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I don't know how much of a dent the new-for-2018 Elite 65t ($170, £150 or AU$300) and slightly enhanced Elite Active 65t ($190, £170 or AU$350) will put in AirPod sales. But they definitely have performance advantages, including a more secure fit and better noise isolation than their Apple rivals.
Compared to their Elite predecessors, the 65ts have a more refined, comfortable design, improved sound, slightly better battery life, excellent call quality and voice support for all major virtual assistants, including Amazon's Alexa on-the-go. Better yet they cost less than the second-generation Elite Sport, which retailed for $250 when they first launched but are now being discounted to around $180, at least in the US.
The first thing to note about both Elite 65t models is that unlike with the Elite Sport, there's no heart-rate monitor built into these earphones. But that's a good thing.
Removing the heart-rate monitor allowed Jabra to trim down the design and simplify operation, as well as improve battery life to 5 hours (the Elite Sport's is rated at 4.5 hours). That's in line with the AirPods' battery life.
Jabra's included charging case delivers an additional two charges. Although it's not as small as the AirPods charging case, it's still compact and fit easily into my pocket.
Jabra has mostly nailed the design this time around. The earphones come with three different sized eartips and while there are no wings or fins to hold the buds in place, they stayed secure in my ears. With the largest tips I was able to get a tight seal, which is crucial to maximizing bass response.
I found they fit similarly to Jaybird's Run truly wireless headphones. Like that model, after you wear them for a while, your ear canals may start to itch a little. Not to get too graphic, but I simply removed the bud for a moment, stuck my pinky finger in my ear for a quick scratch, then reinserted the bud. Problem solved.
Technically, the Elite 65t is not considered a sports model, though is IP55-rated design makes it splash-resistant and dust-resistant. The Elite Active 65t earphones, due out in April for $20 more, have grippier finish thanks to a special coating, an integrated motion sensor for tracking steps and IP56 water-resistance rating that means the buds are better designed to withstand saltwater from the ocean as that saltwater from your body known as sweat. That said, I did use the standard Elite 65t at the gym and while running and it survived just fine.
I'm a fan of the AirPods, but they don't sit quite securely enough in my ears, which means I can't use them for running or during other sporty activities. Lots of people are able to run with their AirPods, just not me. As I said, the Elite 65t gave a much more secure fit.
The Jabras are noise-isolating earphones, which means they passively seal out ambient noise while the AirPods' open design allows sound to leak in. As a safety feature for runners and bikers, the Jabras do have a HearThrough transparency feature that you can toggle on in the Jabra Sound+ companion app. You can adjust the degree to which you want to let in sound.
The app also has an equalizer that allows you to tweak the sound profile for music -- I generally left it flat -- as well as treble and bass boost modes for call audio.
You can opt to have your music pause automatically when you pull a bud out of your ear and have it resume once you put it back in. Additionally, you can skip tracks forward and back by holding down the volume up and down buttons on the left earpiece. You wait for a beep, let go of the button and the track skips (volume down skips the track back, up skips it forward).
The app also allows you to choose your voice assistant. On iOS devices you can toggle between Siri and Alexa. At the time of this writing, however, Jabra was still waiting for approval for Alexa support from Apple, so I didn't get a chance to to test it on an iPhone. I did test Alexa on a Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus though -- and you can also opt for Google Assistant with Android devices.
The Alexa support isn't a huge plus. All these voice-assistant features would be more interesting if the microphones -- yes, there are two in each earphone -- were always open (like an Amazon Echo or even your phone) and waiting for you to issue commands. As It stands, you have to press and hold the button on the right earpiece, wait for a beep then issue your command. That's no different from what you'd do to access your voice assistant with most of today's wireless headphones.
Still, it works, and the headphones certainly did a good job picking up my voice. They also performed really well making calls. There's a nice sidetone feature -- you can toggle it on or off in the app -- that allows you to hear your own voice in the headphones during phone conversations.
I also tested the earphones during video playback to make sure the audio was syncing. I played some movies from my iTunes account and streamed video from Netflix and YouTube. I didn't experiencing any glaring issues with audio syncing.
In all, I found the setup process and general performance quite solid. They paired with my iPhone X almost as reliably as the AirPods and I only encountered minimal interference issues when I walked the streets of New York, a notoriously harsh environment for truly wireless headphones. You may experience the occasional glitch, but the firmware is upgradeable, so expect some improvements over time.
Although I did manage to pair the Elite 65t to a MacBook Air, Jabra does offer a disclaimer about computer use, saying, "Jabra headsets are optimized to be used with phones and are not specifically optimized to be used directly with a computer. Pairing your Jabra device with a computer may work for audio streaming, but not for call control, which is not supported by many computers." Audio quality may also vary from PC to PC.
Jabra's earlier Elite Sport were among the better sounding truly wireless headphones, but I had a harder time getting a tight seal with them. I'm not sure how much better these earphones sound than the Elite Sport, but they do fit better, which makes it easier to maximize their sound quality.
I thought the Elite 65t sounded a little better than the AirPods and they're clearly superior in noisier environments (like the streets of New York). Even in their "flat" default mode, there's a little bit of presence boost, also known as treble boost, but I thought they sounded slightly richer and more immediate than the AirPods. They also had a little more bass, though not as much bass as Bose's SoundSport Free, which arguably have the best sound in the category.
I do think the smaller 65t has an advantage over the Bose as far as design goes and Bose's charging case is comparatively large. I also thought the Jabras where better for making calls (the SoundSport Free only uses one earbud for calls). And lastly, the buttons and controls are implemented better on the Jabras.
Overall, I didn't find much to complain about with the Elite 65t. It'd be nice if there was just one model -- and that model had the same water-resistance rating -- so you didn't have to choose between the standard 65t and the Elite Active version. (Runners should probably opt for the Elite Active 65t.) But otherwise this is a big step forward over the earlier Elite Sport and hopefully will continue to improve with time with software upgrades.
The only hesitation I'd have in recommending these over the AirPods concerns the type of noise-isolating fit they provide. That fit isn't for everybody, and some may prefer the lighter AirPods and their looser fitting, open design.