This $200 noise-canceling headphone serves up impressive sound, making it a more affordable alternative to models from Bose and Sony.
JBL has made some pretty decent noise-canceling headphones over the years, including its line-topping Everest Elite 750NC, which I reviewed back in 2017. The only problem with that model was it cost around the same price ($300) as competing models from Bose and Sony that were simply better.
For 2019, JBL is trying something different. Its new flagship noise-canceling Live series headphone, the Live 650BTNC, carries a list price of $200. And it's not only every bit as good as the Everest Elite 750NC, but it's even better from a sound standpoint.
This model is very much the spiritual successor to the E65BTNC, which also started out at $200 but can now be had for $130 online. It may look a little plasticy, but it feels solid (read: not cheap). Weighing in at 9.28 ounces or 263 grams according to our scale, it has metal hinges that seem like they'll hold up well over time. Available in a few color options, including black, dark blue and white, the 650BTNC folds flat to fit in an included canvas carrying pouch.
Read more: The best noise-canceling headphones you can buy now
While not quite as comfortable to wear as Bose's QuietComfort 35 II or the Sony WH-1000XM3, it is a comfortable headphone, with thick memory foam ear pads and a well-padded headband. Although this is an over-ear model and should fit around most ears without a problem, the openings on the ear pads aren't huge so the pads might rest on top of extra-large ears instead of fitting over them.
The headphone uses Bluetooth 4.2, supports connections to multiple devices -- referred to as "multi-point" connectivity. This connection can be tweaked using the My JBL Headphone app for iOS or Android. It works with your phone's voice assistant (Siri, Google Now, Bixby) but in the app you can elect whether to enable Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa. There's a little set up involved for both, but they ended up working just fine in my tests.
Once enabled, you tap and hold on the center of the left earcup -- it's touch sensitive -- and issue a voice command. Once you release your finger, Google Assistant or Alexa responds to your command through your smartphone.
In the app, there's an equalizer to adjust bass and treble settings with preset EQs "Jazz," "Vocal" and "Bass." If you don't like any of those, you can create your own custom setting. I mostly just left the EQ at the default setting: "Off".
The Live 650BTNC sounds similar to the Sony WH-1000XM3, the current CNET Editors' Choice in the noise-canceling headphone category. It's got a strong, well-defined bass, good clarity for a noise-canceling headphone and relatively open sound for a closed-back headphone. A cable is included for wired listening and you can turn off the noise-canceling function in the app or by pressing a button on the right ear cup.
There was enough bass to keep me happy at the default setting, but I prefer a more balanced sound. Bass lovers who opt for the "Bass" EQ will lose a little definition, but it does help bring added energy to hip-hop and EDM (electronic dance music) tracks. The Rihanna and Calvin Harris track "This is What You Came For" benefits from the bass boost, for example. But it makes the bass line in the Police's "Tea in the Sahara" sound too boomy.
I had editor Ty Pendelbury give them a try right after he'd come off reviewing the identically priced Audio Technica M50X Wireless. He liked those headphones, which feature more neutral studio-monitor sound, but thought they lacked a little pizazz, especially in the bass department. This JBL had that, he said. It's definitely a more exciting headphone than the Audio Technica.
Like all these Bluetooth headphones, you can make calls with the 650BTNC, and while I didn't think it was ideal for talking on the phone, it performed pretty well. There's no sidetone feature that allows you to hear your own voice in the headphone (that keeps you from talking too loudly during conversations). And there's no ambient aware mode that lets slightly amplified sound from your immediate environment into the headphones, either.
If you're looking for top-notch noise cancelation, this probably isn't the headphone for you. While the 650BTNC did a reasonably good job muffling street noise in New York City and my co-workers' voices in our open office, it didn't muffle sound as well as the Sony or the Bose.
I wouldn't wear these headphones around outside on a hot day -- they will steam up your ears -- but they are good for an open office setting and pack up into a fairly compact package for travel. I actually prefer the canvas pouch to the Everest Elite 750NC's slightly bulkier hard case.
You can find over-ear headphones with more battery life, but at least the 650BTNC's rated 20 hours of battery life for music listening (with noise-canceling on) is up from the E65BTNC's 15 hours. There's a quick-charge feature that gives your 2 hours worth of juice from a 15-minute charge. Alas, the headphone charges via Micro USB not USB-C. That's not a huge deal, but some new over-ear Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones are moving to USB-C charging.
In the final analysis, the Live 650BTNC's biggest strengths are its sound, sturdy built quality and more affordable price compared to other premium noise-canceling headphones. While its noise canceling and comfort level aren't quite on par with the Bose and Sony, its sound measures up well and it's worth considering if you don't want to spend $300 or more on a noise-canceling headphone. Also, if the price history of the earlier E65BTNC is any indication, we may see some discounts on this one before the end of the year that make it even more enticing.