Produced by: Young Jeohn
The Jabra Elite Sport is a pair of wireless earbuds that combine music playback, fitness monitoring and convenient controls into a tiny package that fits in the palm of one hand.
And let me say that honestly, this thing is amazing - a well executed integration of audio and fitness functions. If you consider how you'd normally need earbuds, a fitness tracker, a smartphone and a lot of fumbling around trying to control it all during a workout (or even a walk), you'll start to understand how this is one of the smartest consolidation of technologies for ease of use you'll find anywhere.
The one point that gives me pause (and it's a big point) is that Jabra is known to most people for audio related accessories. Fitness is a totally different industry that deals in body maintenance rather than sound reception in ear canals - so as I'm testing these out, I'm constantly wondering if the fitness part is kosher. I mean, you can't suddenly be good at something without the knowledge and experience necessary to make great products - and that takes time. Think of the number of iterations Microsoft went through with Windows before coming up with something usable.
But you know what? I shouldn't have worried so much - it seems that Jabra has certainly done their homework.
DESIGN / COMFORT
For what these things are capable of, they're quite small and unobtrusive. It took me a while to get the proper fit however - a huge pain in the rear, but a necessity because I understood that you really do need a good, snug fit for the heartrate monitor to work accurately. If you don't care about that, then it's probably not worth all the effort for the initial fit (but then why would you spend the money for this if not to use it?)
They come with six pairs of eartips - five of which didn't fit my ears. But there was one that did, thank god. Three of those pairs are silicon rubber, and those kept popping out of my ears due to lack of grip. This happened moreso when I tried to move my jaw to talk or eat. The other three were foam type, like the earplug material you use to dampen sound when exploding dynamite or attending a rock concert. Now these fit great and stayed put with the help of one of the wingtips (again, one of which worked miraculously well while the other two failed miserably.) But in the end, Jabra provided the components I needed that worked for my particular ears.
Now comes the the part you might not like, but in all probability, you're going to be subject to some of it too. Pain. Pushing the buttons on the earbuds physically push said earbuds against your ears - and the insides of the ears aren't meant to be pushed. To be fair, you'll be using the buttons a lot less after you've figured out what each one does, but to help lessen the effects of the pain, I think I've found a remedy:
Because you're using less surface area than the whole of your finger, you'll be applying a lot less force while still getting results. Try it - you'll be happy you did.
Finally, the LED lights on the earbuds are functional and don't draw attention to themselves without reason. The charge case is solidly built and reminds me of a jewelry ring box as it snaps open. Very nice industrial design with hidden indicator lights letting you know the basic battery level of the case and each earbud as it sits in its respective cradle.
USABILITY / FUNCTION
It's amazing how much technology can be crammed into such tiny objects. What we basically have here are two small earbuds with the following tech built-in:
1. Strong wireless Bluetooth connection
It's one of the best Bluetooth connections of any earbuds I've tested. Disconnects are rare no matter which way you face, or where the player/smartphone is placed (even if it's in your back pocket).
It uses a curious daisy-chain design where the right earbud is the main connection to your player, and the left earbud only connects to the right one within a 1 foot distance. Being that the left bud controls music playback and volume, you'll lose those functionalities should it move out of range. But no worries, it'll reconnect almost instantaneously when in range.
2. Batteries lasting 3 hours per charge (as long as 4 hours in my tests)
The reality is, nobody listens to music for more than 3 hours straight (if you do, you should be using a wired headset - unless perhaps you're running the NY marathon), though it's a good idea to charge them in-between sessions. To this end, Jabra have included a carry case that doubles as a charger, allowing for two more charges before needing an outlet charge via micro USB.
Total playback time? 9 hours.
3. Four physical control buttons
Each earbud has two physical buttons that click and have a tactile feel when you press them. It makes sense for workout earbuds since any liquid (like water or sweat) will play havoc with any touch-screen like controls.
Although it can be a little confusing at first (each button controls up to three functions via single press, double press, long press), you get used to it in a very short time by remembering that the left earbud controls volume and song selection while the right controls everything else (being that it's the "command center"), including the Jabra Sport Life software.
As an aside, it's worth noting that there are 14 levels of volume on these earbuds independent of the player.
4. Heart rate monitor
This is the mechanism that keeps track of your heartrate. This particular product tracks by measuring the pulse rate in your ears, using the more expensive optic technology. For this to work accurately, the fit in your ears need to be secure and snug, meaning no wiggle room for it to move. This is probably the biggest reason for inaccurate readouts - you need to have a good, secure fit. The same rule goes for all trackers of this type.
5. Sweat-proof design
You have three years to try and kill these with your sweat - so do your best. If you haven't succeeded prior to reaching year three of the "sweat warranty", chances are it won't be happening after that time either. Somehow, I doubt this'll be the reason for any failures.
Simply taken as a pair of earbuds, these things work great even if you're not a health aficionado. You can still track your walks in the city and the software will calculate the number of calories burned, number of steps you've taken, how long you've been walking, and offer a wealth of other kinds of data.
If you wanted to, you could tuck your smartphone or player away in your bag and control almost everything you need via the smartly designed buttons on the earbuds. You'll realize the great convenience this offers the minute you stop using them, especially if you happen to be on the run and have to order food.
A great example is the use case for "HearThrough" -one of my favorites- a function that allows you to hear the environment around you. When my turn comes to order food, I no longer have to take off my earbuds (and either hold them or put in a pocket) and fumble with the smartphone to turn off the music, then have to handle my wallet for cash or credit cards, take a receipt, and so on.
Three presses on the earbud button accomplishes the same thing, to
a) pause the music and
b) turn on the mic via "HearThrough" so I can converse with the person taking my order without pulling the buds out. That leaves my hands free to pass "Go" to payment and receipts. With the order in, I can resume music playback and still hear them calling when my food is ready since the "HearThrough" is still on.
It's a real level of convenience I've never had before using this product, one I'm grateful for every time I'm purchasing products or conversing with another human.
I never thought audio quality would be an issue, and I was right. It's as good as it'll get for a Bluetooth device once you find the right fit for your ears. Outside of the upper bass being a touch stronger than other frequencies (in my opinion), the overall levels are fairly well balanced and the spaciousness is there - I can clearly hear hand clapping in Kent's "Skisser För Sommaren" and even the clarity of the growling/grunting noises coming from the rappers of Fintelligens' "Veljestä III". With classical as an exception (because I don't listen to this on the move or in the gym - sorry), it's good overall in every other genre that I *have* listened to - rock, metal, hip-hop, electronic and pop.
There will be some side effects of using these earbuds, but this is also true of every other manufacturer - you're going to hear (or rather feel) your footsteps as you walk and even hear your pulse/heartbeat when you're still - it's an odd sensation.
THEN THERE WAS THE MIC...
The microphone performance is excellent - it's far louder and clearer than any other Bluetooth mic I've ever had the pleasure of using. Jabra says it's an advanced four microphone MEMS call technology. Technically I don't understand what this means, but however it's implemented, it works better than any other competing earbuds I've tried.
The mic is also very clear when turned on for HearThrough - in a weird (but cool) way. I'm sitting in a music playing coffee shop right now and I can hear the voices of neighboring customers as well as every keystroke as I'm typing on my laptop. To my ears, the mid-high frequency range (voices, fingersnaps, keystrokes) have enhanced clarity while being isolated from everything else, including humming noise and the background music. Thumbs up for the mic.
SPECIAL ADDITIONS - FITNESS APP
This is where Jabra is dipping their toes into new territory. They're including a free app called Jabra Sport Life that manages and calculates your workouts and makes training plans for a goal that you set for yourself - if you want. But if you prefer using some other app, the earbuds do support popular ones like Strava, Endomondo, MapMyFitness, RunKeeper and Runtastic.
After downloading several of these apps to test out, I decide to forego using all of them (they all want you to register and give them this and that info, info, and more info... NO.) Thankfully, Jabra's Sport Life app requires no such registration, though it does need basic info like your height and weight to make proper calculations on calories burned and so forth.
But before we go any further, there is a small problem that I'd like to get out in the open. Being a middle aged guy who spends way too much time in front of a computer, I'm not what you'd call a big health nut. I don't do many of the activities this app offers to track for you, so I won't be doing them for this review either. And FYI, it's got activities up the bazoo like spinning, cycling, skiing, skating and more than a dozen cross-training circuits for training different parts of the body - the selection is amazing. In fact, there are so many options that I feel motivated to try a couple of them someday. But for now, I've found one or two activities that I feel I can handle - walking and treadmill.
After installing the app from Google Play store, I let it know the music player that I normally use and input my basic stats for height, weight, gender and age. To give it something to work with, I run a couple of tests such as "resting heart rate" and VO2 Max to gauge my fitness and overall health (the other tests can wait.)
Then I went for a walk.
If anything, this app is thorough (meaning it's got more than enough options to overwhelm a first time user.) So I went easy and selected "Just track me". As I watched the screen, it showed me a variety of up to date info like my current heartrate, distance walked, and a map of my journey since I had location turned on. After I was done, a woman's voice summarized the results of this workout and saw fit to keep a record of it in my history to compare to future workouts. Nice.
The next day, I went for a run on the treadmill and took a peek at options for goal setting (distance goals, time goals, calorie burn goals) and ultimately decided to have the app "just track me" like it did yesterday. This time, I didn't want to keep staring at the app as I ran, so put the phone in the treadmill cup holder as I started my run.
Curiosity got the better of me though, so I pulled out the phone to see if the heartrate monitor on the treadmill would match the rate detected by the earbuds. Lo and behold, the numbers matched up nicely. I dare say the earbuds are more accurate since they're constantly monitoring a stable pulse whereas the grips on the treadmill have to try and make out a pulse from the sweaty hands of a moving body.
The app adds a nice touch by giving audio voice updates on current status (distance traveled, heartrate, etc) every ten minutes or so, all of which you can customize. The only drawback was the low volume of the update as it was being drowned out by the much louder music levels. Adjusting the volume didn't help, but after a few workouts, I realized a workaround - you can mute the music by tapping the right earbud button once. The update will continue and you can turn the music back on afterwards.
So what do I think of it?
As someone new to these fitness type apps, I find that Jabra's software offers way more than I could have asked for. Even if all I did was take walks, it's really interesting to know what your heartrate is when you're simply walking about - and then seeing how many calories were burned. In my book, the app is pretty cool.
Or *was* cool until I discovered that hiding in the cross-training activities was what basically amounted to a FREE personal trainer. It even had links to youtube videos for demonstrations of the proposed exercises. The "cool" just turned into a "Woah!"
And that does it - I've decided. When I get a little more serious with my workout habits, I'll be sure to use the training plans the app can create for me and make use of the in-ear audio coaching. Or just follow the plans set by the personal trainer... the question is, where do you start when you have so many options?
The Jabra Elite Sport is an excellent pair of wireless earbuds that bring their time-tested experience with audio together with the convenience of built-in heartrate monitoring for people who like to work out. In fact, even if you don't work out, simply being curious about your heartrate gives a kind of encouragement to explore different speeds of walking and ultimately may lead to more exercise.
Today, if you had to buy good wireless earbuds and a heartrate monitor separately, the combined cost would be similar to buying the Jabra Elite Sport. But I will say this. The user experience would be nowhere near as enjoyable as that being offered by these earbuds. Yes, your ears might complain about the discomfort at first, but the convenient physical controls combined with an app that integrates and pulls everything together is a winning formula worth anyone’s investment dollars. It’s a shoo-in recommendation.
FINAL RATING: 4 of 5 stars
Ratings Breakdown: (number of stars)
Design: 3 of 5
Comfort: 2 of 5
Usability/Function: 4 of 5
Sound quality: 4 of 5
Mic quality: 4 of 5
Fitness app: 4 of 5
What the stars mean
1 - Not good (Doesn't work or needs major improvement)
2 - Ok w/caveats (works, but has some issues)
3 - Good (as expected or better, may have minor flaws)
4 - Excellent (up there with the best, no flaws/issues)
5 - Outstanding (goes above and beyond highest levels of innovation)