I really, really wanted to love the Jabra Elite 7 Pro.
In a world where companies like Apple and Samsung are using wireless earbuds to further entrench users into their ecosystems, Jabra has built a good reputation as a neutral vendor of quality for all music lovers. But as well-reviewed as the Elite series buds were, the 75T and 85T were always a bit too bulky compared to the more compact buds available.
Jabra’s Elite 7 Pro and Elite 3 buds were supposed to represent a new chapter for the company. Jabra confirmed that while the Elite 75T are still in stock, they will be phased out by the end of the year. The $229 Elite 85T are sticking around at the top of the lineup for now. So the new Elite 7 Pro and Elite 3 are going to be what’s left for people with less than $200 to spend. My colleague Alejandro really liked the $80 Elite 3, and found them to set a new bar for budget earbuds. After seeing his review, I was excited to see what Jabra could do on a set of earbuds that were more than double the price and featured active noise cancellation (ANC). However, as soon as the first song played on them, those expectations deflated.
Ugly no more
The best thing the Elite 7 Pro has going for it is its design. Gone are the bulky earbuds that made you look like a cyberpunk executive and cases too large to shove into a tight jeans pocket. Jabra’s new buds tuck neatly into more people’s ears and the case is now small enough to fit right alongside AirPods and Galaxy Buds. However, the soft-touch material inside the case that cradles the earbuds attracts dirt and grime super quick, so expect to clean the case often or learn to live with having earwax residue constantly visible.
The Elite 7 is actually two wireless earbuds, the $199 Elite 7 Pro and $179 Elite 7 Active. The two buds share a lot of similarities, the most important ones being audio quality and the ANC tech packed inside. The reason you would want the Active over the Pro is the coating material on the Active called ShakeGrip. Jabra says ShakeGrip is a liquid silicone and rubber coating that helps lock the earbuds into your ears better than the matte plastic found on the Pro. Jabra didn’t send me a pair of Active buds to test so I can’t verify if that material is comfortable at all, but the comfort of the Pro gives me lots of reasons to doubt it would be. The Pro’s headlining feature, and the reason behind its $20 price premium over the Active, are the two bone-conducting sensors it uses to enhance the quality of your voice during phone calls.
The buds also have fantastic battery life, rated at 8 hours by themselves with another 30 hours in the case by Jabra. After five days of extensive use, I never managed to drain the buds in any long listening sessions or drain the case enough to need a recharge.
The process of pairing and setting up the Elite 7 Pro is tedious but I can see the benefits. To start, you need to download the Jabra app to get their full functionality. In the app, you need to choose one of Jabra’s noise-canceling presets to make sure it works for your hearing, as well as perform a quick hearing test so the earbuds can focus on playing frequencies you can actually hear during music playback. The app is also required if you want to turn on ANC at all. Without the app, the earbuds only let you use “HearThrough” (Jabra’s equivalent of a transparency mode) or ANC-off mode. But at least you won’t need to give Jabra your email to use it.
The app is also required if you want to turn on ANC at all.
A big issue I have with the app’s ANC setup is the ANC “profiles” are unlabeled in the setup process. This means you have no idea what kind of scale you’re adjusting during setup. There’s also a confusing left/right balance setting that I avoided touching; the app’s instructions weren’t clear if the ANC strength was what was being balanced between my ears or all music I’d listen to. It’s a very convoluted way for Jabra to try and mimic the always-adjusting ANC system that Apple employs on the AirPods Pro.
If you choose to perform the firmware update that’s also available, be prepared to wait 30 minutes before the update process is complete. Overall, the app is simple enough to use if you want to tweak the EQ or change the earbuds settings, but not the smoothest. Take note of those EQ profiles however as they are one of the more important parts of using the Elite 7 Pro despite no emphasis coming from Jabra.
The hype on the bone conductors is real, and really the only saving grace of the Elite 7 Pro. Everyone I talked to said my voice was clear and pronounced over the phone, even with cellular compression in the mix. Microphone sound quality was even better using VoIP services like FaceTime Audio and Zoom. Listen for yourself to this sample from a Google Voice call, a worst-case scenario for any earbuds since the service uses much more compression than even cellular calls. Even compared to the gold standard of holding your phone to your face, the Elite 7 Pro stands out with the most words being audible.
In doing A/B testing with various call services, people had a hard time telling if I was holding my iPhone directly next to my ear or using earbuds. This has never been the case with any other wireless headphones, even premium over-ear models, in my experience.
Bone conducting headphones are popular among performance athletes who want to still be able to hear the world around them. The technology is simple enough: send vibrations through the bones in your ears through conducting transmitters instead of vibrating air near your eardrum in your canal. The Elite 7 Pro takes the concept but inverts it. Each earbud has a receiver that picks up the vibrations from your jaw, while working in tandem with the two standard microphones on each bud to process your voice. Sony’s terrific and poorly named WF-1000XM4 earbuds also use bone conduction for calls, and I suspect we could see bone conduction become a trend in the premium earbuds space as mid-range pairs start inching closer on the audio quality front.
The results are super impressive. While shopping at a store with music playing in the background, my dad on the line couldn’t tell I was wearing a mask. Normally, my voice would sound muffled with a mask on. It’s a very impressive system Jabra has cooked up here. Cell networks always impose some level of compression, so you’re never going to sound like you’re in the room, but at least take comfort knowing you’ll be the freshest voice on the conference call with the Elite 7 Pro.
That’s why I think, despite the many issues I have with these Jabra earbuds, they deserve the “Pro” branding. People who are tired of low-quality mics on laptops and other wireless earbuds for video calling will appreciate the Elite 7 Pro the most. But $200 is a lot to pay for buds that you’ll only use for calls. You may not like how your AirPods Pro or Galaxy Buds 2 perform in your daily conference calls but at least they kick out a terrific audio experience when the workday is done.
A big reason I can’t recommend the Elite 7 Pro is comfort, or a lack thereof. Instead of an ear tip that nestles in the opening of your canal, the Elite 7 Pro tip needs to sit fully inside your ear canal. This helps create a seal but it just felt awful in my ears over prolonged listening sessions. Switching between the three sets of included ear tips didn’t help either; the medium and large tips were the only ones to fit my ears and neither were able to make a seal that was also cozy.
While I didn’t have a chance to test the Elite 7 Active with its “ShakeGrip” material, the idea of something keeping this shape locked into my ears sounds like a nightmare. Every time I took the Elite 7 Pro out of my ears I could practically feel them gasping in relief. I much prefer the AirPods and AirPods Pro form factor that keeps less of the earbud inside your ear for the sake of better comfort. Ear-feel is super subjective so maybe everything I just wrote sounds like exactly what you want in an earbud. For me, it was an instant fail and I could only stand keeping them in for a few minutes at a time before I had to start adjusting.
The mediocre ANC performance didn’t help either. I tested out several of the ANC profiles in the Jabra app and none of them came close to providing the comfort and immersion you get with AirPods Pro. Apple’s wireless earbuds use internal microphones to measure the inside of your ear and tweak the ANC accordingly. Jabra forces you to throw profiles at a dartboard until something hits right. The Elite 7 Pro have internal mics used by the app to perform a test that confirms if you’ve created a tight seal. But they may not be able to keep that mic on constantly to aid ANC adjustments for the user while maintaining the very good battery life of the Elite 7. Jabra says that the Elite 85T are still their best buds for ANC, but the Elite 7 Pro being so lacking is still a big disappointment if you don’t like the bulkier profile of the 85T.
Even after finding an ANC profile that I think fit me right, I wasn’t impressed. These buds couldn’t eliminate the low hum of my refrigerator to anything less than a slightly lower hum. They didn’t fare much better with the ambient sounds of the outdoors. There’s no way I would trust the Elite 7 Pro on an airplane. This is the type of ANC we expected 10 years ago from any company not called Bose and Jabra is far behind the ball in 2021.
The worst thing about the Elite 7 Pro is the sound experience. It’s remarkably subpar for a premium pair of buds. On my AirPods Pro, the buds work together to make me forget that I have two sound sources blasting noise directly into my ear canal to create the 180-degree theater-like soundstage. Most premium buds work like this and I’ve become so used to it that I sort of forget that, technically, the track I’m listening to is split in half. But my god does the Elite 7 Pro fail at casting this illusion.
All the parts of a good music experience are here. The bass isn’t too overwhelming, vocals and instruments are detailed, but the Elite 7 Pro’s completely fall apart when it comes to putting all those parts together on their default EQ. A song I like to test earbuds on is Jack White’s “Want and Able.” White mixed the song to have two vocal tracks and two instruments, a guitar and a piano, slammed on the furthest ends of the left and right channels, but some effects bounce between the two sides providing a sense of sway and echo. On a good pair of headphones, you get the image of two twins performing an argumentative duet on opposite sides of a stage in front of you. The Elite 7 Pro made this song sound like two different songs playing alongside each other that just happened to share lyrics. These buds basically have no soundstage out of the box.
These buds basically have no soundstage out of the box.
Things were improved somewhat by playing with the different EQ presets in the Jabra app, and the “Smooth” preset particularly stood out. It’s worth noting that Alejandro found this to be the case as well in his Elite 3 review. The guitar riff on Beck’s “E-Pro” had noticeably more presence and thump and the soundstage widened significantly to something that actually exists, but these things still don’t come close to providing the immersion their competitors can, something their ANC shortcomings certainly don’t help with. All the “Smooth” preset does is prevent these buds from completely failing in the music department. They go from sounding bad to fine. At $200, “fine” is unacceptable.
Customers shouldn’t need to switch presets to get acceptable sound. EQ tuning is for taking a pair of headphones you already enjoy the last mile to be just right for your music taste. It’s not like there’s a label in the app that says that “Smooth” is the best EQ for most music and someone who picks these up without reading reviews is going to have no way of knowing it from the jump. Jabra needs to tweak their default tuning to even keep these buds in the conversation.
Jabra has completely failed to give people any reason to pay the $100 or $120 extra the Elite 7 cost over the Elite 3. It’s a shame to have to say that. The Elite 7 Pro shares a lot of the Elite 3’s downsides, but those are easier to live with when you only pay $80. Even if I give them praise for the Smooth EQ setting’s quality, the mediocre-at-best ANC knocks them out of the realm of recommendation completely.
When you’re dropping $200 on earbuds, there are no excuses to miss any of the basics that come with this price category. If you want a pair of premium earbuds, there are so many better options at both slightly higher and lower price points. I hope Jabra keeps pursuing this new direction and design language for its earbuds, and I will certainly be interested to see what comes next, but they’re going to need to do a lot to convince me their plans have merit next time around.
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