Review: Jaybird Freedom
Headphone cords are one of those things you don’t generally think about. At least, not until they get inexplicably tangled in your pocket, leading to you spending a few minutes unravelling a knot more twisted than the plot of any Game of Thrones novel. Or what about when the cord on your headphones snags on a passing object, yanking your earbuds out of your ears? And for us in-ear headphone users, what about when the cord brushes against your clothes, making that annoying rustling sound in your ears? What I’m saying is, there’s probably a reason Jaybird named their newest wireless earbuds the Freedom.
The Jaybird Freedom are a US$199 Bluetooth-powered set of wireless buds. They’re available in four different colour combinations, each with a tasteful accent to highlight the mostly-metal design, although my pick would be the black or white versions. Jaybird says they’re sweat-proof, and judging from the rest of the marketing material on the Jaybird website, they’re aimed at people who live an active lifestyle, people that would enjoy taking their headphones out for a run or a ride. To that end, Jaybird appears to have made every effort to optimise the Freedom for those scenarios.
First off, there’s an pretty crazy amount of included accessories to ensure you get the perfect fit. While other manufacturers might be skimping on the bells and whistles in an effort to keep costs low, Jaybird seem to have included every possible accessory to ensure you find a combination that’s comfortable as well as ensuring the buds stay in your ears, regardless of what activity you’re doing. You get the standard silicone tips in three sizes, three sets of foam tips, three sets of silicone ear fins, two cord shorteners, and a cord alligator clip. Also in the box is a small soft pouch, a charging clip, and the shortest USB to micro-USB charging cable I’ve ever seen.
One of the most important things about in-ear headphones is finding a fit that works for your ears, especially if you’re going to be active when using them. By including a wide variety of accessories, Jaybird ensures that Freedom owners can find something that works for them. You can even choose to wear the Freedom in the more traditional under-ear style, or do something a little different with the over-ear style. Overall cable length is about 50 centimetres, earbud-to-earbud.
Once you’ve chosen the combination of tips, clips, and fins that work for you, pairing the Freedom to your Bluetooth device is as simple as holding down the middle button on the controller that sits below the right earbud. The controller is more bulbous than the standard remote on Apple’s EarPods, mostly because it contains the microphone, battery, and other electronics to make everything work. It’s similar in size to an AAA battery, although slightly smaller. I was worried that you’d feel the weight of it hanging off your ear like some oversized earring, but I’m glad to report that’s not the case — most of the time. There’s definitely a perceptible weight to the controller unit, but it’s unnoticeable most of the time. It’s kind of like how you don’t notice how your tongue sits in your mouth until someone points it out, then it bothers you for the next minute until you forget about it again. Most of the time, you won’t notice the weight of the controller hanging off your right ear.
On the controller itself, you’ll find the mostly-standard array of three buttons to control volume, music, and calls. Unlike Apple’s remote, the buttons on the Freedom controller work a little differently thanks to the need to overload them with power controls, along with the standard volume, playback, and call controls. Suffice to say, you’ll probably want to be hitting up the manual the first time around. Thankfully, the feature assignments all make sense, and the Freedom comes with helpful voice prompts to notify you about battery level, when you’re connected to a device, and even when you power the earbuds on or off.
Jaybird claims about four hours of battery life for the Freedom. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you consider that they’re primarily marketed to people who would take them out on a run or to the gym, four hours is plenty, even for the longest workout. And as it turns out, if your primary use case is commuting to and from work, chances are four hours will be plenty for that, too. Like many Bluetooth headphones, the Freedom reports its battery level to the Battery widget in the iOS Notification Center.
In an attempt to extend the battery life beyond the admittedly meagre four hours, Jaybird include a charging clip that can provide a bit of a top-up if you’re running low. About the size of a single AAA battery, the charging clip attaches to the controller unit and charges it that way, giving you an extra four hours on the buds themselves. The charging clip also has a micro-USB port for charging itself and the headphones when attached. While it’s not possible to use the buds when they’re charging, Jaybird says a 20 minute “quick charge” will provide about an hour of listening time, and in my testing, that seemed accurate.
The sound produced by the Freedom is great, with perhaps a few caveats. In-ear headphones are unique in that a lot of their magic is achieved via the noise isolation capabilities of the tips that you use with them. With tiny drivers, a proper seal is required for any in-ear headphone to sound better than your run-of-the-mill EarPods or similar earbud-style headphones. But once you have that, you’re all set.
Jaybird include a set of silicone tips with the Freedom — standard on most in-ear headphones — as well as a set of foam tips, which is pretty cool, as all of the foam tips I’ve used significantly improve the sound quality when used with in-ear headphones. Although they point out that the foam tips are from Comply, one of the best-known foam tip manufacturers, the particular type of foam tips they include seem to be once again optimised for workouts, sacrificing some sound quality in the process. That’s not to say that the included foam tips are bad, but they provide very little noise isolation, which in in-ear headphones terms, leads to worse sound.
Using the included silicone or foam tips, I found bass tones somewhat lacking. While highs and mids were coming through crystal clear, the low-end was just there to tick a box. Not really making its presence felt, but present and accounted for, in the same way that you might show up at a party you didn’t really want to go to, but went anyway just to say you were there. What bass does show up to the party is crisp and clean, but lacks the punchy responsiveness that you might expect from similarly priced in-ear buds.
Perhaps Jaybird also realised this, because all the included presets in their companion MySound app boost bass levels. The final value-add, the MySound app available for iOS and Android devices, lets you customise the EQ of the Freedom, with any custom sound profiles saved on the headphones themselves so they work regardless of what device you’re connected to. You can build your own EQ from scratch, or use one of the several built-in presets from athletes and Jaybird themselves. Choosing a preset applies it instantly so you can hear the difference when you’re playing a track, although the built-in presets mostly do the same thing, boosting bass and killing treble. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that actually kind of work, restoring some semblance of bass to that which was lacking. Even so, with a preset applied, the low-end goes from mediocre to slightly above average. After all, adjusting EQ can only do so much.
It just so happens that Comply manufacture three types of foam tips for the Freedom, with the set that are included with the Freedom being the sport variety. The descriptions on the Comply website don’t give you many clues about the differences between the sport, isolation, and comfort foam tips, but I can say that using the isolation series restores the kind of sound that I’m used to when I’ve used foam tips with my Apple in-ears. You have to turn off any bass-boosting preset you have applied, because the low-end goes from just average to being a powerful rumble, the kind of bass that completes tracks, the kind that you would bring home to meet your parents because it’s just that good. Using a pair of isolating foam tips means the low-end borders on overbearing, to give you an idea of how much of a difference they make.
I’ve included my headphone testing playlist below, if you want to know what tracks I listened to when testing bass. If you insist on making calls on your headphones, then these will also perform admirably. With the ability to be paired up to two devices simultaneously, Bluetooth has gotten to the point where we’ve reached the limits of the technology, and during my ownership I have experienced no audio dropouts that weren’t the result of some kind of external influence, like walking out of range.
Which brings us to the most important question of all: would I buy these again, given that they’re slightly more expensive than you might think due to the falling Australian dollar and the need to pay for shipping from the US? And the answer is, yes, absolutely. I’ll admit that there are minor flaws to the Freedom, in that they’re not really designed for marathon listening sessions — even if they help you train for marathons — with their limited battery life, although I feel this is more a form factor limitation rather than anything else. Without going to an awful band that sits on your shoulders and around your neck, there are very few options for increased battery life on earbud-style Bluetooth headphones, and all of them come with limitations of their own. The included silicone and foam tips do an OK job of showing what the Freedom is capable of, and a proper set of noise isolating tips will bring out the best they have to offer.
If the next iPhone comes out with no headphone jack like the rumours are saying it will, I, along with my now-much-bassier wireless buds, will be ready.