JBL Reference 510 Headphones

JBL Reference 510 Headphones
Harman Multimedia

Price: $149.95

Back in 2003, I reviewed the Sennheiser PXC 250 noise-canceling headphones. They were some of the most comfortable headphones I had used in years, and four years later, I still use them more than any other headphones I own. They have become the headphones that I compare all other over-the-ear headphones to. That being said, I was really excited to check out the JBL Reference 510’s, a very similar pair of headphones.

The JBL Reference 510’s are on-ear electronic sound canceling headphones. This was a big bonus for me, as I really enjoy the technology when it is implemented well. In essence, the technology blocks the ambient noise in the background so that you can hear your music better. As an example, if you have ever flown on an aircraft, you are all too familiar with the low hum of the jet engines as your plane moves along. That can be very annoying. The noise canceling technology actually uses a small microphone to “listen” to that background noise, and then cancels that sound in the headphones.

First, the good news. The JBL Reference 510’s sound really great. Audio quality is on a par with the PXC 250’s. The audio quality is flat and smooth. Bass response is very crisp and pronounced, although not overbearing. Midrange sounds good, but not great. (see below) Highs are right at the forefront, sounding very good. For audio quality, I am very pleased with the JBL Reference 510’s.

They are very comfortable headphones on your head. That may seem insignificant in a review, but I find it one of the most important aspects of any headphone. If you plan on wearing these for long periods of times, they had better be a good fit and comfortable, yes? Thankfully, the JBL Reference 510’s are just that. At first, they felt a little too tight, pushing more inwards that I was used to. I quickly got used to the feeling, and now actually prefer headphones that fit more snugly on my head than those feather-light headphones that have a tendency to slip around.

Now for the bad news. About a week after starting my tests, the left headset completely blew out. Blown completely. I asked Dr.Bott if this was an issue with this model, and I was told that it is very, very rare for JBL headphones to experience this problem. JBL also responded that this was not an issue they were familiar with, so it appears that I perhaps had a bad pair of headphones. The other problem I had, before the left side blew, was in the sound cancellation itself. Rather than simply canceling the sound, it was introducing a noticeable loud hiss. A white noise, if you will. It made using the noise cancellation technology in the headphones moot.

Then I got a replacement pair of Reference 510’s directly from JBL, fresh in the box just like the first pair. But the difference was amazing between the pair. First, the left side worked, so that was a plus. Second, the noise cancellation actually works in this new pair! There is no obvious added white noise at all. Turn on the noise canceling switch and you get a much quieter experience without the white noise. To be sure, there is still some of the white noise hiss, but at least 80% less.

One problem, which is common with on-the-ear headphones, is that when you do crank up the music, other people can hear it pretty well. Even from over ten feet away, my wife could hear me listening to music she deems inappropriate. (Prince, Erotic City) Oops!

As I wrote above, I like the fit of the JBL Reference 510’s, but there is one thing I don’t like, and that is the noise suppression unit itself. Unlike Bose, who hides the noise cancellation technology in the headphone cans, the JBL Reference 510’s has the unit separately on the cord. So you plug the headphones into your iPod or computer, and that plug goes into the noise cancellation dongle. Then the headphone wire runs to the headphones themselves. It is not an elegant solution by any stretch of the imagination. The dongle also has a non-removable belt clip, which I found annoying. I can understand the desire to include a belt clip for the noise canceling dongle, but to make it so you can’t remove the ugly metal belt clip? If anything, this makes it even more ungainly.

The JBL Reference 510’s fold up nicely for storage, which is a plus. Also, the headphones adjust very easily to fit over your ear and head. Also, the battery (one AA) fits inside the noise cancellation dongle itself. It is fairly easy to open the battery compartment and replace the battery.

One nice feature is what else is included in the box with the headphones. Not only do they include the obligatory carry case / storage pouch, but they also include an airline adapter plug. Don’t know what that is? In many commercial aircraft, you can watch the movie for free, but to actually hear it you have to wear headphones. But if you use your own, you will only hear sound from one headphone, not both. That’s because the airlines have split the signal into a right and left audio plug, so the airlines can charge you five bucks or so to rent (and keep afterwards) a cheap, crappy pair of headphones from them. Well, the JBL Reference 510’s come with that adapter, so not only do you get to listen to the movie without their crappy headphones, but you can use your nice noise canceling headphones and enjoy the movie more so than anyone else on the aircraft.

After all is said and done, I am pleased with these headphones. I would prefer that these headphones were $50 cheaper, as my opinion would put these headphones at around the $99 mark for a truly good value. At $149, I would expect a little bit better audio quality, especially in the mid-base range. There are times in some music passages, such as the Pink Floyd song “Learning To Fly” where the low-end bass is great, the mid-range audio is fine, and the highs are nice and crisp, but the mid-lows get a little muddy. Check online for lower prices, as I have found them going for under $75 new.

Sorry, iPhone users, you will need a headphone adapter. The JBL Reference 510’s came out a year before the iPhone.

• Maximum Input Signal: 50mW
• Frequency Response: 12Hz – 28kHz
• Input Level/Impedance: 32 Ohms
• Sensitivity: 125dB SPL/V; 110dB SPL/mW
• Dimensions: Wire Length – 180cm
• Type Supra-Aural
• Maximum Input Power 50mW
• Connectors 1/8″ (3.5mm) Mini Plug (1/4″ and Airplane Adapters Also Included)
• Cable Length 6′ (1.8 m)
• Weight 2.6 oz (73 g)
• Compact on-ear design
• 40mm Transducers deliver

I would recommend the JBL Reference 510’s on performance and comfort.

Breaking down the review rating:

Audio Quality: 3.5 out of 5
Comfort: 4.5 out of 5
Portability: 4 out of 5

Final MyMac.com Rating: 4 out of 5.


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