Review: JBL Reference 220 Earphones
Pros: A very reasonably priced pair of quality in-canal earbuds with optional ear mounting attachments, a well-made carrying case, airplane and stereo headphone adapters. Good sound for the dollar - a step up from popular low-end Sony and other bass-biased $50 earbuds.
Cons: Decided bass bias will turn off some listeners, appeal to others. Optional ear mounting attachments aren’t ideally designed; soft silicone ones can fall off and hard plastic one mounts unusually under the chin. Fabric cabling can make noises audible through earphones during motion. Though nicely built, case is on the large side.
As 2006 comes to a close, it’s obvious that neutral sound is not the aim of earphone manufacturers - even those who place the word “reference” in the names of their products. Better known for excellent speakers than headphones - even those impressive models sold under its Austrian arm AKG - JBL has just released a lineup of new Reference-branded headphones under its own moniker, ranging from earbuds to on-ear speakers to over-the-ear cups. So far, the message is clear: neutrality be damned, bass lovers, look here.
Putting their sound signature temporarily aside, JBL’s new Reference 220 Earphones ($80) are forerunners of what we believe will be a major design trend in 2007: earbuds with clip-on accessories that allow them to be worn in the user’s choice of configurations. The design starts with what appear to be fairly standard white or black, silicone rubber-tipped earbuds, each with familiar chrome circles on their outermost edges, and distinctive only in their wiring: rather than feeling like plastic or rubber, the cables are covered in stitched, mostly gray cloth. While more durable-feeling than some of the thin plastic wires we’ve seen on low-end headphones, the cables make a rustling sound that can be heard while you’re moving, a detractor from the otherwise nice idea.
As standard in-canal earbuds go, the 220s come well-equipped: they include three total sets of silicone rubber ear inserts in small, medium, and large sizes, plus one set of ear foams, a stereo phono adapter, an airline adapter, and a black zippered carrying case. We liked all of these pieces save two: the carrying case is very well made, but quite large because of all the included accessories. It’s actually capable of holding a full-sized iPod and the earbuds, and has a total of five mesh compartments, including one on front. Though we understand why JBL designed the case this way, our preference is for something considerably smaller.
Similarly, the ear foams - typically an easy fit - were a bit too large and unusually difficult to squeeze into our ear canals, most likely because of the large barrels on the earbuds. Having never had problems with past foams, this was a bit of a surprise, and could benefit from some re-engineering. However, when the standard earbuds were properly inserted with any of the ear caps, we found that the 220s sounded largely the same rather than changing radically - a good thing.
Changes started when we used the included expansion pieces. A pair of included attachable silicone ear mounts can be clipped on to the earbuds, allowing the 220s to be worn like “over the ear” pieces rather than fully in-ear pieces. Similarly, there’s a folding hard plastic piece that looks like an old-fashioned Sony Walkman headphones’ headband, only minus the adjustable metal sides, rendering it unsuitable for use as a headband. Instead, it’s sold as an under-chin strap, and provides some added force to keep the earbuds near your ears under otherwise stressful conditions. We’d have preferred a headband; besides its tendency to be jostled if you sit down, the chin strap isn’t something most people would want to wear while walking around.
Though we really liked the concept of transformable earphones, the execution wasn’t totally right in the 220s. One of the two silicone over ear mounts kept slipping off its earbud, while the under-chin strap held both earbuds securely, but rendered them unable to fit fully inside our ears. The results in both cases weren’t really impressive, and the sound quality suffered, too: poor seal with your ears results in a loss of most apparent bass and a shrill, tinny sound.
The good news: properly inserted without the attachments, the 220s sound much better than average for their price - they are rough rivals for Etymotic’s superb ER-6i Isolators, technology from which they’re apparently based upon - with only one major caveat: the drivers have a heavy foot on the bass pedal here, with very conspicuous boosts to the mid-bass and low-end levels. Pop in the ER-6is and you instantly feel like you’re hearing more detail in your music, even if the two earphones are similar inside; by contrast, the 220s go beyond skewing “warm,” and feel boomy.
Despite that bias, there’s just enough detail here - and on occasion, high treble - to transcend the sound of a lower-end pair of Sony MDR-EX71s, though the treble sounds almost alien against the bass-boosted backdrop, popping in a noticeable, not optimal way. In our view, those accustomed to much lower-end, bassy earphones might find the 220s’ signature to be enjoyable, but even at this price level, we’d prefer more balanced sound.
Overall, though we liked the several design innovations found in JBL’s new 220 Earphones, better execution and more balance would make them more worthy of their Reference name. It’s with modest irony that we note that their Etymotic ER-6i cousins - available online for the same price - remain our actual reference standards for comfort and sound performance, mostly thanks to their more detailed and less heavy-handed sound signature. That said, upgraders from Sony MDR-EX71s and other bass lovers who aren’t expecting to need the 220’s strap or over-ear accessories should consider these a viable alternative.