A few days before the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, Amazon rolled out its mobile accessory kit to enable creators of wireless earbuds and wearables like smartwatches or fitness trackers to place Alexa inside their devices. Jabra Elite 65t, which are available now for $170, are among the first earbuds to use the kit for Alexa integration, so we got a pair and put them through their paces.
Unlike Google Assistant and Siri, Alexa isn’t native to a mobile operating system. One of the big questions we sought to answer was: How well does Alexa perform when tethered to your smartphone?
Don’t expect Alexa in earbuds to do everything she can do in smart speakers. Most notably missing are the ability to make phone calls and play music from popular streaming services like Spotify.
The Jabra Elite 65t currently only work with Alexa on Android smartphones. Alexa support for Jabra’s Sound+ app on iOS is coming soon, a company spokesperson told VentureBeat.
Jabra says calls and music are the No. 1 and No. 2 most common ways people use earbuds — unfortunately, both of these features still feel incomplete.
Elite 65t with Alexa can’t be used to access popular music streaming services with a voice command. No Spotify, no iHeartRadio, not even TuneIn or Sirius XM satellite radio. By contrast, Alexa on an Echo can reach up to eight music, radio, or podcast streaming services.
Amazon Music is the only streaming service supported by Alexa in earbuds. Amazon Music access is fairly simple and responsive to voice commands, and it works even if you don’t have the app installed on your phone. The problem with that is, while you can start playing music with your voice, there’s no built-in option on your phone to pause or change the music. To do so, you have to open the Alexa app and look for the earbuds among the devices listed in the sound tab.
Multi-room audio control does work with earbuds, meaning you can request a song with your earbuds and have it play on multiple Echo speakers at home, which is a cool feature.
I didn’t find the audio customization available in the Sound+ app to be a must-have, but it could be interesting for audiophiles who want to adjust sound with an equalizer.
While the sound quality is great (more on that later), the voice control limitations are off-putting. You notice that you can’t say basic commands like “Alexa, next song.” Of course, these are Bluetooth earbuds so you can play whatever music you want, but despite having Alexa in your ears, wearing these all day and getting hands-free access is simply not going to happen.
Calls and messages
Jabra Elite 65t can answer phone calls with just a voice command. Ask to call someone, however, and you’ll hear “Calling with Alexa is not supported on this device. You can use the Alexa app instead.”
This is in contrast to the increasing number of features that Alexa on a smart speaker can handle — like making phone calls and sending text messages.
Once you do make a call with Jabra Elite 65t, the earbuds and their visibly protruding 4-microphone array do a pretty good job, especially considering the fact that the mics are on the side of your head instead of in front of your mouth, like when using a phone.
That said, while these earbuds do a decent job making phone calls, they do not appear to be capable of the level of intimacy portrayed in this Jabra ad on a train in Copenhagen:
When I walked down the street of San Francisco’s busy Financial District — like the kind of stroll taken in this commercial — the caller on the other end reported sounds of loud trucks and wind. After experiencing noisy traffic activity during another call, I had to switch to my phone to be heard.
The ability to place Alexa Drop In calls would have been nice, but this feature doesn’t appear to be available yet.
Alexa with earbuds cannot send text messages or send Drop In messages through the Alexa app. This is a real shame — I can’t honestly tell you I’ve spent much time using the Alexa app’s call and messaging service, but I might use Drop Ins to reach people at home if I knew my earbuds could reach them. By contrast, both Siri and Google Assistant can send text messages with voice, and Alexa speakers gained the ability to send text messages last month.
Reminders, timers, and alarms
Reminders are not currently supported on Elite 65t earbuds, an Amazon spokesperson told VentureBeat. Timers and alarms can be set, but they do not result in auditory or visual notifications from the Alexa app.
It’s important to note that Elite 65t can also speak with Google Assistant on an Android phone or Siri on an iPhone. The Jabra Sound+ app gives you one-touch assistant access to toggle between them.
The Elite 65t experience with Google Assistant is completely different. Alexa definitely isn’t as intrusive as Google Assistant can be with auditory notifications, but it’s also nowhere near as advanced. Google Assistant makes sounds in your ears for various types of notifications, including but not limited to reminders, timers, and alarms.
In Pixel Buds, Google Assistant can also read your messages and give you the option to reply with your voice. Google Assistant’s auditory reminders can be a bit too much at times, but they can also be helpful to keep you on track throughout the day should you ever want to make a digital assistant your copilot.
Timers, reminders, and alarms set with Siri sound on the phone but not in your ear.
Pixel Buds captured a lot of people’s attention last year when it was revealed that the earbuds can carry out on-the-spot translations of 40 languages. The feature is a bit less impressive when you get your hands on it, but it’s still far ahead of many competitors.
Last year, Amazon began to answer some commands and questions by recommending specific skills. Say “Alexa, let’s play a game” or “Alexa, help me relax” and you’ll be given a series of suggestions. Ask “Alexa, how do I say ‘Hello’ in Chinese?” and Alexa may recommend speaking with the Translated skill voice app, which I also tried with the Jabra Elite 65t.
You can’t rely on Google Assistant translations nor the Translated skill to be your court-appointed translator. In other words, both can only translate a few words or short sentences spoken in the span of a few seconds.
In addition to Translated, Alexa in earbuds gives you access to Alexa’s more than 30,000 voice apps or skills.
Navigation and directions
In this category, your options are infinitely better with Google Assistant or Siri. With Alexa in earbuds or a smart speaker, ask for directions and it can tell you the level of traffic congestion on the way to work, but it doesn’t offer any form of navigation. Google Maps, on the other hand, can handle many forms of navigation and can even tell you how to get around on a bike.
Limitations in navigation definitely take away from Alexa’s usefulness on-the-go. If you’re getting the Jabra Elite 65t or any other Alexa earbuds, you’ll still need another device to navigate around.
Alexa in earbuds can do voice shopping better than any other assistant today. Place an order with your earbuds, and Alexa may ask if she can send updates about your package to your Echo speaker at home. This is no surprise — Amazon’s assistant was the first to sell millions of items with voice alone way back in the summer of 2016.
Since Amazon’s voice shopping can be based on your previous order history, you can simply say “Alexa, order paper towels” and it will ask if you want the same ones you got last time. You can also ask Alexa for an update on where your package is and when you can expect it to arrive. This buying history knowledge can make voice shopping rather seamless, and given the tens of millions of smart speakers expected to be sold in the years ahead, it makes sense that a recent survey projected U.S. consumers will spend up to $40 billion in voice shopping by 2022.
Google began to offer Express voice shopping in Home devices about a year ago but is still unable to process voice shopping in any device beyond Home speakers.
Sound quality and performance
In addition to headphones, Jabra makes hearing aids, and it shows. These earbuds deliver some pretty stellar sound, genuinely one of the best audio experiences I’ve ever had. The sound streaming in your ear almost always effectively shuts out the rest of the world for great fidelity and clarity.
The aforementioned Jabra ad wasn’t accurate in its portrayal of phone calls, but the music portion was right. People who own AirPods likely recognize the feeling, but the lack of wires and Elite 65t’s deep, loud sound quality can make you more or less forget your surroundings.
As far as how it feels to wear Jabra’s latest earbuds, Elite 65t fit pretty comfortably inside the ear. To put these earbuds on, you angle the microphone bit along the side downward, put them in your ears, then twist them toward your face to tighten the fit. That’s a big improvement over my experience with Elite Sport earbuds, which are powerful enough to follow your heart rate but routinely fell out of my ear or required too much experimentation with fitting.
Because the earbuds are discreet, be prepared for the outside world to talk to you.
This can be a bit irritating, but that’s part of the reason an ambient sound option is increasingly incorporated into headphones, from Pixel Buds to Bose QuietComfort 35 II and Sony’s Xperia Ear Duo earbuds, due out later this year.
The 65t have a function called HearThrough that lets ambient sound into your ears with a double tap of the right earbud.
The Jabra Sound+ app will set your HearThrough rate at 50 percent by default, but you may want to turn it up to 100 to really hear what’s around you. Otherwise, HearThrough can make you feel a bit like you have your head stuck in a fishbowl. Once you’ve got HearThrough turned on, it works as advertised to let you carry on conversations without taking out your earbuds.
A notable downside to Jabra Elite 65t earbuds is battery life. Jabra Elite 65t can deliver 5 hours of battery on a single charge, like Pixel Buds and AirPods, but only offers an additional 10 hours of charging capacity in its carrying case. That’s well short of the total 24 hours of total battery life promised by Google Pixel Buds and Apple AirPods.
Finally, and I’ve said as much before, I’ve got a fundamental problem giving any company money for a device I can lose in my couch — or somewhere outside the home — never to be seen again. Elite 65t makes the same glaring mistake as Google’s Pixel Buds: There’s no tracker feature in case they get lost.
I can sympathize with AirPods fans who were upset about the lack of a locator at launch for a pair of $159 earbuds. I can also understand why it took Apple about six months to correct this mistake. I hope future earbuds makers also learn this lesson.
The answer to our big question of how Alexa performs when it isn’t native to the operating system isn’t positive. There are some important limitations — it’s not like you can’t use Spotify with Jabra Elite 65t earbuds, but to get directions in your ear or play music outside Amazon’s walled garden, you have to pick up your phone. This is a shame, as the entire purpose of earbuds with an assistant inside is to let you accomplish tasks with voice alone.
Jabra Elite 65t delivers great sound quality, but if you want these earbuds for the Alexa voice control, don’t expect a great experience making calls, playing music, setting reminders, or navigation.
Feature updates, like the addition of reminders, are on the way, an Amazon spokesperson told VentureBeat. But if you’re looking for the Alexa experience you get from a smart speaker, you’ll have to wait a little before the mobile accessory kit that connects with Alexa Voice Service catches up.