Sound is the most fascinating thing in this universe. Whether you want to concentrate at work or go to bed, there is a sound for everything. Imagine you are at a national park and the only sound you hear is those of birds and animals. Sublime, right? While every sound is distinct and we naturally hear them, there are times when we want to listen to something, it could be music, could be a voice or even a scream in private. The gear of choice for such an occasion is a pair of headphones. Listening to your choice of sound in your own defined conditions has always been the purpose of headphones, and now we are looking at wireless as the way forward.
In the past year alone, headphones have gotten from really better to really good. They also now come in form factors that far extend beyond conventional designs of in-ear, on-ear and over-ear style. In the over-ear space, wireless and noise cancellation have become the two big selling points. While Sony reins in this category with its excellent WH-1000XM3, Danish company Jabra thinks it can do better. The company first showcased its challenger in the form of Elite 85h at CES 2019 early this year, and has now launched it in India. At Rs 28,990, the Jabra Elite 85h is priced in the close vicinity of Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QC 35 II, but is it any good or better than them?
Jabra Elite 85h: Comfort and Design
When buying a headphone, sound quality ranks the highest, but so does comfort. A great sounding headphone with average fit or comfort won’t work while a comfortable headphone with even average sound has higher prospects of staying with you. In that regard, I think Jabra Elite 85h scores full points for designing one of the most comfortable headphones that I have ever used. While many agree that Sony WH-1000XM3 are the best wireless noise cancelling headphones, I personally did not find it to be any better than Bose QC 35 II in terms of comfort. After wearing the Jabra Elite 85h at home, at work and during transit, I think I have found what can be considered as among the most comfortable wireless headphones in the market. It matches Bose, Bowers and Wilkins, and seems better than Sony in some areas.
It achieves that comfort by using high quality padding material, be it on the headband or on the earcups. The earcups themselves are huge and they completely cover your ear and the soft padding material encircles your ears for a comfortable fit. The headband is made out of metal, but the padding is thick enough to not leave with a metallic scrapping above the head. The Elite 85h weighs around 300 grams, which is neither heavy nor light and while you don’t feel the weight of it immediately, it starts to assert itself over a period. Jabra is a company that makes audio gear spanning consumer, business and hearing aids segments and with Elite 85, it has brought learnings from all those business verticals and has produced a comfortable headphone.
While it scores high for the choice of materials, the overall design is somewhat understated. It looks like any other over-the-ear headphone and it is huge. It comes in blue, black and beige colors and our review unit is the beige one, which turns out to be a crowd-puller. In the past, when I have reviewed black headphones from Sony or Jabra, I did not have people asking me about them. In the case of Elite 85h, I had multiple ask me about them in the middle of a working day. Jabra is also doing few things differently from its rivals. For instance, the outer surface of the earcups use a cloth like material that is as satisfying to touch as the Alcantara fabric on Microsoft’s Surface devices. While Sony uses touch gesture, Jabra Elite 85h relies on traditional buttons to change or pause music or accept calls. While Sony has perfected touch gestures on its headphones, I would say the traditional method is still the best for most users.
On the bottom side of the right earcup, there is a button for activating voice assistant, 3.5mm audio jack and USB Type-C port. The left earcup only has a button allowing you to enable or disable active noise cancellation. If Jabra set out with a goal of making a well designed headphone then it has achieved that with the Elite 85h.
Jabra Elite 85h: Sound Quality and ANC
Before we get down to how the Jabra Elite 85h sounds, we must talk about active noise cancellation. With the launch of Bose QC series, the word noise cancellation has gained a lot of prominence among consumers. The ability to block out unwanted sound or noise at a particular environment cannot be appreciated enough. The Sony WH-1000XM3 is the current benchmark and I must say, the Elite 85h does not quite match it.
I tested these headphones at high sound areas like a park and with ANC turned On, I could continue to hear people around me. Even at office, I could hear the guy sitting next to me when the ANC was enabled on the headphones. One area where it really worked though was during commute. I take a train to work every day and the local train can be extremely loud, with sound made by the train and people inside it. The Jabra Elite 85h was successfully able to block those sounds and let me listen to my music/podcast without disturbance. Honestly, the Jabra Elite 85h is very good for what it delivers but the bar set by Sony is too high. While its ANC does not block sound as well as Sony WH-1000XM3, I liked the hear-through experience more on Jabra Elite 85h.
The primary use case for microphones on these premium headphones is to block sound but they can also be reverse engineered to let through ambient sound. For instance, if you are walking on a street, you would like the headphone to let sound through and not restrict it. Jabra calls this HearThrough and I think it works well. When you enable ambient sound on the Sony WH-1000XM3, there seems to be a small lag when the external sound is played through the headphone. In the case of Jabra Elite 85h, it is near instantaneous. You don’t hear the sound of the car after it has passed. You hear it as soon as the engine becomes audible for the first time on the street. In a nutshell, the ANC is not as effective as the Sony’s, but Jabra makes up for it in other ways.
Let’s talk sound quality. I prefer to reserve my judgement based on my own experience but with Jabra Elite 85h, I decided to pool some consensus. The bottom-line was simple – the Elite 85h sounds flat and lacks the zeal or charisma found on Sony and Bose. It is good for those who understands low, mid and high frequency ranges, and consider themselves equalizer nerds. The sound out of the box leaves a lot to be desired. If you are sampling music and you tune to Steely Dan’s AJA, which is an epic Jazz composition, you will feel that the sound is just not eclectic enough. I particularly found the sax part falling apart, which it should not. But, there is a fix. The Jabra Elite 85h connects to smartphones via an app (more on it in a bit), and you can tweak equalizer from there. When I changed the equalizer to one of the presets, AJA did not come alive but did not feel dead either.
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This need to change the equalizer becomes important when you listen to some challenging composition like Vivaldi: The New Four Seasons: Summer: 6 Destiny by Nigel Kennedy, which is a classical composition using Violin. While it sounds naturally great on most audio devices, using Energize, a preset that boosts both treble and bass, worked to produce most apt sound response. You might be thinking, is it necessary to change the equalizer all the time. Well, the answer is No. Case in point – Killer Queen by Queen. This song has so many guitar melodies paired with Freddie Mercury’s transcendental voice, it sounds just great with default soundstage and ANC set to ON.
However, if you are someone who listens to music being made here, then you will be really pleased. Lamberghini by The Doorbeen, and Ragini sounds full while Arijit Singh sounds like Arijit Singh in First Class. I’m a self confessed fan of Ilaiyaraja and all of his compositions sounded rich. The Jabra Elite 85h does not fault on audio quality and instead, it tries to keep the soundstage really flat. As a result, a bass heavy music sounds mushier, which it should not while the treble ends up lacking dynamics and tends to be less energized. If you play around with those equalizers then you will soon get a hang of it.
Jabra Sound+ App
There is an app for everything, whether you want to book a cab, order food or get your laundry done. Similarly, there is even an app to control or manage your Jabra Elite 85h and it’s called Sound+. The app available on Android and iOS lets you connect with the headphone and precisely control the music. If the audio drivers, eight microphones and overall build forms the heart of this headphone then I would say that the app serves as the brain. Here you can control those equalizers for precise sound quality, you can select from presets and change surrounding audio mode. But that’s not the primary purpose of the app. It is also designed to understand the environment and choose moments accordingly.
It works by using the external microphones to listen for audio around you and then choose between three different moments: In Public, In Private and Commute. So, if you board the train and click on SmartSound to choose a moment then it will select Commute. In my case, it did so every time. At work, it chose In Public and at home, it chose In Private. When I used the app with TV playing loud in the background at home, it recognized the moment as In Public. This is a clever use of AI to change sound quality according to moments. AI is supposed to change everything, and this is an example of it making audio experience better.
Should you buy the Jabra Elite 85h?
If you observe, I haven’t said a word about battery life just yet because it is great. Jabra rates Elite 85h to last 36 hours on a single charge with ANC enabled and honestly, I haven’t been able to test it. I would have easily listened to these for more than 30 hours with ANC enabled in few occasions and the battery has dropped only to 50 percent. I’m forced to believe that Jabra’s battery claim would be accurate and in fact, you will get more endurance than that claimed by the company. It also adds five hours of battery life with just 15 minutes of charging thanks to USB Type-C port.
At Rs 28,999, Jabra Elite 85h is priced in the same range as the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QC 35 II and it is tough space to compete. After using the Elite 85h for more than a week and listening to a myriad of music, watching Games of Thrones, and bunch of podcasts, I must say, it comes very close to those two trendsetters. However, its ANC is not as effective as that offered by Sony and the audio is flat when compared to its rivals. These are drawbacks, ones that you cannot expect from such a high-end product. If Jabra discounts Elite 85h by few grands, I see them as a value purchase but right, I would recommend spending a grand more and buying the Sony WH-1000XM3 instead.