JBL Quantum ONE Gaming Headset Review

The most disappointing headset of 2020?

Photo taken by the author.

he “flagship” gaming headset market is a narrow field. $300+ price points are increasingly common in the standard headphone space, but still rather rare in gaming audio. As a result, competition is fierce, and gaming headsets that want to demand this high price have to really bring it.

JBL launched an astounding number of different gaming headsets earlier this year under their new Quantum branding. I previously reviewed the affordable Quantum 300, and despite a few minor complaints, it was still good enough to be one of the year’s best new headsets. When the range got a set of heavy discounts for Black Friday, I sprang for a Quantum ONE to see if the most expensive version of the headset could deliver on its promises.

Instead, it delivered only disappointment and bafflement.

The Quantum ONE is a beefy device, here shown sitting on top of my 12-inch MacBook. Photo taken by the author.

The JBL Quantum ONE normally retails for $299.99 (official site here), but it receives regular discounts below that price. That MSRP puts it up against well-reviewed high-end models from Astro, HyperX, and SteelSeries. It’s also $100 more expensive than JBL’s own Quantum 800, which offers both USB wireless and Bluetooth connections, neither of which are featured on the ONE. The Quantum ONE is a wired noise canceling 3D audio headset with USB-C and 3.5mm connections. If you don’t use a USB connection to a PC you’ll miss out on most of its features, including customizable RGB lighting zones, noise canceling, and head-tracking 3D audio.

In the box, you get a USB-C game/chat balance dial, a 3.5mm connection cable, a detachable microphone, and a second small microphone with a foam IEM ear tip on the end of it. This second mic is a calibration microphone that you can use to customize the HRTF used for the headset’s 3D audio to your personal ear characteristics. In order to do this, you have to deeply insert and seal this mic into your ear, plug it into the headset, and put the headset on over the mic. It’ll run some quick audio tests, then you repeat the process for the other ear.

Photo taken by the author.

This process is slow and cumbersome compared to the calibration systems I’ve seen on some other headphones, like Sony’s 1000X series. That headphone uses the built-in noise canceling microphones to measure your ear instead of requiring you to insert a separate device into your ear canal. As someone who finds sealed in-ear headphones uncomfortable, I think that’s a better approach. Fortunately, like some other gaming headsets, the Quantum ONE has some manual control options to adjust the 3D audio to your tastes.

3D head tracked audio is the main feature here that JBL is hoping makes the price premium worth it, but it doesn’t work as well as I’d like. The primary virtual surround system is JBL’s new QuantumSURROUND, and like on the Quantum 300, it sounds wonderful, with accurate placement of gaming audio and a realistic sense of height and depth. It’s great…with head tracking turned off. The tracking system has two problems: latency and calibration drift. It frequently and noticeably lags depending on the game or material used. It instantly breaks the illusion of a real sound environment if you turn your head and the audio doesn’t shift until several moments later.

Also, the calibration will often drift away from center, requiring you to either press the centering button on the back of the headset, or recalibrate more precisely through the QuantumENGINE software. Neither of these issues are present on the HyperX Cloud Orbit S. Its head tracking always updates instantaneously, and its auto calibration mode keeps things centered easily.

Photo taken by the author.

JBL also included DTS Headphone: X support, and I found myself gravitating towards that non head-tracked mode in my week and a half playing games with the headset. DTS Headphone is also better suited, in my opinion, to playback of standard stereo material like music and YouTube videos.

The RGB lighting on the headset is among the best I’ve ever seen on an audio product, so that’s exciting if you’re someone who needs this feature. It’s a great choice if you’re into streaming, or you just like to have fun lights on things…though as is always the case with headsets, your time seeing the lights yourself will be limited to when you aren’t wearing them. The entire ring around the JBL logo is customizable and programmable with multiple zones, as are a couple of other distinct zones of light that are cut into the cup design.

Noise canceling is the headset’s final premium feature. It works well, with a solid amount of noise reduction and a minimal white noise hiss similar to that on the Razer Opus. Unfortunately, like the other features above, it only works when hooked up to a PC with USB-C. You can plug in the 3.5mm cable while the headset is powered on and pump in an additional audio source, like a game console, but that immediately turns off the noise canceling.

I don’t understand why this headset doesn’t include a battery. It’s already a stretch to assume that someone spending more than $300 on a gaming headset will accept a wired-only connection when there are plenty of affordable wireless options out there. But to then limit most of its features to a USB-C connection on PC is unfortunate. Further, the USB-C port is recessed into a pocket that’s smaller than the average cable in my collection, so you’ll likely have to use the included cable to get a proper fit. The game chat balance dial that’s permanently hanging off that cable is nice, but there’s also no reason that couldn’t have been a software-only feature, or a small dial on the headset, saving some production cost that could hopefully be passed onto the consumer.

It’s a shame that the head tracking is glitchy and the calibration is cumbersome and unfriendly, because the core headset here is wonderful. The sound is brilliant and accurate, with some extra bass emphasis in its default EQ mode that’s fun and powerful. Comfort is great in spite of the surprisingly heavy weight of the plastic frame. The ear pads are covered in real leather(!) and filled with plush memory foam. Build is solid in spite of no obvious metal in the frame, although the angular design is a little “gaming headset from 2015.”

Photo taken by the author.

Mic performance is also decent, though unremarkable, with a sensitive capsule and none of the noise gate issues that I had with the 300 model. When plugged into a PC, you can activate a sidetone feature that sounds loud and responds in real-time. Here’s a short mic sample I recorded.

In a vacuum, the JBL Quantum ONE is a great-sounding headset with a large features package. But in real life it falls apart. It has a head-tracking feature that seems in desperate need of a patch, alongside excellent lighting and ANC features that are exclusive to PC gamers. If you’re a multi-platform gamer in search of a flagship product, other companies have you better covered..including JBL, paradoxically.

The HyperX Cloud Orbit offers planar magnetic drivers and a battery that lets its systems work regardless of connection. The Arctis Pro Wireless offers Bluetooth, a handy control unit, and a swappable battery. Both of those offer sound quality that matches or bests the Quantum ONE. Even the more modestly-priced Corsair Virtuoso offers wireless, wired, and USB-C connection options, and in a more premium-looking package.

All three have better mic performance.

And again, it cannot be overstated that JBL’s own Quantum 800 offers 90 percent of the features of this headset (sans head-tracking 3D and a removable mic) alongside wireless and Bluetooth options…for one hundred dollars less. It has the same leather-covered ear pads, ANC, and premium sound engineering. I’d deeply regret choosing the Quantum ONE over the 800 if I hadn’t received a fifty percent discount.

I don’t know who this headset is for, and I don’t know why you’d choose it over so many other good options…unless you really love its RGB lighting, or like the idea of calibrating something by sticking a mic into your ear canal. It’s a real shame, because again, the sound performance and comfort are what I would expect out of a flagship product. JBL sent this to die by packing most of its features into the cheaper 800 model, alongside superior connection support. If the head tracking of the ONE had blown my mind, it’d be different…but it just doesn’t work all that well.

I’d recommend checking out the other models in this series and totally avoiding the ONE if you’re considering a Quantum headset. It’s the most disappointed I’ve ever been in a headset priced this high, and even though it’s not at all terrible, it feels undercooked and outdated compared to the competition.

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