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TechnologyTell Review: House of Marley Liberate XLBT heaphones

Sections: Audio, Headphones, Reviews

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Are you in need of an audio upgrade, yet want something above and beyond the typical all-plastic design? Well you’re not the only one. The folks at House of Marley work with a lot of natural wood, fabric, and metal. If you want some new cans that feel and sound amazing, read on!

Design & Connectivity

The House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones have that comfortable, eye-catching look about it. It’s quite refreshing, considering that plastic is generally the go-to material for headphone and speaker construction. Sure, these Liberate XLBT headphones have plastic showing, but it’s minimal. You’re going to take notice of the steel band, fabric, protein leather, and wood highlights. What you get feels more real, humble, and earthy.

House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones box

Even the box comes from recycled material

Even though there are a number of materials all coming together, the construction quality is top notch. The fabric is attached well, leaving no room for wiggle or for frayed ends. The wood is set and steel clean. If there was any aspect that might bring question, it would be the padded headband.

With the exception of four points of contact to the steel frame, it’s more or less free to float. Now, this thread is thick like upholstery thread and tied very taut. So unless you’re doing something seriously weird with the Liberate XLBT headphones, they’ll live through normal wear and tear.

I like how the overall shape follows the contour of the head, flaring out only where the cups begin. Not only does it appear slimmer than that standard headphone, but it makes adjusting the ear cups easier. Because of the House of Marley Liberate XLBT design, lengthening the ear cups is a vertical pull instead of some awkward, tangential one. Each set position for the ear cups delivers a good click. However, there is a little bit of wiggle within each position. It’s less noticeable when you’re wearing them, but noticeable nonetheless. The clamping force helps to minimize the play.

When you’re done listening to music and are ready to tuck the Liberate XLBT headphones away, both cups fold up toward the headband without any overlapping. I love the design, since it’s just that much more compact when carrying. As an added touch, the Liberate XLBT comes with a very nice cloth carrying bag. You also get a cloth-covered audio cable to match. Both of these accessories are quality-made, and the cable is mostly tangle-free. It does have some memory retention, so give it some time to unkink itself. The metal and rubber tips are also a nice touch.

House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones plugs

Cute colors, but boo for the 2.5mm side

My only problem with the included audio cable is how it’s the 2.5mm to 3.5mm kind. All your standard audio cables won’t work with the Liberate XLBT headphones. So if you happen to damage or lose this one, you’ll either need an adapter or a separate cable. But they won’t look as good. This may not be that big of a deal to many, since these headphones feature Bluetooth for cable-free enjoyment.

Along with wireless connectivity comes wireless controls. The right side ear cup of the Liberate XLBT have all the buttons you need to navigate through music. Volume and track control are rocker-type buttons, while Bluetooth and power are the single-press kind. Bluetooth doubles as play/pause when music is active. Each of these buttons are raised up enough where they’re easy to identify by touch. The rockers have a groove that separates the button in half so you always know where you’re pressing. My only complaint is that all of these buttons require more than a firm press to activate. You have to lean in a bit.

One feature that is starting to become more common with wireless headphones is the 4-LED power indicator. It’s both neat and convenient to glance at in order to have an idea of how much battery life is left.

Comfort

The House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones are great on the head, but not so much around the neck. You can set them about the neck, no problem, but it’s not comfortable to leave them there for very long. The cups don’t have any swivel and also don’t extend far enough to keep from touching the pads to your jawline. These are pretty big pads, since the Liberate XLBT are over-ear headphones.

House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones controls

Controls look hidden, but are easy to feel

I like the feel of the protein leather cups, even if they do get a little warm over time. It’s typical. The foam padding inside has a good squish feel, but it seems to be a little less firm than what I’m normally accustomed to. After brief listening sessions, it goes from feeling “less firm” to “too soft” (more on this in a bit).

The steel band provides good clamping force that feels even on the top and bottom, against the side of the head. This steel doesn’t have any kind of memory, so you can’t bend it to customize the pressure. But it does a great job at holding against the ears and keeping weight from bearing down on the top of your head.

Headphone comfort is a pretty big deal. Amazing sound doesn’t mean much if you never wear headphones because of the fit. It’s also subjective and can feel different from person to person. With that being said, the House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones are comfortable for only brief periods of wear. For me. Fatigue sets in quickly – usually after 30 minutes of listening – where I have to take them off for a break. Not a short break of only a few minutes, but a rest of at least another half hour.

The ear cups are pretty easy to center on the ears. However, over time they start to bear down on my glasses stems. The back of my ears end up smushed and pinned heavily against my head. There isn’t that much room for movement to have them sit comfortably, longer, while maintaining a good seal. If I push the headphones forward toward my cheeks, it relieves pressure at the cost of sound quality and leaks. The same applies if I push them back. I feel that because of the oval-shaped interior of the ear cups I have to keep them dead-center for the best quality and least leaking.

Part of my problem may be due to the lack of lateral adjustment with the ear cups. The cups simply clamp without regard to the contours of the sides of heads. The beforementioned “wiggle” in the Liberate XLBT’s arms and cups is accidental, in the sense that they don’t provide adjustment. No matter how I set it, these headphones don’t stay comfortable for very long. Each time I remove them, one can see how the tips of my ears are bright red versus everything else.

Just for the record, I’ve had some non-glasses-wearing family try out the Liberate XLBT headphones. They didn’t share my experience. Even so, the fatigue didn’t stop me from continually going back to listen some more. It’s like eating spicy salsa, where it burns so good that you can’t wait to dive back in for another bite.

Audio Quality

The House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones deliver some beautiful sound, which makes them all the more attractive. It doesn’t matter if you choose to listen via Bluetooth or the audio cable, as music sounds the same. There’s some really great dynamics that come from these headphones. Lateral movement between the left and right sides are smooth, and the positioning of elements on the stage is both quick and detailed.

As a whole, the soundstage comes off a bit more shallow but with an appropriate width. Individual instruments seem to develop more depth unto themselves than the actual stage. What this means is that while I can pinpoint instrument and vocal locations precisely, they can sound like they’re the same distance from the front of the stage. Drum kits can almost seem like they’re pushing up and behind the lead guitarist.

House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones side

That steel band is stylin’

If you’re hard of hearing or love to blast music loud, the Liberate XLBT headphones will be a favorite. I thought I’ve heard loud before, but these get loud. With the headphone volume maxed, I only need my smartphone volume between 15 and 45 percent, depending on track and genre. I listen with moderate volumes, and going beyond that thrusts music into that uncomfortable, deafening range for me. However, more volume also means more thrust and vibration, which I also really like. Decisions, decisions.

Surprisingly, there isn’t too much bad distortion if you decide to press the limits of your audible well-being. If you decide to crank it up, the highs tend to bleach & blend, vocals degrade in some quality, and the mids start to get grimy. It’s not too bad for blowing out your eardrums! But if you’re like me, you’ll stick with the moderate, non-harmful listening levels and enjoy.

House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones cup

The padding has an oval-shaped interior

As mentioned before, the House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones leak sound. Even at lower volume levels (max on headphones and 20 percent on connected smartphone), someone sitting next to me can hear what I’m listening to if nothing else is going on around.

It takes road traffic, TV, or a radio playing to cover up the leaks. This happens even when you have the best possible seal. Increasing the volume intensifies the leaked sound, where setting my smartphone to 50 percent lets someone eight feet away hear vocals and beats with little problem.

But if you don’t care about who else may be listening in on your vibes, you’ll enjoy a superb amount of detail and clarity. I love the cymbal and hi-hat crashes. While other headphones in the same price bracket tend to have tinny-sounding highs, the Liberate XLBT headphones delivers more of a “shushing” sound. The one criticism I have about the cymbals and hi-hats is that they can come off a little too light at times, almost distant. While it’s not distracting, it is noticeable and not for all songs.

Aside from that, most all instruments in the highs are sharp and precise. Piano, dulcimers, and violins sound lush, clean, and are very distinctive from one another. Vocals in the highs – especially female vocals – are vibrant and push with a lot of energy. No sibilance and no halo effect. It gets pretty exciting, and the mids are no slouch either. Just as in the highs, the mids come through clear and well-defined. Instruments showcase rich sound and natural tones. The male vocals are no slouch and stand toe-to-toe with the instruments.

Unlike the House of Marley Liberate BT speaker, the Liberate XLBT headphones can handle multiple layers and the power of instruments in the mids. Of course, I’m comparing cousins, but the point still stands. The headphones are dextrous enough to finesse the complexities that come with hard rock and/or metal music. The Liberate XLBT always feels like it’s in control of your tracks and not the other way around.

House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones folded

Folds up better than many others

Sometimes the mids can sound a little warm, blending instrument edges into each other. It doesn’t really affect the vocals so much as it does the instruments. Personally, I don’t mind at all as it adds to brass the way I like. Saxophone? Love it. I listen to some Dengue Fever and can’t wait for the sax to break in. Not only do the mids showcase great detail and tone, but they’re strong enough to stand up against the power of the lows.

Although the lows that come from the Liberate XLBT headphones have substance, it’s not done at the expense of the highs or mids. These headphones are pretty close to balanced while staying full-flavor. You can feel the beats as much as you can hear them, especially if the volume is turned up a lot more. Even so, the lows have quality and develop some depth beyond the top-end of hits.

Listen to some Aesop Rock and you can hear how excellent the beats are. The lows have a good weight behind them that delivers a solid punch. But the key is how well it stays controlled within its area, staying clean and composed. You get that solid thump to fill in and around the ears, but with a beautiful depth that doesn’t feel forced or synthetic. With each individual song, the Liberate XLBT headphones deliver just the right amount of power to the lows to complement the track without overdoing it. As such, it’s easy to tune in and appreciate the tone and attack of hand drumming, or the thrumm of bass strings as they’re struck.

Bluetooth & Battery

When it comes to wireless audio devices, the Bluetooth range of the Liberate XLBT headphones is solid. I’ve been able to walk over 28 feet before the connection starts to drop. While in range, the audio stays mostly free from skips and pauses. You will encounter them on occasion, but not as much versus the average pair of headphones.

The only minor complaint about the Bluetooth quality of these headphones is that you’ll experience a very slight hiss and pop. This is most noticeable when a song is paused or stopped. You hit the button, hear about three seconds of hissing before the pop, and then it disappears into silence. But if you listen carefully after pressing play, you just might hear that hissing before it’s drowned out by music. Thankfully, this little aspect of wireless operation is not easy to pick up on with regular listening.

In terms of battery life, I’ve been able to listen to music for well over half an entire day. The charging time doesn’t seem to take that long, so 12 hours of wireless audio playback is not too shabby.

Verdict

The House of Marley Liberate XLBT headphones sound just as great as they look. It’s very solid and well-defined, sure to catch the eyes and ears of those who venture to look and listen. With so many all-plastic audio options out there, it’s nice to be able to feel something a little more real and less clinical.

I really like the sound signature from these headphones. They’re rich, clear, and very consistent. The balance is quite good too, so you can enjoy a wide range of music genres without the bass delivering in excess. Sound does leak a bit from the Liberate XLBT headphones, which is only important if you’re listening in quieter environments with others around. Otherwise, you can blast these really loud if you like it like that.

Although the fit and comfort doesn’t really agree with me, most should be able to wear these headphones without problem. It kind of depends on how cushy you need your cushions. But the fact that I kept going back and listening through the fatigue is a testament to how much I love the sound that comes out of these cans. For the price point, the Liberate XLBT headphones are solid performers that you can’t go wrong with.

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  • Jmol

    I have a question. Only only the right headphone works while on Bluetooth mode, but it works perfectly when using the cable, does somebody know why?