We’re not accustomed to using the words “disappointing” and JBL in the same sentence: the company’s reputation for excellent speakers precedes its every release, its Austrian-developed AKG earphones are fairly consistent crowd-pleasers, and its earlier Reference-series earphones have been pretty good, too. So it’s with a heavy heart that we report that its Reference 210 Earphones ($40) fail to live up to the family’s reputation: these standard earbuds look nice, but don’t sound as good as Apple’s less expensive iPod Earphones.
While it’s rare for any company to produce truly stellar sub-$50 earphones, some are more aggressive about sound, design, and pack-ins than others – v-moda’s Remix M-Class was amongst offerings that succeeded in beating Apple’s free iPod pack-ins rather than merely matching them. JBL’s Reference 210 design, by contrast, could easily be confused with almost any pair of low-end Sennheisers or Sonys: its biggest frills are a wind-up plastic carrying case and old airplane plug adapter, which are accompanied by two sets of foam ear pads, and the black and gunmetal-colored plastic earbuds themselves. Easy to miss is 210’s in-line volume control – a convenient way to turn the volume up or down when your iPod’s in your pocket. While not new to the sub-$50 earbud category, this was the only feature we really liked in the otherwise me-too design.
When rating earbuds in this price range, there’s no doubt in our minds that Apple’s iPod Earphones are the average user’s benchmark, and Reference 210 regrettably sounds bland by comparison to both Apple’s pre- and post-2006 pack-ins. Apple’s pre-2006 pack-ins were praised for balance and clarity relative to most prior sub-$30 and sub-$50 earbuds, but deemed by many to lack in bass and comfort. Reference 210 is a hint smaller in diameter than this model and a little larger than the latest iPod Earphones, a boon for those who think the old earphones were too big and the new earphones too small, but no better for those of us who think the newer, smaller earphones are more comfortable. JBL’s also skewed 210’s sound a little more in the bass department than Apple’s original earphones, but at the cost of midrange detail: 210 doesn’t sound as balanced or clear, and its bass gains aren’t impressive enough to sway those who thought Apple’s early design was deficient in the low-end.
Compared against the newer iPod Earphones, Reference 210 is even less impressive. Apple’s sound is decidedly clearer, with more and more detailed bass, less chunky mids, and less obscured highs. Apple’s latest Earphone design sounds smooth, making vocals through Reference 210 sound rougher and untuned – not the sort of sound we typically expect from JBL listening equipment.
Apple’s earphones continue to be popular for a reason: especially with the latest bass improvements, it’s hard to find much to complain about for their low price, unless they’re too small for your ears or you otherwise need greater earpiece stability while running or working out. If you didn’t like Apple’s past buds, Reference 210 is unlikely to satisfy you on fit, and they’re certainly not going to win you over on sound. Even if they were sold for the same price, we wouldn’t consider them smart alternatives – at a $11 premium, we think they’re only passable, and interesting more for the in-line volume control than anything else.
Company and Price
Company: JBL/Harman Multimedia
Model: Reference 210
Compatible: All iPods