Jabra Elite 85h review: Good noise-cancelling headphones that come with a hint of greatness
- SmartSound is a cool idea
- Cozy feel-factor
- Solid ANC
- SmartSound feels like it doesn't live up to potential
- Durability of the fabric feels like an unknown
There’s a skeleton of a brilliant product here, I just wish Jabra took a little more time to flesh it out rather than settle for good.
If you’re looking to buy a set of premium noise cancelling headphones, there are usually two brands you start with: Sony or Bose. If happy or looking to burn money, you can probably throw Sennheiser into the mix as well. And if you're looking to save a buck, maybe Pantronics make the cut as well. There's no shortage of options when it comes to noise-cancelling headphones but there aren't that many reasons to dare beyond the brands you already know and trust.
Regardless, the Jabra Elite 85h is Jabra’s attempt to audition itself to the wireless noise-cancelling crowd and ingratiate itself as a new alternative for those who want a set of premium cans they can take with them wherever they travel but don’t like the established brands for whatever reason.
How do they plan on accomplishing this? Well, this next bit is gonna sound a little familiar but Jabra are betting that smarter headphones are better than dumber ones. And while Jabra have always a cerebral bent to their audio hardware, the Jabra Elite 85h they take that quality to a new level.
Type: Over-ear headphones
Dimensions: 195 mm x 82 mm x 225 mm
Cable Length: 120cm
Noise Cancelling: Digital Hybrid ANC with SmartSound
Battery life: Up to 41 hours (without ANC), up to 36 hours (with ANC)
Built-in microphone: 6 x MEMS, 2 x ECM
What did we like about the Jabra Elite 85h headphones
Rather than the sculpted plastic or copper accents found in the something from the competition, the Jabra Elite 85h opt for more tangible qualities.
The overall frame design is familiar in its flexibility but the earcups on the Jabra Elite 85h come wrapped in mesh-like fabric that gives it a very different feel-factor to the other options out there. And although I’m still a little unconvinced how the mesh fabric design will hold up to wear and tear over the long term, it does succeed at setting the Jabra Elite 85h apart from the other options.
There’s always something to be said for different. It might not always be better but different is still different. There's an endemic appeal to someone that nobody else is doing and that's hard to discount.
Still, I was pleasantly surprised with both how comfortable the Jabra 85h headphones were to wear and how good they sounded. Compared to my regular set of Sony WH-1000X M3 noise cans, the Jabra Elite 85h didn’t sound quite as sharp, nor was the noise-cancelling as effective. Still, to Jabra’s credit, there aren’t all that many headphones that get as close to the Sony WH-1000X M3s as the Elite 85h do.
I wouldn't say they're the best noise-cancelling headphones that consumers should think about buying in 2019 but they do get very close to being the best noise-cancelling headphones that consumers should think about buying in 2019.
The other thing that sets the Jabra Elite 85h apart from much of the competition is a feature called SmartSound. To be clear, this feature is optional. You can totally just take the Elite 85h headphones out of their box, slap em over your ears and and use them like you would any set of noise cancelling headphones.
However, should you download the new Jabra Sound + app, you get more than a few new toggles and dials to play with. You get SmartSound.
Rather than rely on a one size fits all solution, Jabra have used machine learning and audio samples to teach the Elite 85h what three different kinds of audio environment sound like. The final results of this auditory hyperbolic-time-chamber regimen are three distinct modes that the Jabra Elite 85h can shift between: public, private and commute.
Each of these SmartSound profiles does come pre-configured but the app encourages you to make each of the three settings your own. If you want to be able to hear a little bit of external sound when you’re in public, you can do that. If you want the maximum degree of noise cancelling the Jabra Elite 85h headphones can offer when you’re on your morning train, you can do that too.
Even if SmartSound doesn’t make the Jabra Elite 85h headphones better than the competition in the traditional sense, it does make them different in a way that's interesting, even if it is inferior.
What didn’t we like about the Jabra Elite 85h headphones?
Unfortunately, SmartSound is sometimes a little limited and wasn’t always as responsive as you’d like or expect it to be.
When worn while walking around Sydney, I found that the Jabrea Elite 85h headphones often oscillated between the public and commute settings with abandon. I’d get a dozen seconds of playback in one mode before being abruptly pulled into another. The supposedly-smarter set of headphones couldn’t make up their mind and eventually, my irritation with the feature led me to just make the two profiles in SmartSound the same - which kind of defeats the purpose.
During another instance, I was wearing the headphones and had a phone call come through - and be accepted - seemingly without any input from me. One moment I was listening to Carly Rae Jepsen. The next I was in a phone call with someone. I’m not entirely sure what happened here - it's possible I accidentally hit a volume key or something - but something definitely went wrong and it’s not hard to imagine how things could go wrong-er.
I’m also a little perturbed at how limited the customization options for SmartSound are. It’s cool that Jabra have pre-programmed three profiles into the headphones. It would be way cooler if you could customize and create your own.
There’s also no indication that the Elite 85h headphones will get any smarter over time. They’re not actively becoming better at distinguishing the differences between what public and commute listening environments sound like - and it feels like they should be.
In all fairness, the above capabilities could totally come to the Jabra Elite 85h over time - but in their current incarnation, the absence of such features feels like a conspicuous omission and a real weak-link when it comes to Jabra’s argument for why you should choose them over the competition.
The Bottom Line
The Jabra Elite 85h are not cheap headphones, nor are they perfect ones. Where comparable offerings from Sony and Bose have gotten both better and cheaper in recent years, the best Jabra can offer is different.
For some, different isn’t going to be enough. For others, it’ll be the secret ingredient they’ve been looking for. Me? I think there’s a skeleton of a brilliant product here, I just wish Jabra took a little more time to flesh it out. The execution is far from perfect and there’s still plenty of untapped potential I’d like to see harnessed in a second-gen attempt.
All the same, the Jabra Elite 85h make for a competitive enough experience that, if you’re tired or uninterested in the incumbents of the noise cancelling headphones space, they might be exactly what you’re looking for.
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