Do I hold the future of wireless earbuds? Or are JBL’s Tour Pro 2 earbuds – featuring a charging case with their own built-in display – a parlor trick negated by the smartwatch? Do you need these controls right on the physical product while they are all easily accessible through an app on your phone? I’ve been testing the new $249.95 noise-canceling earbuds for a few weeks now, and oddly enough, it’s a tough question to answer.
The Tour Pro 2s are the first to come with an interactive case; HP has announced something similar (albeit aimed at business customers), and Apple’s patent filings suggest that the AirPods maker should at least explore this concept. But JBL’s earbuds are here now, shipping in the US today, after launching in other markets earlier this year.
Listen, I know we’re all in this crazy case-with-a-screen experiment together. So let’s get the earbud part of this comparison out of the way first. The Tour Pro 2s pack an extensive, well-rounded list of features. Their adaptive noise-cancellation, which adjusts in real time based on the loudness of your environment, is impressively strong and on par with the top of the range of the competition. Battery life is another highlight, rated at up to 8 hours of continuous listening with ANC on or 10 with ANC off – plus an additional 24 or 30 hours from the case, respectively. That outlasts the AirPods Pro, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2 Pro, Nothing Ear 2s, and other premium options.
According to JBL, the sound signature of these 10-millimeter drivers follows the respected Harman response curve, albeit with some extra bass. And while the Tour Pro 2s sound perfect, I still prefer the audio fidelity of the second-generation AirPods Pro, Samsung’s flagship buds, and Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 3 earbuds. To my ears, those earbuds have more depth, a wider dynamic range, and just give more definition to the music that’s playing. The Tour Pro 2s don’t quite sound like $250 earbuds to me, so yes, the case takes that price into account. You get several equalizer settings to choose from, and JBL’s Personi-Fi feature can further fine-tune the audio output frequencies based on your own hearing characteristics and preferences.
The company also piles on other tricks such as multipoint, proprietary spatial audio profiles (music, movie, games, etc.), an earbud locator tool, and voice detection for automatically activating ambient sound mode. That transparency/ambient sound mode was what I was least impressed with; it just sounds very stuffy, unintelligible and falls quite short of modern competitors. However, voice call performance is clear and satisfying, and the earbuds are rated IPX5 for water and sweat resistance.
In short, the Tour Pro 2s are comfortable, sound good, if not great, and have plenty of battery life. JBL also notes that the earbuds are ready for LE Audio specs and will be updated to enable them once the spec goes mainstream. That could lead to more efficiency and even better battery performance. For now, Bluetooth codec support is limited to AAC and SBC.
Now for the main attraction: that case. It’s quite large by today’s standards thanks to the built-in 1.45-inch LCD touchscreen on the front. But at least there is support for wireless charging, which is not always guaranteed, even for the bulky ones. Wish the screen used something cooler like OLED or even E Ink? Certainly. As it is, you can adjust between three different brightness levels, but even the lowest setting isn’t particularly dim. Unlike the earbuds inside, the case offers only the slightest (IPX2) water protection, so you’ll want to keep it dry. JBL tells me it may offer standalone replacement cases over time, as “I dropped my earbuds and the screen broke” is a dilemma that exists now, but probably both the earbuds and the case will replace if you damage one of them individually.
When you tap the screen, your chosen wallpaper appears. (There are presets, but you can also use custom images. JBL preloaded The Verges logo on our review unit.) Slide your finger to the right and you will start scrolling through the different functions. And there are more than you might think:
- Playback controls
- Sound mode (ANC, transparency, etc.)
- Timer: The earbuds turn off after your chosen time has elapsed
- Spatial audio
- Screen brightness
- Wallpaper selection
- VoiceAware: This determines how sensitive the voice detection is
- SilentNow: You can even enable ANC without music playing for a preset time
- Automatic ear detection for play/pause
- Find my buds
That’s a lot of widgets to constantly swipe between. You can (and should) delete the ones you don’t want via JBL’s mobile app for Android or iOS and narrow that list down to a more manageable five or six screens.
Track controls and volume adjustments work well enough, although you’re never shown what song is currently playing; it’s just the controls. (You also can’t fast-forward or rewind by long-pressing the buttons.) Other core tasks, such as switching between audio modes or EQ modes, aren’t a problem either. But even here I wonder if the display is necessary and how much convenience it adds. You can perform several of these functions through the reassignable gesture control earbuds while the case is stowed away. And yes, they are all present in the JBL app on your phone.
I’m trying my best to ignore the possibility of ads on an earbud case one day
But some inherent benefits come with the screen. Firstly, there’s never a doubt about whether your earbuds are charging or how much battery is left. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up with a fully charged AirPod — put one brand of earbud here, honestly — and the other completely dead, just because the contacts needed cleaning or weren’t perfectly aligned. But with the Tour Pro 2s, that information is always visible in a small font at the top of the display. And since this is the most urgent data for earbuds, it stays there while you swipe through the other widgets.
It’s even added some rudimentary, super-simple smartwatch-like features: the case lets you see and answer/reject incoming calls, and it can display an alert when you get messages on your phone. Usually when I say a warning it literally says “new message on mobile device” so don’t expect much context. The message notifications disappear so quickly that they are rarely useful, so I left them out.
Does the case make life easier in general? …Maybe? Technically, it’s faster to grab the case and change a random setting than it is to take your phone out, unlock it, find and open the JBL app, and hunt for the same switch. And it’s nice to have the Find My Buds tool there if you open the case and discover one or both earbuds are missing.
But all of these “benefits” come with a big assumption: Do you really always carry your earbud box with you? More often than not I leave mine in my backpack or in the breast pocket of my jacket. If that’s you, the benefits of this interactive case go out the window unless you change your habits and keep it at your fingertips.
The case for the earbuds often needs to be within reach to make the screen usable
I can’t imagine anyone who routinely wears a smartwatch will see much to get excited about with the Tour Pro 2s either. Apple, Samsung and Google all offer in-depth control over their respective earbuds right from their wearables; hell, the Apple Watch can now tell you how much noise the AirPods Pro (or Max) cancel in real time. There is only more synergy growing in these walled gardens. But JBL has no horse in that race. Many companies don’t. So when you think about it that way – a platform-agnostic audio brand trying to stand out – the Tour Pro 2s make a little more sense.
And they certainly got me thinking about what’s to come. How long before earbuds become a completely independent source of entertainment? It’s not hard to imagine a company building flash storage into an earbud case and letting you sync music from your phone. This is already possible with a smartwatch; why not just extend that to the actual eavesdropping device? Maybe in a few years we’ll be using AirPods with an iPod nano crammed into the case.
I haven’t found any compelling reason why I should keep using the JBL Tour Pro 2s instead of my favorite wireless earbuds. The surefire battery status is helpful, but I’m too committed to giving earbuds valuable pocket space. At least that’s the case for this first attempt.
This concept doesn’t start and end with JBL – or HP for that matter. I predict we’ll see others trying out “smart” earbuds. Honestly, no idea has ever struck me as more Samsung, but I suppose the Galaxy Watch lineup covers similar bases. Maybe someone will come up with a brilliant reason for earbuds to have a screen. For now, this feels like one screen too many.
But creativity and an attempt at something new I can’t beat. The Tour Pro 2s can’t match the best earbuds in terms of sound, but they certainly have a unique gimmick. They are unusual and weird. Let’s keep acting weird. Something good should come out of that.
Photography by Chris Welch/The Verge