Review: JayBird Gear JF3 Freedom Bluetooth Wireless Headphones
If we were betting on the next big accessory growth category, our money would be on wireless options, with speakers taking the lead and next-generation stereo wireless headsets not far behind. Two years ago, Altec Lansing's BackBeat 903 represented the state of the art, a big step forward from Etymotic's earlier ety8. Now a smaller but still noteworthy company called JayBird Gear has made another leap forward with the JF3 Freedom Bluetooth Headphones ($99, aka JF3MB).
When you consider what wireless headphones looked like only five years ago—and looks turn out to be really important for this type of product—JF3’s improvements are surely non-trivial. Etymotic sold the large, boxy ety8 headset for $200, almost amusingly trying to glamorize the ultra-geeky looking silver and black boxes by showing photos of young people wearing them. Altec had less to worry about aesthetically with BackBeat 903, having shaped its smaller, less expensive wireless electronics as hearing aid-like hooks that didn’t look great, but didn’t look ridiculous, either. Thanks to improvements in technology and design, JayBird was able to fit its electronics into pill-shaped enclosures that occupy half the volume of Altec’s while preserving almost all the functionality. Earbud-shaped bulges extend out from the interiors of the pills, fitting into your ear canals with comfy rubber tips. JayBird was also able to switch from thick, tube-like plastic or fabric cabling of earlier rivals to a smaller flat rubber cable. It still feels firm, but looks better when hanging behind the back of your neck.
It’s important to highlight a number of the other improvements JayBird has wrought in JF3 before discussing a few issues the new design introduces. Because JF3 uses less and better plastic than BackBeat 903, the glossy-bodied JF3 earphones are considerably lighter, and feel more comfortable hanging on your ears than any wireless headphones we’ve previously tested. They’re also sweatproof, a non-trivial improvement. JayBird includes six sets of silicone eartips and three sets of in-ear stabilizers to keep the headphones in place during sports or regular use; three of the eartips are different sizes of double-flanges, color-coded for easy reference, and the other three are single-flange tips with interior color-coding by size. In our testing, the combination of eartips and stabilizers did work to keep the headphones in place, though we’re not convinced that the dangle-down, internally supported design is the smartest way to make wireless headphones work. This is as close as anyone has come to a wireless headphone design that looks and feels right, but it’s by no means the end of the line.
JayBird’s other pack-ins and features are pretty nice. The hard plastic, magnet-sealed clamshell carrying case has enough room for the earphones, an included USB charging cable, and all of the eartips, though not a dedicated compartment to hold all of those tips. There’s also an in-line cord manager for the flat neck cord that enables the cabling to be expanded or reduced in length to fit your head, as well as a quickly learned multifunction power/play/pause/phone call/pairing/Voice Control button that replaces the need for three separate buttons on BackBear 903. Inside the headset are a six-hour rechargeable battery, Bluetooth 2.1 wireless for PIN code-free pairing, a microphone for iPhone calling, and an apt-X audio processor, ostensibly for superior audio fidelity.
Audio quality is where JF3 runs into its only major issues. While the six-hour integrated battery represents only a small step down from the seven-hour cell in BackBeat 903, JF3’s renditions of music and phone calls are both noticeably less impressive than Altec’s. Songs are performed at a reasonable default volume level, which is modestly adjustable using two small gray buttons on the right earphone’s side, proper volume controls are handled on the iOS device itself, and unfortunately not mirrored by JF3’s buttons. At safe listening volumes, music sounds static-free and smooth—without wireless stutters—but flat, without much bass, treble, or apparent detail. Both of the older rivals mentioned above made sound quality a focus, but JF3 comes up a little short here; the sound is only adequate, with a strong focus on the midrange, which is entirely reasonable for use when working out but less than great for quiet listening. Microphone performance was similar. Callers described us as sounding decent but muffled by comparison with the iPhone 4’s integrated microphone, and also by reference to BackBeat 903, which was roughly equivalent to Apple’s. You can be heard on the other end of a call, but your caller won’t find you to be particularly intelligible.
Overall, JF3 is as good of a wireless headphone solution for 2011 as its aforementioned predecessors were back in 2006 and 2009. JayBird got the price and basic features right—it’s offering a sport-ready, sweat-proof Bluetooth headset for under $100, using lightweight components that offer nearly as solid of an audio and battery life experience as predecessor products. But it trades off sonic quality both in its speakers and its microphone, creating a listening and talking experience that’s merely satisfactory rather than thrilling, and the dangling ear-mounted boxes are only acceptable because no one has yet come up with the ideal ear mounting system for stereo headphones. If you’re looking for a comfortable way to listen to your iPod touch, iPhone, or iPad music without wires, JF3 offers a good and recommendable place to start, but there are still design and engineering challenges yet to be met on the road to true listening freedom.