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Sometimes a song can sneak up on you. A slow, dynamic swell, Sara Bareilles’ “City” is one of those tracks where, as the percussion amplifies and the range expands, I am involuntarily swept up in it. It’s just me, a suburban dad walking the dog, actively resisting the urge to sing out loud as he longs for the “deep city lights” and to “get lost tonight” on an otherwise peaceful tree-lined street. Another thing that snuck up on me is helping me get caught up in the moment: the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds, which pack rich audio heritage into an unassuming pair of active noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds.
With almost a century in speaker development and live sound reinforcement, JBL has a reputation for vibrant sound that plays out in the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds as I belt out the chorus. Thankfully, only the dog was around to hear me. Let’s take a look at the technology that surrounded me with sound.
What are the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds?
Sweatproof and lightweight, the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS are earbuds for active listeners. Whether it’s a humid summer night singalong or leg day, the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS ‘buds match your energy. The IPX7 waterproof rating means sweat won’t bother them—nor will submersion up to 1 meter deep for 30 minutes. And the wireless earbuds shouldn’t bother your ears during workouts due to a slim weight of 6.8 grams per ’bud, held securely in place with various sizes of eartips and/or gel-sleeves that I found provided a comfortable fit. Meanwhile, an abundant, detailed sound, assisted by adjustable active noise-cancelling (ANC) and smart technology that changes the EQ mix to keep your podcasts and playlists sounding consistent, will do enough to satisfy most of us, even when we’re listening really closely.
The JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds’ design
The JBL Live Free NC+ TWS has a compact, bulbous body with a flat outward-facing side emblazoned with JBL’s logo. However, this surface is for more than advertising, as it includes touch-sensitive controls. Insert the earbuds under your ear’s tragus and a tight seal forms to mute the world even without the optional ANC engaged. And the rubber fins on the buds’ body help lock the earpieces solidly in place under your antihelix. This body type is similar to the Live Free’s slightly more expensive brother, the JBL Tour PRO+ TWS earbuds (which, with a lower IP rating, adaptive ANC, and hands-free voice control, are intended more for work than working out). They’re among the most comfortable earbuds I’ve used. But enough anatomy lessons. Let’s look at how the best wireless earbuds can fit physically, functionally, and sonically.
They keep running so you can, too
The JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds offer 7 hours of playtime with ANC off, 6 hours with ANC on, and an additional 14 hours of wireless charging from the included case (which supports Qi-compatible wireless charging and shows battery level via four LED lights). They take about 2 hours to fully recharge. The JBL Tour PRO+ TWS, in comparison, offers a slightly boosted 8 hours of playtime with ANC off, 6 hours with ANC on, and can deliver 32 total hours of battery life when you include the case. Those numbers are similar to other earbuds at the price point. For instance, the $130 Skullcandy Indy ANC earbuds (reviewed here) play for 9 hours without ANC, 5 hours with it, and can reach 23 hours of playtime from the case.
Equipped with four microphones per earbud, the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds let you engage in phone calls or connect easily with your chosen virtual assistant. While chatting, my voice was clear but a little thin. I also connected to Alexa—you can connect to Google Assistant—and the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds had no issue connecting, but it required setting the touch controls to access this option. (The JBL Tour PRO+ TWS can have Alexa perk up just by uttering her name, aided by beamforming microphones and other sensors to mitigate wind, etc.)
Designed for go time, these trim true wireless earbuds have technology that creates beautiful sound for moving moments and moments of constant moving. At 6.8 grams apiece, these earbuds are very lightweight and, as detailed above, I found them to fit so securely they were practically undetectable. That included when I wore them during long runs in the 90-degree humid heat, during several stints on the rowing machine, and even while getting a few hours of work done in the living room while my daughter and wife baked muffins in the nearby kitchen.
The IPX7 waterproof rating is also a huge bonus. While not the IP68 of the practically bulletproof 6.7 gram-per-’bud Jaybird Vista 2 (which we reviewed here), the IPX7 rating means sweat or downpours won’t put a damper on their use. To compare, a pair like the Sennheiser CX True Wireless (see our full thoughts here) lean more toward an audiophile rather than purely energetic sound. Still, they had limited use for workouts for me because the IPX4 just didn’t give me enough confidence that they could stand up to the way I sweat.
Setting up the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds
Initially, setting up the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS takes virtually no thinking. Remove the earbuds from the charging case, find them on your phone settings list of discoverable Bluetooth devices, and start listening. The Bluetooth 5.1 support handles standard SBC and higher-quality AAC connections (primarily for iOS devices) and helps ensure a stable connection.
However, getting a handle on the controls is more of a head-scratcher. For me, understanding how to set and use the tap system really required the app. Within the app, you can assign different groups of controls to the left and right earbuds. One group lets you change the volume—a single tap to raise the volume, two taps to lower it. Another group lets you control playback—a tap to pause, two to advance tracks, three to go back. A third group lets you access your voice assistant. A fourth group gives you ambient sound control.
A single tap toggles between ANC and “Ambient Aware” modes, which acts as the inverse of ANC and amplifies your surroundings (helpful when jogging in traffic, walking on a trail where you want an immersive nature experience, etc.). Meanwhile, a double-tap switches to TalkThru mode, which lowers the volume considerably and disengages ANC so you can talk to your wife or neighbor without removing the earbuds—though they can operate with only one in. Call control is included within every grouping. Double-tap to answer a call or hang up an active call, tap and hold to reject an incoming call, or mute your microphone during a call.
If all of that sounds confusing, you’re right. As I said, it took me some time to master. And the other bummer is that you have to choose what group you can control. That means if you want to be able to use your ’buds to pause the music and switch off ANC, you won’t be able to use the ’buds to change the volume. That’s a definite miss.
OK, but how do they sound?
I’ve already gushed about the fullness of the sound, so here are the specs behind the effect. The 6.8mm drivers—comparable to the 6mm driver found in the compact and capable Jaybird Vista 2 earbuds or the Sony WF-1000XM4, which we reviewed here—have a dynamic frequency response range of 20Hz to 20kHz with a sensitivity of 96 decibels at 1kHz/1mW. The result is a completeness that makes you feel like you are in the room with the artist. I noticed this most when listening to a relatively unknown Boston-based group called Ryan Montbleau Band. Details like the howl of individual crowd members and the scratchiness of the microphone made me feel like I was in the bar where the show had been recorded.
The JBL Live Free NC+ TWS has a neutral baseline sound profile. Bass is accurate, punchy, though it doesn’t have the most rumble. Mids are clear and accurate, while treble is present without treading into any unpleasant sizzle. Overall, the sound is warm with just enough high-end energy to motivate without fatigue.
Did you catch the band’s set(tings)?
Part of what contributes to the sound is the JBL wireless earbuds app’s advanced sound controls. Those sound controls begin with the ANC. While the JBL Tour PRO+ TWS earbuds offer adaptive noise cancellation that will automatically adjust to the sounds around you, the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds let you slide a bar on the app to your desired level. Even at the top, however, it wasn’t the most effective ANC I’ve encountered. Meanwhile, JBL’s Ambient Aware mode, which amplifies rather than mutes noises around you, is probably the most impressive of such modes I’ve tested. I live in a fairly quiet neighborhood, and yet the few vehicles puttering by sounded like they had full-throated engines gunning it on a racecourse. A Nissan Pathfinder has never sounded so throaty.
The JBL app also offers EQ customization, with three modes preloaded. Vocal brings out the bass, and Piano stays relatively level across all frequencies—but amplifies the bass some, drops the middle, and boosts the higher end. And Jazz dips the bottom end and spikes the volume of middle frequencies. The “Smart Audio” modes include an Audio option that optimizes the sound to best match your quality and type of wireless connection. There’s a Video setting that lowers latency, so you won’t encounter lipsync issues. You can also create your custom sound by selecting various points on a parametric EQ. Still, there is no option to generate a personalized EQ based on how well you hear certain frequencies (an option on the Jaybird Vista 2, for example).
So, who should buy the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds?
If you’re looking for a pair of true wireless earbuds that’ll deliver a full sound as you complete your next workout, definitely consider the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds. The earbuds are light and comfortable and deliver a powerful audio performance that definitely punches above their weight. Plus, IPX7 offers protection against sweat that’s almost a match for the Jaybird Vista 2 (though that pair has a stronger ANC/customized EQ component).
If you’re more business than play, the JBL Tour PRO+ TWS earbuds add handy features like hands-free virtual assistant access and adaptive noise-cancelling for $50 more than the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS earbuds. For a pair of earbuds with features as deep as its sound, though a considerably higher price tag, consider the Sony WF-1000XM4. Meanwhile, the Sennheiser CX True Wireless offers excellent, customizable audio quality at a comparable price to the JBL Live Free NC+ TWS. Still, they have a bulky fit that’s not ideal for exercise.
An alternative route for perfectly good wireless earbuds could lead you to the Skullcandy Dime earbuds—an option so, so cheap (less than $25) you could just replace a set if you sweat through them. Honestly, there are so many flagship ANC and budget earbuds on the market now that some pair is perfect for everyone. Yet even with all of the best earbuds options, if you want wireless noise-cancelling earbuds that can withstand many sets of pushups, box jumps, and burpees, and can push the limits of affordable sound, the JBL Live Free NC + TWS earbuds can help you live the way you want.