Steven Stone is the former editor of AudiophileReview.com. He a longtime audiophile and home theater writer, as well as a musician and recording engineer. Steven has written for publications like Stereophile, as well as HomeTheaterReview.com, AudiophileReview.com, and The Absolute Sound.
Steven is plays guitar, mandolin, and Ashbory bass and is a collector of fine musical instruments.
Ever hear of Jays earphones? Me neither. But after meeting with the company at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and trying out its new reference in-ear monitors, the q-JAYS (starting at $279), I decided that we should get better acquainted. Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Jays has been producing earphones since 2006. The company's main office is in an old brewery, and its mission statement is pretty straightforward: "A relentless focus on engineering and design innovation. We believe that by humanizing innovating technology with good design, we can create memorable music experiences with an emotional impact."
Unlike many earphone manufacturers who seem to concentrate on celebrity tie-ins and endorsements, Jays is a more technically oriented firm that believes "there's only one way to properly build a great product--to do it one detail at a time. From the unboxing experience to your everyday comfort using our products, we assure you that every detail has been carefully considered and improved by us over the years." So, let's see how Jays' products stack up in the well-populated world of under-$300 in-ear monitors.
The q-JAYS is a two-way design that uses a pair of custom-made balanced armatures with a crossover network between them. The q-JAYS also employs a special acoustic filter at the front of the barrel, which "washes off any sharp sibilance, leaving smooth and detailed highs." In addition to the acoustic filters, the q-JAYS earphones also use removable protective filters with 55 holes, which allows sound to come out but prevents stuff from going into the earphone's bore. The sensitivity is 103 dB with a 50-ohm impedance.
The one-piece metal body is molded out of high-strength stainless steel, which is then polished, sandblasted, and coated via physical vapor deposition. According to Jays, this process "binds the vapor particles with the stainless steel on a molecular level." The final result is a satin black finish that should be impervious to scrapes, scratches, and physical abuse. As you would expect from a reference earphone, the cable is removable and replaceable. It uses threaded SSMCX connectors, which is one of the smallest connections currently available. Jays has four cable choices for the q-JAYS: iOS, Windows, Android, and Audio Only. The q-JAYS comes with either an iOS cable or an Audio Only cable (your choice), but the others are available on the company website or through retailers.
Packaging for the q-JAYS is slick and well thought out, but not over the top. The outside of the box provides a complete description of the product within. Inside the box, you will find five pairs of differently sized silicon tips and one pair of Comply T100 foam tips. You will also find a thick booklet full of additional technical and operational info. The packaging includes a hard, black, plastic case that screws apart. The case is compact, lightweight, and fits easily into your pocket. My only complaint is that I wish it wasn't black, as it's too easy to lose or misplace. My first review sample disappeared somewhere on a trip between Dallas and Denver; I hope whoever found it is enjoying that pair of q-JAYS...
For an optimal fit, I strongly suggest you try more than one of the supplied eartips. I tried several and settled on the Comply T100 tips because they stayed in my ear the best. (I could even use the q-JAYS during a workout, and they remained well-seated in my ears.) The only fit issue I encountered was that neither the cable nor the capsules themselves are clearly marked right and left. But after carefully examining the pictographs on the box, I got them assembled correctly. After assembly, the best way to tell left from right is that the control module is on the right channel's cable.
The capsules themselves are extremely light and quite compact, which means that they do stay in place once inserted. The problem for some users is that, to get a good seal, they do require what I would call a medium-depth insertion. They don't need to be inserted as deeply as the Etymotic ER4 SR and XR, but they do sit somewhat deeper into your ear canal than many universal-fit in-ears. When properly seated, the q-JAYS nestle into your auricle, and the cable connection sits so the cable can drop down right by your earlobe indentation.
The replaceable cables are quite light and very flexible. My iPhone 5 responded to the play/pause, forward, and back controls on the cable with alacrity. Although you can wear them "sports style" with the cabling running over your ears and down your back, it will be harder to access the smartphone controls when worn that way. With the cable routed straight down, the controls were easily accessible.
I used the q-JAYS with a variety of portable players, including the Questyle QP1R, Onkyo DP-X1, and Sony NW-ZX2. Every player could drive them easily with ample gain left over. Mated with the Mytek Brooklyn's single-ended headphone amplifier, the volume knob rarely inched above -35 dB.
As with every in-ear, before you can achieve optimal sound, you must have a good fit. Once properly seated and sealed, the q-JAYS produced a well-defined and laterally precise soundstage that was as wide and deep as I have experienced from any two-way in-ear monitor. Some multiple-driver in-ears, such as the Westone W-60 and the Empire Ears Zeus, produce larger lateral soundstages, but they both use more drivers than the q-JAYS. The three-driver Etymotic ER4 XR produced a similarly sized soundstage.
Bass extension and control through the q-JAYS was better than I expected from a two-way design. While perhaps a bit warmer than absolutely neutral, they didn't exhibit any noticeable or overly ripe midbass bloom or huffiness. Bass extension rivaled that of more expensive in-ears, such as the Ultimate Ears Reference Remastered, and the q-JAYS low-bass control was nearly as good.
The midrange was as seamless as I've heard from a two-way design, which isn't easy to do--as the crossover for most two-way designs rests in the critical upper-midrange region. But as hard as I tried, I could not detect any frequency anomalies that I could place at the feet of the crossover itself.
Upper frequencies through the q-JAYS were sweet, with decent extension. While not quite as airy as some headphones, such as the Focal Utopia or Empire Ears Zeus, there was still plenty of sparkle, detail, and upper-frequency air.
My only sonic quibble with the q-JAYS was the cable itself, which is highly microphonic until it reaches the first junction. If anything rubs against the cable, you will hear it. If you use the q-JAYS in an active setting, it will be less microphonic if secured by a clip, which is not an included accessory. I borrowed one from a pair of Apple earbuds, which worked nicely.
• The q-JAYS are very well made.
• The fit of the q-JAYS can be very comfortable with a little bit of effort.
• The q-JAYS is easy to drive with a smartphone, which can't be said of every IEM in its class.
• It can be difficult to tell the right earphone from the left during initial assembly.
• The cable is moderately microphonic.
• The black, plastic travel case is easy to lose, due to its color and size.
Comparison and Competition
The principal competition for the q-JAYS is the similarly priced Etymotic ER4 SR and XR. All three of these in-ear monitors, if properly fitted, deliver vibrant, detailed, full-frequency, reference-level sonics. The primary difference for the end-user will be the fit. For some, the Etymotic's deep-insertion fit will not be comfortable--it's just too deep. For those folks, the q-JAYS will be a better option.
If your budget precludes the slightly under $300 mark, I would suggest trying the 1MORE triple-driver earphones ($99.99). Although they lack a removable cable, have fewer fit options, and are not as well built, they can perform on a sonic level that closely approaches that of the q-JAYS.
If you are looking for a well-designed, well-made, fine-sounding pair of universal fit in-ear monitors and your budget is under $300, the q-JAYS are a very attractive purchasing option.