I tried earbuds that swap from in-ear to open-ear, but they prove you must specialize

JBL Tune Flex case held in hand, on white background
(Image credit: Future)

It takes a lot to surprise an audio geek in 2022. However, I was truly stoked to learn about the JBL Tune Flex; an affordable, water-resistant, ANC-toting pair of earbuds that also boasts two different wearing styles – open or closed.

Upon receiving a set to try, I also note the translucent case showcasing the battery pack, connections and other glorious innards. I had the black/grey pair to try, but there's a gorgeously retro purple color too.

As I said when JBL's transforming product was released, you've never seen earbuds like these and I applaud the ingenuity. Also, little details such as these can add up to great value. 

To clarify the proposition: unlike Oladance's admirable fully open design which goes nowhere near the recesses or folds of your ear, JBL's solution includes supplied tips to change the buds from simply resting in the well-like part of your outer ear or concha (in the way Apple's EarPods or AirPods (2019) do), to longer tips which enter your ear canal to create a seal – often imperative for the best wireless earbuds

JBL Tune Flex app UI on an iPhone, with green background

JBL has tailored the in-app profiles for open or closed wear with Tune Flex (Image credit: Future)

Back to the JBL Tune Flex (short for 'Flexibility' owing to those two wearer options) and there's a new sound setting to toggle within the app, depending on whether you're wearing "Open Ear Tips" or "Sealing Ear Tips" – yes, JBL has considered the implications and shaped the audio experience accordingly. Admirable! 

You get eight hours of playtime from the buds and 24 from the case with ANC off, or six from the buds, 18 with the case if it's on. The case has a sensible lip to stop it snapping shut and you actually get a proper plastic case for the various tips – more on these later. 

So far, things look great… 

And where Nothing's unreleased transparent (Stick) earbuds remain shrouded in, er, strange bags, the JBL Tune Flex are available now, with a fully comprehensive spec sheet – surely a shoo-in for our best noise-cancelling earbuds guide, no?  Well…

JBL Tune Flex case and ear tips case, on white background

The little plastic case is a useful and classy touch. (Image credit: Future)

Analysis: open-ear is insecure, closed-ear a tad muffled

JBL Tune Flex earbuds with open-ear tip on left, closed on the right bud

Left: open-ear tip. Right: closed-ear tip (Image credit: Future)

The JBL Tune Flex's open-ear tips come prefitted and must be removed before switching to the closed, ear-canal sealing ones, even though the tiny open-ear tips feel almost perfectly flush with the driver housing (see above, on the left) – and note that there is a right and wrong way to orient these. 

Sadly, I cannot gain any kind of security with the open-ear tip option. I should note that I find Apple's original AirPods' fit quite awful (to the point that I've looked into special ear tips to compensate and level up the sound) but still, I found this marginally worse. The buds simply wanted to burst from my ears as soon as I pushed them in to the dish-like recess before my earhole proper. 

The fit here is not dissimilar to the tip-free stem-design earbuds included with the new Nokia 5710 XpressAudio, but again, I found the JBL Tune Flex fit slightly harder to accommodate. 

Any kind of valid discussion about the sound is therefore unfair. I simply can't keep the open-ear wearing style in my ears for long enough to relax and enjoy the music. I think the issue might be to do with how they're weighted – they just feel as if they're actively trying to work their way out of my ears.

Switching to the closed-ear style does provide a decent fit and seal, using the smallest of the three options provided in my case. Switching is also a breeze, and again that plastic case, with little hooks to keep all of the tips safe is a classy touch – one I wish more companies might think of. 

JBL Tune Flex earbud held in a hand on white background

The closed-ear JBL option is the only one I could get on with. (Image credit: Future)

Sadly, I find the ANC (handled by two mics) less than great, even with good security and a closed fit – and even at the highest level (you can select between 1 and 6) I hear the semi-constant aeroplanes flying in over my London flat. Although this is not a full, star-rated review, Ambient Aware and TalkThru also prove somewhat ineffective during my initial tests. 

Switching all ambient sound controls off, Lady Gaga's LoveGame lacks a modicum of stark detail through the raw, leading edges of the backing track. Gaga's insatiable vocal is also a little, well, muffled. Switching to Cambridge Audio's Melomania 1 Plus, which can also be bought for around the same price as the JBLs, the vocal sounds more three-dimensional and with an extra ounce of clarity as the star scales through her incredible and emotive range. 

Halsey's Without Me sounds a little congested and muddied through the bass synths and drums on the JBLs, to the point that I'm losing elements of the backing track (vocals, a high hat) I should be able to discern more clearly. Switch to Cambridge Audio's Melomania 1 Plus and the soundfield expands, revealing space around the various instruments. 

Across the course of my listening, I felt a little disappointed – and it does pain me to write this piece. 

On the one hand, JBL is offering a product that looks great and is finished to a very high standard. The battery life, flexibility of use and feature set are also excellent (and in some cases unheard of) at the level. On paper, I love the things. It's just that for me the proof of the pudding is in the eating and as a sonic proposition these earbuds fall a little short, however I tried to wear them. 

What have I learned? In the same way that having your cake and eating it isn't possible, having a set of excellent open-ear and closed-ear earbuds in one box is a bit much to hope for. It may come off harsh, but I did test the JBLs against a competing product at the same price – and I found them wanting in terms of sound quality, however hard I tried. 

The overall design of the best noise-cancelling earbuds is crucial to their performance. It seems that you really do need to specialize.

Becky Scarrott
Senior Audio Staff Writer

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.