Sound controls

Great noise cancellation, decent sound

Evaluation:
7/10
?
  • 1 – Absolute hot waste
  • 2 – A kind of lukewarm waste
  • 3 – Severely flawed design
  • 4 – Some advantages, many disadvantages
  • 5 – Acceptably imperfect
  • 6 – Good enough to buy on sale
  • 7 – Great, but not best in class
  • 8 – Fantastic, with some footnotes
  • 9 – Shut up and take my money
  • 10 – Absolute design nirvana

Price: $100

Kris Wouk / Practical Geek

True wireless headphones have come a long way pretty quickly. Now the features you would have had to pay over $250 for just a few years ago are coming to increasingly affordable headphones. The JBL Live Free 2 are a perfect example, with active noise cancellation (ANC) and an Ambient Sound mode for $150.

Here’s what we like

  • Fantastic noise cancellation
  • Comfortable
  • Well-implemented touch controls

And what we don’t do

  • No better quality Bluetooth codecs
  • The equalizer can have a negative effect on sound quality

If you’re familiar with JBL, it’s probably because of its speakers, whether you’re talking about Bluetooth or larger, more professional speakers. That said, the company has been making waves recently with its true wireless headphones (TWE), and it seems to be more focused on that product category.

With the JBL Live Free 2, the company nails some aspects but makes confusing decisions when it comes to others.

Design, fit and comfort

  • Dimensions: 310.4 x 63.5 x 40.6 mm (22 x 2.5 x 1.6 inches)
  • Lester: 4.9g (0.17oz) per earphone, charging case 43.7g (2oz)

The look of the JBL Live Free 2 is nice. Not particularly eye-catching, but definitely more premium than the JBL Live Pro 2, which debuted alongside the Live Free 2.

The shape, somewhat similar to a bean, also makes it easier to grab them. This makes it easier to retrieve them from the case, which is not always the case with other headphones. It also makes it easier to place them in your ears, which is handy, as a good fit is essential for the best sound and noise cancellation.

Lands included with JBL Live Free 2
Kris Wouk / Practical Geek

Speaking of fit, JBL includes three sets of ear tips: small, medium, and large. The small and large ear tips come in a small cardboard box, while the medium ones are already mounted on the headphones out of the box. In my case, the medium spikes were perfect.

The JBL Live Free 2 headphones are rated IPX5 waterproof. That doesn’t mean you can wash them in the sink, but it does mean they’re well equipped to deal with sweat in the gym.

Battery, case and charging

  • Battery capacity: Earbuds 45 mAh, case 620 mAh
  • Break: Up to 7 hours of headphones, 35 hours with case
  • Loading time: 2 hours
  • Loading port: USB-C

Battery life is similar to other true wireless headphones, with JBL claiming a maximum playtime of seven hours with active noise cancellation (ANC) turned off. With adaptive noise cancellation enabled, playback time drops to five hours.

The charging case extends this capacity by 28 hours. This means that if you listen at a moderate volume without noise cancellation, you can theoretically get up to 35 hours of playtime on a single charge.

It’s all the more simple since the case is equipped with a USB-C port for wired charging and has Qi wireless charging. The case is roughly similar to Apple AirPods (not AirPods Pro), which means chargers designed for AirPods should work just fine. A full charge takes about an hour and a half.

JBL Live Free 2 charging case
Kris Wouk / Practical Geek

Monitoring battery life on the JBL Live Free 2 is easier than on some other earbuds, as it features a three-segment LED on the case that indicates the case’s battery life. LEDs on earbuds indicate charging and connection status.

The Live Free 2 earphones have automatic ear detection, which stops playback when you remove an earphone. This should prevent the battery life from draining unnecessarily.

JBL Headphones features and app

There’s one feature of the JBL Live Free 2 Sport that hasn’t been particularly common in headphones in this price range: multipoint Bluetooth. This feature lets you connect to two devices at the same time, with the headphones automatically switching between calls on your phone and music on your PC, for example.

You can use the headphones out of the box, but the JBL Headphones app (available for iPhone and Android) adds additional functionality. One of the handiest features is a fit test that lets you make sure the headphones are fitted correctly for the best noise cancellation.

JBL Headphones app running alongside Live Free 2
Kris Wouk / Practical Geek

The app also has an equalizer. There are a few EQ presets (more on those later), but you can also set a custom EQ curve yourself. Using the app, you can also switch between adaptive noise cancellation and what JBL calls Ambient Sound Mode, also known as Transparency Mode.

While you can use the app to switch between these modes, you can opt for on-device controls instead. A simple tap on the left earbud is enough to switch between noise cancellation and ambient sound mode, which is certainly handy.

A single tap on the right earbud pauses and resumes playback, while a double tap answers and ends calls. The other controls are just as easy, and you can customize some of them through the app.

Sound quality

  • Driver: 10mm dynamic driver
  • Bluetooth version: 5.2
  • Audio Codecs: SBC, AAC

The overall sound is the starting point for questionable choices. For example, the only Bluetooth codecs supported by JBL in the Live Free 2 are the standard SBC and AAC codecs. There is no support for higher quality codecs like LDAC or even aptX.

AAC doesn’t sound bad, and when SBC is implemented well, it doesn’t sound bad either. The good news is that the Bluetooth sound quality here is good. The downside is that without aptX you’re dealing with significant latency, which makes them less suitable for watching video.

Wearing the JBL Live Free 2
Kris Wouk / Practical Geek

When I started listening to them, the first thing I noticed was that the JBL Live Free 2s are very bassy. I also realized that I was not a fan of any of the EQ modes. I started trying to create a custom EQ curve, but regardless, it seemed to boost the unpleasant frequencies.

The key, I found, was to completely disable EQ mode. Note that this is not the same as setting it flat or using the “Studio” setting. There’s a slider to turn it off completely, and in most cases that’s the one that sounds best to my ears.

When listening to Santigold’s “Fame”, the frequency balance sounded good with the EQ turned off, although there were shrill high mids. The bass that powers the song was nice without an EQ, and surprisingly sounded pretty good with the “Bass” EQ setting. Other EQ settings felt harsh in the high frequencies.

Playing “I Don’t Know” by the Sheepdogs, the mids sounded somewhat dipped, especially on the vocals. This gave the already grainy voice a lo-fi quality. Somehow it worked for the song, but it’s not something I’ve heard on other headphones.

On the other hand, Grafton Primary’s “All Stars” allowed the JBL Live Free 2 to shine. Bass and layered synths worked great with these headphones, and that brighter production seemed to gel with the sonic signature.

Noise cancellation and call quality

If I had to pick one area where the Live Free 2 headphones shine the most, it’s noise cancellation. I don’t know how JBL did it, but the noise cancellation seems noticeably better than most headphones I’ve heard in this price range.

While walking outside on a windy day, I noticed that even with a 10 mph wind, I couldn’t hear any wind noise. It wasn’t even an issue when I switched from ANC mode to Ambient Sound mode. I also noticed less phantom ear pressure that ANC can cause.

Ambient Sound mode is well implemented, although I’ve yet to hear anything in this price range that matches the Apple AirPods’ Transparency mode. A nice feature of these earbuds is that when you take one earbud out, the other automatically switches to this mode, making it easier for you to hear your surroundings.

JBL Live Free 2 next to the case
Kris Wouk / Practical Geek

TalkThru mode, on the other hand, is confusing. This is intended to make it easier to hear people talking to you, but keeps your music going. In practice, activating this mode reduces the volume of your music so low that it is almost inaudible.

You can activate TalkThru mode by double-tapping the left earbud, which could be handy. On the other hand, a simple press on the right pauses playback, while on the left it activates the Ambient Sound mode. Even removing a single earbud is easier, which seems to make TalkThru mode unnecessary.

Call quality is excellent, with the microphones blocking out background noise well. It might be even better if it could use a more advanced codec, but even so calls work well.

Microphone audio sample – indoor


Microphone Audio Sample – Exterior

Should you buy the JBL Live Free 2?

The JBL Live Free 2 offers excellent noise cancellation and call quality, which can be important features. Listening to music is good, but it could be better. Nonetheless, this is a quality set of headphones for the price.

The problem isn’t that the JBL Live Free 2s aren’t good, it’s that there’s extremely tight competition in this price range. For example, for $170, the 1MORE Evo offers better sound quality and Bluetooth codecs, with the caveat of noise cancellation that isn’t quite as good.

That said, if noise cancellation, call quality and multipoint Bluetooth are essential for you, the JBL Live Free 2 are a great option in this price range.

Here’s what we like

  • Fantastic noise cancellation
  • Comfortable
  • Well-implemented touch controls

And what we don’t do

  • No better quality Bluetooth codecs
  • The equalizer can have a negative effect on sound quality