16 JBL 400BT aA 21-year-old friend – that is, someone raised on MP3 and earbuds – asked about headphones recently. This is a woman who is studying music and voice at one of the best institutions for such in the country while making money on the side singing in jazz clubs. She knows music, it’s the tech behind it where she’s patchy.

The bulk of her music is on her phone in compressed AAC files, but at least they’re compressed at 256 kilobytes. And she has a cheapie turntable with internal speakers and a ceramic stylus that only sounds good when you’ve been listening to AAC. Her current earbuds came with the phone.

Wouldn’t any headphones be an improvement? Ah, there’s a trap. If she buys ones that are too good she will, with time, become frustrated by the shortcomings of her present equipment. While initially she’d hear definition and range that she never got with the buds, she’d pretty soon realise her music lacked body. It would sound dull and unengaging, nothing like what she hears in the jazz clubs when she’s waiting her turn to sing. She needs headphones that are good enough to make her music sound better, not so good that they make it sound worse.

16 JBL 400BT dI should suggest some decent hardware and re-ripping all her music in flac, but she’s a starving student and her only income comes from people who prefer to pay in beer.

I plugged her into a pair of JBL’s new Live 400 headphones only because they happened to be in the man cave at the time, patiently awaiting return to their rightful home. I had judged these to be competent headphones and pretty good value for $149.95. Being JBLs they have a ton of bass and do a good job with rock music. The top end gets a bit strained and sharp, but only a bit. They have good range, nice definition and are full bodied. But they sit on the ears, rather than around them, and the clamp pressure is a bit tight for me, maxing out my listening time to just an hour.

My 21-year-old friend, however, loved them. She could pick some of the shortcomings in the high end but against her earbuds they produced the sort of music you’d hear at the Pearly Gates. What won her, however, were the all the features on board.

16 JBL 400BT cThere’s the normal phone stuff and basic Bluetooth gives her a cordless connection to it. For slightly better sound quality she can connect with the supplied cord, but cordless is great for the bus. Most attractive, she has immediate connection to Google Assist and Amazon Echo at the tap of an earpad. There are sound settings; Ambient Aware reduces the music and lets outside noise intrude – good for keeping an ear out for the bus – and Talk Through lets you hear someone talking without having to disturb your podcast. Press the same button a third time to restore the music. And the battery lasts for up to 24 hours, with a two-hour recharge.

With Live 400s she can remain a slave to her phone and her 21st century lifestyle while hearing sound that’s of appreciably better quality. And there was a benefit for me too. She put me onto Gian Slater, a Canberra singer with a penchant for intimate jazz. She has a lot of good stuff on Spotify.

By the way, JBL also does the Live 650, a way more comfy over-ear, noise cancelling spin-off of the Live 400, for an additional hundred bucks.

First published by smh.com.au May 2019


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