JBL 420 review: JBL 420

JBL might not be that well known in the headphone market, but its premium Reference Series 420 headphones rank highly in terms of build and audio quality.

Alex Kidman

Alex Kidman

Alex Kidman is a freelance word writing machine masquerading as a person, a disguise he's managed for over fifteen years now, including a three year stint at ZDNet/CNET Australia. He likes cats, retro gaming and terrible puns.

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3 min read

JBL's breathless hype on the back of the very large box that houses the JBL Reference Series 420 Headphones lets you know that they will "kick your listening experience into the future". We're not sure if this means that you'll have to wait to actually hear anything, or you'll suddenly start hearing next year's top 40 tunes - but for once, the hype is mostly justified, as long as "the future" is meant to mean "they're honestly quite good".


JBL 420

The Good

Cloth cabling. Comfortable earpieces. Carrying case. Phono and airline adaptors included.

The Bad

No inline volume control. Carrying case is huge.

The Bottom Line

JBL might not be that well known in the headphone market, but its premium Reference Series 420 headphones rank highly in terms of build and audio quality.

The JBL Reference Series 420 Headphones are a premium set of headphones, with an accordingly premium price -- $394.95 will buy you a whole snake's nest of bud style headphones, after all. So what do you get for your money?

The headphones themselves are described by JBL as "Mid-sized", and it's a fair appellation. They're not so snug as to fit into a pocket - for that you'll need the foldable 410s and a large pair of pants - but they do come with a rather large carrying case. Given the investment you're making in the 420 Headphones, it's a good inclusion, but it's also a huge one - expect the nice people at the airline check-in desk to tell you that your headphones will have to comprise your entire carry-on allowance if you travel with them. Travel is clearly something that JBL has in mind for the 420s, as they come with an adaptor for common airline in-seat audio systems, as well as a phono adaptor plug and an additional 1m extension cable.


The JBL Reference Series 420 Headphones fit snugly over your entire ears; those with particularly massive lugs may have to opt for larger headphones, such as the Creative Fatal1ty Professional Series Gaming Headset. Both the earpieces and the headrest on the 420s are made of leather (so this isn't the headset of choice for the vegan set) and both the inbuilt cable and extension cable are cloth-covered and highly flexible.


We tested the JBL Reference Series 420 Headphones with a variety of audio material from a number of sources, including CD, MP3, games consoles and portable players. The output from the 420 headphones was, for the most part, excellent. There's one area where you may find them less than satisfactory, but it's actually no fault of the headphones themselves. If you're listening to compressed MP3 or AAC music - and let's face it, who isn't? - then you're much more likely to pick up the compression artefacts and lack of overall clarity of tracks, especially at lower bitrates. Comparing an MP3 of Prince's "The Everlasting Now", even at a normally tolerable 192kbps to the CD original, we were struck at how hollow the MP3 version sounded.

The cloth 1.5m cable (and the 1m extension) are highly flexible, and we found it difficult to avoid fiddling with it as though it were a piece of string while testing the headphones. Clearly, we've been spending too much time near the office cat. One thing we didn't have to fiddle with was the placement of the earpieces. A common problem with over-the-ear headphones is that your trapped body warmth can quickly become uncomfortably hot, and this problem is exacerbated if the headphones are themselves heavy. Thanks to the light and small design of the 420s, this was never a problem, and even an extended period of usage only left our ears mildly warm.

The asking price of the JBL Reference Series 420 Headphones will stick in the craw of many buyers, and certainly within this premium price range you're not spoilt for choice in quality gear. JBL might not be that well known in the headphone market, but if the quality of the JBL Reference Series 420 Headphones is any indication, that's something that's definitely going to change.

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