Am I holding the future of wireless earbuds in my hands? Or are JBL’s Tour Pro 2 buds – with a charging case that has its own built-in display – a parlor trick negated by the smartwatch? Do you need these controls directly on the physical product when they’re all easily accessible via an app on your phone? I’ve been testing the new $249.95 noise-canceling earbuds for a couple weeks now, and strangely enough, it’s a difficult question to answer.
The Tour Pro 2s are the first to come to market with an interactive case; HP has announced something similar (albeit focused on enterprise customers), and Apple patent filings suggest that the AirPods maker is at least exploring this concept. But JBL’s earbuds are here now and start shipping today in the US after launching in other markets earlier this year.
Look, I know we’re all in this together for the zany case-with-a-screen experiment. So let’s get the earbuds part of this equation out of the way first. The Tour Pro 2s include an exhaustive, 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 comparable to the upper-tier of competition. Battery life is another highlight and rated at up to 8 hours of continuous listening with ANC on or 10 with it off – plus another 24 or 30 hours from the case, respectively. That outlasts the AirPods Pro, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds 2 Pro, the Nothing Ear 2s, and other premium options.
According to JBL, the sound signature from these 10-millimeter drivers follows the revered Harman response curve, albeit with some extra bass tacked on. And while the Tour Pro 2s sound perfectly good, I still prefer the audio fidelity from the second-gen AirPods Pro, Samsung’s flagship buds, and Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 3 earbuds. To my ears, those earbuds have more depth, greater dynamic range, and just lend more definition to whatever music is playing. The Tour Pro 2s don’t fully sound like $250 earbuds to me, so yeah, the case is factoring into that price. You get several equalizer settings to pick between, and JBL’s Personi-Fi feature can further tune the audio output frequencies based on your own hearing traits and preferences.
The company also piles on other tricks like multipoint, proprietary spatial audio profiles (music, movie, games, etc.), an earbuds locator utility, and speech detection for automatically activating ambient sound mode. That transparency / ambient sound mode was where I was least impressed; it just sounds very stuffy, inarticulate, and lags modern competitors quite substantially. Voice call performance is clear and satisfactory, however, and the earbuds are rated IPX5 for water and sweat resistance.
To sum it all up, the Tour Pro 2s are comfortable, sound good even if not great, and they pack plenty of battery endurance. JBL also notes that the earbuds are ready for LE Audio spec and will be updated to enable it 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 pretty large by today’s standards thanks to the built-in 1.45-inch touchscreen LCD on the front. But there’s support for wireless charging, at least, which isn’t always guaranteed even for the bulky ones. Do I wish the screen used something cooler like OLED or even E Ink? Sure. As is, you can adjust between three different brightness levels, but even the lowest setting isn’t particularly dim. Unlike the buds inside, the case only offers the slightest amount (IPX2) of water protection, so you’ll want to keep it dry. JBL tells me it might offer standalone replacement cases down the line since “I dropped my earbuds and broke the screen” is a dilemma that now exists, but will likely replace both earbuds and case in the event you damage any of them individually.
When you tap on the display, your chosen wallpaper appears. (There are presets, but you can also use custom images. JBL preloaded The Verge’s logo onto our review unit.) Slide your finger to the right, and you’ll start cycling through the different functions. And there are more than you might think:
- Playback controls
- Sound mode (ANC, transparency, etc.)
- Timer: the earbuds will power down after your chosen time elapses
- Spatial audio
- Screen brightness
- Wallpaper selection
- VoiceAware: this determines how sensitive the voice detection is
- SilentNow: you can enable ANC even without music playing for a preset amount of time
- Automatic play/pause ear detection
- Find My Buds
That’s a lot of widgets to constantly be swiping between. You can (and should) remove the ones you don’t want through JBL’s mobile app for Android or iOS and cut 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 can’t fast forward or rewind by long-pressing the buttons, either.) Other core tasks like switching audio modes or EQ modes also pose no issue. But even here, I’m already questioning whether the display is necessary and how much convenience it adds. You can perform several of these functions through the remappable earbud gesture controls with the case stowed away. And yes, they’re all present in JBL’s app on your phone.
I’m doing my best to ignore the possibility of ads on an earbuds case someday
But some inherent benefits do come with the screen. For one, there’s never any mistaking whether or not your earbuds are charging or how much battery remains. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wound up with one fully charged AirPod – insert any earbud brand here, honestly – and the other fully depleted just because the contacts needed cleaning or didn’t align perfectly. But with the Tour Pro 2s, that information is always visible in a small font at the top of the display. And since it’s the most pressing data for earbuds, it remains there as you swipe through the other widgets.
There are even some rudimentary, super basic smartwatch-like features tossed in: the case lets you see and answer/reject incoming calls, and it can show an alert whenever you receive messages on your phone. When I say an alert, it literally just says “new message on mobile device” most of the time, so don’t expect much context. The message notifications disappear so quickly that they’re rarely helpful, so I left them off.
Does the case make life easier overall? …Perhaps? Technically it’s faster to grab the case and change some random setting than it would be to pull out your phone, unlock it, find and open the JBL app, and go hunting for the same toggle. And it’s nice to have the Find My Buds tool right there if you open the case and discover one or both buds to be missing.
But all of these “benefits” come with a big assumption: do you really carry your earbuds case on your person at all times? More often than not, I leave mine in my backpack or my coat’s chest pocket. If that’s you, the advantages of this interactive case go out the window unless you change your habits and keep it within reach.
The earbuds case needs to be within reach often for the display to be useful
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 provide deep controls over their respective earbuds right from their wearables; hell, the Apple Watch can now tell you how much noise the AirPods Pro (or Max) are canceling in real time. There’s only more synergy growing in these walled-off gardens. But JBL doesn’t have a horse in that race. Many companies don’t. So if you think about it that way – a platform-agnostic audio brand trying to stand out – the Tour Pro 2s make a bit more sense.
And they’ve definitely got me pondering what’s to come. How long will it be before earbuds are a fully independent source of entertainment? It’s not hard to imagine some company building flash storage into an earbuds case and letting you sync music to it from your phone. You can already do so with a smartwatch; why not just extend that to the actual listening device? Maybe several years from now we’ll be using AirPods with an iPod nano crammed into the case.
I haven’t uncovered any singular compelling reason that will keep me using the JBL Tour Pro 2s in place of my favorite wireless earbuds. The surefire battery status is handy, but I’m too set in my ways to give earbuds valuable pocket space. That’s true for this first try, at least.
This concept isn’t going to begin and end with JBL – or HP for that matter. I predict we’ll see others try their hand at “smart” earbud cases. Truthfully, no idea has ever struck me as more Samsung, but I suppose the Galaxy Watch lineup covers similar bases. Maybe someone will figure out a brilliant reason for earbuds to have a screen. For now, this feels like one screen too many.
But I can’t knock creativity and an attempt at something new. The Tour Pro 2s don’t measure up to the best earbud contenders when it comes to sound, but they definitely have a unique gimmick. They’re offbeat and weird. Let’s keep getting weird. Something good has to come out of that.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge