Jul 18th, 2019

With more and more smartphone makers choosing to omit the 3.5mm headphone jack on their newest devices, the market is finally shifting from wired headphones to wireless. In the last year, we have seen a massive influx of true-wireless earbuds which are great for casual listeners, but the more traditional over-the-ear headphones have been experiencing a renascence of their own with the commoditization of wireless connectivity and active noise cancellation. Sony and Bose have a tight grasp on the high end of the market with products like the Sony WH1000XM3, Bose QC35 ii and the newest Bose 700, but if you’re not willing to spend $300 to $400, JBL’s Live 650 BTNC $200 noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones may be exactly what you’ve been looking for.

JBL Live 650 BTNC Specs

  • Weight: 249 grams
  • Drivers: 40mm Liquid Crystal Polymer drivers
  • Bluetooth: 4.2, 30-foot range
  • Ambient Noise Cancellation: Yes, HD Noise Canceling Processor QN1
  • Ports: micro USB (charging port), 2.5mm
  • Battery Life: 20 hours with ANC turned, 30 hours BT-only
  • Controls: touch & buttons
  • Digital Assistant: Google Assistant, Alexa, Siri integration
  • Colors: Black, Blue & White
  • Price: $200 (see the latest prices on Amazon)

Design & Build Quality

The JBL Live 650 BTNC headphones are pretty recognizable if you’re familiar with other JBL headphones or speakers. The look is a bit more casual than what you get from Sony and Bose, but it’s built extremely well. The headphones can fold flat or inward to save space when placed in a bag and the top band is covered in the same braided material what JBL has been using on its Bluetooth speakers the past few years. The earcup pads and the top band could definitely be improved upon to be more comfortable, but I’ve used the headphones for 8 hours straight on multiple flights and train rides without any issues. A minor complaint with design choices that JBL made is the annoying LED light which stays on as long as the headphones are on. It’s fine during the day, but it’s bright enough to light up a room when the lights are out.

Unlike its more expensive competitors, the 650BTNC headphones do not come with a hard travel case. JBL was kind enough to include a cloth pouch which should help protect them from minor scratches when you throw them in your bag, but it that’s about is. But what really annoyed me was finding out that JBL decided to go with a micro USB charging port. With my laptop, smartphone, and an external power bank all charging over USB C these days, these headphones are the only piece of “new” tech which forces me to remember to travel with a micro USB cable.

One of the compromised JBL needed to make in order to keep the price so low was to reply on traditional buttons on the headphones. On the outside of the right earcup, you’ll find the usual power switch, music playback and volume buttons, but you do get one touch-control on the left earcup which is used to activate the Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa which can be used to read your phone’s notifications or for most other voice assistant features like controlling your smart home devices.

Performance

As you’d expect from high-end JBL headphones, the audio experience offered by the JBL Live 650 BTNC is phenomenal. The headphones are tuned to deliver a balanced experience with crisp highs, smooth mids and beat thumping bass which delivers quite an enjoyable sound. The included app does allow you to switch between three different equalizer presets or create and save your own, but there was honestly no need. The only time I did tweak things a little was when I was listening to a podcast which was a live auditorium recording. The audio quality is slightly better than what you get from the Bose QC35 II, but still shy of what you can get from Sony’s WH1000XM3.

When it comes to active noise cancellation, JBL’s headphones don’t quite match up to the leaders in the segment. Noise cancellation on the 650 BTNC only has two options: on or off. It’s missing all the fine-tuning options that the $350 noise-canceling headphones offer which allows you two tweak things to your specific environment or the pressure of the airplane cabin. With the noise cancellation turned on, the headphoned to a pretty good job of cutting out the ambient noise around you, practically reducing the noise from a fan, air conditioner and even those constant rumble from a train or plane to nothing. Voices do carry through from time to time, but that’s true for the competition as well.

The quality of the noise cancellation comes into question when the feature is turned on with no music playing. You’ll notice a subtle hiss which becomes even more apparent if you remove one headphone cup from over your ear — something you’ll likely be doing often since JBL’s headphones don’t offer an ambient sound mode to quickly turn off noise cancellation and amplify the audio around you.

Since these headphones connect to your phone, they can also be used to make an receive calls as well. The built-in Google Assistant is great for this since you simply have to tap the left earpiece and then ask Google to call anyone in your contact list. Unsurprisingly, the audio quality for calls is pretty good on both ends. The person you’re talking to comes through loud and clear and they also reported that the audio of their end was crisp as well. That being said, the people on the other end of the line did note that there was more background noise coming through when compared to using a smartphone.

Battery Life

Battery life is extremely important these days since no one wants to interrupt their music simply because they forgot to charge their headphones.

In my testing, I averaged 20-22 hours of music playback between charges with noise cancellation turned on. This is in line with the 20 hours of battery life JBL promises, but if you switch off active noise cancellation, you could get up to 30 hours without any issues. That’s pretty respectable, but not quite long enough to leave the charging cable at home if you’re going to a 3-4 day trip, something that wouldn’t need mentioning if JBL would have used USB C instead of micro USB.

Final Verdict

The JBL Live 650 BTNC headphones may not be among the best in the category, but they’re phenomenal when you take into account their $200 price point. The minor issues I’ve pointed out will only be obvious to those who have used noise-canceling headphones which cost $150 more than the $200 JBL is asking for its headphones. There are a few other competitors like the Jabra Elite 85H and Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 which come in at around the same price, but the JBL Live 650 BTNC definitely beats them when it comes to comfort and audio quality.

Simply put, JBL’s Live 650 BTNC is our favorite pair of $200 noise-canceling headphones in 2019.

Buy the JBL Live 650 BTNC headphones
 

JBL Live 650 BTNC Rating: star_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_25 (4.2/5)

The Good

  • Good audio quality
  • Great battery life
  • Decently comfortable
  • Incredible value

The Bad

  • Outdated micro USB charging port
  • Average noise cancellation