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JBL Tour Pro 2 review: Welcome to the smart case era


When it comes to earbud innovation, these days advances typically come in reduced size, longer battery life and improved audio. Rarely does a company offer something truly unique. But JBL seems to think there’s room for improvement in the charging case. With the Tour Pro 2, JBL has installed a touchscreen display, giving you access to settings and tools without having to dive into its app. On top of that, these are a feature-packed set of true wireless earbuds, with a ton of options for sound customization, hearing assistance and more. But with everything the $250 set offers, JBL might’ve been too ambitious.

Design

JBL’s product range features a mix of “traditional” earbuds, stick buds and sport models with an over-the-ear loop. The Tour Pro 2 fits in that middle category with a design akin to Apple’s AirPods. These certainly have a more refined look, though, with a mix of matte and gloss black plastic. The shape of the inner part of the earbud is ovular which, again, is similar to the AirPods Pro.

Pros

  • Smart case works well
  • Loads of features
  • Comfy fit

Cons

  • Smart case utility is debatable
  • ANC can struggle
  • Some features work better than others
  • Sound leakage at high volumes

The curves here combine with lower weight to make for a comfy fit. The Tour Pro 2 are one of the few sets of true wireless earbuds I can wear for hours at a time without it becoming a chore. There’s a touch panel on the outside of both buds that can accept single, double and triple taps, in addition to long presses, for a variety of on-board controls. Plus, you can reconfigure those to your liking inside the JBL Headphones app.

The headline feature, though, is undoubtedly the case. Most earbuds come with a charging case, the feature list basically ends at charging. Some companies have added wireless transmission for use on planes, but nothing too crazy. The Tour Pro 2 comes with a “smart case,” complete with a touchscreen on the outside. As you might expect, it’s larger than what we typically see, but it’s not huge by any means. It’s equipped for wireless charging and there’s a USB-C port on the button for wired top-ups.

Software and features

JBL Tour Pro 2 review

Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

The Tour Pro 2 offers a ton of features for audio setup, convenience and customization. All of which are accessible inside the JBL Headphones app and some are available via the charging case display. When you pair the earbuds to the app for the first time, the software will prompt you to complete a few steps for initial setup. Those include an ear tip fit and ear canal tests for ANC performance, voice assistant setup and a quick feature tour. The main section of the app displays battery status for both earbuds individually and the case right up top.

Everything else is situated on that main screen, accessible with a simple scroll. Ambient Sound Control is up top, giving you the ability to choose between active noise cancellation, Ambient Aware (transparency mode), TalkThru for IRL conversations and off. There’s the option to further tweak ANC by opting for Adaptive, automatic adjustments or by enabling leakage and/or ear canal compensation. Ambient Aware allows you to adjust the level of environmental sound the earbuds pick up with a slider.

Next on the list is Personi-Fi. This is JBL’s take on personal audio profiles. After completing a hearing test, the app creates a sound profile that also takes into account your listening preferences. Personi-Fi considers gender, age and more to build its custom preset. Before completing the process, the audio on the Tour Pro 2 was… fine. After the five-minute bout with tones at various volumes and frequencies, my sound profile produced improved bass response from the earbuds and what felt like a slightly wider soundstage. However, the tailored setting did lose some detail in things like softer background vocals, guitar distortion and subtle noise.

Sound options follow Personi-Fi. Here, JBL gives you a collection of audio presets as well as the ability to manually adjust the EQ curve. Any tuning you create can be saved for future use. You also have the option of enabling Spatial Sound on the Tour Pro 2, JBL’s take on spatial audio. Once you turn it on, the company offers three options based on what you’re listening to: movie, music and game.

The app gives you the ability to change the gestures for the on-board controls from this menu too. There’s a limit to the fine-tuning here as JBL has grouped all the options under Ambient Sound Control, Volume Control or Playback & Voice Assistant Control. Those are self-explanatory and you can choose to put one on the left and a different one on the right. The only consistent behavior is that a long press will summon your voice assistant on all three gesture options.

Three of the most useful features on the Tour Pro 2 are VoiceAware, SilentNow and Personal Sound Amplification. VoiceAware is an adjustable tool that allows you to tweak how much of your voice you hear during calls. JBL describes SlientNow as a quiet bubble, a feature that disconnects Bluetooth and turns on ANC. The company goes a step further by allowing you to schedule when the mode will turn on, how long it will be active and if you want an alarm when it ends (in case you’re planning to nap). Personal Sound Amplification is designed for hearing assistance, boosting environmental sound by 15 to 20dB and helping with conversations. When it’s enabled, you can adjust left/right balance and gain to fit your needs.

The smart case

JBL Tour Pro 2 review

Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

While the main purpose of the smart case is to give you easy access to the Tour Pro 2’s features. I’m happy to debate the utility of putting everything on the charging accessory instead of leaving it in an app – software that takes only a couple more taps to open. But, if you find the entire concept convenient, I’m pleased to report that the touchscreen works well. You swipe from side to side to scroll through the myriad options available on the case and that panel is receptive to taps without issue. Plus, JBL decided to put battery levels, a clock and handy icons on the top edge, giving you crucial info at a glance. What’s more, when you’re on a call, those controls pop-up on case too.

The JBL Headphones app includes a section for customizing the smart case. Here, you can adjust the display brightness, select a screensaver, enable message notifications/previews and choose which features will be accessible on the touch screen. By default, the case shows Ambient Sound Control, Spatial Sound, EQ presets, VoiceAware and auto play/pause (when you remove the buds from your ears). That’s in addition to the lock screen wallpaper selector, screen brightness, timer, volume, playback controls, flashlight and Find My Buds that can’t be removed. The only additional feature that isn’t enabled by default that you can add to the case is SilentNow.

Sound quality and noise cancellation

The default tuning on the Tour Pro 2 is pretty average. There’s some decent clarity and detail, but the soundstage feels compressed despite a good amount of bass and a smidge of punch in the treble. Overall, things converge on the midrange, leaving the extra oomph on the table with tracks like Better Lovers’ “30 Under 13” and boygenius’ “$20.” Personi-fi helps open things up a bit, but as I mentioned, it comes at the cost of lost detail. You lose some of the texture of the vocals and guitars in that boygenius song, for example.

Another prime example of the lack of space in the sound profile is on Nickel Creek’s Celebrants. That album was recorded in a way that sounds like you’re in the room getting a private performance. Guitar, fiddle, mandolin and bass surround you with vocals sprinkled around to complete the vibe. On the Tour Pro 2, you lose the sense of the virtual room, so the songs just become music in your earbuds instead of capturing the atmosphere and energy of the tracking session. Personi-fi makes no noticeable difference here.

While there are a number of audio customization options in JBL’s app, they don’t do much to improve things. In fact, some make the sound worse. Spatial Sound’s effectiveness can vary depending on the genre. Sometimes there’s a noticeable improvement in the immersive nature of the audio. But with some content, like that Nickel Creek album, it seems like positioning is just moved up slightly, like it’s trying to simulate up-firing drivers in a soundbar. In those cases, the sound is just relocated, not improved. I found it best to leave Spatial Sound off.

Gallery: JBL Tour Pro 2 review | 11 Photos


In terms of ANC performance, the Tour Pro 2 does a solid job in most circumstances. They’re very good at blocking the constant roar of a dishwasher, clothes dryer or white noise machine – things that conspire for the daily droning at my house. However, the earbuds struggle with human voices, especially if the person is close by. Listen to anything relatively quiet and you’re sure to hear the chatty person behind you.

One note on noise isolation that’s worth pointing out. Despite the ear tip fit test determining that all was well with the Tour Pro 2, there was a lot of sound leakage so the people around me could clearly hear what I was listening to. My wife was the first to notice, and while she says it happens occasionally while I’m testing, it has never been this bad. Sure enough, when she popped in the earbuds, I could clearly hear the tunes at volumes above 60 percent or so. It’s something to consider if you like to blast heavy metal in the office.

For calls, the Tour Pro 2 is a mixed bag. Confusingly, the TalkThru option in the Ambient Sound Control menu can’t be activated here. You can enable ambient sound mode, but that doesn’t pick up a considerable amount of your chatter. Instead, there’s that separate VoiceAware feature and it only works during calls. Again, it’s adjustable, so you can select the amount of your speech you want sent back through the earbuds. It works okay, but it’s nowhere near as natural sounding as what you get on the AirPods Pro. While TalkThru is meant for in-person conversations, it doesn’t pipe in much more of your voice than the transparency mode Ambient Aware. So, even if you could use it for calls, it’s not a great option for them. In the end, it just feels like different features here do variations of the same thing. Overall, call quality is just okay here, despite JBL’s promise of “perfect calls” via six on-board mics.

Battery life

JBL Tour Pro 2 review

Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

JBL says you can expect up to eight hours on a charge with ANC on, plus another three full charges in the case. Turn noise cancellation off and you could muster two additional hours on both the buds and per charge in the case. During tests consisting of “normal” use – a mix of ANC, transparency mode, calls and leaving the buds to power off automatically – I got seven hours before having to dock the Tour Pro 2 in the case.

Oddly, I started getting low battery notifications when the case was still showing 25 percent left on both earbuds. Power plummeted quickly from there and after less than 30 minutes the pair was dead. I mention this to point out that the battery estimates on the case don’t seem to be entirely accurate, especially when you hit 25 percent. If you unexpectedly encounter a faster-than-expected drain, there is a 15-minute quick-charge tool that will give you up to four hours of use.

The competition

When it comes to premium true wireless earbuds, Sony’s WF-1000XM4 are the best you can buy right now. The company includes just as many features as JBL, if not more. You won’t find a smart case, but you will find handy tools like Speak-to-Chat automatic pausing when you start talking and the ability to automatically change sound settings based on location or activity. Plus, the M4s offer better sound quality and more effective noise cancellation on top of all the conveniences. They’re starting to get some age on them as they debuted in mid-2021, but that means you’re currently privy to a discount: they’re currently going for $200.

Wrap-up

JBL threw every feature it could at the Tour Pro 2. And that’s without even considering the smart case. That touch-screen-enabled accessory is the main draw but I’m not sold on the concept just yet. Sure, there’s something to be said for easy access to settings, but that only works if you leave the case sitting out on your desk. Otherwise, you can probably get your phone out just as quickly. JBL isn’t the only company putting a display on a charging case, so who knows, maybe it will become standard. Tour Pro 2 do offer handy tools like VoiceAware, SilentNow and Personal Sound Amplification. But overall they’re an average set of earbuds with okay sound, decent ANC and so many features you might not use some of them more than once.



This story originally appeared on Engadget

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