What do I want from a pair of truly wireless earbuds? That’s always the question I try to ask when reviewing new headphones. 

With all of the different devices that temporarily implant themselves into my ears each year, they all start to look and sound fairly similar.

As a result, I end up looking for something different, something that stands out. For example, Google’s Pixel Buds’ AI features briefly beguiled me. The unusual bean-like shape of Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live commanded my attention. Apple’s next fitness-enhanced AirPods look like they’ll claim the ‘most innovative headphones’ crown next year.

But what’s ultimately important is how well headphones function as headphones. That means providing an excellent sound experience, excellent noise cancelling and delivering on their core function of playing music with few interruptions. 

Jabra’s Elite 85T are those earbuds. The recently released earbuds feature some of the best active noise cancellation I’ve ever used for in-ear headphones. They also feature excellent equaliser controls, excellent microphone quality and impressive ambient sound options. But, most importantly, they sound great. The Jabra Elite 85T are true allrounders. 

I had this revelation cooking dinner one evening. I have an open-plan living-room and kitchen, so my partner watches TV whilst I burn food with headphones in. This has unintentionally become one of my key headphone tests in lockdown. Can I block out everything else without dialling up the volume, but quickly switch to a non-grating ambient mode when I see my partner mouthing “it’s burning”?

The Jabra’s do this well. The ambient mode, known as “HearThrough” is really clear. It doesn’t sound crackly or distractingly digital as it does with other devices. It sounds clear and, well, useable. There’s still white noise in the background, but it’s muted in comparison to other devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Plus. I have the left earbud programmed to switch between ANC and ambient mode for this exact purpose.

The real star of the show, though, is active noise cancelling (ANC).

The Elite 85T’s let users toggle between five levels of noise cancelling. Here’s why that’s important: If you don’t want to use ambient listening mode to better hear your surroundings, then you can take the ANC down. This also reduces the plugged-in feeling you often get with in-ear ANC headphones. The relatively short ear-tips on the 85T also help with this.

At the maximum ANC level, with a solid fit that provides good passive noise cancelling and music at medium volume, I could block out almost everything – but I could adjust it too.  

I think a lot of people are confused about what ANC is. It’s not supposed to block out all sounds alone, just certain constant and lower frequency sounds. You need a combination of passive noise cancellation from a good fit and good ANC to keep distractions out. Apple’s AirPods Pro has this combination and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live have ANC, but zero passive noise cancellation because of their open design. The Jabra Elite 85T does a better job than both. 

You’ll never keep all of the noise out, not unless you have industry-grade ear defenders that are used on building sites. But for small, compact, in-ear buds the Jabra’s are some of the best at cutting unwanted noises out. When you’re cooped up sharing a house with another person – or several other people – grabbing a focussed moment to yourself without noise distractions is – and has been – invaluable. 

The audio playback quality is greatly boosted by the ANC. You can hear a much closer approximation of what sound engineers originally intended then you can with other more leaky earbuds. The Jabra Elite 85T deliver a clear, detailed and balanced sound with excellent base. Some headphone manufacturers are guilty of over-doing it on base to compensate for other audio failings, but the Jabra headphones deliver a deep, rich base sound without being too much. As a Hip Hop fan, this is important for navigating the nuances in lower frequencies between tracks. In short, they sound excellent and are currently my favourite earbuds to use in terms of sound quality. 

The music equaliser, too, is unmatched. Jabra offers users the option to tweak – on a granular level – the lower, mid and higher frequencies (bass, mid-range and treble) for your needs, rather than just offering a handful of presets. If you’re a tinkerer who likes to get the most out of your music, this is incredibly useful. So when Skepta says ‘X producer on the buttons’ I can pretend that’s me at the console adjusting sound levels – despite not knowing what any of those buttons do, and having zero knowledge of music production. 

It’s not all plain sailing, though. All of that tech comes at the expense of size, they’re quite chunky in comparison to more lightweight headphones like Google’s Pixel Buds. The fit is good, but they also feel a bit more precarious because of the size and weight. That is exacerbated by the design, which don’t feature clear wing tips like Google’s Buds or a special ergonomic design like Samsung’s contoured Live buds. The Elite 85T’s haven’t actually fallen out yet, which includes a few trips to the gym, but it often feels like they’re on the precipice of taking a trip.

Despite my concerns about the design, the Jabra Elite 85T earbuds are the allrounder headphones that I can rely on. The ANC is appropriately aggressive, the ambient mode offers a quick switch out of isolation with minimal distortion, the sound quality is outstanding and the EQ settings are detailed enough to let me cosplay being a pro without the scary, real-world complexities of being a pro.

They consistently perform well above expectations in the important areas and, as such, have become my go-to headphones. The AI sorcery of other headphones sometimes serves as a distraction from fundamentally important features. Jabra’s device nails the basics and delivers high-end reliability, which is all you can ask for from a pair of headphones.

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