True wireless earbuds have come a long way fairly quickly. Now, features that you’d have to pay more than $250 for just a few years ago are coming to more and more affordable earbuds. The JBL Live Free 2 are a perfect example, with active noise cancellation (ANC) and an Ambient Sound mode for $150.
If you’re familiar with JBL, it’s most likely because of its speakers, whether you’re talking Bluetooth or larger, more professional speakers. That said, the company has made waves with its true wireless earbuds (TWEs) recently, and it seems to be focusing more on this product category.
With the JBL Live Free 2, the company nails certain aspects but makes some puzzling decisions when it comes to others.
Design, Fit, and Comfort
- Dimensions: 310.4 x 63.5 x 40.6mm (22 x 2.5 x 1.6in)
- Weight: 4.9g (0.17 oz) per earbud, charging case 43.7 g (2 oz)
The look of the JBL Live Free 2 is nice. Not particularly eye-catching, but notably more premium looking than the JBL Live Pro 2, which debuted alongside the Live Free 2.
The shape, somewhat similar to a bean, also makes grabbing them easy. This makes retrieving them from the case an easy task, which isn’t always the case with other earbuds. It also makes placing them in your ears properly simple, which is handy, since a good fit is essential for the best sound and noise canceling.
Speaking of fit, JBL includes three sets of ear tips: small, medium, and large. The small and large tips come in a small cardboard box, while the medium are already fitted on the earbuds out of the box. In my case, the medium tips were a perfect fit.
The JBL Live Free 2 headphones are rated IPX5 waterproof. This doesn’t mean you can wash them off in the sink, but it does mean they’re well-equipped to deal with sweat at the gym.
Battery, Case, and Charging
- Battery capacity: 45 mAh earbuds, 620mAh case
- Playtime: Up to 7 hours earbuds, 35 hours with case
- Charge time: 2 hours
- Charging port: USB-C
Battery life is similar to other true wireless earbuds, with JBL claiming a maximum playback time of seven hours with active noise cancellation (ANC) turned off. With adaptive noise cancellation enabled, playback time drops to five hours.
The charging case extends that capacity by 28 hours. This means that if you listen at a moderate volume without noise cancellation, you can theoretically get up to 35 hours of playback time on a single charge.
This is especially simple since the case is equipped with a USB-C port for wired charging and features Qi wireless charging. The case is roughly similar to Apple’s AirPods (not the AirPods Pro), which means chargers designed with AirPods in mind should work fine. A full charge takes around an hour and a half.
Monitoring battery life on the JBL Live Free 2 is easier than on some other earbuds, as it features a three-segment LED on the case that shows the case’s battery life. LEDs on the earbuds indicate charging and connection status.
The Live Free 2 earbuds have automatic ear detection, which stops playback when you remove one earbud. This should help keep battery life from draining unnecessarily.
Features and the JBL Headphones App
There’s one feature the JBL Live Free 2 sport that hasn’t been especially common in earbuds in this price range: multipoint Bluetooth. This feature lets you connect to two devices at the same time, with the earbuds automatically switching between calls on your phone and music on your PC, for example.
You can use the earbuds out of the box, but the JBL Headphones app (available for iPhone and Android) adds additional features. One of the handier features is a fit test that lets you make sure you’ve got the earbuds fitted properly for the best noise cancellation.
The app also features an equalizer. There are a few EQ presets (more on these later), but you can also set a custom EQ curve yourself. Using the app, you can also switch between adaptive noise cancellation and what JBL calls Ambient Sound Mode, which is also known as Transparency mode.
While you could use the app to switch between these modes, you can instead opt for the on-device controls. A single tap on the left earbud is all it takes to switch back and forth between noise canceling and Ambient Sound Mode, which is certainly convenient.
A single tap on the right earbud pauses and resumes playback, while a double tap answers and ends calls. The other controls are equally straightforward, and you can customize some of them through the app.
- Driver: 10mm dynamic driver
- Bluetooth version: 5.2
- Audio codecs: SBC, AAC
The overall sound is where the questionable choices start. For example, the only Bluetooth codecs JBL supports in the Live Free 2 are the standard SBC and AAC codecs. There is no support for higher-quality codecs like LDAC or even aptX.
AAC doesn’t sound bad, and when SBC is well implemented, it doesn’t sound bad either. The good news is that the Bluetooth sound quality here is fine. The downside is that without aptX, you’re dealing with significant latency, which makes these less than suitable for watching videos.
When I started listening to them, the first thing I noticed was that the JBL Live Free 2 are very bass-forward. I also realized I wasn’t a fan of any of the EQ modes. I started trying to create a custom EQ curve, but no matter what, it seemed to emphasize unpleasant frequencies.
The key, I found, was turning the EQ mode off entirely. Note that this isn’t the same as setting it flat or using the “Studio” setting. There is a slider to disable it entirely, and in most cases, this sounded the best to my ears.
Listening to “Fame” by Santigold, the frequency balance seemed good with the EQ turned off, though there were some strident-sounding high mids. The bass that drives the song was pleasant with no EQ, and surprisingly sounded pretty good using the “Bass” EQ setting. Other EQ settings sounded harsh in the higher frequencies.
Playing The Sheepdogs’ “I Don’t Know,” the midrange sounded somewhat dipped, most noticeably on the vocals. This gave the already gritty sounding vocal a lo-fi quality. In a way, it worked for the song, but this isn’t something I’ve heard on other headphones.
On the other hand, “All Stars” by Grafton Primary allowed the JBL Live Free 2 to shine. The bass and layered synths worked perfectly with these earbuds, and this glossier production seemed to gel with the sound signature.
Noise Cancellation and Call Quality
If I had to pick an area where the Live Free 2 earbuds shine brightest, it’s the noise cancellation. I’m not sure how JBL did it, but the noise cancellation seems markedly better than most earbuds I’ve heard in this price range.
Walking outside on a breezy day, I noticed that even with a 10 mph wind, I wasn’t hearing wind noise. This wasn’t even a problem when I switched from ANC to Ambient Sound mode. I also noticed less of the phantom ear pressure ANC can cause.
Ambient Sound mode is well-implemented, though I still have yet to hear anything in this price range that matches the Apple AirPods’ Transparency mode. One interesting feature of these earbuds is that when you pop one earbud out, the other automatically switches to this mode, letting you hear your surroundings easier.
The TalkThru mode, on the other hand, is confusing. This aims to make hearing people talking to you easier, but keeps your music going. In practice, engaging this mode lowers the volume of your music so low that it’s nearly inaudible.
You can enable TalkThru mode by double-tapping on the left earbud, which could be handy. On the other hand, a single tap on the right pauses playback, while on the left it enables Ambient Sound mode. Even taking out a single earbud is easier, which seems to render TalkThru mode useless.
Call quality is excellent, with the mics doing a good job of blocking out background noise. It may be even better if it could use a more advanced codec, but even so, calls work well.
Microphone Audio Sample – Indoor
Microphone Audio Sample – Outdoor
Should You Buy the JBL Live Free 2?
The JBL Live Free 2 offer great noise cancellation and call quality, both of which can be important features. Listening to music is fine, but it could be better. Still, this is a quality set of earbuds for the price.
The problem isn’t that the JBL Live Free 2 aren’t good, it’s that there is some extremely tight competition at this price range. For example, for $170, the 1MORE Evo offer better sound quality and Bluetooth codecs, with the caveat of noise cancellation that isn’t quite as good.
That said, if noise cancellation, call quality, and multipoint Bluetooth are critical to you, the JBL Live Free 2 are a great option in this price range.
JBL Live Free 2
$100 $150 Save $50
- Fantastic noise cancelling
- Well-implemented touch controls
- No higher quality Bluetooth codecs
- EQ can have a negative affect on sound quality