The Jabra Elite 85t are a moderate reinvention for Jabra – these are the company’s first true wireless headphones designed for noise cancellation, which has in turn prompted a redesign to the buds themselves to better suit the new tech.
I wish I could say that this marks a triumphant step forward for the company, but in fact it feels like the opposite – the 85t headphones offer markedly worse audio performance than their 75t predecessors, and are significantly less comfortable to boot. They’re still solidly specced headphones with plenty of nice-to-have features, but in a competitive market that alone isn’t enough.
So what went wrong?
Design and build
Let’s start with the design. Jabra has redesigned the earbuds’ fit so that they don’t go as deep into the ear canal, instead sitting only in the outer ear. It’s an odd move, and one the company clearly knew might prove controversial, going so far as to warn reviewers to approach the new fit with an open mind.
The design change is intended to create a better seal and block out more external noise. This would be great if it worked, but in my experience it achieves the opposite. I can’t get a good seal in my ears with any of the three included sizes of ear tip, meaning no matter how far I crank up the active noise cancellation (ANC) I can still hear everything going on around me.
This may just be bad luck – other reviews I’ve read haven’t shared my complaint, and I actually got a great fit from the Jabra Active 75t. It might be that I’m just unlucky enough to have ears that don’t fit Jabra’s design. I’ve never had this bad a seal from any true wireless headphones I’ve tested with silicone tips however, which makes me worry that I won’t be the only one to suffer this problem.
It doesn’t help that since the tips are a custom design, you can’t replace them with any third-party off-the-shelf tips in the hope of finding a better fit. The shallower design also feels distinctly looser – I got used to this over my three weeks of testing, and they never actually fell out, but they often feel like they might. And I’d still be pretty wary about taking them for a run.
Only available in black, the Elite 85ts are otherwise fairly unobtrusive. They’re compact and lightweight, with nothing dangling from your ear as you’d get with AirPods. A physical button on each bud handles controls – more reliable, if less comfortable, than a touch-sensitive surface as you often find – and boast IPX4 waterproofing, so they should be able to handle a bit of rain or sweat.
The accompanying charging case is admittedly a little bulky and the hinge feels decidedly flimsy, but those are small complaints really, especially given it’s now had an upgrade to include built-in Qi wireless charging.
Audio quality and noise cancelling
Of course, it’s possible to live with a flawed design if the sound quality makes up for it. Unfortunately, as I’ve already outlined, Jabra’s design choices here actively reduce sound quality this time around.
Let’s start with the good though. In a quiet space where ANC isn’t a factor, the 85ts sound great. Jabra’s headphones always have a fairly well-balanced sound, and these are no exception – with a tunable EQ in the accompanying app if you want to shift the audio in one direction or another.
The first time you set the buds up you’ll also be prompted to take a hearing test, which the app uses to fine-tune the audio even more to better suit your personal audible frequency range. The before/after difference here isn’t game-changing, but it clearly helps.
If your main aim is to buy headphones to use inside, while on Zoom calls or the like, then these should do you well, especially since the mics pick up audio well, so you should sound pretty crisp on conference calls. But I’m betting you’re not planning on dropping £220/$230 on headphones for Zoom.
And if you plan to leave the use, you run into trouble, because the ANC here is pretty terrible. Or rather, the best ANC in the world can’t make up for the bad fit.
Jabra retro-actively added ANC to the 75t models, which I’ve tested. Surprisingly, for headphones not designed for ANC in the first place, it works wonders, blocking out almost everything. That means the ANC itself isn’t the problem here – there’s just a limit to how much it can compensate for a design with serious noise leak.
It’s a similar problem we’ve seen on the likes of the Huawei FreeBuds 3 or Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, which both lack silicone tips entirely. The ANC essentially just becomes a way of countering the noise leak, bringing you back to square one – meaning you’ve paid over the odds for ANC when you could have gotten the same noise reduction from a budget pair of silicone-tipped earbuds with a good fit.
Turning the 85t ANC on does reduce noise, but it’s just not by enough. It’s at the level where I’d frequently think the ANC must be off because I was hearing so much noise from nearby traffic, only to tap the button and find out it had been on the whole time, just without delivering on its promise.
Perversely, the accompanying hear-through mode – designed to make it easier to hear conversations or announcements without taking the buds out – isn’t good enough either. Sure, there’s plenty of noise coming in anyway, but the hear-through mode does little to clarify it, leaving everything muffled, so I would spend my time hearing too much of the world when I didn’t want to, and not enough of it when I did.
On the upside, at least the old joke about bad food in small portions doesn’t apply. The audio quality may not be great, but it does last. Even with ANC on you should get five or so hours of battery between charges, with 25 hours total once the case is factored in.
Charging is handled by USB-C, but as mentioned above the case now also supports Qi wireless charging, meaning you can top the headphones up from almost any wireless charger, or even from a phone with reverse wireless charging. It’s a convenience more than a necessity, but welcome at this price especially.
Price and availability
Speaking of. I could forgive the 85t’s flaws more if it cost less, but at £220/$230 these are almost impossible to recommend.
Our top true wireless headphones right now – the Cambridge Melomania 1 – are just £80 on Amazon at the time of writing, though admittedly they don’t support wireless charging or ANC, and they’re not available in the US.
If those are a must, the Galaxy Buds+ are now a mere £100/$100 on Amazon, and the Galaxy Buds Live a little more at £150/$140. Hell, these days you can often even find AirPods Pro for less than the Jabra 85ts.
And if you know you love the brand, last year’s Elite 75t offer better sound, ANC, and a more comfortable design at £170/$180, and also often reduced.
For more options, check out our full ranking of the best true wireless earbuds we’ve tested.
The Jabra Elite 85t earbuds are a frustrating mis-step from a company that doesn’t usually make them. Yes, on paper these have had a spec boost and added ANC, but none of that counts for much when the physical design lets the audio quality down so badly.
Maybe I’m just unlucky – certainly other reviewers seem to have a better time with them. But if nothing else, please take that as a word of caution to try before you buy, if at all possible.
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