The wireless earbuds market is extremely competitive. If you’re going to stand a chance of competing with the likes of Apple, Bose, Sennheiser or Sony, you’d better have some serious performance up your sleeve.
Jabra understands this, and has been delivering true wireless in-ear headphones that have been there or thereabouts for a good while now, without ever quite managing to make it onto the top table.
So are the Jabra Elite 85t the pair with which the company finally forces its way to the front of the pack? They certainly have the premium price, and they’re specified to match. Now they only need to tick all the performance boxes and it is job done. But that’s the real trick, isn’t it?
True wireless earbuds are one of the few product types where ‘less’ is most definitely ‘more’. And in this respect, the Elite 85t have less on their side.
They’re usefully smaller than many price-comparable rivals and, at 7g, they’re hardly a burden to wear – and that’s before you even consider how nicely ergonomic the shape is. A choice of variously sized silicon eartips helps get the 85t in place and, once in situ, they stay snug and comfortable for hours on end.
That’s doubly handy because, despite their diminutive size, the 85t feature a respectable battery life of five hours, with another 20 hours provided by the equally compact charging case. Contrast this all-in stamina of 25 hours or so with the 18 hours of the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, and the Bose have even less excuse for being so relatively huge.
Charging is via USB-C or a Qi wireless charging mat and the Jabras will run for a whole hour after just a 15-minute blast.
There’s no arguing with the way that the Jabra Elite 85t are put together. It’s not easy to make a product feel premium and fit for purpose while trying to make it as small and light as is realistically possible, but Jabra has managed it. On the outside, the Elite 85t (which are available only in this ‘titanium black’ finish you see here) look and feel like a carefully constructed product.
IP rating IPX4
Bluetooth version 5.1
Battery life 5.5 hours (with ANC), 25 hours (with case)
Dimensions (hwd) 2.3 x 1.9 x 1.6cm
Weight 7g each
As is only right and proper at this sort of money, Jabra has piled on the features. As far as sound goes, each earbud is fitted with a 12mm full-range driver. That’s pretty big by in-ear standards, and quite startling in the context of the 85t’s dimensions. The overt promise is of full-range sound – so Jabra has incorporated pressure-relief vents into the design to prevent low frequencies generating too much pressure in the wearer’s ear.
Each earbud has three mics, too. One governs active noise-cancellation of external sound, another does the same for sound from inside the ear, and the third looks after telephony and interaction with voice assistants. Call quality is excellent, and compatibility with Siri and Google Assistant means it should be straightforward enough to have your bidding done simply by asking.
It is possible to interact with the Jabras in other ways, though, and the company’s ‘Sound+’ app is one of the better examples around. Here, you can adjust the amount of active noise-cancellation you desire, from ‘blanket of isolation’ to ‘mild amplification of external sound’. There’s some EQ adjustment available here too, and an impressively thorough hearing test to help the 85t adjust their levels to best suit your hearing profile.
You can also define the functions of the control buttons on each earbud here. How you play/pause, skip forwards/backwards and answer/reject calls can all be adjusted to suit you. The control buttons strike the only false note of the entire 85t package. Rather than the more common capacitive touch-surface used by most rivals, the Jabras have an actual press/press button – it makes for greater positivity when issuing commands, but having to put pressure on the earbud can easily alter their fit.
The Jabras use Bluetooth 5.1 for wireless connectivity – there’s no aptX, let alone aptX HD, but 5.1 alone is more than sufficient to get some hi-res audio files on board. And with an MQA-powered Tidal Masters file of Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) playing, the 85t don’t take long to establish themselves as a reasonably balanced, reasonably sophisticated listen.
There’s decent weight and substance at the bottom of the frequency range to underpin the recording nicely, but bass sounds aren’t the most disciplined or well controlled – and that can impact a little on the tune’s momentum and rhythmic balance. If it’s punch you want from your headphones, though, the Jabras will certainly appeal.
The midrange showcases the simple effortlessness of the vocal nicely, with plenty of fine detail revealed to make sure the singer’s character and commitment are never in doubt. The 85t don’t exactly attack a tune, but they are certainly revealing – minor harmonic variances through the midrange are picked up on and fully described.
At the top end, there’s the same reticence, the same unwillingness to properly drive a tune forwards. It is a question of personal taste as to whether you find this trait detracts from the listening experience or whether you enjoy its calm, unthreatening nature. Detail levels are high and there’s better control of the entry into and exit from individual sounds than there is at the opposite end of the frequency range.
The smooth good taste of Marvin Gaye is one thing, but the Jabras prove quite easy to fluster, as a once-through of Pixies’ The Holiday Song shows. The 85t squash the song’s wide dynamics in an effort to stay in control and the same lack of rhythmic certainty is evident. When combined with the earbuds' reluctance to allow the tune’s drive and attack proper expression, the result is a rather neutered facsimile of what should be a vivid and turbulent song.
Put the Elite 85t back in their comfort zone, with a listen to Grouper’s Alien Observer, and their ability to extract fine detail and deliver some fairly assertive punch returns to the fore. Even with a vocal buried as deep in the mix as this one, the Jabras are able to freight the midrange with detail and personality.
Throughout, the active noise-cancelling proves effective at all but its most aggressive setting. Turned up full, there’s no doubting the Jabras’ ability to exclude external noise, but it thickens and blunts the sound at the same time. Far better to back it off just a little, enjoy the isolation from the outside world and let the 85t do their best.
In isolation, the Jabra Elite 85t fall into the ‘good not great’ category. They have many strengths and a couple of fairly significant weaknesses. A bigger problem, though, is the quality and the sheer number of rivals – similar money buys you decent alternatives from some of the biggest names around, such as the Sony WF-1000XM3. You can certainly do better in sonic terms, so unless you value the size and comfort of the 85t above all else, we’d advise you to shop around.
- Sound 3
- Comfort 5
- Build 5
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Read our Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review