Review: JayBird BlueBuds X headphone

Bluetooth's been a boon for headphones, 'cause lots of people love headphones but nobody loves cables. It hasn't taken off in the in-ear monitor market, though, 'cause almost all Bluetooth IEMs have a clunky module that holds the Bluetooth electronics and the amplifier-and nobody loves clunky modules.

With the $169 BlueBuds X, JayBird becomes the first company to gracefully integrate Bluetooth into an in-ear monitor. The BlueBuds X is no bigger than some of the regular IEMs I own, yet the earpieces incorporate amplifiers, the Bluetooth transceiver, a rechargeable battery, a micro USB jack for recharging, and of course, a 6mm driver for each ear.

(Yeah, I know, Sony did a Bluetooth IEM without a clunky module-the XBA-BT75-but the earpieces themselves are pretty clunky.)

A flat cable connects the two earpieces; the cable incorporates a three-button in-line remote that does play/pause, volume, and track skip. Unlike the in-line remotes on wired IEMs, the BlueBuds X remote is compatible with any Bluetooth device. Yep, that means iPhones, iPads, Androids, even Windows Phones and Blackberrys.

JayBird designed the BlueBuds X primarily for the sport market. In addition to three sizes of silicone tips, the BlueBuds X comes with three sizes of "ear cushions," little hooks intended to keep the earpieces from falling out when you're moving around a lot. It includes a few plastic clips that let you shorten the cable so it doesn't bang around when you jog or play tennis or jump rope or do whatever it is you do. And it's made to resist moisture and sweat.

Lauren Dragan, the only member of our West Coast listening panel who jogs, tried running with it and found it completely secure and comfortable. "It solves the problem of the cord getting snagged when you're running, which happens all the time with wired headphones," she said. She also found that the microphone worked unusually well for cell phone calls.

That doesn't mean you have to use the BlueBuds X for sports. I enjoyed using it without the ear cushions, while riding the Orange Line in Los Angeles and while wandering through the Los Feliz neighborhood in search of hip new eyeglasses. Our other listening panelist, Will Huff, found the BlueBuds X much more comfortable than the Motorola SF600 Bluetooth in-ear headphones he recently owned.

The X, rated

To get a subjective impression of the sound of the BlueBuds X, I called in our usual West Coast headphone panel, which besides Lauren included me and jazz musician Will Huff. Lauren and Will both sourced their test tunes with iPhones; I used a Samsung Galaxy S III and an iPod touch.

Our panelists often disagree about the sound of headphones, but not this time. Will kept using the terms normally applied to smooth jazz. "It's not a spectacular sound, but it's distinctive-very pleasant and smooth," he said. "It made Dave Sanborn's sax sound more sultry." Describing the BlueBuds X's effect on Starbucks-approved vocalist Corinne Bailey Rae, he said, "It made her voice a little bit more velvety-that's a good thing." He even applied the term "sultry" to the vocals on a Creed track.

Lauren liked the sound a lot overall, finding nothing to complain about in the bass and mids, but describing the treble as "lacking a little dexterity."

I was perhaps the most enthusiastic about the sound of the BlueBuds X. As Will's and Lauren's comments imply, the tonal balance is a little soft in the treble-for me, a nice change of pace from the big lower-treble peak around 3 or 4 kHz that so many IEMs have.

Yet inexplicably, the treble in no way lacked detail. I found when listening to "Prometheus" from Charles Lloyd's Rabo de Nube that the cymbals sounded especially lifelike; I could sense the feel of Eric Harland's drumstick on the ride cymbal as if I were standing right in front of the kit. I also got a great sense of the breathiness, buzz, and body of Lloyd's tenor sax.

I found the BlueBuds X's ability to get Lloyd's delicate, ethereal sound right even more shocking because Rabo de Nube was preceded in my listening queue by ZZ Top's kick-ass, Rick Rubin-produced La Futura-which the BlueBuds X also nailed, capturing the subtle interactions that bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard have honed over decades. I found all the instruments in perfect balance, Billy Gibbons' growled vocals surprisingly easy to pick out from the heavy groove, and the Rubin-mandated extreme reverb and panning effects in "Consumption" no less dramatic than they'd be on a more hyped-up headphone.

Who wouldn't like the BlueBuds X's sound? A rocker or hip-hopper who wants pumped-up bass. An audiophile who demands extreme treble detail. Or someone who judges sound quality by the logo the headphone wears.

But jeez, this thing even made Creed sound good.

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