Review: JayBird Gear BlueBuds X Bluetooth Wireless Headphones
Once the subject of disproportionate interest and attention, headphones have become somewhat predictable over the past two years: small earphones haven't made much progress in performance for their prices, and big earphones tend to look like Beats by Dre clones or throwbacks to 1970's versions. So when we say that JayBird Gear's new wireless headset BlueBuds X ($170) really stands out from the crowd, we mean it -- this is the best pair of Bluetooth earphones we've yet tested, though also the most expensive earphone-style wireless headset design we've seen in years. Though the price point will scare some people away, its positives will be significant enough to attract users who have previously written off Bluetooth headsets or waited for "the right one."
Unlike most Apple accessory makers, JayBird is unapologetically using the “kitchen sink” approach to market these earphones, hoping that one or more of its signature new features will resonate with a given user. This approach most often fails because the features aren’t as important as the developer tries to make them sound, but BlueBuds X actually include meaningful improvements on the core functionality of earlier Bluetooth headsets. Like earlier JayBird offerings, they’re packed with multiple sizes of rubber ear tips and optional cushions to keep the sweat-proof earpieces inside your ears, plus a hard carrying case and charging cable. What’s new here are major sonic enhancements, extended rechargeable battery life, a strong wireless signal, and voice prompts to ease the setup process. You can also choose from black or white versions, depending on your fashion sensibilities.
Price aside, BlueBuds X requires users to make only a single compromise to achieve superior performance to earlier products: although they’re billed as the “smallest Bluetooth headphones available,” the earpieces themselves are not tiny. In fact, the plastic shells look a little like oversized versions of three- or four-year old $50 canalphones, tipped with silicone rubber to isolate and direct sound into your ear canals. Thanks to the tips and JayBird’s use of mostly rounded edges, their size and weight aren’t particularly noticeable or offensive when they’re in your ears, and the aforementioned rubber cushions can be used to secure them if they don’t otherwise stay snugly in place. Since they operate wirelessly without making a physical connection to your iPad, iPhone, or iPod, there’s no device or other element on the cabling that will tug them out accidentally, either.
JayBird has very clear justifications for their size: unlike most wired earphones, BlueBuds X have been built to hold lots of technology and offer sweat resistance. There’s a Bluetooth 2.1 chip inside, along with an eight-hour battery that surpasses most Bluetooth headsets in longevity, and a Micro-USB port inside the right earphone for easy recharging in under 2.5 hours. A nicely secured cap covers the port, but stays attached with a small tether to avoid becoming lost. And in another convenient little implementation, the battery level is nicely indicated on the screen of any iOS device using Apple’s rarely-seen headset power indicator meter. It has a standby time of 250 hours, and we found the strength to live up to the company’s claims.
As Bluetooth devices go, BlueBuds X hasn’t been equipped with the most modern Bluetooth 3 or 4 conveniences, but it’s otherwise solid. Up to eight devices can be paired with the earphones, including everything from the latest iPod nano to most iPod touches, all iPhones, and all iPads. Wireless strength is promised to be strong enough that you can “put your phone/music device in a bag at the gym and workout at a good distance without signal droppage.” In our testing, we were in fact able to walk two full rooms away from a broadcasting iPhone or iPad before the signal began to break up—decidedly better than common 33-foot Bluetooth performance, though with a more granular signal failure that might be better as silence than as the crunch of missing bits.
BlueBuds X’s three-button remote and microphone unit dangles from the right earbud, and is even more capable than Apple’s standard remotes: the center button plays and pauses music, starts and ends phone calls, activates Siri when briefly held down, and toggles power on and off when held for four seconds. (A small green light appears on the right earphone to indicate that the power’s on, becoming invisible otherwise.) And initial pairing is handled through clearly spoken voice prompts, assuming you’re willing to put an earbud into your ear before starting that process. JayBird has clearly figured out the correct paradigm for easy initial setup and continued use; there are no unnecessary switches, codes to learn, or unusual button presses that require you to use a manual. Everything just works intuitively.
If there’s anything arguably wrong with the BlueBuds X design, it’s in the cabling. JayBird chose a flat cable that is basically tangle free—a positive—and located the remote on the right side of your head, which is common enough in Apple headsets. However, the cable is longer than it will need to be for even average-sized adult male heads, and depending on how you want to wear the headset, you might find the remote’s placement to be less than ideal. JayBird notes that the cord can be worn in front of or behind your head, and even over the tops of your ears. Unfortunately, doing the latter requires you to flip the left and right earbuds around, reversing stereo separation, while awkwardly dangling the remote directly behind your ear. Apart from placing the remote dead center on the cable and possibly installing one or two microphones in different locations near your ears, there’s no easy way to accommodate multiple possible wearing models without compromising remote access and mic performance. JayBird did fall short a little here.
BlueBuds X makes up for this deficiency with very strong audio quality on both the incoming and outgoing sides. Larger Bluetooth headsets and speakers have shown decided sonic improvements over the past couple of years, reducing static and improving frequency response, and JayBird has really brought the best of the tweaks to these little earphones. Static has been reduced so considerably that you’re more likely to hear it as it existed in the original source materials you’re playing than as an artifact of the Bluetooth transmission, and the clarity has been bumped enough that you can actually hear layers in songs that were obscured in older models. While audiophiles won’t consider BlueBuds X to be perfect, they’re significantly clearer than most Bluetooth headsets—Etymotic-like, really.
As is generally the case with properly tuned single-driver earphones, however, BlueBuds X’s sonic signature is a compromise—you get treble, mid-treble, midrange, and mid-bass, but not a lot of thump. This appears to have been deliberate on JayBird’s side, a decision to avoid the sort of ear fatigue and chunky sound that can come from seriously over-emphasized bass, and if we have to make the choice between “tons of bass” or “everything else,” we prefer JayBird’s choice of the latter. Moreover, we really appreciate that BlueBuds X feature volume mirroring that properly balances the earphones’ sound levels relative to the connected Apple device; far too many headsets require you to separately adjust their volume relative to your iPad, iPhone, or iPod, resulting in quality and other issues.
But if you’re a hard-core bass fanatic, you’ll miss the sort of low-end oomph that you can find in less advanced $50-$100 wired earphones. And at this price point, there’s an argument to be made that BlueBuds X should have included two speakers per ear, with one dedicated to bass, the other handling highs and mids. While JayBird is delivering a very good sonic experience here, all things considered, further improvements in sound quality or physical size reduction would likely be the biggest tweaks we’d want to see in a sequel.
One area in which otherwise good to great headphones sometimes fall short is in microphone quality—muffling, over-sharpening, and other issues can make telephone calls unpleasant for the person on the other end of the line. These thankfully aren’t problems with BlueBuds X. Callers reported that we sounded all but indistinguishable from an Apple wired headset, or from the integrated mics used with the iPhone 5’s speakerphone feature; Siri inquiries in typical usage conditions were as likely to be correct through this headset as with the iPhone itself. Some users will love being able to use Siri from afar: checking sports scores and the like from a distance, without even seeing the iPhone’s screen, is a pretty cool experience.
Overall, there’s a lot to love in BlueBuds X, and only a little to dislike: these are highly wearable, long-running, and very good sounding earphones, being sold at a price that’s a little too high. They do an impressive job of demonstrating what’s possible from Bluetooth headsets as we head into 2013: most users will be impressed by the sound quality and battery life achieved by such a compact, lightweight headset. Thanks to JayBird, it’s clear that the once unthinkable transition from wired to wireless earphones is becoming possible, and we wouldn’t be surprised if this was the headset that convinced you to make the switch. BlueBuds X is worthy of our strong general recommendation.