JBL’s Live Free 2 wireless earbuds offer a series of unfortunate tradeoffs for $150.
On the plus side, the Live Free 2 deliver some of the best active noise cancellation (ANC) and call quality I’ve found in a pair of wireless earbuds for under $200. They look great, with a bean-shaped design that doesn’t quite rip off the Galaxy Buds Live, but certainly draws similar inspiration from Samsung’s delightful open-style buds. They’re also pretty darn comfortable.
Sadly, the Live Free 2 also don’t sound good, with unbalanced tuning that leans very hard on the low-end out of the box, paired with a seeming inability to replicate pleasing mid-tones no matter how you tweak the EQ. On top of that, the transparency modes completely drop the ball in loud environments. Concerning bugs and connection issues aren’t helping in either case.
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A different take on beans
The design of the Live Free 2 is what drew me to them during CES 2022. The company is also selling the Live Pro 2 wireless earbuds, which feature a stem design, and JBL assured me that even with the differences in shape, the Free 2 and Pro 2 sound nearly identical. The real distinction between the two comes down to form factor preference and slightly more battery life on the Pro 2 (10 hours with ANC off versus 7 hours). On the Free 2, playtime drops to 5 hours with adaptive ANC on, and the Pro 2 get 6 hours with Adaptive ANC. You can boost your ANC playtime a bit on both wireless earbuds by using standard ANC over Adaptive, but I found the standard ANC to be less impressive.
The Qi-compatible charging case draws clear inspiration from Samsung’s Galaxy Buds; the really small, squareish design has more heft than other wireless earbud cases. I’m fairly sure it explains how JBL is getting those extra recharge hours, though. The Free 2 have a total of 35 hours of playtime with ANC off when you add in the case’s battery.
The bean-shaped buds are really comfortable and I had no issue wearing them for extended sessions. Their unique design makes adjusting them in the ear easier, too. The glossy touch pads are responsive and give the Free 2 a nice dual-tone look on my black review unit (they’re also available in blue).
This comfortable design and seal help the Free 2 achieve their incredible ANC performance. While not industry-leading, I can go as far to say these wireless earbuds offer the best ANC of any pair under $200. The Adaptive ANC option is well worth the hit to battery life, offering comfortable and effective noise isolation that you normally don’t see on wireless earbuds at this price. Compared to the non-adaptive ANC on the Jabra Elite 4 Active, the Free 2’s ANC feels natural without creating the sensation of pressure in my ears. While not as effective in loud environments as more expensive wireless earbuds, I’m pressed to think of any in this price range that come close to the Live Free 2 on ANC.
Call quality was also a pleasant surprise. Background noise tests were a flying success with the Live Free 2, and callers on the other end couldn’t hear any of the household appliances I’d turned on, whether it was a microwave oven or my bathroom fan. While I was told I did sound echoey at times, I was able to talk over these noises without a drop in voice quality. JBL wasn’t kidding with its promise of “perfect calls” on the box.
The main reason I can’t recommend the Live Free 2 is their sound quality. JBL’s reputation for fun-sounding speakers hasn’t carried over to these wireless earbuds. To start, their tuning is very aggressive. They’re bass-forward wireless earbuds that stray a bit too far from the artist’s intent in an attempt to offer more impact out of the box. It’s a choice that will appeal to many, but was definitely too much for me.
While JBL’s app lets you customize the EQ and includes a “Studio” preset that rolls the Live Free 2’s overeager low-end off to something more balanced, the wireless earbuds completely failed to replicate mid-frequencies across the board. Vocals sound overprocessed and compressed, sometimes giving the impression the singer was howling into a tin can. I never thought Lorde’s voice could sound unpleasant in any context, but the Live Free 2 somehow pulled that off. The story is even worse for low-bitrate podcasts and audiobooks. JBL’s different EQ settings in the app were no help here, as all of them, even the “Vocal” preset, proved to have the same struggles with mids. Whether it’s a firmware issue or plain bad hardware, the JBL Live Free 2 seem incapable of producing pleasing mids.
Vocals sound over-processed and compressed, sometimes giving the impression the singer was howling into a tin can.
The transparency modes for the Live Free 2 are much less impressive compared to ANC and call performance. There are two transparency modes on offer: a traditional mode called “Ambient Aware” and a “TalkThru” mode that focuses more voices around you. Ambient Aware is fine for a quick check-in to the world around you. While you can adjust how much outside noise is let in, it still sounds artificial and unpleasant at every level you can set. It does manage to mix your music in fine, but I wouldn’t advise using Ambient Aware for long music and podcast listening sessions as you navigate a busy city.
TalkThru was less impressive. To start, it lowers your music volume so much as to render it nearly inaudible. It’s so bizarre that I wonder why JBL doesn’t just pause your music entirely when TalkThru is set. While this setting does a decent job of focusing on voices, it gets very confused in very noisy environments. Any time someone near me spoke when I was in a chaotic space, the noises around me would get boosted with the speaker’s voice, leading to sudden and concerning boosts in the amount of outside noise I was hearing. For someone who can get sensory overload by sudden noises, this is a non-starter feature.
While I’m impressed JBL is able to pull off ANC this strong for $150, the core of any pair of wireless earbuds should be good sound, and the JBL Live Free 2 don’t have it. When the music sounds this bad, I don’t really care about the things I’m not hearing around me.
The Beats Studio Buds and Jabra Elite 4 Active are still my personal favorite wireless earbuds under $200. While their ANC isn’t as impressive as the Live Free Live 2, they each lap the JBL buds in sound quality and usability. I can recommend those wireless earbuds to anyone without hesitation; with the Live Free 2, unless you really want a pair of cute bean-shaped wireless earbuds with ANC, you have a wealth of other options out there.