Every once in a while I encounter products that do so much for so little that their value quotient is off the charts; the a-JAYS Three in-ear headphones ($59.99) from the Swedish firm Jays is just such a product. How good are these stylish little ‘phones in an absolute sense? They’re good enough that, in terms of sound quality, style, fit, finish, and the accessories they include, they could in may ways pass for models selling for two or even three times their actual price. These sleek Swedish ‘phones build a strong case for upgrading from stock earbuds to something much better, and they prove that you can do so without putting a big a dent in your wallet.
Jays’ affordable a-JAYS product family features four value oriented in-ear models, with the a-JAYS Three standing as the top model in the range. The a-JAYS Three features distinctive 8.6 mm TMD moving coil-type drivers powered by Neodymium magnets, with the drivers contained within an earpiece enclosure that provides tiny front and rear bass ports said to enhance low frequency response. Although the Threes are very reasonably priced, they in no way skimp on accessories or other important detail touches. On the contrary, the Threes sport features typically found only on much more costly in-ear models. Among these are:
•A rubberized black finish on the earpieces.
•A tangle free, TPE-coated, flat signal cable that is easy to coil up into a compact roll when the ‘phones are put in storage.
•Five pairs of silicone eartips (size XXS, XS, S, M, and L).
•An airline adapter.
•A stereo splitter that makes it possible to feed two sets of ‘phones from a shared headphone jack.
•A beautiful, minimalist hard shell travel case that is shaped like a small discus and that slips easily into your pocket or handbag.
JAYS’ corporate identity statement provides clues that help explain what Jays headphones in general, and the a-JAYS Threes in particular, are all about. The statement proclaims—in Swedish-inflected English—that, “We want to design the most authentic sounding and price worthy on-ear and in-ear headphones possible and create a global life style brand for music lovers. We do not want to be a narrow audiophile brand, but still playing as close as possible by the same rules.”
EASE OF USE
The a-JAYS Threes are extremely compact in-ear headphones that I found a delight to use, in part because they come with a very broad range of silicone eartips (so that there is a size likely to fit most anyone). Once you find a pair of eartips that allow a good airtight seal in your ear canals, you simply pop the earpieces in place and away you go. The Threes weigh a very light 14 grams.
A great detail touch is the a-JAYS Three’s flat, tangle-resistant signal cable, which not only helps prevent the “rat’s nest” of wire you might encounter with some in-ear models, but that also drapes neatly and smoothly from the earpieces, making them more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. And when it comes time to store the Threes, the flat cable lends itself to being rolled up in a tight coil the fits neatly within the included travel case.
The JAYS travel case is an attractive piece of industrial design that provides a distinctly Nordic-looking, two-tone, matte/gloss black discus-shaped container for the ‘phones. My one complaint would be that the case is relatively small, meaning you’ll need to roll-up the headphone’s signal cable tightly in order to leave sufficient room for the earpieces to fit within the case.
Let me begin by observing that, while the a-JAYS Three is based on a moving coil-type driver, it achieves much of the sonic purity and clarity I’ve typically associated with balanced armature-type designs I’ve sampled in the past (for example, the classic Etymotic Research ER-4P, and others cut from similar sonic cloth).
Interestingly, Jays’ packaging for the Threes offers up two descriptive phrases that imply the headphones offer sonic qualities that, paradoxically, don’t seem to belong together. On one hand, the firm touts the Threes as offering “heavy bass impact”—a potentially scary phrase if ever I heard one (hey, if I wanted a boom box, I’d buy one). In practice, I found there is some truth to the “bass impact” phrase, but that the Threes’ moderate touch of low-end emphasis was nowhere near as heavy-handed as Jays’ promotional phrase led me to expect (er, fear). On the other hand, the product container also lauds the Threes for their ostensibly “Detailed and Balanced Sound”—a statement that also contains real elements of truth given that the Threes do on the whole place a premium on accuracy and (comparatively) neutral tonal balance.
Overall, I would say that the a-JAYS Threes offer what my colleague Tom Martin would call a “u”-shaped frequency response curve, meaning that low and high frequency bands sounds more prominent than midrange frequencies do through these ‘phones. The key, here, is that these bands of high- and low-frequency emphasis are relatively smoothly integrated, so that they typically aren’t egregious or overblown in their effects (though some listeners do find the ‘phones overly bright). On the contrary, they tend to make the Threes sound desirably lively and dramatic, but without severe exaggerations.
Through the upper midrange and on up into the treble region, the a-JAYS Threes provide a delicate, open, “silvery” quality that offers excellent treble extension, detail, and focus. While the Threes may not achieve the sheer transparency of more costly flagship in-ear models such as the Monster Turbine Pro Copper Editions, their upper mids and highs are, in a qualitative sense, as good if not better than anything I’ve heard in their price class.
To experience the vividness and clarity of the Three’s upper mids and highs, try a track rich in treble details, such as “Near South End” from Jacob Young’s Sideways [ECM]. Listen, in particular, to the delicate brushwork on cymbals; the transient sounds, fingering noises, and overtones of the guitar; and especially to the fine, low-level mouthpiece noises and reed sounds from woodwind instruments. At every turn, the a-JAYS Threes sound more like, headphone that might cost $159—not a mere $59, which is quite an accomplishment. While upper mids and highs are admittedly somewhat too bright or forward sounding, they for the most part stop well short of becoming painfully harsh or edgy. Instead, listeners will likely be struck by the fact that these affordable little Swedish beauties offer levels of treble clarity and detail that are impressive in light of their price.
The Three’s bass is powerful and well extended, though it, too, sounds somewhat forward in the mix (relative to midrange frequencies, which are pulled back a bit relative to lows and highs). Even so, many would argue that it is far preferable for in-ear ‘phones to offer slightly too much bass, rather than too little—especially given that they may be called upon to perform in environments where there could be lots of low-frequency noise to overcome. More importantly, the Three’s bass is pleasingly clear, articulate, and well defined. To appreciate what I mean by this comment, try Patricia Barber’s cover of “My Girl” as captured on A Distortion of Love [Polygram]. This track captures an acoustic bass that has either been very closely mic’d or perhaps captured via a direct pickup of some kind, so its sound at once exceptionally clear and very powerful. And those two qualities—bass clarity combined with low frequency power and weight—are precisely what the a-JAYS Threes deliver.
•Consider this product if: you want sound quality competitive in many ways with in-ear headphones in the $100-$200 range, but for a fraction of the price. Also consider the a-JAYS Threes if you enjoy products that are cleverly and stylishly packaged, and that come with a genuinely useful set of accessories. Finally, note that the Threes exude an overall vibe that could be called, “Scandinavian Cool”, which many will find very appealing.
•Look further if: you require strictly neutral tonal balance or want to push for even higher levels of sonic refinement. While even higher levels of performance are out there at a price, the a-JAYS Threes are one of the more satisfying solutions we’ve yet heard in the sub-$100 range.
•Ratings (relative to comparably-priced competition):
⇒ Tonal Balance: 8
⇒ Frequency Extremes: 9.5 (bass)/8.5 (treble)
⇒ Clarity: 9.5
⇒ Dynamics: 9.5
⇒ Comfort/Fit: 10
⇒ Sensitivity: 9
⇒ Value: 10
•Summing Up: For the more than reasonable sum of $59.99, the a-JAYS Threes look, feel, and sound like far more expensive in-ear headphones, making them a fine choice for audiophiles on a budget or for music lovers who want a taste of “the good stuff,” but without blowing holes in their wallets. What’s not to like about that?
SPECS & PRICING
Jays a-Jays Three In-Ear Headphones
Accessories: Five pairs of silicone eartips (sizes XXS, XS, S, M, & L), airline adapter, stereo splitter, travel case
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 22kHz
Weight: 14 grams
Sensitivity: 97 dB (input levels not specified)
Impedance: 16 ohms
Warranty: Two years (earphone shell & internal components), one year (cables & connectors), six months (accessories)