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Last week I looked at the JABRA SPORT ROX WIRELESS and (here) is a review of them. Much of what I said about the SPORT ROX applies to the PULSE WIRELESS in that these earbuds are high quality, high fidelity (for earbuds), Bluetooth Sport Earbuds that are suitable for sports’ environments. The construction and aesthetics are different but the real, main difference is the heart rate technology contained in the PULSE’s ear buds and in the associated and free app.
In the review below I’m going to be looking at the interesting stuff over and above what is offered by the SPORT ROX model. So you might want to flick through that review before we get cracking here.
HEART RATE FROM WITHIN THE EAR – WHY? That’s a good question. The PULSE WIRELESS is quite a bit more expensive than the SPORT ROX. As I see it there are the more ‘obvious’ reasons why you might want to produce HR data from an ear-based device.
- If you listen to music then you already have something in your ear. You might as well get that something to do as much as it can – in this case play music AND take your HR. It saves having another device somewhere else on your body to worry about.
- Most guys assume that chest straps are the way to go, citing new softer straps as more comfortable, etc.. However some people have large circumference chests that cannot be accommodated by a HR strap and many women find chest straps to be both uncomfortable AND unable to produce a reliable HR signal.
- Ear-based HR data is cited by JABRA as being more accurate. Apparently it is one of the most accurate places to take the measurement. One of the great things with an ear-HR is that a comparison to a chest strap is relatively straightforward for me to do accurately. I will look at that later on. My initial scepticism here is that ‘so what if it is more accurate’? How accurate exactly do you need HR readings? If that accuracy means the elimination of flat lines and peaks or troughs then I would agree that we would all want CONTINUOUSLY ACCURATE readings. But having a 99.5% accurate vs. a 99% accurate is of minimal interest to me in a sporting context.
- HRV / beat-by-beat data might be another determinant of accuracy where precision plays a more significant role. If you can get HRV accuracy from the ear then you’ve achieved something that is difficult to get from a wrist-based optical HR sensor at present. The JABRA does not yet support that.
- For all your indoor work you save having that pesky wire dangling down to your forearm
- A ‘clever’ app will be able to give you personal, in-exercise coaching. I have touched on that point in my opinion pieces about Garmin’s potential new watches – the Garmin 630 running watch and the Garmin 930XT triathlon watch. So here, potentially, we at least have the hardware that could support prebuilt coaching prompts such as ’30 seconds to go keep trying’ or more dynamic ones like ‘your effort level has dropped, speed up’ or ‘you have achieved your interval goal early, please stop’.
- Whilst you have got something stuck in your ear you might as well try to ‘sense’ other stuff while you are in there. SPO2/Blood Oxygen springs to mind. Perspiration is another thing that can be ‘sensed’ but, I suspect, not from earbuds.
For a triathlete you might consider these negative points about ear-based technology.
- You really don’t want to use these on a road bike on the road. Really.
- You won’t be able to use these whilst swimming – although doubling up as a HR / HRV data-caching swim earplug is an unlikely invention waiting to happen. Maybe an invention too far 🙂
- Depending on how and where you run, certain outdoor running activities might be dangerous eg those involving crossing roads.
- So they are not a racing aid for sure. Still, we spend MUCH more time training than racing – so that in itself should not put you off.
- For your HR data you are more reliant on the battery life of the earphones/buds AND another device. 2 potential pints of failure rather than one.
- Long-course athletes will be training for HOURS on end at aerobic levels. With a decent fan then you aren’t going to sweat too much and earbuds seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable choice to accompany a 3 hour turbo ride and a boxed set of ER.
I’m sure there are many things I’ve missed out on for both potential pro’s and potential cons. Either way I hope we can both agree that in-ear technology is perhaps a little more promising than we initially suspected. Perhaps not exactly right for me but there is a (large) market there. If you add-in all those people you see running with earphones in (and I would say the majority of runners that I see wear earphones) then there is a MUCH bigger market. I would also say that at least 95% of women that I see training/running have headphones – perhaps with men falling to around 40%
So what is the market? I suspect that there are several markets and I’ve already alluded to some above; women, for example. But also: ‘people who don’t like HR straps’; ‘people who like to listen to high quality music’; ‘people who listen to music’; ‘image conscious people who want a quality-looking piece of kit’; and ‘people who train for hours on end’. Indeed JABRA position themselves as making a quality device with quality sound whilst, at the same time, being technically innovative. Some of these characteristics might apply to an audiophile pro-athlete or to Jo Smith who just likes cranking up the volume in the gym.
So it’s very much a different purchase than a sports watch where, in theory, you can work out what features you want, match them to a watch and then (said cynically) go ahead and buy the most expensive Garmin you can afford! The appeal is often going to be to the individual’s taste rather than to the sport per se.
Me? I would use them in the gym for weights although I would not use them in a class in a gym. I would use them on my turbo trainer taking sound from a PC playing a box-set. I would use them for rowing. So basically for me it is to help me avoid boredom AND to reduce the annoyance/risk of dangly wires AND to reduce the noise that would be caused by turning up the volume on a PC to watch a movie while I cycle.
REVIEW: So remember this is not a full review of all features. It focusses more on the HR side of things. Here you can see you get lots of nice bits and pieces in the box. Note the special barcode-thingy which you MUST NOT LOSE as this is required to connect to the JABRA APP on any new phone – although I did not seem to be prompted for it when adding a second JABRA device to an already activated APP. You can use the same code again and again on different devices but I don’t know if there is a limit (I did 3). Below is a JABRA image giving you an idea of the earbud combinations: After you’ve chosen the rights bits to tailor the earbuds to your precise ear dimensions you will be left with this lot of kit, below: buds and bag! The SPORT ROX (non-HR) comes with an arm band for a smartphone and I would have preferred that rather than this case. Actually I would have preferred both. So you stick it in your ear and then you use the ‘bar’ shown in the foreground here to change volume and you can even answer/speak into it for calls on your paired phone (I didn’t test that). I slightly prefer the look of the lower model, the ROX SPORT (non-HR) but slightly prefer the black wings of the PULSE, which also fit me better. The ROX SPORT looks a bit chunkier with a metal casing. You could say chunky or you could say ‘quality feel’ depending on what you think. Overall similar preferences from me on the aesthetic front. Sound quality is great on both. Here’s a picture of the ROX SPORT – just for comparison. I’ll have a look at the app in a minute but first a bit of a moan and a few points that I think are worth making. I’m a Garmin person. I don’t necessarily want to be; but that is where I am. Like MANY other allegedly ‘sporty’ people I am mostly tied to ANT+. The buds would benefit from being able to broadcast ANT+ and BTLE (Bluetooth Low Energy /SMART / v4). I can and do, from time to time, get Bluetooth-sourced data into my sports ecosystem but it’s often a bit of a pain. The ANT+/Gamin-user market is a big one. Then again the BTLE/smartphone-user market is probably an even bigger market and more likely to keep on growing. Probably at a higher rate than Garmin/ANT+ will achieve. The fact that there is iOS support means that perhaps many more people from ‘Apple World’, who typically can afford this sort of kit, are supported.
Vendors are taking a punt with the protocols they support. Polar do BTLE. Suunto used to do ANT+ as well as BTLE and now they only do BTLE. Garmin only do ANT+. Most smartphones are technically capable of ANT+ and BTLE but quite a lot have the ANT+ support turned off/unsupported by the manufacturer.
BATTERIES The battery life is at least 3.5 hours. That’s enough for most of us. Personally I’m one of those annoyingly organised/routinised people who will always charge something up after I’ve finished with it. It could even be 90 minutes battery life for me and it would never go flat. But not everyone is the same.
For some people I imagine it will be a bit of a pain to ensure that both the earbud and smartphone with GPS and MOBILE DATA and BLUETOOTH enabled both last the 60+ minutes from their session. The point of failure is when the FIRST of your batteries runs out. So if you currently just stick your current wired (LINE IN/JACK) earbuds into a low power-consuming MP3 player that’s pumped full of duracells then you need to think practically about battery life for a minute with smartphones and Bluetooth peripheral accessories.
To put 3.5 hours of battery life into perspective there are LOTS of watch-based athletes who moan about needing an 18 hour plus battery life. Having said all of that the JABRA’s batteries get enough re-charge in quickly to last you an hour fairly quickly. So even with a flat battery you can perhaps even recharge it in your car if you drive to the gym.
APPS and THE JABRA APP Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to look at usability for rowing, weights-in-a-gym and running. For the running I’m going to use the JABRA connected directly to a POLAR M400 running watch. Just to see if it works. Then I’m going to use a Garmin 920XT linking by ANT+ to a top-end Garmin chest strap and compare that to the heart rate track that comes from the JABRA going into the POLAR BEAT APP on my old Samsung S3.
Here’s what I’m NOT going to do. I had plans of testing this on several APP on ipads and Android phones. However it was a bit of a nightmare to find a free app that I could use on all devices that worked for HR.
For example you could download STRAVA ubiquitously and I’m sure the JABRA is fully supported. However for pretty much all the apps that I looked at you need to pay extra to enable the HR recording functionality and even then I was not convinced that had I done that I would be able to properly export the data on all platforms out of the app to compare it side-by-side with my Garmin data.
JABRA FORMALLY support: STRAVA, ENDOMONDO, RUNKEEPER and MAPMYFITNESS.
Tip: If you want a good paid-for sports app that’s widely supported then go down the STRAVA route.
The only other APP that I kinda got to work was the WAHOO FITNESS app. For me, that was the only app that worked on the iPAD (as opposed to the iphone) and even then I had to perform some jiggery-pokery (I hope that’s not rude) in order to make it work. Don’t try it, it was complicated.
Just to be super-clear: The JABRA device paired with just about any Bluetooth thingy I threw at it. It took a little while sometimes but it paired successfully. Any problems occurred LATER when the 3rd party apps tried to connect to the earbuds through their own flavour of Bluetooth connectivity/communication which, as I understand it, varies greatly by device. So; none of this app malarkey is JABRA’s fault. You would probably have exactly the same issues with competing offerings on your hardware. It’s also the pricing models of the APPs who need to turn in a profit somewhere.
If you are a happy to use the quite decent JABRA sports app then you’re good to go there. If you are looking to export HR data to a sports analysis platform of some sort then plan carefully.
The Tests So here I undertook a reasonably demanding indoor turbo/bike session. A bit of faffing around (warming up) followed by 3x 9-minute intervals with a rest in between. Inside each 9 minute interval are repeats of 2 minutes at FTP/threshold and 1 minute somewhere neat VO2max. The reason I chose this test was that it eventually will get my HR up to somewhere in the high 160s at which point I usually see non-chest strap HR readings go awry. Also there are a few fairly rapid ups and downs to see how the HR monitor tracks fairly rapid changes in HR. I was accompanied by Blink-182’s Enema Of The State.
Here is the raw data track that the JABRA sent to the POLAR BEAT APP on an oldish Android SAMSUNG S3.
So you can see there are a few drop outs near the start. These happened when I was fiddling about with the earbuds whilst they were in my ear. Normally drop-outs with a new device would be a cause for concern. I’m more than prepared to give the JABRA the benefit of the doubt and blame my fiddling as they were faultless over the harder bits that mattered.
I also draw your attention to the smaller dips in the red line between the two major dips. In order to compare the accuracy of the JABRA to the Garmin HRM-RUN that I wore at the same time I quickly edited the HR track using SportTracks to get rid of the ‘fiddling’ bits. The two red dips in the chart below, therefore, are NOT the ones I edited out they are the other ‘smaller’ dips mentioned above. From memory these were incorrect readings from the JABRA. Otherwise, as you can clearly see below, the two HR monitors tracked each other VERY well.
You might suspect that the JABRA is slightly higher…or that the Garmin is slightly lower!! Depends how you see it. Here’s a summary of the JABRA. What’s not shown is the trainingload score of TRIMP=89 The Garmin, below, scored slightly lower with a trainingload score of TRIMP=87. You can draw your own conclusions from the non-scientific data. Whichever you consider to be right (Garmin or JABRA) then the other is within +/-1% of difference. To me this supports JABRA’s claim of >99% accuracy as probably being true. The JABRA averaged one beat higher. In an outdoor, easy-running test the HR results had quite a bit less accuracy at times. I did a similar test with a Garmin and a MIO Link optical HR wrist band in 2014. That review is (here). I would say that the MIO was more close to the Garmin than the JABRA.
However MANY other optical HR technologies are MUCH LESS ACCURATE so generally beware of optical HR if precision is your goal. The MIO was also susceptible to being very wrong when it was wrong eg on the wrong wrist. Here is a slideshow of pages from the JABRA SPORT app. I did use the app 6 times but these are not my images (Source: JABRA.com).
SUMMARY: These are ‘proper’ Bluetooth/NFC sport headphones that do the job in sweaty and dusty environments. They sound great with the JABRA app and have a high build quality. I think they look good. For me the ‘fit’ is excellent. The JABRA appears to be accurate with HR to a good level on the indoor tests that I performed. Any increased precision that might exist from other technologies will make virtually no difference to any of us outside of medical or scientific usage.
Outdoor running was less accurate for me on the one occasion I tested it outside.
The JABRA app is fine. It works. For me it worked glitch-free. It provides all the normal summaries for cadence, elevation, pace and HR. Some of the extra insights it gives, such as the orthostatic test, add a little extra over and above other apps. Nothing truly revolutionary. But fine.
Some of the scaling on the graphs could be improved to remove outliers. The other apps that were stated to be supported I was unwilling to test. I had problems getting the JABRA to work on the ipad (I installed iphone apps on the ipad which is not what you should rely on).
The officially unsupported Polar BEAT app worked fine. If you are coming at JABRA SPORT HR from the perspective that you want music and you want a straightforward app then consider one. If you are coming from the perspective of a real sporty type who wants to augment their existing sports gadgets with something that can play audio AS WELL AS providing the main source for their valued HR data then you need to make sure it’s going to mesh nicely with your gadget+data ecosystem.
JABRA are a company to watch. They are apparently doing and planning exciting things with super-accurate, in-ear heart rate monitoring as well as further more advanced feedback for in-ear sports audio-coaching. These current/future directions are good in themselves but also mesh nicely with where the whole sport-wearable market is heading.
RESOURCES: Here is the manual for the Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless if that’s what you are looking for.
- What’s in the box?: Carry case; eargel pack; rubber USB cable; you also get a free app.
- Weight: 16 g
- Connectivity: Bluetooth Version: 4.0 or NFC.
- Talk range: up
- Battery & PowerTalk Time: Up to 5 hours
- Standby Time: Up to 10 days
- USB Charging: Yes
- Music: Native app and supports other apps which can be controlled from the device.
- Voice Guidance: Spoken prompts will guide you (pairing, connection & battery status)
Alternatives, Pricing & Where to buy
Here are well priced links to this and other JABRA products. Note that the SPORT model is super sweat proof and the PULSE model takes HR readings.
These are all top-notch (aka expensive) headphones with the exception of the Sennheiser. If you get any one of these from Amazon and you have pairing issues or dropout issues…send them back within a month. Sorted.
- Jabra Elite Active 65t $170/£150 Sweet
- Jabra Elite Sport £125/£110 Inbuilt heart rate monitor #Clever
- Bose SoundSport FREE $199/£160
- Jaybird X3 Wireless $120/£100
- Jaybird Run $159/£140
- Bose SoundSport Wireless $199/£180
- Sennheiser PMX 686G Sports $35/£30
- Aftershokz Trekz Air $180/£160 – Interesting option that plays through your jawbone not inside your ear. They sound remarkably good.
- JBL Under Armour Sport $120/£100
- LifeBEAM Vi $250/£210
- Apple AirPods $160/£140