Review: Jays a-Jays + t-Jays Earphones
As much as we value and try to celebrate the wide diversity of accessory options that have become available for Apple's devices over the last nearly 10 years, our enthusiasm for the recently never-ending stream of me-too earphones has dimmed somewhat in recent months. New models that are more or less identical to their predecessors have flooded the market, so we've started to focus on options that are really standouts in some way. Thanks to neat design touches that extend from their packaging to their pack-ins, Jay's recently released a-Jays ($40-$70) and t-Jays ($80-$100) are worthy of checking out, though each is offered in an array of alternative versions that may confuse -- and possibly disappoint -- some users.
The less expensive and yet more distinctively designed models are a-Jays, which come in four versions: a-Jays One, a-Jays Two, a-Jays Three, and a-Jays Four. All four a-Jays package a single 8.6mm speaker inside each of two plastic earbud, and use 5mm-wide flat cables, but differ at least a little in cosmetics and pack-ins. The basic One version includes the earphones and five total sets of differently-sized silicone eartips, while Two adds an Airline Adapter and Stereo Splitter, Three adds a hard plastic Travel Case, and Four integrates a three-button remote control and microphone—plus a redesigned, L-shaped headphone plug—made for Apple’s latest iPods, iPhones, and iPads. Confusing matters a bit, the otherwise loaded a-Jays Four model loses the Travel Case, Airline Adapter, and Stereo Splitter included in a-Jays Three; it comes only with the four sets of rubber eartips. Each model’s earphone housings become a little more stylish, moving up from a-Jays One’s branded black ovals to Two and Three’s plain black ovals, then gunmetal accents for a-Jays Four. And there are small sonic differences, noted below.
Though there’s clearly a “spend more” strategy at play here, Jays has done a lot right with these designs. All of the a-Jays (and t-Jays) are packaged in seriously cool soft-touch rubber-coated boxes that slide open with an intriguing clasp system, revealing the earphones and accessories inside. The earphones look good even before you reach the Four level, but a-Jays Four is a seriously sexy option for its $70 asking price, thanks largely to the gunmetal accents. Regardless of model, the a-Jays cables never tangle, and they look as nice as any earphone we’ve seen at the $40 entry point.
a-Jays also sound and feel good. Their unusual shape includes an outer curve that feels just right to help you push them into your ear canals, a riff on an idea we first saw on Vestalife’s regrettably unreleased Scarab earphones last year. Jays’ collection of rubber tips start at extra-extra small and climb to large, all but guaranteeing proper seal in a wide variety of ear sizes. The three-button remote and microphone housing found on a-Jays Four is also a winner: its volume and multifunction buttons are unmarked, instead using different heights and convex or concave surfaces as touch differentiators. Microphone sound quality in our testing was virtually identical to Apple’s own three-button remote and mic-equipped earphones, most likely because Jays is using Apple’s parts.
Sonically, a-Jays are very good earphones by these pricing standards. Not surprisingly, they skew warm, filling your ears with the richer portions of songs while adding just enough of the treble and midrange to avoid serious complaints. Bassy songs have a pleasant, clean thump rather than muddiness or obvious blooming, and other tracks allow male voices, strings, and beats to really pop. While these aren’t audiophile earphones, and you won’t be focused on the finer details in songs, no one would expect that for these prices, and the overall sonic signature is just plain fun.
It’s worth noting, however, that Jays unnecessarily confuses matters somewhat by changing the stated frequency response of the four a-Jays models. All four are claimed to start at the same 20Hz point for bass, with One rated for high-frequency performance up to 18,000Hz, Two at 20,000Hz, Three at 22,000Hz, and Four at 21,000Hz. Practically, these differences are trivial, as anything above 16,000Hz is beyond the scope of an average adult’s hearing. The company could and should have just kept the four models sonically identical, using the added pack-ins, cosmetic tweaks, and remote/mic features as differentiators to justify their prices.
By contrast, the more expensive t-Jays didn’t thrill us as much, but they’re still pretty good earphones for certain listeners. Here, Jays throws away the nice flat cabling, the bullet-shaped earphone housings, and the 8.6mm drivers, replacing them with traditional rounded cables, even more unusual semi-flat matte plastic shells, and 10mm speakers. Again, they’re offered in One, Two, and Three versions, increasing in pack-ins the same way as the prices jump from $80 to $100, and Jays claims that the sound quality is different between the models: the dynamic range supposedly expands from 18Hz-20,000Hz in One to 17Hz-22,000Hz in Two and then 15Hz-25,000Hz in Three. In other words, Three’s highs should be the highest and lows should be the lowest of the bunch, but again, the average adult ear is a limiting factor: hearing starts at 20Hz and ends at 16,000Hz, so if the numbers really mattered, the deeper lows and higher highs would be lost on most listeners.
Of these three models, we only received t-Jays Three for testing, so we can’t speak to how much less impressive the One and Two versions actually sound. Practically, however, most users will find t-Jays Three to be almost indistinguishable from a-Jays Three or Four. They’re nearly identically skewed towards midrange and low-end presentation, with a similar emphasis on male voices, low beats, and the like, and have just enough treble to sparkle a little. There may be a small—underscore small—additional oomph in t-Jays’ bass, but this difference isn’t enough to command a $40 premium over a comparably-equipped a-Jays model. Moreover, we found the t-Jays earbuds significantly less comfortable to insert, didn’t like the cables as much, and missed the option to add Apple’s three-button remote and mic as an alternative.
In our view, a-Jays is the obvious pick here regardless of the dollars you’re interested in spending: whether you’re starting at the $40 entry point or going for the highest-end $70 model, you’ll get a nicely designed, comfortable, and tangle-free set of earbuds that offer better sound than Apple’s pack-ins, with a three-button remote option on the a-Jays Four that’s as good as what Apple includes with its own earphones. The only obvious miss on the high-end a-Jays is a carrying case, which really should have been included for the price. t-Jays offers users a different style, ever so slightly more poppy bass, and the option of a two-piece cable, but with a considerable price premium and otherwise diminished features that detract a little from its appeal. While we applaud Jays for offering so many options here, allowing users to choose the features and prices they prefer, we’re not fans of creating artificial sonic differentiations between models. That aside, these are the rare budget earphones that strike us as worthy of considering en masse, and we’re glad that Jays continues to push forward with new and interesting designs.
Updated January 5, 2012: Jays subsequently added new models called a-Jays One+ and t-Jays Four, shown in the photos above. a-Jays One+ is designed primarily to appeal to Android phone users, and t-Jays Four adds a three-button iOS-ready remote control, albeit with some of the thinnest wiring we’ve yet seen for earphones like this.