For all of its headphones, earbuds and speaker clout, JBL had been noticeably absent from the premium noise-cancelling headphones space until the launch of last year’s Tour One headphones. The second-generation Tour One M2 is JBL’s renewed effort to narrow the gap to the market leaders, and it does a commendable job with a bevy of new features. Is it worth the money, and should you pick it up over the best from Sony?
Call it subtle, understated or bland, the Tour One M2 headphones are not going to turn heads in their monotone black finish, and the only real design flourish you get is the reflective metal bands where the cups join the headband. It’s almost a throwback to the minimalistic origins of the Sony WH-1000X series.
Taking the headphones out of the hard-shell carry case (which also packs in the charging cable, 3.5mm cable and airline adapter), they feel sturdy in the hand while still offering the flexibility to collapse into a slim profile that’s handy while traveling, or if you’re carrying them in a large coat pocket. Between the pivoting ear cups and the headband adjustment, it should fit most head sizes comfortably. And comfort is really where it’s at with the Tour One M2 – they’re light on the head and have padding on the underside of the headband and on the soft leatherette ear cups. The clamping force on the ear cups feels just right, enough to keep them in place and provide good passive sound isolation without feeling too overbearing.
Controls are via a mixture of sometimes fidgety but mostly accurate touch controls on the right ear cup and physical buttons – taps control the playback functions (play/skip/go back) and triggering your choice of Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant, while the buttons are for power/Bluetooth, volume and noise cancellation.
Setup is quick and easy once you’ve installed the JBL Headphones app. Much of the exhaustive settings are handled via the app. This includes active noise cancelling modes (more on this later), Ambient Aware transparency modes and the auto-voice detection features which allow you to talk to others (or pause music) without removing your headphones. The app lets you tweak a personalized audio profile as well and has a lot to explore to make the headphones truly yours.
I also liked the addition of multi-point connectivity, letting you quickly flip between listening to a video on your laptop to a phone call. Bear in mind, while the headphones support the latest Bluetooth 5.3 standard, they only offer basic SBC and AAC codecs, which is a bit of a letdown for anyone seeking hi-res wireless sound.
Speaking of which, the sound quality on these cans is what you’d best describe as balanced, which may disappoint folks who prefer their music packed with bass. Even after tweaking the equalizer through the app, the low end is left a bit wanting. Save for that, the soundstage is surprisingly wide and immersive, and the highs are crisp and detailed, and vocals are particularly strong, no matter what genre of music I threw at the headphones. From tracks by The Weeknd and Smashing Pumpkins to some good old Guns N’ Roses and Paul Simon, the headphones delivered in heaps.
Noise cancellation is pretty effective too, if not absolutely class leading. The Tour One M2 handles noise cancellation duties cleanly, allowing you to listen to your music on public transport (tested on the Bangalore Metro) on lower volumes, but if it gets particularly busy, the noise cancellation struggles occasionally. Even with ANC on, battery life is close to the claimed 30 hours of charge, with around 50 hours with ANC turned off. You’re going to go through several working days before you’re presented with a low battery warning, and it’s a big plus in its favor.
It has to be asked – does it hold its own against the Sony WH-1000XM5? Build quality is neck and neck, with the JBL opting for a more discreet (yet more comfortable) look than Sony. Clearly, the Sony headphone has a warmer sound profile with a lot more focus on the bass, which lines up with a lot of the popular music India listens to, but the JBL does better to reproduce the highs and mids, offering an overall more neutral sound compared to the livelier sonic signature of the competition. Sure, you’re going to find fans of JBL's audio profile as well, but it's best if you go listen to them in the store to see if that person is you.
As a second-generation product, the omission of a high-resolution standard like aptX or LDAC in what is JBL’s flagship pair of headphones, is something for the company to take a long hard think about, if it’s to truly take the challenge to the competition in this space. In the entry-level and mid-range where features (or lack thereof) are how you cut costs to meet a price point, it may work, but not at the Rs. 24,999 price point that the JBL retails at.
That’s not to say the JBL Tour One M2 isn’t worthy of your consideration. Far from it, in fact. They’re exceptionally comfortable to wear, their call quality is good, battery life is exceptional as are the features around ambient noise cancellation. If you’re the sort who prefers a balanced sound profile in this price segment, they’re your best bet. Price wise, they’re priced a bit better than Sony, so that’s a factor to take into account as well.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets @2shar.