In 2007, before Dr. Dre started dropping Beats instead of beats, Swedish headphone maker Jays introduced the original q-Jays, an in-ear headphone that used balanced armatures instead of conventional dynamic drivers. Back then, balanced armatures were mostly the stuff of professional in-ear monitors and hearing aids, and the few consumer headphones that did use them were fairly pricey for the time. Folks simply weren’t ready to drop upwards of $250 on a pair of in-ear headphones. Ultimately, the q-Jays were retired.
Cut to 2015, and oh how times have changed. Thanks in no small part to Beats, headphones are more popular than ever, and folks have warmed up to the idea of dropping big bucks on a set of stylish and/or premium cans.
Perhaps the q-Jays would have a better time finding their audience now than they did back in 2007? Guess we’re about to find out.
Say a warm “welcome back” to the q-Jays, an ultra-small dual-balanced armature in-ear headphone selling for $400. Yes, $400 … that’s a lot, but then again, there’s a lot that went into making these headphones, and if they sound as good as Jays says they do, then they might just take off.
Premium Build? Check.
Jays claims it spent two years developing the new q-Jays. They are meant to be made only of the very best materials, each perfectly suited for its job. Indeed, the q-Jays feel as if they have been carefully thought out and exquisitely built. You get that feeling of quality as you screw each cool stainless steel earbud onto the copper-threaded tips of their headphone cables.
Inside each matte-black metal casing lay two balanced armature drivers which produce sound by vibrating back and forth as opposed to the pistonic in/out action you see in a conventional dynamic driver (like the speakers in your house). One armature, the woofer, is dedicated to bass while the other takes care of midrange and treble frequencies. The two armatures operate in conjunction with a crossover which Jays says “ensures a seamless, low-frequency blend that practically makes disruptive irregularities or phase shifts undetectable.”
We should also point out that the strain relief placed at the point where the headphone cable enters the earbud is among the most robust we’ve ever seen. Break your in-ear headphones much? You’re not alone. Lots of people break their ‘buds because they are built with little or no strain relief to protect from the abuse that comes from cramming them in your pocket, or tearing them out of your ears when the cord gets snagged on something. Time will tell, but we’ve got a feeling the q-Jays are built to last a long, long time.
Premium Comfort? Check
Without a doubt, the q-Jays are one of the most comfortable and secure-fitting in-ear monitors we’ve tried in some time. Their small, gently curved enclosures, light weight, and smaller eartip size all combine to make a headphone that sits comfortably in the ear, creating an excellent seal for effective passive noise isolation and the best conditions for good sound quality. During the course of our evaluation, we repeatedly forgot we were even wearing them.
Premium Sound? Eventually
Jays is adamant that the q-Jays be broken in for at least 30 hours, and they’re right. The q-Jays are the ultimate evidence that break-in is a real phenomenon. After just 3 hours of play time, the q-Jays already sounded a little different. 20 hours of break-in time later, and it became clear a transformation was taking place. That’s good news for our report on the q-Jays sound quality, but will most consumers be so patient, assuming they’re even aware of the need to break in their headphones? We have our doubts.
The back of the q-Jays’ box shows a remarkably flat frequency response graph, and Jays reinforces the notion invoked by the picture in its product literature, highlighting the q-Jays’ well-balanced, flat and neutral sound signature. There’s even a section where Jays talks about how their tailor-made acoustic filter washes away any sharp sibilance.
So far, we haven’t found that to be the case, exactly. Though some of the sharp, sibilant sounds we experienced straight out of the box have calmed down a bit, there’s still a steely, sometimes strident treatment of treble frequencies on some recordings that we feel prevents the q-Jays from achieving a completely neutral sound signature. Brass instruments sound brilliant, but cymbals, for example, sound a bit too bright and crispy at times.
With that said, the q-Jays are still a remarkable pair of in-ear headphones. Bass is ample and tuneful, rendering the low tones of acoustic and electric bass notes with proper pitch and just the right amount of heft to remain balanced with the rest of the frequency spectrum. Midrange is clean and clear, rendering vocals authentically and without any coloration or cover-up.
The q-Jays are also especially revealing of detail and nuance in a way that only a balanced armature headphone can be. The difference in sound quality between our laptop’s headphone output and that of our Cambridge DacMagic XS USB DAC has never been so pronounced. The noise and raspy sound that our laptop’s built-in DAC and headphone amp create were readily apparent — so much so that we couldn’t stand to listen to it any longer after about 10 minutes. With our USB DAC, however, the q-Jays rendered gobs of detail, from the transient sound of a pick plucking a bango string, to the etching of a bow as it scrapes across a cello’s strings.
With all of that said, we still feel like the q-Jays need a little more break-in time before they fully settle into their own. After 25 hours, the headphones sound very good, but we’re going to give them another 25 hours of playtime and update this article with our final impressions.
Is $400 too much?
If you’re even considering plunking down $400 for an in-ear headphone, then premium sound quality is clearly a big priority for you, and, frankly, you’d probably spend a little bit more if it got you closer to your ideal sound. With that in mind, we decided to put the q-Jays against the AudioFly’s flagship IEM, the AF-180, which features four balanced armatures for the premium price of $550.
To date, the AF-180 remain our favorite consumer-level in-ear headphone in terms of sound quality, but the q-Jays get extremely close for less money, and they are far more comfortable and convenient as well. Jays has done a great job here, and they are to be commended for their efforts. It may have taken two years to bring the q-Jays back to life, but based on what we’re hearing, we think it was time well spent.