Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Gear Closet: JBL Reflect Mini BT Wireless Sport Headphones

In case you haven't heard, there is a new iPhone coming out this week. That's pretty much common knowledge considering how much press Apple gets. But what you might not have heard is that one of the design elements of the new smartphone that is getting the most attention is Apple's decision to drop the standard audio port. This has freed up some precious space inside the phone that Apple engineers can use to add more tech, but it also means that we can no longer simply plug in a standard set of headphones. Moving forward, the iPhone's lightning port will pull double duty for both charging and audio output, which means you'll need to either use a set of lightning earbuds, a lightning-to-3.5mm adapter (included in the box), or wireless headphones to listen to your music, podcasts, and audio books. While all of those are obviously viable solutions, Apple is making a hard push towards Bluetooth headphones, particularly since they are releasing their own unique entry into that market with the new AirPods and some updated wireless options from Beats.

I haven't had a chance to test out the AirPods yet, but I have been testing some other wireless headphones that are specifically designed for use by those of us who are fairly active. I actually made the switch to Bluetooth earbuds awhile ago, and I have to say that it is a niche shift. Not having to deal with cables while running or cycling is a major plus in my book, and I think that while some will continue to be reluctant to make the change, once you do, you'll never want to go back.

Recently I've been testing the new Reflect Mini BT sport headphones from JBL and have discovered a product that ticks all of the boxes in terms of what I'm looking for when it comes to earbuds. And while they may not be quite a fancy as Apple's AirPods in terms of design and technology, they still perform very well and cost a lot less.

The Reflect Mini use Bluetooth technology to connect wirelessly to your smartphone. There once was a time when that pairing process was a bit of hassle, but those days are long over at this point. It literally took just a few seconds to pair the two devices together, and after that when ever I turned on the headphones they would automatically connect with one another. That's the way all wireless audio devices should work, and that has pretty much been my experience with all of them for some time.

As with most wireless earbuds these days, the Reflect Mini comes with an inline remote that allows you to control volume, switch tracks, pause playback, and so on. It even has a built-in mic that gives you the ability to pick up incoming phone calls too. Those are fairly standard features at this point, but JBL has made them easy to use thanks to a remote that has large buttons and a simple, straight forward configuration.

I've tested wireless earbuds in the past, and one of the biggest challenges I've typically faced is finding the right sized rubber ear tips to fit into my ears properly. Some previous models I've tried out have come with as many as seven sets of those silicon inserts, and I'd usually have to mix and match to find the ones that worked best for me. The Reflect Mini ships with four ear tips – two sets of sports and two regular. But, this time out there was now fiddling to find the right fit. The ones that came preinstalled worked perfectly for me right out of the box, snapping into place and staying there while I ran. Obviously you may find that you'll have to play around with the tips a bit to find the ones that work for you, but I've never had fit this good before.

In terms of audio performance, I found these earbuds to be solid, but not overwhelming. Music sounds crips and clear, even at higher volumes, and there was even some solid bass mixed in, something you don't always find on smaller, sport-oriented earphones. The Reflect Minis probably aren't going to win any awards for their performance, but in terms of something that you want to wear out on a run or for a workout at the gym, they are definitely up to the challenge. I will note that some of the podcasts I listened to while wearing these headphones did sound a bit muddled at times, but that is probably more due to the quality of those recordings and less about the earbuds themselves. Music tracks, which have higher production values, sounded great, which is a better way to judge overall quality.

Battery life is the other element that always concerns me, as unlike standard earbuds you'll need to recharge your wireless models on a regular basis. JBL says that the battery is good for about 8 hours playback, although that number can vary depending on volume, audio source, and so on. In real-world testing, I found that I was getting closer to 6 hours of battery life, which for me translates to having to recharge after I've run with the earbuds four or five times. While I would like to get a bit more battery life out of the Reflect Mini, I've been mostly satisfied with their performance so far.

On that note, it doesn't seem that JBL has built-in an auto-off feature for the Reflect Mini, which means if you accidentally leave them on, you'll drain the battery somewhat even when they're not in use. When you're done working out, be sure to turn them off so they'll be charged for your next session.

Since these are earbuds designed for use while being active, they have been built to be sweat proof. That means that they can survive your wet hands pawing at the remote control or you working up a good sweat while running. That doesn't mean that they are water – or even rain – proof however, so keep that in mind when using them. I've had other wireless earbuds that were sweat proof in the past, and some would stop working if I used them on a run in the rain. I don't know if that will be the case here, as I haven't tried the Reflect Mini BT in the rain yet, but it is definitely something to keep in mind.

In terms of long term durability, we'll simply have to wait to see how well these earphones perform. Right now, they function very well, with great battery life, solid audio performance, and very few distortions or audio cut-outs while in use. But, some of the wireless earbuds I've used in the past haven't stood up to the test of time, wearing out after just a couple of months of use. Hopefully that won't be the case here, but only time will tell.

In terms of price, JBL has delivered a good product that performs very well, that won't make your wallet duck for cover. At just $99.95, the Refect Mini BT stacks up very well against the competition in terms of performance and value. Apple's new AirPods, which aren't specifically designed for use while exercising, cost $159, making them a bit pricer for those who are just entering the wireless earbud market.

Whether that's you, or if you're simply looking for a new pair of wireless earbuds, the JBL Reflect Mini BT is a good choice.

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