A comparison test of four noise-cancelling earbuds

Apple AirPods Pro vs Sony WF-1000XM4 vs Nothing Ear (1) vs Jabra Elite 85t

[Four noise-cancelling earbuds]
[Italian version here]

Products: Apple AirPods Pro, Sony WF-1000XM4, Nothing Ear (1), Jabra Elite 85t
Manufacturers: Apple, Nothing, Jabra, Sony
Cost: see text
Reviewer: M. L. Gneier - TNT-Audio USA
Reviewed: December, 2022

Let's get some things out of the way right off the bat.
First, this is not a review.
Second, it's not some kind of cautionary tale.
Instead, it's a guide of how to evaluate noise-cancelling earbuds and what you can expect from buds that work for you and buds that fall short.

The most essential takeaway should be this. Even though some buds are better engineered and more technically advanced, it does not mean they will work for you (or me).

Now that might be a tough lesson but the explanation is simple. Earbuds (especially those that employ active noise cancelling) can succeed or fail based upon end-user variables that no company can contend with.
Those variables are your hearing and your ears.
I mean, headphones are bad enough but the variations in fit headphone have to accommodate are dwarfed by those confronted by earbud designers, let alone the brave men and women who design IEMs.

[Jabra Elite 85T]

Let's take the Jabra Elite 85t (±230€). I have no doubt they are well-designed and objectively competitive with other, similarly priced products. But, I can also tell you that for me they performed far worse (in sound, comfort and ANC) than some products costing less than half their price. I was absolutely stunned that such a well-regarded product could be so bad when it came to my ears.

[Sony WF-1000XM4]

In another instance, I was impressed by sound and ANC (Sony WF-1000XM4, ±200€) but found using the product actually painful. And, let me also guarantee that three or four different ear tips doesn't get close to providing the listener with enough fitment options to assure good sound, comfort and ANC. So, yes, the Sony WF-1000XM4 is a significant technological achievement. The problem is that it could also pass as a torture device if worn for any length of time. Again, in my ears.

[Apple AirPods Pro]

I make no excuses for why I prefer to play in Apple's big sandbox. It's simply been the computing hardware of my life and I don't see that changing anytime soon. And, that's especially cool when it comes to the Apple AirPods Pro (±300€). In many ways, they are excellent. Comfort-wise, they had no equal for me. There were actually times when I'd forget I had them in. The ANC, while not quite in the Sony league, was both unobtrusive and effective. But (and yes, there's always a but) they just don't sound quite right to me. The fact is I enjoy listening to my $19 EarPods more than the AirPods Pro. Maybe that's why I have three or four pair scattered throughout my house in the same way some folks scatter reading glasses. Still, I just do not care for the overall sonic balance of the Apple AirPod Pros.

[Nothing Ear (1)]

The Nothing Ear (1) (±150€) came to me with little fanfare and reviews that were and are a mixed bag. But (there's another one) they work better for me than any other ANC ear buds. First, they are comfortable enough. Second, their ANC is good enough. And, wait for it, they sound good enough. Now I realize that sounds like a whole lot of damnation by faint praise but it's not. The ANC is not oppressive and seems to have very little effect on the quality of the sound. The Ear (1) is exceptionally light at 4.7 grams and my sense is that its light weight goes a long way towards explaining their comfort in my ears for sure and maybe in most ears. The Sonys weigh nearly twice as much. One last caveat. The Ear (1) requires equalization (preferably via the excellent Nothing app) to be properly dialed in, sound wise. So, the Nothing Ear (1) work for me and sound superb.

Let's talk about sound both when it comes to ear buds, headphones and even IEMs. One thing I want you to ignore completely is any discussion of U-shaped, V-shaped or any other shapes that are supposed to be deterministic of how a pair of headphones or buds will sound. It's not that the measurements are inherently inaccurate. It's that the correlation between a given set of discrete measurements and your listening experience is unlikely at best. The brief explanation for why this is true is: There's more to how something inside or at the opening of your ear canal will sound to you than that kind of measurement, even if perfectly accurate, can reveal.

If you grant that kind of testing too much credibility you risk missing a product that might really work for you. Remember, when it comes to music, especially music that's playing solely in your ears and for your sense of musicality, yours is the only expert opinion that matters.

Feel free to drop me an email if you'd like to discuss this subject in more detail. It's always a pleasure to hear from readers.

Oh, and be sure to listen well but listen happy.

DISCLAIMER. TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. If you wish, you can support our independent reviews via a PayPal donation. After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors. TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

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© Copyright 2022 M. L. Gneier - mlg@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com