In case you missed it, IFA 2023 was a corker of a year for audio's heavy-hitters, and JBL was no exception. As well as a three-strong rollout of retro-looking Authentics speakers, plus the Live 770NC and Live 670NC over- and on-ear wireless headphones, the firm has released a sleeper hit; a demure and affordable open-ear earbuds design that actually hits different through the low-end.
Readers of our IFA 2023 live blog might have caught senior staff writer Hamish Hector's initial thoughts on the JBL Soundgear Sense (for that is the product's name), but a quick recap is compelling reading. He kicks off his missive thus:
"I’ve been testing out the new JBL Soundgear Sense air conducting headphones here in Berlin for the past few days, and I’m kinda in love with them."
Yes, you're right to be intrigued. The JBL Soundgear Sense look like sporty earbuds (you know the ones), with a hook that secures them to your ear, but unlike the Beats Fit Pro they don’t go inside your ear. Instead, they sit over the entry to it and blast sound in through the air – think of them as directed open-ear headphones.
Of course, the main advantage of the Soundgear Sense over in-ear earbuds or the best noise-canceling headphones is you can enjoy your favorite playlist while also maintaining full awareness of your surroundings, because they don’t block noise from the real world at all.
Take note, these earbuds don't use bone conduction tech to achieve this (so they're not about to make it into our best bone conduction headphones buying guide) but considering JBL's middling history in this area, the company has been busy.
For a bit of back history, my verdict on the 2022 JBL Tune Flex – earbuds which can actually switch from an in-ear to an open-ear design – was less than glowing. But the Soundgear Sense is a different kettle of fish entirely.
"The sound quality is pretty darn good", enthuses Hamish, adding "At louder volumes, some distortion can creep in, but at moderate volumes (which is more than loud enough in practice) they offer good clarity. Mid and high-range tones sound great, and the bass is solid too – especially when you consider their small size."
Will they completely replace his trusty Bose 700? No. And that is because when listening to music or a podcast, Hamish (like many of us) wants to be isolated in his bubble of sound and free from the distractions of the outside world. But on commutes, when jogging or if walking home on a dark evening, our expert confirms he'll gladly swap them out for these JBL buds for the extra awareness they provide.
How much? The JBL Soundgear Sense will be available in black or white from end of September 2023, for £129.99 / €149.99, which equates to around $165 or AU$255, but these prices are unofficial and will be updated when JBL confirms MSRPs and availability for these regions.
Opinion: by focusing on sound, JBL beats its past efforts with ease
Anyone remember the screen-toting JBL Tour Pro 2, the forward-thinking but flawed flagship effort from the company last year? The much more humble Soundgear Sense earbuds – which even feature a detachable neckband – are nothing like those, for the better.
Honestly, it's great to see JBL put the charging case gimmicks to one side and focus on the sound quality it can achieve in an affordable and more safety-conscious design. Because here, JBL has talent, just see the splendid JBL Live Pro 2 – which feature some of the best active noise cancellation at the level I've ever experienced.
Take note though, there's no ANC here – it's an open-ear design meant to offer a degree of aural access to the elements during listening, expecting active noise cancellation tech would be somewhat churlish.
What you are getting is Bluetooth 5.3 with LE Audio (coming via an update); JBL's OpenSound Technology with lovely big 16.2mm drivers; four mics in total for crisp, clear calls; up to 24 hours of battery life (six hours in the earbuds plus a further 18 hours from the case); speed charge so a quick 15-minute juice nets you four additional hours of music; IP54 sweat, splash, and dust resistance; on-ear touch controls and the JBL Headphones App for personalization and EQ adjustments.
Will the JBL Soundgear Sense earbuds better similar offerings from Oladance (my preferred choice where open-ear options are concerned), OneOdio or Cleer Audio? Time will tell, but my colleague Hamish is working on a full appraisal of the JBL Soundgear Sense as I type.
Watch this space.
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Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.