Tuesday, December 28, 2010

JBuds J3 Micro Atomic In-Ear Earphones with Travel Case for $9.95

If there's such a thing as earbuds for everyone's ears, I haven't found them yet, and I imagine they'd cost a fortune even if they existed. I cannot possibly speak to every possible psychoacoustic experience waiting to be had with these earbuds, so I won't even try. Let me instead tell you why these J2s stand out in my book.

JLabs is a solid and dependable name in the earbud market, and their low street prices and contrastingly satisfying soundscape is well documented already. The J3s are no exception, and compared to their more beefy J2 predecessor, these buds are light, tight, mean and clean. Rich, transparent capture of the 1KHz-2.5KHz range makes bowed strings shimmer, synth pads float, and affords an impressive resolution in the range of vocals. The "singed" overdriven character of Simon Le Bon's vocals on the song "All You Need Is Now" lept up in the mix, but melted away to glassy, open-air trebly cleanness for the later choruses. The J3's ability to respond quickly to subtle dynamics changes was a delightful surprise; pizzicato notes plucked neatly even in a swimmy sea of washing pads.

I hesitate to call the new approach to bass a "disappointment," but I admit, I'm fonder of the J2's more visceral rendering of the bass frequencies, especially from 200Hz-450Hz. The J3 buds offer a clean approach with amazing clarity in that range -- John Taylor's trademark bass sound was reproduced very articulately, with excellent nuance of finger pressure -- but for those familiar with the dripping warmth of the bass of an old tube receiver, this chilly, glassy clarity might be a bit too brittle and digital, especially as coupled with the iPhone, iPod, or a similarly fidelity-over-character DAC. Percussive bass seems to be boosted a bit, but melodic bass gets lost under the sizzles above 650Hz. EQ on the phone's end improved the warmth a bit, but sometimes you just don't want that level of ultra-resolution clarity; some music is best with a bit of ear-level added saturation.

Symphonic pieces, whether classical or progressive, love these earbuds. Busy passages, such as the frenzied crowd-shouting of the original "Hair" cast album or the thick layers of Mike Oldfield's soundscapes, come through with impressive voice-isolating clarity, and horns and guitars (clean and overdriven) sizzle into rich, high-fidelity life, and cymbals ring exquisitely, but while the percussive low bass is excellent, the melodic bass range has a character that some might find too understated.

The durability is impressive; though the buds look fragile, they're markedly more solid than other buds I've seen in their price range, and certainly a quantum leap ahead of the bundled iPod buds. The slender plug fits even narrow-clearance jacks on devices with cases, and the range of cushions provided should make most folks quite happy for ear comfort. The buds' light weight, secure fit and sturdiness leave me very confident about their use day to day, and again, their workmanship and sturdiness is very impressive.

There's no such thing as a "perfect" set of earbuds for all ears and all source material. Still, the J3s clean up the plate at their normal discount price point, if perhaps not as thoroughly at their MSRP. Bass lovers may prefer the J2 instead, at cost of slightly added bulk, but folks who don't mind a less boosted melodic bass range will likely find the J3 buds a no-brainer first pick for happy private listening.

I haven't really seen a clear step up from the J3's sound quality until the price is quadrupled or quintupled, and that's rather telling, isn't it?

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