Surprisingly strong low-end reproduction and an appealing price tag make the Soundgear Sense an astute buy for open-ear fans
- Energetic sound
- Effective EQ and touch controls
- Attractive price point
- Can cause aching
- Large case
- Not the final word in audio quality
Open-ear headphones are becoming increasingly popular and the launch of the JBL Soundgear Sense – the manufacturer’s first earbuds of this style – is more evidence of that trend.
While they might not break quite as much new ground as JBL suggests, they’re impressive all-rounders and come with a pleasingly affordable price tag.
JBL Soundgear Sense review: What do you get for money?
The JBL Soundgear Sense are available in black or white and can be picked up from JBL for a reasonable £130. Like the Cleer Audio Arc II and Shokz OpenFit released earlier this year, they offer an open-fit design for ambient awareness, while sporting a similar aesthetic to their stablemates the JBL Endurance Peak 3.
That design sees the headphones incorporate adjustable earhooks and a neckband to help keep them securely in place despite the fact that no part of the buds goes inside your ears. The Soundgear Sense are significantly heavier than your average true wireless earbuds as a result – they weigh 12.85g apiece – but aren’t particularly unwieldy. An IP54 rating certifies them dust and splash-resistant, which will prove perfectly adequate for most people, although they’re not nearly as hardy as the IP68-rated Jabra Elite 8 Active.
Wireless connectivity is looked after by Bluetooth 5.3 and there’s support for multipoint pairing along with the SBC and AAC codecs. JBL says LE Audio support will be added via an over-the-air firmware update at some point in the near future.
Battery life is stated at six hours for the buds, with the accompanying charging case taking this total to 24 hours. Fifteen minutes on charge will provide them with enough juice for four hours of audio playback, while a full charge from empty takes a couple of hours.
Like most of JBL’s recent headphones, the Soundgear Sense are compatible with the JBL Headphones app. This is where you’ll download firmware updates as and when they become available and also provides access to various customisation options and a number of features, which will be discussed in more detail below.
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JBL Soundgear Sense review: What do we like about them?
With their stylish and practical design, it’s no surprise the JBL Soundgear Sense won a Red Dot Design Award this year. They are surprisingly lightweight given their size too, and I generally found them comfortable to wear. I did experience a touch of discomfort behind my ears after taking them off – likely caused by the pressure applied by the earhooks – but this wasn’t something that I picked up on while wearing them and was lessen. And there’s no disputing the stability the earhooks provide. Once wrapped around my ears, they remained completely secure even during vigorous exercise.
I was pleasantly surprised by the weight of their bass response given the open-ear design. This is undoubtedly helped by their 16.2mm drivers, which are enormous by true wireless standards. JBL shout about their “unique bass enhancement algorithm” and it delivers, producing weighty low frequencies that have plenty of energy and bounce to them on bass-driven tracks like Prang by Perko and Huerco S.
Despite this low-end heft, the mix felt balanced, with vocals reproduced pretty cleanly and most genres handled capably. The soundstage is relatively spacious too, though I did miss some finer details across the frequency range afforded by in-ear models – mids and highs lacked a little sheen and sparkle.
The JBL Headphones app provides effective equaliser controls to tailor the sound to your liking with presets such as ‘Jazz,’ ‘Vocal,’ ‘Bass,’ ‘Club,’ and ‘Studio.’ The ‘Jazz’ option effectively enhanced the bass notes, vocals and the upper registers of instruments in Paolo Conte’s Via con me, though worked quite nicely with other genres, too.
There’s also a custom EQ option, which allows for precise adjustments and provides a welcome degree of customisation. You can add as many points to the frequency range as you can fit in and boost or attenuate them as you see fit, and the results proved impactful.
Despite their open-ear design, the Soundgear Sense actually do a pretty good job of isolating sound. You’d think external noise would come pouring in and disrupt your listening experience but this wasn’t the case: in the quiet conditions of my flat, I could happily listen to tunes at 40% volume. Things became a bit trickier on the streets of east London at around 6pm, but the swathes of traffic only forced me to bump up the volume to around 55% to sufficiently hear from Pavement’s Cut Your Hair well enough. Sound leakage wasn’t particularly egregious either, although those around me were able to pick it up in quieter environments.
I was also impressed by the Soundgear Sense’s touch controls, which are user-friendly and cover all the key commands. The right earbud handles play/pause with a single press and a double press skips tracks. A triple tap on the right earbud goes back to the previous track, and a long press activates your voice assistant or turns the microphone on/off during calls. Meanwhile, a single tap on the left bud increases volume and double taps turn it down.
The touchpads are large, easy to use and responsive, perhaps a touch too responsive, as I occasionally triggered commands when removing the buds from my ears. Over time, however, I learnt the touchpads’ exact locations and was able to avoid them without too much bother. And I’d definitely take easily accessed controls that occasionally trigger accidentally over fiddly, hard-to-find ones.
You can select whether the left or right earbud controls volume or playback in the JBL Headphones app. The app also provides access to other helpful functionality such as a display showing the remaining battery of both the buds and charging case and a low-latency video mode.
Other options include the ability to adjust audio balance across the right and left earbuds, and an auto-power-off feature that will power the buds down after 30 minutes, one hour or two hours of inactivity. These may not be game-changing features but are certainly welcome inclusions.
JBL Soundgear Sense review: What could be improved?
While the charging case is attractively built and easy to open, it’s relatively large. Measuring 113 x 12.8 x 55mm (WDH), it’s simply too big to fit in some pockets. I struggled to run with it in the pocket of my gym shorts, so I was forced to leave it at home. This wasn’t an issue when wearing my regular attire, however, and your mileage will vary based on the contents of your wardrobe.
Given the size of the case, I was a little disappointed by the Soundgear Sense’s battery life.
You might reasonably expect stellar charging capacity but 18 additional hours to complement the six hours provided by the buds is pretty average.
The microphone performance was a bit of a letdown, too. It’s competent and reasonably clear in quiet conditions, but I found my voice fluctuated in volume and sounded muddy in noisier environments. They aren’t the worst mics I’ve tested on Bluetooth headphones but there’s definitely room for improvement.
It goes without saying that the open-ear design of the Soundgear Sense means that you won’t get the same level of protection from ambient noise as you would from in-ear headphones. Even if they are some of the most competent open-ear headphones I’ve used in this regard, there are some circumstances where your audio is simply not going to be able to compete with what’s going on around you. Loud public transport will mean you can’t hear content clearly no matter the audio level so if isolation is a priority, try one of the best noise-cancelling earbuds instead.
JBL Soundgear Sense review: Should you buy them?
Assuming you’re not closed off to the world of open-ear earbuds, the JBL Soundgear Sense make a lot of sense. They’re a great choice for runners, gym-goers, and those who want to remain aware of their surroundings, and offer robust sound in a sleek package, despite their rather bulky charging case.
That said, JBL markets the Soundgear Sense as suitable for “all-day” use but I don’t see them as a replacement for traditional in-ear options. Sound isn’t as refined across the frequency range, while the sound they let in means they can’t deliver as satisfying a sonic experience in as wide a range of environments. Jabra’s Elite 10 strike a middle ground between fully in-ear and open-ear options should you desire a bit of extra protection against external distractions. However, if you prefer a true open-ear fit and plan on only using your headphones in places where surrounding noise is kept to a minimum, the Soundgear Sense are one of the best buys in their price range.