Powerful audio performance with deep bass response, bright highs. Decent noise cancellation (when music is off). Can be used in wired mode passively or with active noise cancellation.
Noise cancellation affects audio performance. No carrying pouch or case.
- Bottom Line
The JBL E65BTNC headphones deliver bass-forward Bluetooth audio with decent noise cancellation for the price.
It wasn't long ago that there were virtually no Bluetooth headphones with decent noise cancellation. Bose has an edge with the excellent QuietComfort 35 II, but some alternatives have started to appear. Few of them, however, cost as little as the $199.95 JBL E65BTNC. For the price, you get bass-forward, powerful Bluetooth audio. You also get some pretty decent noise cancellation—when music isn't playing. When you turn the ANC on and play music, however, the circuitry has a noticeable impact on audio performance. For $200 this is a forgivable sin, but it makes the E65BTNC an option only for those willing to sacrifice some overall performance for a price that is far lower than the leaders in the category.
Available in black, blue, or gray-and-white, the headphones feature memory foam circumaural (over-the-ear) earcups lined with soft, leather-patina material. The headband isn't as cushioned as it could be, but still manages to be comfortable over long listening sessions—it's lined with fabric and emblazoned with the JBL logo up top. Even though the earcups swivel and fold down flat, there's no included pouch to place them in, which seems like an oversight for the price.
On the right earcup's outer panel, there's a power switch, as well as plus/minus buttons for volume (these work in conjunction with your mobile device's master volume levels) and a central multifunction button that handles playback, call management, and summons voice control on your phone. The plus/minus buttons also control track navigation when they're held down instead of tapped; we're not fans of combining these two controls on the same button, as it makes it easy to skip a track accidentally.
There's also a connection for the included, cloth-lined 3.5mm audio cable on the right earcup's outer panel. Near this jack, there's a button that activates Bluetooth pairing mode (though the headphones go into pairing mode when powered up for the first time and automatically re-pair with your device when powered up again). Pairing is a quick and simple process, and you can pair two devices at once—so you can take calls on your phone but use a tablet as your sound source, for instance. The Bluetooth button also turns the noise cancellation circuitry on or off when held for two seconds.
An orange micro USB charging cable of generous length is also included. It connects to the left earcup's outer panel. It has an inline mic and a single-button remote control at roughly chin level that handles playback, track navigation, and call management.
The built-in Bluetooth mic offers better than average intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 6s, we could understand every word we recorded, with no obvious audio artifacts, though the mic does sound slightly far away. The inline mic on the cable offers superb intelligibility—total clarity, and even some bass response.
JBL estimates the E65BTNC's battery life to be roughly 15 hours (with Bluetooth playback and noise cancellation), 30 hours (for wired playback with noise cancellation activated), or 24 hours (Bluetooth playback only). Obviously, there's a wide range of possibilities here, so your results can vary dramatically. One important note, however—while connecting the cable immediately kills any Bluetooth connection, it doesn't automatically power the headphones down. This is so you can use the noise cancellation if you want to, but obviously, it can also be a pretty easy way to drain the battery if you thought you were in passive listening mode. Audio performance between active wired and passive wired modes doesn't vary dramatically.
For $200, the active noise cancellation here is pretty solid. It's not close to the best available—that honor still belongs to Bose's QuietComfort series—but for a combo Bluetooth-noise-canceling pair, you get noise cancellation on par with some more expensive competitors. That said, like many noise-canceling headphones that try to compete with Bose, the headphones produce a very faint high frequency hiss—it's not unpleasant, it's more like tape hiss, but it is audible.
Unlike many competitors, JBL also opted not to include an app that controls and tweaks the noise cancellation. For many, this might seem like a limitation, but it's worth noting that plenty of the apps that control ANC for their respective headphones don't necessarily improve the noise cancellation itself. JBL keeps it simple, and despite the slight hiss, it eliminates a wide swath of ambient sound, and even a little office chatter, making the headphones ideal for public transportation, travel, or the office.
That's the good news regarding the noise cancellation. The bad news is that it affects the audio in a noticeable way. We did the bulk of our audio testing with the ANC off. When ANC is engaged, you can expect less deep bass and some pinched, sculpted high frequency response. It's not awful, but the sound is noticeably better with the ANC off.
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On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife's "Silent Shout," the headphones deliver a powerful low frequency response that will appeal to fans of big bass. The highs are well represented here so that things remain somewhat balanced, but this is definitely a bass-forward sound signature.
Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the sound signature. The drums on this track sound round, full, and powerful through the E65BTNC, but they manage to avoid becoming overly thunderous. Callahan's baritone vocals get an extra helping of low and low-mid frequency richness, but the high-mids and highs are also quite present, lending the vocals some treble edge and some brightness to the attack of the guitar strums.
However, turn the ANC on, and the music sounds like it's running through a filter—Callahan's vocals and the highs sound sculpted and limited in spots, while the sub-bass response is cut tremendously. For $200 we can't really expect fireworks, but major degradation of audio performance is not a problem you'll find in higher-quality options.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the kick drum loop gets plenty of high-mid presence, allowing its attack to retain its punchiness and cut through the layers of the mix as a prominent force. The loop also gets some added low frequency heft, beefing up the sustain somewhat, while the sub-bass synth hits are delivered with gusto. The lows aren't boosted to insane levels, but the deep lows can definitely be heard. The vocals on this track benefit from the crisp high-mid and high frequency presence, though there is some added sibilance.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, have a crisp, bright presence that is only slightly enhanced with added bass depth—the higher register brass, strings, and vocals own the spotlight here. When there's the occasional sub-bass sound, it's pushed forward slightly in the mix, but the bass response is far more noticeable on pop music than orchestral tracks.
Sonically, JBL'S E65BTNC headphones deliver a solid listening experience with rich bass that can dig down for subwoofer-like lows and match it with clear, bright high frequency presence. The noise cancellation, when no audio is playing, is also solid for the price. But the bummer is what the noise cancellation does to audio—it scoops out some of the bass response and messes with the highs when it's engaged and music is playing. If the headphones were more expensive, that would be a big problem, but at $200, we can put it this way: This is a great-sounding, bass-forward pair of headphones with decent noise cancellation at a reasonable price. Other strong performers in the noise-canceling wireless realm include the Sony WH-1000XM2 and Libratone Q Adapt On-Ear, as well as the aforementioned Bose QuietComfort 35 II and the AKG N60 NC Wireless—but they're all more expensive, as quality wireless audio and noise cancellation don't come cheap.
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By Tim Gideon Contributing Editor, Audio
Contributing Editor Tim Gideon has been writing for PCMag since 2006. He specializes in reviewing audio products, and is obsessed with headphones, speakers, and recording gear. More »
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