We are always a tad wary of wireless headphones that feature active noise cancellation, primarily because so few quality examples exist—Bose’s QuietComfort 35 being a notable exception. Another red flag is combining this dual feature set with a relatively low price tag, as quality noise cancellation circuitry has yet to be accomplished on the cheap. So it’s safe to say the $149.99 JLab Flex Bluetooth Active Noise Canceling Headphones had us feeling fairly skeptical. The good news is that the headphones deliver some solid audio performance with crisp highs and deep lows. But they also have some real problems, chief among them being that the noise cancellation circuitry significantly alters audio performance when it’s switched on.
The all-black triangular circumaural (over-the-ear) earcups mimic the shape of the human ear and are generously padded with what JLab refers to as “plush cloud foam.” The headband also gets generous padding, and it’s all lined with faux leather. The fit is exceptionally comfortable.
On the left earcup’s side panel, there are controls for volume, power, and a dedicated button to turn the active noise cancellation on or off. The control layout is a little too simplified. The power button also works for play/pause, pairing, and call management. What function you perform depends on how long you hold the button in, and it’s possible, though unlikely, to power down the headphones inadvertently. The real issue is the assigning of track navigation to the volume controls—depending on how long you hold the button in, you’re controlling volume or skipping tracks, and it’s easy to misfire here. The left earcup also houses the 3.5mm connection for the included audio cable. The cable features a flat, linguine- design, but has no inline remote control, which seems like an unnecessary exclusion.
The right earcup houses the port (for charging—a cable is included) and a status LED. Both earcups have pinhole mics that pick up your voice and also allow for the active noise cancellation circuitry to sample your surrounding environment’s sounds.
JLab estimates battery life to be roughly 10 hours, but your results will vary depending on your volume levels, your mix of wired and wireless playback, and your usage of noise cancellation. For instance, JLab estimates a battery life of 30 hours for Bluetooth usage only, and 60 hours when using noise cancellation combined with wired playback, so there’s quite a range.
The headphones fold down at hinges to fit into a well-designed zip-up hard shell case, which has a mesh pocket to hold the two included cables.
First, let’s discuss the active noise cancellation. Like most affordable noise-canceling circuitry, the Flex Bluetooth ANC’s creates a hiss that isn’t unpleasant (think of very quiet tape but is noticeable when compared with the best noise cancellation on the market. We’ll otherwise give the headphones high marks in this department—aside from the slight hiss, there’s a solid drop in ambient room noise, and they even do a good job of tamping down midrange frequencies and voices to a degree. For this price, the noise cancellation doesn’t exceed expectations, but it could be far worse. However, this is our assessment of the noise cancellation when no music is playing. Things change when you listen to your tunes and have the ANC on.
There are two issues. First, the switch for the ANC has only two settings, on and off, yet I managed to somehow put the switch right in the middle, which shuts off audio completely. This is and happened on more than one pair of headphones. But the bigger issue is that the ANC changes the sound signature of the headphones. With it on, the audio sounds much brighter, like you put on a different pair of headphones. Noise cancellation should have zero effect on audio performance, and here, the effect is blatant and unacceptable, even in this price range. So while the noise cancellation circuitry itself is decent, it ultimately shows us why we almost never see it in models this affordably priced.
Moving on to the audio performance, on tracks with intense sub-bass, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the headphones deliver relatively powerful bass response and don’t distort at , unwise listening levels. However, things sound somewhat muffled. That until you turn the ANC on, and then you get those high frequencies you were missing that add balance to the whole mix and even help add definition to the bass response. With the ANC on, this is a more compelling, if seriously sculpted, sound signature. However, if you need to have ANC on in order to have proper audio performance, that is going to affect your battery life.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, offers similar experience—things sound a tad muffled with the ANC off, and much brighter when it’s on. However, with this track, it’s hard to tell which sound signature is the superior choice—without ANC it seems less muffled than it does on the previous test track, and the brighter version feels too bright, bringing out aspects of the mix like the electric guitar accents, and giving them a bit too much treble presence.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop receives the ideal amount of high-mid treble edge to allow its attack to slice through the layers of the mix—when the ANC is on, that is. When it’s off, it’s like listening through a pillow. The vocals sound overly sibilant, but not to an unlistenable degree. With the ANC, then, you have a very sculpted, bright sound with strong bass presence. With it off, you have a relatively muffled, unsculpted sound that, in comparison, sounds far less clear and defined.
Listening through the provided cable (which breaks the Bluetooth connection automatically), the audio performance is quite similar—the ANC brightens things dramatically. But, while you can use the ANC, you cannot use the on-ear controls to adjust volume, nor does the cable provide an inline remote.
When products try to do too much and cost too little, the results is often similar to what we see here. If the JLab Flex Bluetooth ANC had simply been a wireless headphone pair with no noise cancellation, we’d probably be talking about some fairly solid audio performance and a comfortable design. But when you add noise cancellation to the mix, things change. Unfortunately, there still isn’t high-quality noise cancellation in this price range. The best over-ear noise cancellation on the market can be found in aforementioned Bose QuietComfort 35, but they aren’t cheap. If you just want excellent Bluetooth headphones, the news gets better—we’re fans of the Sony MDR-XB650BT, the 1More MK802, and the more affordable Skullcandy Grind Wireless. JLab deserves credit for trying here, but you’re better off waiting for the next iteration.