The new cat meow in wireless headphones is something called an ‘open’ design, where the driver housing doesn’t require a neck that needs to enter the ear canal to create a seal, but sits just above the ear opening (read: ear hole) – see Sony’s Linkbuds or sporty Cleer Audio Arc for examples.
The benefit of such a design, as you might have guessed, is that it allows you to maintain a greater awareness of your surroundings while enjoying your playlists. And unlike bone conduction headphones, there’s no band at the back of your head to contend with.
But never has a pair of headphones given you the option to let ambient sound in or block it out with a real, transformable physical barrier – until now.
Sign in to JBL Tune Flex. Out of the box they sport an open design, but simply add the ear seal tips (thus implanting something JBL is calling Sound Fit technology) and they become a pair of noise-isolating headphones, essentially giving you two sets of headphones in one.
Going out to try to beat your 10k time? It’s possibly inadvisable if you’re in the UK and can withstand the current heat wave, but for everyone else, wear them open style and you’ll hear traffic, buses, dogs and the like as you hit the road.
Need to focus? Put on these ear seal tips (three sizes are provided to help you get an optimal seal) and you can block extraneous noise.
And it’s not just about passive isolation – you can further customize the sound using the JBL Headphones app, which includes access to six levels of active noise cancellation (ANC). Apparently you can even use these profiles when using JBL Tune Flex in the open design – although it’s not yet known how that would sound (or actually work).
Claimed battery life is eight hours (regardless of whether you’re open or closed), plus an extra 24 hours from the case, although that’s with ANC off.
You’re also getting an IPX4 splash resistance rating (so they’re good for the gym), Google Assistant support for hands-free controls, and three finishes, plus three ‘Ghost’ special edition color choices.
Opinion: Open headphones are the most exciting development in wireless headphones so far
The idea of open and closed headphones is nothing new in the headphone world – look at the Philips Fidelio X3 or Grado GW100 for starters. In the realm of headphones, the benefit of an open design is a great deal of extra clarity, detail and insights.
Because? The open earcups allow air to pass through the earcups from the back (read: back) of the speaker driver, so the low frequency buildup caused by the closed nature of other cans is no longer a problem. All this is an indirect way of saying “they usually sound better”.
And the disadvantages of an open headphone? Sound leakage – everyone in the train car will judge you by your taste in music – plus the fact that these headphones are often more difficult to drive and are known as high-impedance headphones.
But here’s the thing: none of this applies to true ‘open’ wireless headphones because the headshell (the actual unit that houses the driver) either goes into the ear or not. And JBL claims to have taken care of the rest.
While I would certainly expect to hear a marked difference in audio quality when listening in open or closed mode, depending on how these headphones were tuned, JBL is an extremely talented audio specialist, so I’d love to be wrong… and at this price point, I don’t think I’ll be the only one wanting to give them a spin.
The JBL Tune Flex will be available from September for just £90 / €100 (about $110, AU$160) and while I’m not yet happy to try them out – so we can’t say if they’ll make it in our best wireless headphones buying guide – they are certainly one of a kind.
Remember, not even the best AirPods can offer this feature – in fact, many users claim that by design Apple’s non-suffixed Pro headphones cannot provide the passive sound isolation necessary to facilitate music with excellent sound.
In my humble opinion, JBL’s new Tune Flex is a truly intriguing proposition.