Updated on 2-15-2017 by Parker Hall: The wired u-Jays are now $120 at most outlets, providing an even more compelling reason to give them a listen if you are in the market for a high quality set of on-ear headphones.
If there’s one thing our Northern European friends have taught us, it’s that you don’t need brash style or bright colors to create a handsome pair of cans. While Beats may have ushered in the headphone renaissance, brands like Denmark’s Aiaiai and Sweden’s Jays offer refreshing alternatives, making minimalist designs and understated style look good. The latter company has been following that same less-is-more philosophy since its inception in 2006, and Jays’ new u-Jays on-ear headphones distill the stark styling to its very core.
With sleek lines, perfectly circular earpieces, and not a single hinge or wire exposed, the new u-Jays are almost audacious in their minimalism. And lest you think these might be yet another pair of bass blasters in disguise, the sound follows the same principle, making these among the brand’s most balanced headphones we’ve encountered. The question is, can these icy-cool cans offer enough panache where it counts to make it worth their $200 price point?
Out of the box
We mentioned Aiaiai at the intro, and that won’t be the last time. The u-Jays bear a striking resemblance to several models from their Danish neighbors, from the gothic color scheme, to the book-style box with their faded portrait on the cover. Inside, the cans rest in a bed of hard foam next to a small compartment of accessories, including a user manual, a tote bag, and a sturdy cable with a three-button iOS mic piece that looks a lot like a jet-black traffic signal.
Features and design
If stark black isn’t your thing, the u-Jays jazz things up with black on gold, white on silver, and white on gold versions. The latter two schemes channel models from the popular Danish brand Bang & Olufsen, and that’s a nice feather in their cap. The different color patterns add a lot of style to the simple design, and replaceable ear pads make it easy to mix and match.
The u-Jays’ reinforced Kevlar cable plugs snuggly into the right earpiece; so much so that, had we not just inserted it ourselves, we’d guess it was permanently attached. Above, matte plastic earpieces give way to smoothly sculpted ear pads cloaked in convincing leatherette, which feels like material fit for a luxury car seat. The pads are made from an exceptionally squishy material called viscoelastic, which easily conforms to your ears for comfort. Inside, “acoustic tuning filters” cover the drivers, designed to optimize airflow for better detail and richer bass.
The u-Jays come in multiple color patterns with replaceable ear pads to mix and match.
The u-Jays’ earpieces swivel loosely on the horizontal access to lay flat – to a degree it almost seems like something’s broken. Yet, while we aren’t crazy about how readily they flail around, they stick firmly on your ears, while the connecting arms extend to fit smoothly from the band of soft rubber above. Unlike a lot of on-ear headphones, however, the earpieces don’t fold in, making them a little harder to pack along.
The headband is covered in the same silky, rubberized material common in much of today’s sleeker electronics gear — it feels soft and smooth to the touch and offers just the right mix of rigidity and padding to be both stylish and comfortable. One quibble we’ll offer here is the nearly invisible markings for left and right stereo channels; essentially, you’ll just have to memorize the direction of the arm bands, as you’ll never find the labels.
By the numbers, the u-Jays custom 40mm dynamic drivers provide a claimed frequency response of 10Hz-20kHz, a max SPL of 100dB at 1kHz, and a 32-Ohm impedance rating.
In keeping with the minimalist theme, the u-Jays certainly don’t engulf your head in luxuriant padding: there’s just enough here to get the job done. Still, while the cans can get a little rigid after a couple hours, the pads are surprisingly supple, making them a lot comfier than expected.
As we alluded to earlier, the u-Jays make a concerted effort to offer a balanced sound signature, matching weighty, yet relatively firm bass with a light and spritely topside. There’s nothing offensive here — in fact you might even call this sound vanilla, with a bit of extra sparkle. They don’t offer the thunderous bass common in so many modern offerings, bringing instead some pleasant warmth that never clouds the upper register.
There’s nothing offensive here — you might even call the sound vanilla, with a bit of extra sparkle
In the middle of the sound, the u-Jays dig out plenty of space to allow vocals and other midrange instruments to do their thing with clarity and forward presence. That said, while the music is always upfront, there’s a paper-thin cut to the mids that makes for a flatter, less engaging overall sound. The result is a tighter timbre, and a loss of the rich colors from some of our favorite instruments, including piano, vocals, electric guitar, and even percussion. From Father John Misty’s Chateau Lobby #4 to Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows, we often found ourselves wishing for more body and better dimension.
The issue is especially on display at the intro of Ray LaMontagne’s soul-infused single, You Are The Best Thing. The flat-picked guitar sounds toyish in the left side, and the soulful horns blaring at the right in the chorus have a bit of kazoo flavor mixed into their reedy harmonies. The next track in the order, Let It Be Me does better, but the piano really falls flat here, channeling a thinner resonance that leans more toward a Yamaha keyboard than a grand piano.
The sound is more present, and perhaps even more accessible than, say, Aiaia’s $250 TMA-1 Studio over-ears. However, moving to the TMA-1 offers instant relief from the flatter sound, bringing more dimension, better detail, and more weight to the instruments. Ray’s vocal opens up to reveal subtler nuances, from breathy textures to reverb tail, while everything from guitar to percussion sounds more organic. Even the tambourine takes on a richer, more silvery sound.
The DT Accessory Pack
That’s not to say the u-Jays don’t offer a perfectly good adaptation of the performance. In fact, these headphones may well be people pleasers thanks to their highly accessible, “every man” sound. Still, throughout our listening, the flatter sound signature and thinner upper register kept us wishing for more from the mix.
Jays’ new u-Jays headphones offer an impressive mix of minimalist styling, balanced sound, and effortless comfort that should make them a coveted choice in the competitive on-ear segment. We wish they offered a more organic touch to instrumentation and more depth to the sound, for which we’d gladly trade up to the TMA-1 Studio from Aiaiai or Sennheiser’s Momentum on-ear. That said, the u-Jays’ sleek and comfortable design is sure to pull in plenty of listeners, while their clear and balanced sound signature should be enough to keep them around.