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IFA 2023: Hands-on with the new JBL Soundgear Sense earbuds

We’re on the ground in Berlin for IFA 2023 and got a first feel for an interesting addition to the earbuds market thanks to our JBL Soundgear Sense hands-on.

The JBL Soundgear Sense in the palm of someone's hand

JBL hosted a party in Berlin to launch a load of new products at IFA 2023. The company brought bigger boomboxes, new smart speakers, and other headphone developments that all seem quite interesting. But, most interesting to us portable fanatics at PT are the JBL Soundgear Sense earbuds – what JBL calls “air-conducting” headphones. You see, they don’t actually go in your ear, they just sit on top of them.

They’re reasonably large ovals with an ear hook attached, though luckily they’re also very lightweight. JBL pitches this as the perfect headphone for a social office, a hike where you still want to connect with nature, or perhaps a cyclist wanting to remain aware of the road. It’s a neat idea, which, while niche, definitely piqued our interest.

Starting with the design, JBL keeps things simple. While there are a variety of nice colors, the ergonomics are very straightforward. The headphone has four up/down angles it can tilt at, while it can also tilt outwards away from the ear hook to an almost 45-degree angle – this means it should fit every ear.

They’re also very lightweight, which helps with using them for a long time. While I don’t ever wear my AirPods Pro for more than two hours due to discomfort, I can imagine these sitting better for a long period of use. This is all supported by six hours of use time, which extends to 24 with the extra juice from the charging case.

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While everything works quite nicely, in terms of ergonomics, I do think they look quite silly. This shouldn’t matter in most situations, but I can’t imagine having a very important business meeting with these attached and not feeling a little self-conscious. Also, the charging case is quite large, which does make the package a bit less pocketable than I’d like. Still, that all comes down to personal preference.

Anyway, they’re designed for a specific purpose, and from my short time with them, it looks like they fulfill it. The ear hooks feel sturdy and wouldn’t come loose no matter how idiotically I shook my head around – plus, there’s a neckband you can attach for added security. For any sporty types who still want to be aware of their environment, these seem like a great fit.

What JBL gains by aiming at this niche use case, however, it also loses out in other areas. In terms of sound quality, the Soundgear Sense is unable to create a particularly expansive soundstage. They feel a little bassier than I’d like, while smaller sounds and the depth of certain tracks struggles to come through adequately. This may have to do with the equalizer – I don’t know if there’s one automatically applied, but you can change this in the app that pairs with your buds. Hopefully, that rectifies some of my gripes.

JBL Soundgear Sense review shots showing a close oval case on a red and white table next to an open one with two earbuds showing.

Given they cost £129.99 / €149.99 (US pricing is yet to be confirmed), they’re in a bit of an odd space in the market. These buds are competing with Beats, Bose, and Apple, though they’re offering something unique. And while they may fulfill one need well, they definitely lack versatility.

I don’t think you could keep these as your only earbuds for a full day out – starting with a hike and then heading onto public transport to the office, for example – and get an adequate listening experience when things get louder. I think they’re excellent for specific users, but perhaps best paired with another set of earbuds for other needs. Which then makes the proposition a little more confusing.

If they don’t sound like the buds for you, check out our guide to the best earbuds for iPhone. For more from IFA, check out the Honor V Purse, Anker’s USB-C upgrade, and the new Withings ScanWatch range.