November 16, 2018

Review: Jabra Elite Sport Headphones

This is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write. There’s so much I love about the Jabra Elite Sport wireless headphones. I’ve been using them at the gym, and they’ve transformed the way I exercise, helped me track and radically improve my fitness, and have become an invaluable tool in transforming my body, but but I’ve encountered so many problems in testing them over an extended period that I can’t in good conscience recommend them.

Let’s start with the positive. The Jabra headphones are small, and with them in, looking at me face on, you would barely be able to tell I was wearing earbuds at all. They are also very comfortable, for my ears at least. The two black buds fit in your ears with a twist, and once they’re in, they stay in. I’ve had some pretty aggressive workouts and I was never concerned they’d fall out, unlike with Apple’s airpods. Also unlike the airpods, I didn’t look like I had 2 e-cigarettes dangling out of my ears.

The Jabras come with a few different sized ear plugs and rubber fit sleeves to allow them fit most ears, though if you have small ears, you might find them bulky. For me they fit perfectly and aside from the constant stream of music, I completely forgot they were there.

The sound quality wasn’t comparable to other bluetooth devices in this price range, but I set my expectations much lower because I saw them as primarily workout headphones and the sound was more than acceptable for running on a treadmill. The battery lasts about 3 hours, though the charging case it comes with should allow you to charge it two more times before needing to plug in, for a total of 9 hours (Note: while writing this review, Jabra released an updated model with 4.5 hour battery life, though it’s unclear if there are any other differences between the new model and the old). Three hours is more than enough time for most workouts though if you’re a marathon runner, or your workouts regularly run longer, you might want to look at a different set of buds. The way I used them, I’d work out for about 45 minutes, then put them back in their case, until the next day, when they’d be fully charged again (in theory at least, more on that later). I’d charge the case over the weekend, providing me with more than enough juice for a week’s worth of workouts.

The big selling point of these headphones are their fitness tracking features. The Elite Sport have a heart rate monitor in the right earbud that keeps tabs on you as you work out, and using the app, allows you to track your heart rate in real time. They also use your phone’s GPS to track running speed, which can allow the app to calculate your pace, your exertion, your calorie burn, and Vo2 Max (a metric that approximates how well your body is using oxygen). It seemed to work pretty well, and while I don’t know how accurate the Vo2 max number was, I was able to track it over a number of months and track my progress in a very real way. When I started working out, my Vo2 was about 46, and as I continued to build up my fitness, I saw it climb to 55, which the little voice coach in my ear told me was very good. It really motivated me to run more often, and to run longer, so that I could see my chart continue to climb. I haven’t found a better tool to motivate me in reaching my fitness goals.

While I found the GPS speedometer pretty accurate, when running on the treadmill, I found it’s estimations much less precise, and the app was usually off by about 2-3 miles per hour (if my treadmill was set to 8.5 miles an hour, my readout constantly said I was running at about 6mph. The Jabra app has a feature that should allow you to calibrate the headphones (where you run on a treadmill for a measured .25 miles, and it calculates your average speed from that) but in my experience, the calibration only made the app’s guestimate less accurate. Suddenly, it told me I was running 5 miles an hour when I was actually running 9. Eventually I gave up trying to calibrate, and just tracked average progress, and that worked well enough. It was frustrating, but something I learned to live with. And as long as I saw relative improvement in my runs, I felt good about my progress.

Charging the headphones in the case was inconsistent. Usually, after leaving the phones in overnight, I’d find them fully charged in the morning. Sometimes, I’d find they were only partially charged, other times they wouldn’t have charged at all. And if the case itself ran out of charge, the the headphones would stay paired to my phone, even when I closed the case. If the case died while I wasn’t wearing the headphones, they’d pair with my phone while still in the case, leading to some frustrating attempts to make phone calls, and not understanding why I couldn’t hear anything.

The headphones also have a feature that allows you to hear the world around you when they are in, but I found the microphones distorted or heavily clipped anything anyone said to me, so I’d end up taking them out of my ears to talk to people, even with the feature enabled. When I took them out of my ears, sensors automatically stopped my music which was a useful feature.

The headphones can also act a bluetooth headset for phone calls, though sound quality wasn’t great. People told me my voice sounded distorted and distant at times, like I was on speaker phone. I heard other people just fine.

After a few weeks of playing around, my left earbud died completely. I spoke to customer service, and went through a couple trouble shooting steps before they concluded that my unit was faulty. I sent the left earbud back, and received a new bud a few days later. My problems with charging, distortion , and fitness tracking accuracy were the same with the replaced bud (though many of these features might be in the right earbud, and it’s definitely possible that my unit was faulty).

So, to summarize some pros and cons:

Pros: They’re a great tool to get in shape. They’re comfortable. They sound pretty good for what they are.

Cons: Sensors can be inaccurate, battery charging is spotty at times, microphones distort sounds on the sound passthrough feature. Quality control issues.

Based on my experience, I can’t recommend the $250 Jabra Elite Sport for most people, though if you’re looking for workout headphones with heart rate and VO2 max testing, and are willing to deal with some quality and functionality issues, you might want to test these out. I’m optimistic about the technology packed in these buds, and honestly believe that the workout headphones of my dreams might be just around the corner.

The future looks bright. The present … meh. Not so much.