling on these popcorn-sized pieces of audio technology is hardly powerful enough to cancel out the roar of an airplane cabin in mid-flight, but it was impressive that Jabra squeezed the feature into such a small package. That’s part of why I was so interested in how Jabra’s over-ear option would perform.
The new Elite 85h are designed to compete with the leaders in noise-cancelling headphones right now: Sony and Bose. At £279.99, the new Jabra headphones also undercut the £329.99 price tag on the Sony WH-1000XM3 and the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones. It might not come as a surprise that the cheaper Jabra 85h don’t cancel noise as well as the two competitors. In a controlled test using an aeroplane noise sample, the Jabras were only able to cancel out the grating roar up to about 50 per cent volume on Sonos speaker system. The Bose headphones held their ground until about 75 per cent. The Sonys handled 100 per cent volume without making me want to jump out the window. The Jabra 85h also lack the atmospheric pressure optimisation you’ll find on both the Sony and the Bose headsets, so that will also affect how well they perform in the air.
That said, most people probably aren’t buying noise-cancelling headphones strictly for air travel. They’re also great for activities, including riding the train or sitting in an annoying open plan office. The Jabra Elite 85h performed well for these needs, and moving between activities is where the AI technology comes into play. When enabled, a new mode called SmartSound analyses the sound around you and adjusts the active noise cancellation accordingly. There are three settings within this mode: In Private, Commute, and In Public. The noise cancelling gets ratcheted up in that order.
I was surprised by how handy the SmartSound feature ended up being. It’s useful because it’s mindless. Most other noise-cancelling headphones, including Jabra’s own Elite 65t, offer ways to adjust the power of the noise-cancelling on the fly so that you can hear important stuff, like on-coming traffic in a busy urban setting. However, that typically involves remembering the setting exists and then tapping a button to activate it. SmartSound adjusts automatically, so when I come out of the underground, the noise-cancelling chills out a bit and then I don’t get hit by a car. You can also adjust the noise-cancelling settings with a button on the left ear cup.
The Jabra Elite 85h have another weird quirk that I liked, too. The headphones lack a power button. It’s wild. The Elite 85h use a proximity sensor to register when they go on your head and then connect to the last device (or devices) you were using. If you’re listening to music and then take them off your head, the music pauses. It starts back up again when the headphones go back on your head. If you want to turn them off, you twist the ear cups so that they can lie flat on a table. This proximity sensor approach is similar to what Apple uses to make its AirPods so simple. Even though I’ve used the AirPods quite a bit, it honestly took me two weeks to get used to the same idea with the Elite 85h. Now, I love it because it eliminates the need to press a power button every time I want to use the headphones.
Of course, the problem with doing things differently in the Bluetooth world is that there are often bugs. That’s been my experience with the Jabra Elite 85h, but it’s only annoying sometimes. When they work perfectly, the headphones are easier to use than, for instance, the Sony WH-1000XM3. The Jabra can connect to up to two devices and typically switch between them seamlessly. (I can’t say the same thing about the Sonys).
But I have dealt with some glitches, some of which resulted in stuttering audio. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why this happens, but I do notice it when I’m connected to a phone and a laptop at the same time. Instances of stuttering or cutting out were rare, however. In my experience, pretty much every set of wireless headphones will do this at some point, and it’s not always clear why, although it’s sometimes an interference issue.
Pairing the device with a phone is a bit unusual, too, because you have to do it twice to enjoy all of the Elite 85h’s features. When I go to connect the headphones to a new device, I’m first instructed me to connect the Jabra product to the device through the Bluetooth menu, but then when I open the Jabra+ app for the equaliser and SmartSound settings, the app invites me to pair the headphones again. Then I have two instances of the Jabra Elite 85h in my phone’s list of Bluetooth devices, both of which are shown to be connected. In an email, Jabra engineers explained that this is because the first connection is just a regular connection while the second one is a Bluetooth LE connection that enables the smart noise-cancelling features. You can use the regular Bluetooth connection and ignore the app, but then, of course, the smart noise-cancelling stuff won’t work.
Glitches can be fixed, and Jabra is pushing out firmware updates regularly. The company also says that it’s still working on giving the Elite 85h the ability to activate voice assistants using just a wake word. This is the same kind of feature that Apple just added to the second generation AirPods. For now, there’s a button on the right ear cup that will beckon your device’s voice assistant. I’d personally prefer to push a button when activating an Internet-connected microphone, so the lack of the hands-free feature doesn’t bother me.
You’re probably thinking that it’s weird how I’ve gone on and on about these headphones without covering the basics. The amount I have to say about the new-fangled features on the Jabra Elite 85h should be a testament to how unique these noise-cancelling headphones are. They’re also just great headphones in more traditional ways. The simple design feels elegant with sharp fabric details on the headband and ear cups. Beneath the fabric on the right ear cup, you’ll also find three buttons – volume up, volume down, and a multifunction button – that I prefer over the touch-sensitive controls on some of the Elite 85h’s competitors. At 296 grams, the Jabra headphones slightly heavier than the noise-cancelling models from Sony and Bose, but they don’t feel bulky on your head.
Then there’s the audio quality. I listened to the same test playlist on both the Jabra Elite 85h and the Sony WH-1000X, swapping headsets several times during the songs. I had a hard time picking a winner! The Jabra stood out on tracks like 'Elephant Gun' by Beirut, where the string instruments sounded particularly bright. The Elite 85h’s bass response struggled very slightly when delivering the lowest notes on 'MIA' by Bad Bunny. Generally speaking, the Jabra headphones sound great, but not exceptional. (Check out the new £449 noise-cancelling Master & Dynamic MW65 if you’re looking for exceptional).
I would be remiss to discuss audio quality without mentioning the call quality on the Elite 85h headphones. Jabra is a company that’s famous for making top-notch headsets for the business world, so they’re intensely focused on call quality, and it shows with the Elite 85h. The headphones have a total of eight microphones, six of which are used to pick up your voice when you’re on the phone or talking to a voice assistant. According to my mother, I “sound like I’m standing right next to her” when I’m calling on the Jabra headphones. When I call with the Sonys, she sometimes says stuff like “You sound like you’re underwater".
Wait, I forgot a big thing: Jabra says the Elite 85h get 36 hours of battery life with active noise-cancelling turned on. I was not able to run these bad boys for a day and a half non-stop, but I can confidently say that I used them regularly for two weeks before my first charge. That’s better than any other headphones I’ve tested.
Suffice it to say that Jabra got the fundamental things like noise-cancelling, audio quality and battery life very right with the Elite 85h. The new features like the artificially intelligent noise-cancelling and the wacky lack of a power button makes these headphones even more interesting to me. The buggy connectivity stuff doesn’t even bother me that much, because I think there’s a strong chance it will get fixed in an upcoming software update. Plus, pretty much all Bluetooth headphones have some connectivity quirk.
So my mind keeps drifting back to the price: £279.99. That’s cheaper than the next best wireless noise-cancelling headphones. Do I think that the Sony or Bose models are worth the extra money? Maybe, especially if you fly a lot. Do I find myself gravitating towards the Jabra Elite 85h for my daily listening? I certainly do.
Photos: Adam Clark Estes (Gizmodo)