They’re ubiquitous on long-haul flights, underscoring their popularity among frequent travelers, but picking up a pair of premium active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones – the sort that cut out outside noise by “listening” to ambient sounds to produce inverted, neutralizing soundwaves inside the headphones – is still limited to a slim set of choices. There’s Bose for comfort, Sennheiser for sound quality and Sony for the best noise cancellation, and Apple for the ecosystem advantages. Is JBL’s somewhat late entry into the premium ANC headphones space with its Tour One (Rs. 24,999) pair of cans a worthy contender, and with travel finally picking up, is this the One that you should Tour with?
At first glance, these are quite unlike the colorful wireless speakers or brightly-branded personal audio you would have come to expect from JBL. From the matte black finish on the earcups and the headband to the compact shape that the headphones fold into when placed in the semi-hardshell zippered carrying case, the design is a nod to the minimalist and somewhat monochrome look that’s been the hallmark of the Sony over-the-ear headphones in recent years.
The black chrome accents on the earcups and the headband give the Tour One a decidedly premium look. Even so, it’s a safe look that will work very well for the jet-setting business professionals at whom this is primarily targeted. Donning these on, the clamping force and the 267g weight render the Tour Ones light and very comfortable. There is a generous amount of padding on the ear cushions and headband. We were able to wear these for the entire length of a re-run of Dark Knight…and then some, without any associated ear fatigue.
As far as controls go, the Tour One keeps it simple, opting to eschew swipe gestures for simple yet occasionally fiddly tap commands on the right earcup for playback/call control and a dedicated set of up/down buttons for volume. A sliding switch turns the headset on and sliding-and-holding it for a couple of seconds enables pairing, while a multi-function button on the left earcup can be customized to turn ANC on/off or trigger your phone’s assistant.
Wear detection works well to pause and resume your music when the headphones are taken off or placed back on your head. Further control is available via the JBL Headphones app (available on iOS and Android), which allows you to customize settings around ANC, talk-through mode, equalizer and touch controls, among others. It’s functional as a companion app and gets the job done without getting in the way.
Before we dive into how it sounds, a quick round up of how the headphones are specced. Unless you’re connecting via the included stereo cable, the Tour One will connect over Bluetooth 5 with your smartphone or laptop. It also supports the standard SBC and AAC Bluetooth codecs, not the high-quality codecs like aptX, aptX HD, or LDAC, a bit of an odd exclusion at this price point, particularly if you intend on using these with Android phones that can really leverage the high-quality wireless codecs (iPhones, not so much).
A worthy mention: the four-mic array is killer for taking calls, and folks on the other end complimented how clear my voice was during testing. Battery life too was excellent, with the unit running between 25-30 hours on Bluetooth and noise cancelling switched on, or around 45-50 hours without noise cancellation. Speed charging using the supplied cable and any 10W power adapter will get the headphones juiced up for a movie’s worth of use in under 10 minutes. A full charge takes around two hours.
So far, the Tour One has compared well to the likes of the Sony XM4, but it really comes down to the sound quality and noise cancellation capabilities when you’re paying the kind of money ( ₹24,999) that you are for these headphones. Out of the box, the Tour One have a relatively neutral and balanced sound about them, with nice definition across the frequency spectrum, good clarity in the highs and a bass that’s not overbearing or overpowering. It’s clear JBL has tried to appeal to listeners of a wide variety of genres, as opposed to a lot of headphones that have a clear bias towards cranking up the bass. Wireless performance is good overall, with the equalizer presets doing a nice job on tuning the sound signature to suit the kind of music you’re listening to. But they’re held back a bit on warmth and soundstage, as on the level of detail on offer on account of the lack of the high-quality codecs.
Plug the Tour One into a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) with the included cable, and it responds with impressive levels of depth and resonance. Active noise cancellation was on par with the competition at its price point, handling outdoors noises like the hum of engines on the road or in flight well, as well as reducing the intensity of indoor noise. That said, I still felt there could be some amount of tuning on handling indoor noises better, possibly something that can be addressed via a future firmware upgrade.
The Tour One is a capable pair of noise-canceling headphones from the house of JBL. The combination of a balanced audio signature, good active noise cancellation, comfortable fit, excellent battery life and feature-rich companion app checks off many of the boxes users look for in this category. For the price, JBL has turned out a good contender, but it’s held back on a few counts from truly dominating the segment.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets @2shar.