When it comes to good, noise-cancelling headphones, there really wasn’t much choice for a long time. The Bose QC25, later followed by the QC35, was the only set that mattered.
Recently, Sony butted in with its WH-1000XM3 which wowed everyone with comparable noise cancellation and better sound quality than the Bose, and all of this at a matching price. This was soon followed by Microsoft’s Surface headphones, which also promised more of the same, and a couple of little extras such as Cortana – Microsoft’s AI assistant – support.
In the middle of this exalted company comes Jabra with the Elite 85h. With neither the brand value of Bose nor Sony’s audiophile heritage. What can the Elite 85h offer that the others can’t? The Bose offers superlative active noise cancelling (ANC) tech and the Sony offers better sound. Microsoft’s Surface headphones are good, but despite coming from such a noble house, are still an also-ran.
Interestingly, Jabra does have something nice to offer, something that could tempt the Bose and Sony crowd to at least give a second thought to their purchase: battery life and great design.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s offering quite enough to be a compelling alternative.
Audio quality vs convenience
The problem with audio is that it’s a very personal experience. Audiophiles might wax lyrical about timbre, wide soundstages and harsh treble, and such conversations have their place, but for the average person, all that really matters is whether they like the sound or not.
Apple AirPods are a perfect example of this. The AirPods themselves are far from the best set of earphones you can buy, but they’re so exceedingly convenient to use that just about every iPhone user now has a set or is sorely tempted to buy one.
You could spend the money on a better sounding set, but why would you? You’re happy with what you have, and convenience usually trumps audio quality.
The same argument applies to ANC sets like the Bose QC35 or Jabra’s Elite 85h. At around Rs 30,000, these are very expensive headphones, and they definitely don’t sound even half as good as wired sets that retail for a fraction of the price. If you care about audio quality, you need to be looking at the Audio-Technica M50x or the Beyerdynamic DTH 880, or something of that breed of headphones.
With ANC sets like the QC35, WH-1000XM3 and Elite 85h, you’re primarily looking at a set for travelling with: a set that blocks out ambient noise, has great battery life, and sounds decent enough that you won’t feel much like complaining.
The Jabra Elite 85h does well in all three departments, but unfortunately, doesn’t do as well as either the Sony or the Bose in the sound quality or ANC department, and that, for me, is a real deal-breaker.
Design: Comfortable and natural
The design of the Elite 85h is rather nice. It looks and feels like a simple, elegant set and the materials used, faux leather on the ear cups and headband, high-quality plastic for all parts, and a fabric covering on the outside, mean that the set feels expensive.
The ear cups are large and comfortable and despite wearing spectacles, I didn't have any issue using the set for long durations. I'd still recommend you try the set first before dropping any cash on them because people with large ears could have some trouble. This applies to the Bose and Sony as well though, and isn't a knock against the 85h.
The in-built audio feedback is also nicely done and the responses are informative and clear.
For portability, the ear cups rotate and can fold inwards. The Sony and the Bose do this as well, but Jabra has taken things a step further. Rotating the ear cups turns off the set, saving battery life, and simply lifting them off your head will pause whatever track you’re listening to.
It feels convenient and natural.
For interacting with your music, you get three buttons on the right ear cup. The central one is for play/pause and a button each above and below can be used for adjusting the volume and skipping tracks.
Charging happens via USB-C and there’s also a standard 3.5 mm plug for when you need to use a wired connection.
Bundled with the 85h is a hard carrying case that’s covered in the same faux leather and cloth material as the headphones themselves. The interior isn’t padded, but fits the set snugly and is lined with a material that will protect the set from scratches. There’s also room to store the USB-C charging cable, a 3.5 mm cable for wired connections, and an airplane adapter.
I’ve tried using the set while paired to my iPhone X and MacBook Pro 13. While you can remain connected to both devices, the 85h can sometimes struggle to switch between them on the fly, resulting in random distortion and hiss in whatever you’re listening to.
I also had issues where the set would simply refuse to connect and would have to be unpaired. This happened only thrice in the nearly two months I used the set so it’s not much to worry about.
Basically, the connectivity is about as good as with any other Bluetooth headset. There’s no AirPods-like magic happening here.
ANC: It’s good, but it’s not the best
Active Noise Cancellation on the Jabra Elite 85h is handled rather well. By default, ANC does an excellent job of cutting out ambient noise. You get a button under the left ear cup to control the amount of ANC and there’s also an audio passthrough mode where you can listen to the noise around you, say, when there’s a conversation happening or when you’re in public and need to be more aware of your surroundings.
The ANC is especially useful in a noisy office environment and when on a commute. As someone who spends 3-4 hours on a train on a daily basis, and who recently spent a dozen or more hours on an aircraft, I can tell you that ANC can transform a journey from tolerable to pleasant. Every time I take of the Jabra, I’m amazed at how loud the environment is.
Sadly, as good as it is, the Sony and Bose sets are simply more capable.
This in itself isn’t really a deal-breaker though. Jabra’s ANC is indeed very good and if you’ve not heard the Bose or the Sony, you really won’t feel like you’re missing out.
Audio quality: Pleasant, but not immersive
In relative terms, the Jabra Elite 85h simply doesn’t sound as good as the Sony WH-1000XM3 and is somewhat comparable to the Bose QC35 II.
The sound signature is pleasant and not too harsh, but it’s also lacking that special something that will make it stand out. Bass isn’t overwhelming, but it’s also not interesting. Movies don’t get that “wow” factor and fantastic voices don’t sound fantastic.
At worst, I’d describe the sound signature as nondescript. It’s not memorable in any way.
With the 1000XM3 retailing for just a tad bit more, there’s really very little reason to settle for lesser sound.
Battery life: Exceptional
Jabra claims a battery life of 36 hours and promises 15 hours of charge from a 15-minute recharge. I don’t see any reason to doubt these claims.
On a recent week-long trip to Taipei, for example, I didn’t charge the set even once. I used the set for about 16-hours in total on the flights and for about an hour or two a day while in Taipei.
This is better battery life than I’ve experienced on either the Bose or the Sony sets. Though I will add that the Sony set isn’t that far behind.
Conclusion: Why bother?
When it comes down to it, the Sony WH-1000XM3 is simply a better deal. Yes, the 1000XM3 is more expensive, but it’s also more value. With class-leading noise cancellation, better sound quality and 85 percent of the battery life, why wouldn’t you opt for the WH-1000XM3?
The Jabra Elite 85h is indeed a very good set, but it’s just not ready for the big league yet.
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