Apple's AirPods have been the biggest name in true wireless earbuds for years, but JLab's new JBuds Air Executive earbuds might have something to say about that.
Back in 2016, Apple made the shocking and controversial decision to stop including headphone jacks with its newest iPhones — meaning if you buy an iPhone directly from Apple, chances are you need Bluetooth headphones or an awkward dongle.
AirPods are a great solution to that problem, but they're also expensive. Enter the Air Executives, released this summer, JLab's attempt to provide a similar experience for less than half the price.
Has JLab delivered a true budget AirPods alternative or should you find something else to wear on your commute?
The price of freedom
Apple's AirPods are great and probably deserve their reputation as best-in-class true wireless earbuds, but the starting price of $160 is a serious barrier to plenty of people. The Air Executives can be yours for less than half of that, at an appealing $69.99 price point.
Plunk down that much and you'll get the earbuds themselves, a charging case, and several different sizes of eartips. They also come with a two-year warranty, as opposed to the one-year warranty that comes with AirPods.?
Battery life is a plus with up to 6 hours out of each earbud and around 24 hours from the case, figures comparable to what Apple claims its AirPods offer. And I had no problem pairing them with my iPhone.?
That said, there are some small concessions you need to accept if you want to be free from Apple. They lack the hands-free voice assistant support that came with this year's AirPods refresh.
They also don't automatically play or pause upon removal. All Bluetooth connectivity happens through the right earbud, so if you want to listen to one without draining the battery of the other, it can't be the left earbud.?
Touch and go
Like the AirPods and other Bluetooth audio devices, the Air Executives have touch panels to give you control over your listening experience without needing to open up your phone. The number of things you can do via touch on the Air Executives is impressive, but it can be slightly clumsy, too.
You can adjust volume, skip one track ahead or backwards, activate Siri or Google Assistant, answer phone calls, and more via touch. The commands are unique to each earbud, so you can't answer phone calls with the left earbud or activate Siri with the right earbud, for example. There might be a learning curve to this at first, but at least the commands all seem to work correctly.
I'm not a huge fan of touch controls for headphones in general because it can be a little too easy to accidentally trigger them, and that's definitely true with the Air Executives. Because of their design (more on that later), it takes a tiny bit of fumbling with them to get them in and out of my ears. I found it slightly too easy to accidentally adjust volume or even skip a track while doing this.
That's something you'll likely get used to over time, but it's worth noting that those with big fingers could have the same problem.
Function over form
I've been impressed with the Air Executives in my time with them, but their biggest weakness versus AirPods is the design of the hardware itself. The Air Executives are a bit too bulky for my taste, especially compared to the elegance of Apple's design.
There are some pros to the Air Executive designs: they're sturdy and comfortable enough once they actually sit in your ears. The inclusion of multiple sizes of ear cups is a big plus as is the fact they're water-resistant.?
The charging case is another story. It's a beastly little device that looks like an AirPods charging case on steroids. While the AirPods case can neatly fit in a shirt or jeans pocket without being too obstructive, the Air Executives case cannot.?
The case also has a charging cable built into it. It's a little USB dongle that can embed into the case when not in use. It's a nifty idea, but the lack of USB-C support and a comically short cable length are knocks against it.
But how do they sound?
Of course, nothing about the value, features, or any of that other fun stuff would matter if the Air Executives sounded like garbage. I'm happy to report they sound great. JLab packs in three different listening modes that can be toggled by tapping the left earbud three times. "Balanced" is what it sounds like: nothing is emphasized over anything else. "Bass Boost" is also self-explanatory.
The last one, "JLab Signature," boosts both vocals and bass for what I think is the best-sounding option of the three. I'm not necessarily an audiophile, but I have no complaints about how they sound compared to AirPods.
You can even alter how much ambient noise is let in with the "Be Aware" option, toggled by a triple tap on the right side. These aren't premium noise-canceling headphones, but they do a slightly better job of blocking noise than AirPods.
An impressive value?
I wouldn't recommend the Air Executives to anyone who already owns AirPods. But if you don't, and you're in the market for true wireless earbuds, you should at least take a look at the Air Executives. They're just fine for listening to music and podcasts while on the go, and the degree of customizability is nice.?
And, most importantly, the price is right.?