House of Marley as a brand of headphones has never come off as one on the high end. It always seemed like an entry-level, big box retail solution, meant to appeal to the price conscious—often playing up its reggae and Rastafari roots. With some of the newer headphone models, however, House of Marley is now making a play for the higher-end audio enthusiasts altering the look and price points slightly.
The Liberate XL, specifically, is a wireless Bluetooth pair of on-the-ear headphones meant to compete with Bose and every other $100-200 pair of headphones. It comes in at $150 and at first glance manages to at least get itself a consideration. Can a brand like House of Marley successfully move up stream and shed its perception of being entry level?
The Liberate XL I tried was silver with grey cloth on the ears and brown leather padding. It’s an immediately eye-catching color combination that works well, in my opinion. The headphones also come in a black color variant, but the brown and grey aren’t too wild and still provide a little more personality.
House of Marley has an obvious reggae vibe which might have been a turn-off on previous headphones, but the Liberate XL tones it down to the point of almost being unnoticeable. Not only do the headphones look nice out of the box, they look comfortable.
The ear-pads are soft and squishy and the top leather head-pad is extremely comfortable. It seems simple enough to put cushioning in the right spots on headphones to make them wearable for hours, but few audio manufactures actually seem to get it right. The Liberate XL aren’t flawless in this regardless either—possibly for those with bigger ears, but they do a better job than most.
Despite the generous padding, the headphones fold up in relatively compact package. Each ear cup folds up to the headband and is easily stored in a backpack or messenger bag. The downside? Out of the box, my review unit was scratched up where the two ear pieces fold together indicating long term travel with the headphones would leave them showing plenty of wear. The fabric also looks nice, but doesn’t look like it would survive anything other than the most careful home use with it eventually fraying from rubbing against items.
Overall the headphones mimicked high quality, but they still felt cheap in subtle ways using them over time. For example, adjusting the headband size made a click clack-ity sound where the earpieces connect. They also felt flimsy at the connection points.
Right off the bat, slipping them on wirelessly for a first listen, the Liberate XL feel like the real deal. Not only are they comfortable on the ears, but they also sound good. Listening to Haerts “Call My Name,” the bass was tight, the low end abundant, and the highs present.
Listening to Ben Howard’s “Old Pine,” the acoustic guitar was present throughout the intro and seemed to be as I remembered through my home stereo system. It’s the kind of full sound everyone’s expecting to hear from (relatively) expensive headphones.
After more listening, my initial impressions shifted a little. Connecting the headphones wirelessly to an iPhone 6 Plus and streaming a 320 kbps song from Rdio, the sound was a little mushy. The low-end was a little too powerful, slightly too unwieldy to pick out intricacies of the song.
Interestingly, when connecting the included 3.5mm headphone cable directly and streaming the same song, it sounded a lot different. The low-end wasn’t bleeding across all spectrums while the bass still kept thumping. The high-end was much more pronounced and each area of sound more balanced and even.
Using the headphones wireless, the sound quality was passable, but not ideal. Using them with the cable as standard wired headphones, the Liberate XL were pretty decent sounding. Doing a comparisons with other wired headphone in the $100-$150 range, the House of Marley pair weren’t the tightest and didn’t provide the most accurate sound reproduction, but they did hold their own.
The wireless feature was definitely the weakest link, even considering some of the hardware wear and tear. Besides the different sound quality issues, multiple times I would get signal drops or interruptions between the Liberate XL and my iPhone 6 Plus unless close and in direct sight.
Usually the distance from my pocket to the headphones would cause at least one cut-out with each use. This is not common for wireless headphones and is essentially makes the wireless function meaningless.
The saving feature is that you don’t have to use the headphones wirelessly—mentioned previously. The 3.5mm headphone cable can also be used if the battery for wireless dies. The company touts that the cable is covered in cloth highly among the list of features for the headphones which seems odd. The single play/pause clicker with mic on the cable does make it nice, but nothing worth advertising.
Part of the hardware and overall craftsmanship, the wireless control buttons were flimsy and loose. Without 100-percent attention to pressing and holding the button it would often take three or four tries to get the headphones to turn on. Another indicator that headphones from House of Marley still are aimed at the common denominator mass market crowd.
The House of Marley Liberate XL would be a solid pair of headphones at a price point of $79. At $150, however, they fall short in lots of little ways.
I think the Liberate XL and House of Marley as a whole are slowly transforming the perception of the company for audio enthusiasts, but perception is only part of the equation. It needs solid craftsmanship and flawless electronics to match good sound a decent looks.
Ignoring all the little faults, the wireless connectivity issues and sound variants make the marquee feature extremely frustrating. It’s too bad because if the wireless was more reliable these would definitely be worth looking at and considering.