For the past week or so I’ve been testing out the new JBL Soundgear Sense air conduction headphones, and I’m kind of in love with them. So much so that even after such a short time with them I won't leave home without them.
I picked up a pair after checking out Club JBL; this was the brand’s pre-IFA 2023 tech presentation, at which I also got to check out other impressive audio tech like the new Authentics speakers.
And while they don’t quite hold a candle to the audio performance of the Authentics 500 (I don’t think any headphones could), the sound the Soundgear Sense produces is nothing to sniff at. Mid-range and high-range tones ooze a playful quality that brings the Jonas Brothers’ Waffle House to life, while the bass offers a surprising amount of oomph on tracks like Glass Animal’s Tokyo Drifting that’ll help you power through your workouts with.
At moderate volumes, music feels full and lively, though as you really start to crank the volume up you’ll lose a lot of clarity as tones start to blend together and the bass muddies; although, that said, you’ll find that moderate volumes are more than loud enough.
The only major audio issue I had with these headphones was using them for calls. Perhaps it was something to do with the air conduction design, but whenever I tried to speak to someone over the phone with them they could hear me fine, while I struggled to make out anything they were saying. While it's annoying, it's a lot easier to just turn off Bluetooth and pop one of the earpieces back in the case whenever I get a call.
What are air conduction headphones?
These air conduction headphones are like a cross between sports earbuds – with a handy ear clip that keeps them secure – and on-ear headphones. No part of the Soundgear Sense headphones go inside my ear; instead, a small speaker sits at the entrance to my ear canal and blasts sound into it. The advantage of this design is that you’re not only able to hear your favorite playlist or podcast, but you're able to maintain full awareness of what’s going on around you.
And in this regard, the Soundgear Sense do a really good job; much better than gadgets like the Sony LinkBuds that also promise you ambient awareness.
While commuting on the London Underground in the morning I can hear the callout of stations we arrive at; on a run I can listen out for traffic and pedestrians rather than just having to rely on sight alone; and when I’m wanting to relax at home and listen to music I can still hear my girlfriend’s calls whenever she needs a hand with something.
While I generally prefer my audio to be immersive – with active noise cancellation from my Bose 700s keeping me isolated in the sound – I can’t deny the usefulness of the JBL Soundgear Sense headphones on the many occasions when it’s not practical for me to cut myself off from the outside world.
Another factor in the JBL headphones’ favor is their portability. The charging case is compact, and can be easily slipped inside a pocket. My Bose 700’s case is much larger – at a glance it’s about six or seven times bigger – so if I want to carry them with me I need to take a bag (or be willing to wear the headphones until I get home).
The Soundgear Sense won’t be perfect for everyone, however. As I mentioned above, on those occasions when I can fully switch off and get lost in sound I love the isolation provided by the best noise-cancelling headphones. When I flew back from Berlin recently the JBL headphones struggled against the roar of the aircraft, whereas my Bose 700s didn’t have anything like as much trouble.
I also had some issues with the touch controls at first. I did eventually get the hang of them, but I found them to be a lot less intuitive than the Bose headphones I keep comparing these to.
Nevertheless, true to the headline, I have yet to leave home without these air conduction headphones in my pocket, and I don’t think I’ll ever leave them behind, save for the occasions when I can easily carry my Bose 700s, or the 24-hour total battery life has been drained from the JBL Soundgear Sense headphones and charging case.
The Soundgear Sense sound good, fit comfortably, and are super-portable, and I’ve yet to feel the need to take them out in order to hear better; what more could I want?