It takes a lot to surprise an audio geek in 2022. However, I was really excited to learn about JBL Tune Flex; an affordable, water-resistant, ANC pair of headphones that also have two different wearing styles – open or closed.
Upon receiving a set to try on, I also notice the translucent case showing off the battery, connections, and other glorious innards. I had the black/grey pair to try, but there’s also a wonderfully retro purple color.
As I said when JBL’s transformative product came out, you’ve never seen headphones like these and I applaud the ingenuity. Also, small details like these can add great value.
To clarify the proposal: unlike Oldance’s admirable fully open design, which doesn’t even come close to the recesses or folds of your ear, JBL’s solution includes provided tips for changing the buttons from simply resting on the outer ear or shell part ( in the way Apple’s EarPods or AirPods (2019) do), to longer tips that enter the ear canal to create a seal – often a must for the best wireless headphones.
Back to JBL Tune Flex (short for ‘Flexibility’ due to those two user options) and there’s a new sound setting to toggle within the app depending on whether you’re using “Open Ear Tips” or “Sealing Ear Tips” – yes, JBL considered the implications and shaped the audio experience accordingly. Admirable!
You get eight hours of playback from the buttons and 24 from the case with the ANC off, or six from the buttons, 18 from the case if it’s on. The case has a sensible lip to keep it from closing and you actually get a suitable plastic case for the various tips – more on that later.
So far, things look great…
And where Nothing’s never-before-seen clear (Stick) headphones remain encased in awkward pouches, the JBL Tune Flex is available now, with a fully comprehensive spec sheet – certainly a shoo-in to our ultimate guide to headphones with noise canceling, no? We will…
Analysis: open ear is insecure, closed ear a little stuffy
The JBL Tune Flex open ear tips come pre-installed and must be removed before switching to the closed ear canal seals, even though the small open ear tips appear almost perfectly lined up with the driver housing (see above, on the left) – and note that there is It is a right and wrong way to guide them.
Unfortunately, I can’t get any kind of security with the open end option. I should note that I find the fit of Apple’s original AirPods pretty awful (to the point of researching special ear tips to compensate and level out the sound), but I still found this a little worse. The buds just wanted to pop out of my ears so I pushed them into the dish-shaped recess before my own ear.
The fit here isn’t all that different from the headless headphone design headphones included with the new Nokia 5710 XpressAudio, but again, I found the JBL Tune Flex fit a little more difficult to accommodate.
Any kind of valid discussion about sound is therefore unfair. I just can’t keep the open-ear style in my ears long enough to relax and enjoy the music. I think the problem might have to do with the way they are weighted – they just feel like they’re actively trying to get out of my ears.
Switching to the closed-ear style provides a decent fit and seal, using the smallest of the three options provided in my case. Swapping is easy too, and again, that plastic box, with little hooks to keep all the ends secure, is a neat touch – one I wish more companies would think about.
Unfortunately, I find the ANC (handled by two mics) less than great, even with good security and a tight fit – and even at the highest level (you can select between 1 and 6) I hear the semi-constant planes flying over my London flat. . While this is not a complete star-rated review, Ambient Aware and TalkThru also proved somewhat ineffective during my initial testing.
Turning off all ambient sound controls, Lady Gaga love game lacks a minimum of glaring detail in terms of the raw, leading edges of the backing strip. Gaga’s insatiable vocals are also a little, well, muffled. Switching to Cambridge Audio’s Melomania 1 Plus, which can also be purchased for the same price as the JBLs, the vocal sounds more three-dimensional and with an extra ounce of detail as the star scales her incredible, emotive range.
Halsey’s Without me sounds a bit congested and confused through the bass synths and drums on the JBLs, to the point where I’m missing backing track elements (vocals, top hat) that I should be able to discern more clearly. Switch to Cambridge Audio’s Melomania 1 Plus and the sound field expands, revealing space around the various instruments.
Throughout my audition, I felt a little disappointed – and it pains me to write this piece.
On the one hand, JBL is offering a product that looks great and has a high-end finish. Battery life, flexibility of use, and feature set are also excellent (and in some cases unheard of) at the level. On paper, I love things. It’s just that for me the proof of the pudding is in the food and as a sonic proposal these headphones are a little short, however I tried to use them.
What I’ve learned? In the same way that it is not possible to have your cake and eat it, having an excellent set of and headphones enclosed in a box is a bit much to expect. It might sound difficult, but I tested the JBLs against a competing product for the same price – and I found them to be poor in terms of sound quality, try as I might.
The overall design of the best noise-canceling headphones is crucial to their performance. Looks like you really need to specialize.