Review: JBL Reference 510 Headphones
As the more deluxe of two new pairs of "on-ear" Reference Series headphones from JBL, the Reference Series 510 ($150) is a competitor to Logitech's similarly-priced Noise-Canceling Headphones (iLounge rating: B+), as well as Bose's considerably more expensive QuietComfort 2 (iLounge rating: A-) and the even pricier QuietComfort 3 Acoustic Noise-Canceling Headphones (iLounge rating: B-). In essence, 510 blends Logitech's price and performance characteristics with the smaller on-ear shape of the QuietComfort 3, resulting in a budget-priced noise-cancelling earpiece that sounds good for the price, but provides less passive noise isolation than many earlier designs.
The Reference Series 510 package is fairly straightforward: as with the company’s less expensive model 410, you get a single pair of foldable, padded earphones, joined by a padded, user-adjustable headband, and connected to your iPod with a black cable and L-shaped headphone plug. JBL also includes a carrying bag, an airline (two-plug) adapter, and a stereo phono adapter for older audio receivers. The major difference here is that 510 adds a noise cancellation system to the 410 design, in the form of ambient noise-sampling microphone hardware in the headset, plus a battery-powered on-off box that’s awkwardly connected to the headset with its own wiring. This box has a red light to indicate power, as well as a rear belt clip that also attaches conveniently to the seat back under an airliner’s food service tray. We had an opportunity to test 510 in such an environment, and though we didn’t like the battery box’s size and location when we were using the iPod outside of a plane, it worked just fine when we were seated in one.
As you might have guessed from the addition of that box, Reference Series 510’s special promise is to screen out up to 70% of ambient noise, namely the low bass growls and rumbles of car, train, and aircraft engines, and any mid-bass sounds the system is lucky enough to be able to cancel out. And with JBL providing the speaker technology, the hope would be that the audio would sound a bit better than it did with Logitech’s similarly inexpensive but flat earphones.
The good news is this: 510 does in fact deliver noticeably more dynamic sound than the $150 Logitech, with better detail across the board, but particularly in the treble and midrange. None of the noise-cancelling headphones we’ve tested - 510 included - has struck us as spectacular on sound quality for the dollar, mostly because the noise-cancellation hardware adds to the price of the headset and forces manufacturers to compromise on their speakers, but at the $150 mark, these are the best-sounding ones we’ve yet heard. We’d say that they sound similar to JBL’s $80 model 410 earphones except for the noise-cancellation feature, which comes at the $70 premium.
They’re aided by JBL’s decision to allow them to work as plain old headphones even if the noise-cancellation box is turned off or out of battery juice - a problem with QuietComforts - and though they don’t fully cover your ears like the Logitechs or QuietComfort 2s, they provide cancellation that’s good for their size. Because of JBL’s folding mechanism, which allows them to shrink for packing to a size only a bit larger than a full-sized iPod, they consume less space than the Logitechs and Bose earphones by a considerable margin.
Regrettably, there’s some bad news to share, as well. Because JBL went with an on-ear design rather than a more isolating over-the-ear, cup-style design, the 510s have a few significant issues. Most notably, sound leaks both in and out of these earphones - in a quiet room, your music can sometimes be heard by someone sitting 6 feet away from you, as we discovered when an iLounge editor started singing along to a song we thought we were hearing in price. This issue wasn’t as noticeable on a moving plane, where the ambient noise level is much higher, but may bother some users (and observers) nonetheless. The shape of the 510 earpieces, like Bose’s QuietComfort 3s, allows outside noises to come into your ears as well, and over the course of an hour or more of use, begins to make your ears feel moist in a way that well-designed earcups do not.
Sound leakage also impacts the 510’s noise cancellation mission. While the power’s turned on, and if the earpieces are properly seated on top of your ear canals, the system does a fine job with low rumbles - it did eliminate a substantial amount of engine noise, even during a couple of plane take-offs - but high-pitched and midrange sounds such as baby squeals and other ambient discussions range from easily heard to semi-audible unless you consciously ignore them. In all, the 510 is comparable to a decent, but not fantastic pair of in-canal phones in terms of overall isolation; it doesn’t provide a great seal.
There was also another little oddity we noticed whenever we went to adjust the earphones - it’s very easy to brush your finger against the non-recessed noise-sampling microphone on the earpiece, and whenever you do, you’ll hear a loud chirp in your ear, and other people will hear it as well. Recessing the microphone might have helped this; as a result, you’ll need to be more careful placing the earphones on your head, and adjusting them later.
Overall, we felt that JBL’s Reference Series 510 headphones are nearly on par with Logitech’s earlier Noise-Canceling Headphones: despite selling for the same price with superior audio quality and a much smaller, more packable design, their audio leakage compromises their noise-cancelling abilities and results in a headphone that makes sound at least a little apparent to the outside world - a no-no in certain quiet situations. As leakage out is a common issue for on-ear headphones, we don’t consider it a deal-breaker for our general-level recommendation, but if you’re looking to prevent sound leakage in and willing to compromise a bit on sound (Logitech) or price (Bose), you’ll find other options to be compelling, as well.