I’m a fan of House of Marley gear, especially the company’s use of natural materials (yeah, I’m a sucker for the use of wood in high tech gear) and willingness to release interesting products like the Roots Rock Bluetooth speaker. Marley audio products don’t just sound good; by combining natural materials like leather, bamboo, and aluminum with recycled cloth and skipping the usual form factors, they stand out visually in a crowd. House of Marley recently sent me a pair of Liberate XLBT Bluetooth headphones to try out. They look good, feel good, and sound good, making for a compelling alternative to some of the more mainstream competitors.
As I mentioned in the intro, anything from House of Marley tends to stand out and the Liberate XLBT headphones follow that tradition. FSC certified wood inserts on the ear cups, REWIND cloth (30% hemp, 30% organic cotton, and 40% recycled plastic bottles), soft leather on the headband and ear cushions, and a headband made of recycled metal makes for a unique look that also happens to be eco-conscious.
In terms of form factor, these are over-ear headphones, the cup can adjust up and down, and they fold nicely to fit in the included cloth bag. A micro USB port handles the battery charging, there’s an audio-in jack (cable with a microphone is provided for use with a smartphone) should you decide to go wired, and there are various pushbutton controls on the outer surface of the right ear cup.
I’m just going to say it upfront: if you don’t like bass, these probably aren’t the headphones for you.
The Liberate XLBTs feature big, 50mm dynamic moving coil drivers with neodymium magnets, and audio is tuned to reflect House of Marley’s “signature sound.” The official description of what this means? “Smooth, powerful bass, stunningly precise mids, and an energized high end.”
I spent a lot of time comparing the XLBTs against other headphones in my collection, primarily my go-to cans, Sennheiser Momentum on-ear headphones.
Bass and low end performance is definitely a highlight of the Liberate XLBTs. The mid range is also solid, but I found the high end performance wasn’t quite as sharp. It still sounded good, just not quite as crisp. The overall effect was sound that had a warmth compared to the Momentums (which seemed a little more clinical in their presentation) and, for most genres, I preferred the Liberate XLBTs. As expected, the House of Marley headphones really suited my new wave, synth pop, and industrial music choices, and Pink Floyd’s “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” was killer. A pleasant surprise was how well the headphones handled pop rock. For example, in REM’s “Texarkana” the bass guitar gained a significantly more prominent presence in the mix that made the song sound richer than it did on the Sennheisers, without being overpowering.
There is no active sound canceling, but with the cups fitted firmly over my ears (and they are very comfortable, by the way) it took a pretty loud noise to intrude into my listening. Oh, and these headphones can pump out some serious volume–without distorting.
The Liberate XLBTs support both AAC and APTX Bluetooth encoding. I switched back and forth between wireless and wired and, honestly, I couldn’t discern a difference in audio quality. It’s possible that someone with better hearing might be able to tell, but I don’t think you’ll be giving up much in sound quality by going wireless with these headphones–and there’s always the wired connection if you want to eliminate Bluetooth compression.
I could leave my iPhone in the kitchen and walk into the back yard without sound cutting out, but once I put a wall and 20 feet or so between us the Bluetooth connection would start to drop.
Battery life was good for a week at a time of one to two hour listening sessions with some charge still left (according to the LED indicator).
There isn’t a whole lot I would change about the Liberate XLBTs. The plastic buttons felt a little on the cheap side and, although each is a raised enough to find it by feel, I could never figure out which button I was pushing. But that’s a common problem I have with any headphones that use ear cup-mounted controls. The audio cable is clad in a premium-looking braided cloth, but it uses an unusual 2.5mm to 3.5mm connector so you probably don’t want to lose it.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about these headphones–especially when some of the better known competitors cost twice as much. I’d take them in a flash over most of those shiny plastic cans based on the design alone, and the audio quality seals the deal.
House of Marley Liberate XLBT Bluetooth Headphones retail for $149.99.
Disclosure: House of Marley provided Liberate XLBT headphones for this review.