Jabra’s latest pair of in-ears keeps the pint-sized design of the Elite range, but change the sound and add more features, including noise cancellation. Are the Elite 85t right for you?
Every year, we see a lot of earphones. That’s hardly a surprise, mind you: we all have phones, and we’re all listening to music and news and podcasts, so if we’re all doing this on our phones, it makes sense that we see a bunch of earphones to help make that possible. Easy, right?
In recent years, the cords have been cut and more earphones than ever now sit in the “truly wireless” or “truly free” part of the market. You know the type: they exist in two distinct earphones that work together and yet offer no cord, charging inside their own case. You can find them cheap and you can find them expensive, but these days, that’s the style.
But it’s not all that comes in earphones. These days, you can typically expect to see active noise cancellation (ANC) technologies included, a trend we expect to see in 2021 is better portable audio complete with noise cancellation, thanks in part to the chips being made, not to mention the earphones coming with several microphones.
One of the most recent is the Jabra Elite 85t, a new take on noise cancelling in-ears, offering a small-ish size designed to be super compact and easy to carry, and yet also not compromise on sound.
Design and features
Water resistant and built to be tiny, the Elite 85t take what Jabra has learned from previous models, namely the Elite 75t, and basically adds a little more in the way of noise cancellation.
All up, these use a similar body compared to the Elite 75t, though the differences are noticeable when you compare them side-by-side. Upon first glance, it’s the same from the front, though, though the newer Elite 85t throws in an extra two microphones, moving from four in the 75t to six in the Elite 85t, four of which are used for active noise cancellation.
There’s a forward facing microphone and a rear facing one, using this to pick up on sound on the outside, and working out what to cancel out thanks in part to the active noise cancellation hardware, plus also the software in the Jabra Sound+ app, available on iOS and Android.
Each earphone offers up to 5.5 hours of sound with noise cancelling on and an extra 19 hours in the case, resulting in around 25 hours all up, with the case charged from USB Type C at the back to the Qi wireless charging standard at the bottom.
There are three types sizes in the box, and the earphones support Bluetooth multi-point, talking to up to two devices at once. They’ll even pause when one is taken out, and are lightweight, too, weighing only 7 grams each, while the case weighs 45 grams.
The Jabra Elite 85t are rated for IPX4 water resistance, which makes them more sweat resistant than water resistant.
With the features out of the way, it’s time to throw on a tip we’re happy with and stick the Elite 85t earphones in our ear.
Using them is quite easy, and something the Jabra Sound+ app helps with, offering three sets of controls per ear based on how often you want to press the button to get your desired function.
For instance, we had the pause and play come from a single press on the right side, next track and previous track from a double tap, and the HearThrough and ANC switch with a single press on the left, and the voice assistant set to triple tap on either side.
You have options, provided you download and use the Jabra Sound+ app, and it means proper customisation, not just one or two things you can change. That helps to make using the Elite 85t a cinch.
From there, we can get stuck into using the Elite 85t, and testing them, because clearly, how they sound is the most important part of these earphones altogether.
We’ve been looking forward to writing this review for some time, and that’s because the Jabra Elite range has always been one of the more interesting pairs each year.
Designed to be small and sounding excellent, the Jabra in-earphones have never tried to be an AirPod, and have just kind of gone their own way, to quote Fleetwood Mac. Not only different from Apple’s earphones, they also tend to offer a different sound, all while keeping the ears blocked so you could concentrate on what you heard.
For the past few years, Jabra has more or less delivered strong balance in its “Elite” range of earphones, and we’ve found both the Elite 65t and Elite 75t great earphones in the past, and quite balanced.
So it was a little surprising to hear a little more bass pumping in the Elite 85t than expected. For some people, that’ll be a win. For others, like us, less so.
Testing with the Pickr Sound Test, we found a slightly heavy handed approach to the bottom end, with more punch and deep bass on our test tracks from Tycho and Daft Punk, pushing past the mids. It’s not quite the same delivery of balance we’ve seen from Jabra in the past, and the snap of the bass clearly takes front and centre stage in the 85t.
It’s a similar experience with the vibrant tracks from Carly Rae Jepsen and Ariana Grande, where you get a good delivery of sound, though the bottom end is really the only part that stands out. The whole thing is bright and boomy, but if the track has seen its bass pushed a little to begin with, the earphones can feel like they’re overemphasising, almost artificially so.
The same was true of FKA Twigs’ “Two Weeks”, with the snap of the drums and the rest of the bottom end almost seemingly emboldened by what the bass could do in these earphones, overpowering in sections, yet still blending together well. With that little bit extra oomph on top of the Elite 75t, it seems like the Jabra Elite 85t aren’t quite aiming for the flat balance we’ve seen from the company in the past, but rather eyeing people looking for a little more to drive.
We like our earphones warmer, and while that can often include meaty bass, it doesn’t mean it will overpower the mids. That’s much of what it means to have warm sound: to deliver in the lows and mids. While you do get a delivery of the mids, the highs, and the lows in the Elite 85t, its the lows that stand out more obviously, making for a slightly heavy-handed approach to the low-end, particularly if the music has been engineered with that in mind. And that’s much of the music these days.
Back in tracks where that hasn’t happened — typically older or more acoustically-focused pieces — the balance is clearer. In Marvin Gaye’s and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, the bass actually didn’t overpower, and it all came together nicely, like a puzzle that wasn’t trying to make its presence known from one set of sounds, the bottom end. It was a similar experience in Bowie and The Who, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given the tracks are older and weren’t mastered for an overly heavy assortment of bass in general. Even the recent remasters of The Beatles can feel a little heavy handed for the bass.
It means if you like to listen to a lot of older music, you’ll probably find the Elite 85t just as good as everything else, but if you listen to a lot of newer music, you’ll hear a little more bass with these earphones. Whether you like that style of sound comes down your preferences.
To Jabra’s credit, you can pull this back with the Jabra Sound+ app, which offers presets for the earphones, all of which change the equaliser for the earphones. It’s set to “neutral” by default, but there’s a “treble boost” to make the Elite 85t sound a little more like the Elite 75t, a “bass boost” if you still demand more, plus a few others, and you can always move the EQ line yourself and save it as a preset. That might be enough to satisfy the slightly heavier bass, which did in turn help rectify some of the concerns we have, even if did make the highs, well, higher.
Essentially, if you want to calm the bass on the Elite 85t earphones, you’re probably going to need to make your own. We made one that lowered the bass slightly and called it “75t”.
This performance is also married to decent noise cancellation, though it’s nothing stellar. Granted, we’ve not been able to take as many flights lately — thanks, coronavirus — but the noise cancellation is acceptable, though doesn’t feel as impressive as the current in-ear benchmark from Sony, the WF-1000XM3.
Most people will be able to use the noise cancellation of the Jabra Elite 85t to drown the noise of buses, of trains, and if you’re on a flight, the engine of an aircraft, as well, but we found some of the sounds leaked in with the 85t, more so than what we’d experience with the other competitors.
However there’s one area Jabra has absolutely nailed: the “HearThrough” ambient mode. Press the left earphone button once and the earphone microphones switch on to let you hear the outside world, delivering one of the best ambient modes we’ve heard. Your voice isn’t overly amplified, nor is the music you listen to, and the world sounds like it normally does as does your music.
Typically, one of the two falters with an ambient mode, but not here on these earphones. It’s one of the better features of the Jabra Elite 85t, and though you may have to turn down your music a bit, at least you can hear both with HearThru switched on, no worries.
Over on the battery side, the result is about on par with the competition, delivering up to 25 hours of life with around a little over five hours in the earphones with noise cancelling on, though you can typically push a little more life out of the Elite 85t if you leave ANC off.
The inclusion of wireless charging is probably the more interesting addition here, because it means the thoroughly compact case of the Elite 85t earphones simply has to be left on a standard charging pad, and the case will keep the earphones topped up and happy.
And at $349 in Australia, the Jabra Elite 85t aren’t a bad effort, delivering something almost akin to the universal take on the $399 Apple AirPods Pro.
With wireless charging and noise cancellation along for the ride, plus a decent spot of sound, the Elite 85t are a little like the AirPods for more than just an iPhone, because the app works on every device, not just the iPhone.
What needs work?
But there are things we’d change, and that might start at pulling back on some of that bass. Yes, there’s more bass here in the Elite 85t, which was interesting because there was also more on the Elite 75t, an evolution from the Elite 65t.
The thing is, we already thought the Elite 75t had kind of nailed it. In this generation, it feels like we might have seen too much. Almost as if Goldilocks found a “just right” amount of porridge, and then decided to get a few more spoonfuls, making her just that little bit too full and unable to move when the bears came home.
This bass can be just that little bit too full, and can make it the very thing you concentrate on. We liked what we heard on the Elite 75t, but just wanted noise cancellation and wireless charging to really hit the full five stars. Yes, these have both of those, but now it has a touch too much bass for our liking.
And that brings up another point: if the Elite 75t were so good — and they were, and they now come with both noise cancellation via an upgrade, while new models support wireless charging — what makes the Elite 85t remarkably different from their sibling? The answer is not a whole lot.
On a technical level, the Elite 85t are closer to high-end noise cancelling earphones like the Apple AirPods Pro and the Sony WF-1000XM3, but they don’t feel dramatically different from their predecessor, which is also less expensive by today’s standards. That makes the newer model a more difficult argument to buy into, and more or less helps make the Elite 85t stand out even more.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
Yet at $349, they make a good case for someone looking for something capable like the AirPods Pro, but in a slimmer and more inconspicious design, and the same goes for Sony’s WF-series.
While both Apple and Sony build active noise cancelling earphones designed for people to notice you, these aren’t like that. Rather, these are different: the Jabra Elite 85t are an inconspicuous style of ANC.
The Elite 85t are designed to be enjoyed without someone needing to notice your ears. There’s no big flash of white, or even a slab of black and gold. There’s nothing to stand out, and that’s OK.
What the Elite 85t delivers is a big dose of sound that can block much of the world without making you stand out along with it. There are some things about the earphones that we’d change, and we’d ideally restrain that bass a little, but if you’re after noise cancelling in-ears that are similarly top end and won’t draw attention to your ears, the Elite 85t are worth checking out.
Mind you, we’d also check out the Elite 75t if you can find them, because with a touch more balance amidst two less microphones, the release of the 85t might just make the Elite 75t a better deal all round. Still, we’d say the Elite 85t are worth checking out if you fancy a pair of in-ear noise cancellers that don’t advertise themselves to the world. Recommended, once you tweak that sound in the app.