Great-sounding Lightning headphones for iPhone-toting exercise fans
Headphones subtype: In-ear sports, Plug type: Lightning cable, Weight: 30g, Cable length: 1.2m
Just in case you hadn’t heard (and shame on you if you haven’t), it’s strongly rumoured that Apple’s iPhone 7 will be launched this week without a 3.5mm headphone jack. Headphones, instead, will connect directly via the iPhone 7’s Lightning connector, and you can expect manufacturers to announce a deluge of new headphone models to suit over the coming days and weeks. The concept of Lightning headphones isn’t new, however, and there are already models, such as the Audeze Sine, on the market, ready to take advantage of Apple’s big decision.
The new JBL Reflect Aware is another. They’re the first reasonably priced Lightning headphones I’ve tried, and they’re actually pretty good. The first thing you should be aware of is that the Reflect Aware is a headphone primarily designed to be worn during exercise. From the earpiece end, though, you wouldn’t know there was anything different about them at all.
Each earpiece has, in addition to the traditional ear-canal insert, a silicone “wing” attached to the outside. This locks the earpiece into your ear, preventing it from coming loose while you’re jogging down the street or bouncing along a treadmill at the gym. This system works pretty well, too.
The Reflect Aware never threatened to become dislodged no matter how much I shook my head or bounced up and down, yet despite being bulkier than most in-ear headphones, I found them perfectly comfortable. With three sets of fitments – small, medium and large – and three sizes of wing inserts, most should people should be able to find a combination that fits their ears.
The headphones are also sweat- and water-resistant, and the smooth, reflective cable hardly transmits any kind of microphonic noise to your ear. In other words, they’re ideally suited to use in the gym or out on the road.
Noise cancellation and Lightning connection
That isn’t the end of the JBL Reflect Aware’s capabilities, however. These are headphones that I’d happily use on my daily commute and while flying, too, since they offer active noise cancellation. That’s pretty unusual in a sports headphone, but because the JBL Reflect Aware connects via Lightning, there’s no need for an external battery pack.
That’s one of the key benefits of going with Lightning instead of 3.5mm audio. Power for the noise cancellation is delivered via the Lightning cable, so there’s no longer any need to have an awkward battery dangling from one of your ears, or resting on the back of your neck. There’s no longer any need to remember to charge up your headphones, either.
How does it perform here? In fact, it’s remarkably good, but it’s made better because you can set the sensitivity of the noise cancellation, to let in more or less ambient sound from the outside world. It’s even possible to set different levels per ear.
Via the companion app, it’s also possible to tweak the headphone’s EQ. There are three presets to choose from here – jazz, vocal and bass – and you can set up your own, using the app’s built-in, ten-band equaliser. The app is pretty easy to use, but annoyingly the screen won’t rotate into landscape mode if you run it on an iPad. One other thing to be aware of is that the app only works with devices running iOS 9 or above.
Performance and sound quality
As I’ve already intimated, the noise cancellation on offer here is pretty good. I’d say it isn’t quite up there with, say, the Bose QuietComfort 35 for sound deadening, but it does cut out low-frequency, in-flight rumbling and the clatter of train travel reasonably effectively – and the bonus is that you don’t have to carry around a bulky pair of over-the-ear headphones with you.
The adaptive noise control doesn’t let in a huge amount of extra sound, but I found it allowed just enough through on the High setting that I could carry out a conversation comfortably with a colleague across the desk from me without need to pull out the Reflect Aware from my ears – not while the music was on, mind.
As for sound quality, the JBL Reflect Aware are excellent headphones. They’re equipped with 14.8mm dynamic drivers, have a frequency response of 10Hz to 22kHz, and offer loads of detail, drive and stereo imaging. I ran through my series of test tracks and in each one the JBL Reflect Aware delivered a poised and balanced performance.
The bass on “Moan” by Trentemoeller was solid and powerful without ever getting out of hand, the hard, driving rock of “No One Knows” by Queens of the Stone Age was listenable, while acoustic tracks and the spoken word really benefit from the noise cancelling. There is a slight lack of sparkle compared with the best non-noise-cancelling headphones at this price, and I’d like a little more space around instruments, but generally, the JBL Reflect Aware acquitted itself well and was always an enjoyable listen.
The sound quality is at its best without the noise cancellation turned on – enabling it slightly flattens out the sound, but that’s not a big problem. What is an issue, potentially, is that they don’t reach ear-bleeding volumes. Although on louder tracks the volume was just right, I felt like I wanted a notch or two of extra volume on quieter jazz and choral recordings.
The other problem is that these headphones drain your iPhone battery faster than normal with noise cancelling engaged, and this brings the one major weakness of Lightning cable headphones into stark relief. You can’t (currently) plug a booster battery or connect your charger at the same time as listening to music. The Lightning specification does allow for daisy-chaining of adapters and devices, but there’s no official cable adapter that allows it right now. Hopefully, that will change after Wednesday night.
In all, the JBL Reflect Aware is a good showcase for Lighting-connected headphones. It does things that normal 3.5mm cans simply can’t, and although £170 is quite a bit of money for a pair of sports headphones, the combination of excellent sound quality, effective and adjustable active noise cancellation, and sports-specific resilience, is unrivalled.
They have their weaknesses, not least the battery drain and inability to charge your phone while listening, but if you want a pair of headphones as good to listen to while you’re reclining in business-class (chance’d be a fine thing) as on the treadmill, the JBL Reflect Aware will do an excellent job.
|Dynamic driver, 14.8mm
|3 x silicone tips, 3 x wing inserts, soft carrying pouch