Virtually every Bluetooth headphone kit we’ve tested so far has struggled to make its headphones smaller than earlier competitors. JBL’s Reference Series 610 ($200) doesn’t. Instead, 610 uses traditionally larger over-the-ear cup designs with soft leather side and top padding, and sleek styling taken from the company’s popular multimedia speakers — it actually looks like you’re wearing a pair of Creature II satellites on your ears. That’s not a bad thing; by traditional headphone standards, 610 looks as modern and clean as the iPods it’s designed to connect with.
As with most Bluetooth headphones, the idea behind the Reference Series 610 is to give you the ability to pump music into your ears up to 30 feet away from your iPod’s headphone port, without requiring you to run a wire between the headphones and the iPod. White and black versions are available, each with a small matching iPod transceiver dongle, which draws power from the iPod’s battery rather than requiring its own. You needn’t provide batteries for the 610 headset, which is recharged with an included wall adapter and your choice of four international wall blades.
What’s unusual about JBL’s approach is that the 610 can also be used in a wired mode with a nearly 6-foot-long, iPod- and iPhone-friendly fabric audio cable when you’re not in need of a wireless connection, or want to use a Bluetooth-less device other than an iPod. The company even includes 1/4” and airplane headphone jack adapters in case you want to use the headset with a traditional receiver or in an older jet, and provides a simple cloth carrying case to let you hold all of the parts. A Velcro and fabric pocket inside holds the international wall blades, or whatever other small part you prefer, separately from everything else for anti-scratch safety.
We liked a lot about the 610 package. JBL’s Bluetooth functionality works as expected, delivering a solid 30-foot wireless connection between the transceiver and the headphones, and only dropping out if you push beyond that distance, or stay at the edge of that distance but have walls or other objects in the way. The 610 worked properly with a dongle-equipped iPod and our iTunes-equipped Macintosh computer, but had some serious problems with the iPhone, as it isn’t certified for use with it as either a phone or audio headset, and lacks a microphone.
Those problems related to the 610’s integrated remote control functionality, which consists of track control buttons found on the right earcup in a circle shape alongside smaller circular volume controls. Plugging the transceiver into the iPhone set the phone’s iPod mode into a rapid play/pause toggle, which only stopped when the dongle was disconnected.
Switching on Airplane Mode didn’t help, and it’s unclear whether the problem is JBL’s or Apple’s, thus it remains to be seen whether future iPhone firmware will fix this issue—or enable the 610 to be used as a stereo headset without the dongle.
On a generally positive note, the headphones are pretty good, though your appreciation for them will vary considerably based on the price you find them for. JBL lists them at a $200 retail price, but they can be had for $150, and if viewed as a pair of $100 headphones with $50 worth of wireless functionality, they’re acceptable; at a higher price, we’d expect more. Run in wired mode with most of our iPods, the large speakers inside sounded classically midrange-focused, with just enough bass and treble to satisfy most listeners, but neither in quantities to placate fans of really crisp or really rich audio. When they’re sitting properly on your ears, they skew towards the mid-bass, but don’t feel “warm,” and pushing up the bass on your iPod’s equalizer sounds heavy handed rather than smooth. On the flip side, they do feel comfortable on your head, benefitting from nice leather and foam padding, and an adjustable band that doesn’t feel too loose or tight.
During wireless testing, when the integrated volume controls could be used to tweak the headphones’ levels, we got the impression that there was either a bug or a small mismatch between the headphones’ amplifier and the output from either the dongle or iTunes-equipped computers. Under rare circumstances, the audio actually sounded a bit better balanced and less mid-bass skewed than at other times, while under more common circumstances, the headphones exhibited a little more apparent distortion and less balance than with the wired connection—the result we would have expected from a Bluetooth wireless link.