Whether you’re looking for consumer or professional audio gear, JBL has a long legacy in the industry…but they haven’t done much in the gaming space until now. A few months ago, they went overboard and launched an astounding seven gaming headsets on the exact same day alongside one pair of desktop speakers. The “Quantum” range has a style for literally every budget between $40 and $300, covering the gamut of features from 3D surround sound to Bluetooth to 2.4 Ghz wireless to RGB lighting.
As you go cheaper, you lose features. The mid-range Quantum 300 offers just enough of what makes the series special that I decided it would be a good place to buy in, and although it can’t claim superiority over others on the market, it’s still an interesting headset with plenty of sound performance and comfort. And a disastrous implementation of microphone input.
The JBL Quantum 300 (official site) sells for $79 normally, and sometimes goes on sale. I bought mine for about $60 on Amazon. It’s a closed-back gaming headset that’s available only in black. It has a permanently attached cable and microphone. The cable is 1.2 meters long. In the box, you’ll receive a USB sound card dongle with its own 1.5 meter cable. Unlike some other USB sound dongles, the end that plugs into your computer is bulky and the other side is a simple headphone jack instead of a big control box, which is a nice design touch.
If you’re looking at the cheaper Quantum 200 and wondering what separates the 300, it’s the USB sound card. The two headsets are otherwise identical. So, if you don’t think you’ll need the sound card you might as well save the money. The dongle offers a great hardware surround implementation, but fumbles its mic implementation so badly that you might want to skip it if you’ve already got a competent setup. More on that below.
JBL’s marketing for this headset range repeats over and over that their “QuantumSOUND” signature is “based on research” but then doesn’t proceed to tell you what that research actually is. Considering that JBL is part of the same family of companies as Harman, I’m guessing that this research is the Harman Target Curve. This curve is a carefully-crafted headphone sound target designed to reproduce audio with exceptional accuracy, and tuned to the listening preferences of the average human ear thanks to the magic of years of science.
I really like headphones tuned to this curve. The AKG K371 and Razer Opus are both excellent examples of what it can do for audio. While the sound of the JBL Quantum 300 shares some similarities with the Harman target, it’s ultimately tuned firmly in the direction of “consumer audio.”
That’s not to say that it sounds bad, but rather that it shares more in common with popular gaming headsets than it does with high-end audiophile gear. The bass is thick and a little boomy, with just enough punch to satisfy bassheads. The midrange is impressively flat and accurate, and although the lower mids are a little thick from the bass emphasis they still sounds nice. Treble response is a bit uneven, with a dip in the lower treble range and some harshness up top. This gives the treble a more relaxed, less detailed sound than many studio headphones, and makes some vocals in music sound a little thinner and more recessed than normal. But on the plus side it also means they’re not fatiguing over long sessions or at louder volumes.
Soundstage and imaging are also good for a closed back pair, and they get even better if you turn on the QuantumSURROUND feature which I talk more about in the next section. But even if you’re a hardcore stereo fan, this presents a decently wide and accurate sound field.
In direct comparisons, it sounds very much like a Hyper X Cloud Alpha, but with just a bit more boom in the bass and a little more bite in the upper treble. It’s a sound that I immediately liked, and it’s awesome that an Alpha-like sound is available in a cheaper product. If you’re looking for a fun sound tuning that’s great for games and movies, this fits the bill perfectly. The Quantum 300 has a pleasant sound with plenty of bass punch that you can listen to all day without fatigue. If you’re into accuracy above all things, you might want to look at a different pair.
VIRTUAL SURROUND, DONGLE, AND MICROPHONE
If you’re a fan of virtual surround, and you don’t mind when it adds some extra movie-theater-like EQ, then you’ll have a good time with the dongle’s QuantumSURROUND mode. Like the other shouted-at-you technologies contained in this headset, it’s based off of years of acoustic research, with the goal of crafting a spatial audio system that can compete with Atmos, THX Spatial, and Windows Sonic.
Like Razer’s THX software, you can apply QuatumSURROUND to stereo or 5.1/7.1 surround signals. Unlike that other software, you don’t have to set JBL’s manually to work in every individual app. Instead, you get a blanket on/off switch. The first thing you’ll notice is that there’s a dramatic change in sound signature with the surround mode active. It takes on an aggressive, v-shaped, cinema-style bite with powerful punchy bass and a sharp upper mid-range. Gone is the laid back listening character of the standard stereo presentation, replaced with powerful in-your-face audio.
Fortunately, the actual surround channel virtualization is exceptional, with accurate placement throughout the sound field and a very smooth channel transition that makes the audio feel more like a 3D sphere and less like it’s coming from discrete speaker locations. The system doesn’t support vertical data from games like Sonic and Atmos do…but it didn’t matter that much to me since the standard surround implementation is great.
Whether playing games or even just listening to stereo audio, I love the way this system sounds. It’s one of my favorite surround implementations on PC, and although it’s not quite at the level of the top tier Waves NX system on the much more expensive Cloud Orbit, it works well enough that I don’t mind all the marketing hyperbole JBL tossed onto their web site. If you step up to the higher-priced models, they also throw in DTS Headphone: X so you can compare the two systems. I don’t know why they did this, as their proprietary system more than holds its own, and saving money on DTS licensing would have lowered the cost of the more expensive headset models.
You can use JBL’s QuantumENGINE (shouted yet again) software to customize the surround system a bit, adjusting it for your height and head size. I didn’t find this made a huge difference to the audio, but more customization is always better. The software also includes a full graphical EQ if you’d like to try and smooth out the signature changes caused by the surround system, or adjust the standard sound to be a bit more accurate.
Unfortunately, while the surround mode is great and made my gaming experience better…that’s where my fun with the dongle ends. It has numerous issues that need to be solved with a software update as soon as possible, and many of them center around the microphone. The attached microphone on the Quantum 300 is great, but you’ll never know that if you use it through the dongle.
Mic input through the dongle is super quiet, compressed, and heavily noise-gated. A noise gate tries to turn off the input if it doesn’t detect audio in order to minimize noise. The noise gate on the Quantum 300’s dongle is so strong that you’ll have to practically shout to get the mic to activate, and once you’re transmitting you’ll get super quiet poor quality audio and your voice will constantly fade in and out at the beginning and ends of words. There’s no way to adjust the noise gate, the mic tone, or the mic gain through the software and even with the one included volume slider turned all the way up you’ll barely register.
This is such a profound oversight for a gaming headset that it feels like no one bothered to look at it. If you plug the mic into any other standard sound interface, it has plenty of sensitivity and a reasonably natural tone. So the capsule itself isn’t to blame.
You can hear some samples of the mic audio I recorded right here. One test shows you how bad the dongle’s mic implementation sounds, and the other shows the dramatic improvement when routed through an Astro mixamp.
Fortunately, JBL didn’t make the same mistakes with comfort that they made with the mic input. The Quantum 300 is an exceptionally comfy headset, with huge plush memory foam ear pads that provide well over an inch of internal ear cup space in front of their deeply-recessed and angled drivers.
The shape of the ear cup openings is a little bit strange, looking like a lightbulb rather than the standard oval or ear-shaped openings used on most other headsets. I’ve seen some reports that these holes aren’t compatible with users’ ears, but mine fit in there just fine and don’t touch anything inside the cups. These are the best ear pads I’ve seen on a headset priced this low, and some of the best headphone pads on the market in general. They’re awesome.
There’s a small strip of padding running along the headband, and it’s quite soft and does its job well. It seems like it’ll be too thin, but the headset clocks in at just under 250g so it doesn’t have much mass to support.
The clamping force is much stronger than I expected from an all-plastic headset, but the giant pads are more than up to the challenge of countering it. The clamp has the added benefit of ensuring a strong seal even around my glasses, which helps with isolation and bass response.
DESIGN AND BUILD
And here, we come crashing back down to the reality of this headset’s low price. This is the weakest category of the product outside of the mic noise gate disaster.
The visual look is fine, though the large cups and wide headband mean that they stick out prominently while worn, and scream “gaming product” in a way that many headsets have shied away from for a few years now. The permanently-attached microphone looks like a weird alien tentacle arm with its smoothly curved and prominent rubberized cover, and the glossy plastic sides collect fingerprints and dust the instant you look at them.
As far as build goes, it’s uninspiring, and the area where I hope a future revision makes some improvements. The frame is completely plastic, and the right side of my pair makes a small creaking noise every time I talk or move my jaw while wearing them. The adjustment sliders are clicky enough, but the left side is less tight than the right side on my model. The cable running between the ear cups is fitted into a groove along the inside of the frame, but it’s tremendously thin and has to run through the cheap-feeling rotation joint.
The braided cable is nice and remained tangle-free during my week of testing, and I like that the plug has a 45 degree angle. I really wish that the cable and the microphone were both detachable. It’s baffling that, in launching a huge range of headsets, JBL thought to make the mic detachable on only the most and least expensive models, leaving the rest with a permanent mic appendage. At least the mic mutes when you flip it up, with a nice click.
While the light weight of the headset is really good for comfort, it also has a hollow toy-like feeling that inspires no confidence. I wouldn’t expect these to survive any kind of physical abuse. This is the cheapest-feeling plastic I’ve seen on a gaming headset in a long time. I can’t reiterate that enough. Outside of the awesome ear pads and the small rubber JBL logo strip along the headband, nothing about these feels premium in the slightest.
Also, the inline volume wheel on the back of the left ear cup has a rough scratchy feeling across its whole range, and several small channel imbalances. I avoided using it and controlled my volume device-side instead.
I think that sound quality, comfort, and mic quality are the most important aspects of a gaming headset, followed by a build that can stand the abuse of being dragged around in a bag and being worn for hours at a time. The JBL Quantum 300 gets the first two things very right, and makes a half-hearted attempt at the others. That’s not the worst for a $60-$80 headset…until you remember that the Astro A10, with its metal headband and exceptional microphone, exists.
Fortunately the surround implementation here is completely incredible, because otherwise I’d recommend skipping the Quantum 300 entirely in favor of its cheaper 200 sibling if you must have one of these, or saving for one of the more feature-packed expensive models. If JBL ever patches in a noise gate control that would turn my opinion around in a big way, because right now the mic is essentially destroyed when plugged into the dongle.
Still, this is a strong foundation for the future of JBL’s gaming series, and I had a good enough time that I’ll likely buy one of the more expensive models to check out in the future. A revision with a detachable mic and cable, more metal in the build, a nicer volume wheel, and more software microphone control would sit at the very top of the market.