Current testing methodology is v1.2
“How cheap is too cheap?”
As someone who’s always on the lookout for a great deal of great sound, this is a fairly important question to ask. For a decent chunk of my audio journey, I’ve determined that the lower limit is somewhere in the $15 to $20 range.
The Xiaomi Pistons from 2013 were priced at around $15 and were particularly great back in the day and now in 2023, this price range has been host to a lot more competition and much better sound quality across the board. And as technology often tends to do, this upward trend for sound quality means that good sound can be had for a lower price now.
We’ve seen this go down to as low as $5 with earphones like the TRN MT1 and the KZ EDX, both of which are surprisingly competent sound-wise while having most of the features you’d expect from IEMs that cost ten times as many years ago.
But prices can’t trend infinitely downward – in our world of limited resources and limited physics, there has to be a floor for earphone manufacturing, and anything that tries to price itself below that has to be e-waste. As Drowning Pool would say, “Something’s got to give”.
Somehow, I think I managed to find it, and that point is $3. Let me introduce you to the JCally AT1.
If it looks, feels, and sounds cheap, it probably is cheap and $3 AT1 is just that
The floor of the ultra-budget earphone has lowered quite a bit over the years. From $15 and now down to $5, getting good-sounding earphones has never been cheaper. But even then, there are limits to both what we can afford to make and what we’re physically limited to making. Functional but not necessarily sounding “good”, the JCally AT1 sits at that lower limit.
- Headphone Type: Closed-back in-ear monitor
- Driver Type: Single 10mm dynamic driver
- Frequency Response: 20 – 20,000 Hz
- Sensitivity: 103 dB
- Impedance: 16 Ohms
What’s in the Box?
- JCally AT1 earphones
- 3 pairs of silicone ear tips (S, M, L)
Stuff I like
- Extremely cheap
- Decently comfortable
- Clear midrange
Stuff I like less
- Feels very cheap
- Narrow, cramped soundstage
- Splashy, annoying treble
- Weak seal and isolation
Comparable products to consider
A Bit of Background
Contrary to a lot of Chinese audio brands out there, JCally doesn’t take much digging to find out what they are as they have an easily searchable website that also happens to be in English.
As it turns out, JCally, formally known as Dongguan JieShi Acoustic Technology, is an OEM and ODM that mainly focuses on creating earphone accessories like cables and connector adapters like Type-C to 1/8″ dongles. They don’t seem to have many earphone designs, although a quick look at Aliexpress and their website does show that they have a handful of designs or so – the AT1 being one of them.
As we go through this review, we’ll have to keep in mind that these earphones are supposed to be priced at $3.
We’ll go into why this is important later but for now, we can see this manifesting in how the AT1 comes in very spartan packaging – a simple box with two plastic bags inside to store the earphones and included ear tips, respectively.
There isn’t much good to say about it, but it would be unreasonable to rag on the AT1 for it as well. The ear tips were a bit concerning, though, as the large ear tips ripped on me as I was changing through them.
With an ear tip breaking on me during my testing, I was worried that this would be an indication of the overall quality of the JCally AT1.
While they didn’t fall apart in my hands, they did feel cheaply made. The housings were very light and felt like the cable attached could rip out without too much effort. I also noticed a bit of a plasticky smell coming from the AT1 when it was fresh out of the box.
Do these observations amount to anything? Not really. All things considered, these earphones worked and they didn’t fall apart throughout the time I was testing them.
Fit and Comfort
On the bright side, the light weight of the earpieces does make them fairly comfortable to wear, plus they’re shaped in a way that ensures they don’t fall out.
But for earphones that do fit in-ear, the JCally AT1 certainly doesn’t feel that way. The simple explanation is that the earphones themselves don’t block outside noises very well, even if you do have to stick them inside your ears.
So far we’ve established that the AT1 looks and feels cheap. And for a $3 earphone, that’s about as good as we can expect it to be. But what about its sound?
As much as I wanted it to be true, the JCally AT1 doesn’t quite rise to the occasion. It sadly just sounds like a cheap earphone in just about every aspect. Let’s dive into why.
With a lot of bargain bin-class headphones and earphones, bass quality usually falls into one of two types – excessively boomy or weak and anemic. The AT1 falls into the latter bucket.
No matter what music I play through them, the JCally AT1 has trouble playing frequencies below 150 Hz with any semblance of power. Kan Sano’s “Stars In Your Eyes” normally has a very powerful kick drum, but the AT1’s weak bass leaves the song’s kick drum sounding hollow and sucked out of life.
The balance in the frequency range can be thought of as a seesaw, with the fulcrum point at the low end of the midrange around 300 Hz. So if you take the weight off of the bass end, all of the upper frequencies are free to take all the space in what you hear.
So in the case of our JCally AT1, its midrange comes through quite clearly.
However, just because the midrange is clear doesn’t mean it’s detailed. Throughout my testing, there’s a general feeling of the earphones sounding rather soft and smoothed over. Details in the vocals on HONNE’s “Now I’m Alone” just don’t quite come through the AT1 in the way you get with more performant earphones.
It’s hard to put my finger on how it feels but it feels like a cheap-sounding earphone.
The JCally AT1’s treble is also more of the same, if not a bit worse. Even though it does come through audibly, it’s clear that there’s not a lot of refinement in their tuning, if there’s any at all.
I think part of the reason for this is the AT1 not having much bass to keep the treble in check, which leaves the high frequencies splashing about with an uneven and sharp quality to it. As an example, M2U’s “Body Talk” is one song that’s brutally butchered by the AT1 with piercing treble energy that’s annoying to listen to.
Even songs that don’t have a very bright mix suffer because of the AT1’s lack of detail. The shakers used in Sam Kim’s “Sunny Days, Summer Nights” come off sounding oddly compressed and artificial that’s just hard to listen to.
Most earphones in the budget price range don’t have a very good soundstage to speak of. Heck, even the more expensive ones can be pretty unimpressive in general.
But the JCally AT1’s soundstage – or lack thereof – is a telling indication of just how cheap these earphones sound. In a lot of my previous reviews of budget IEMs, I’ve commented on how they still manage to produce a decent stereo image. The AT1, however, doesn’t quite pull this off.
The AT1’s soundstage is narrow and hollow, which is off-putting to listen to. This sound comes through in all music generally, but a very solid example of this in action is in songs that are mixed with a very spacious sound, like Madeon’s “The City“.
And so we come to the core of the question that I posed at the beginning of this review. Is the JCally AT1, priced at $3, worth the purchase?
As much as I’d like to give it the benefit of the doubt, the JCally AT1 just doesn’t sound that much better than the freebie earphones that used to come bundled with earphones way back when. From the weak bass to the annoyingly sharp treble, it’s not something that you’d deliberately shell out money for even at its price of $3.
But the AT1 doesn’t just cost $3. Depending on which retailer you buy them from, the AT1 can go for as much as $5 on Aliexpress at the time of writing.
When we account for that alongside potential shipping costs, we find that the full cost of these earphones encroach on the price range where we start to find the good ones. And at that point, we might as well just go for those good earphones.
So how cheap is too cheap?
From what we’ve uncovered in this review, that line seems to be at $3. While good sound has gotten a lot cheaper over the past few years, we’ve found that there’s still a limit to how cheaply we can make things before we have to make sacrifices to still have a complete, functional product.
With splashy treble, an almost-mono soundstage, and an anemic bass response, the JCally AT1 falls short of what I can consider to be “good earphone” territory.
At its retail price, the earphone isn’t unusable – it both works and doesn’t feel like it will fall apart from a mean look. However, when you factor in all of the other costs that tack onto buying an earphone like this where it’s available, the AT1’s value proposition simply vanishes.
The ultra-budget earphone market has shown us that entering the audiophile space doesn’t need a big investment anymore. But it does still need an investment. And as it stands, $5 seems to be as low as we can go for now.
This post was last updated on 2023-11-28 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.