I don’t ask for too much out of my earbuds. I don’t even mind when comfort trumps quality when I’m listening to my iPod or HiFiMAN portable device. If I wanted to focus purely on quality, I’d put on a set of on-ear headphones to transport me into musical bliss. But if I’m going for a walk, I’d rather not have anything weighing my head down.
Earbuds are funny though—you would think that manufacturers perhaps think the same way when it comes to comfort. Wrong. Just look at Apple’s iconic white earbuds that come with every iPod. I can’t tell you how many people tell me that they replace those right away, and that includes myself; one long walk wearing those and my ears feel like they’ve been pressed in a waffle iron.
I’ve also tested earbuds whose bulbous design carried so much heft to them that unless I jammed them seemingly into my brain, they would keep falling out of my ear if I was out walking at even a semi-brisk pace. I don’t have too many bigger pet peeves during a walk than having to continually paw at my head making sure my earbuds aren’t about to fall out.
So when British manufacturer RHA sent me its MA-350 earbuds for an evaluation, the first thing that struck me was how utterly comfortable they are. They provide a sort of invisible-like quality, with which you barely notice they are even in your ears though they surely are working effectively.
My wife uses our iPod touch during exercise, so comfort and sturdiness in earbuds are critical. She confirmed my initial response by saying the MA-350s were the most comfortable earbuds she’d ever used, “and you know how picky I am about them.”
In terms of features, RHA says the earphones employ “the aerophonic design of a trumpet’s bell … clean, simple lines and aluminum finish” among its attributes. The aluminum gives the finish just enough oomph to keep the buds in place, and the “soft silicone tips” live up to their billing. I used them for nearly three hours straight on a train ride, and no part of my ear felt bad after the trip.
Speaking of which, RHA also notes the earphones’ noise-isolating design, which was evident during the train ride as well. As soon as I plugged in, the background noise was very muted, and PA announcements and even whistle blows were barely audible. No, not on par with over-ear headphones, but certainly respectably efficient for $40 earbuds.
Don’t let the price on these fool you, either. Performance and build quality are very good. Apart from the aforementioned comfort, I also liked the fabric cable braiding as opposed to the usual plastic wrapping that earbud cords ordinarily employ. The fabric is much easier to untangle, and for my money I would go so far as to call it trickle-down technology from quality speaker-wire manufacturers—think about it, how many high-end speaker cables do you see sheathed in plastic? I’ve been using Clarus cables in my home system, and like other high-performance manufacturers they use fabric among the fine build quality.
In terms of performance, the MA-350s are solid, especially for the price. While listening to them with an iPod touch, I found that they really delivered a nice, neutral, crisp presentation that wasn’t overly boomy like some earbuds or lean like others. Sonics came across at a good compromise, somewhere in the middle, which allowed for plenty of detail on both the low and high frequencies.
Several tracks by Jack Johnson emphasized the MA-350s’ balanced and sharp delivery. Johnson begins many of his songs with a quiet opening passage before some drums and bass kick into the usual acoustic strumming. Each time, the earbuds provided a good amount of thump to make an impact, while not overpowering Johnson’s gentle vocal style. I also felt that acoustic guitar plucking, whether it was Johnson or on albums such as Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, resonated really well through the MA-350s as you could hear every little thwang of the strings.
The dynamics of the MA-350s I thought were nicely revealed while listening to Genesis’ epic Lamb Lies Down on Broadway on the iPod, despite playback at 128 MP3 (most of my iPod listening is in MP3 at 128 or 320 kbps). RHA lists the frequency range at 16-22,000Hz and the earphones handled the Lamb quite well, with all of its shifts from quiet interludes like “The Lamia” to the heavy growling of “Back in NYC” and more. The swirling energy of this album and all of its deeply textured composition came across superbly, and the rich reproduction of the percussion and keyboards from Phil Collins and Anthony Banks throughout made for a vibrant earful of sound.
Combined with their comfort and their build quality, the MA-350s are an astounding value if you’re looking for a boost in earbuds performance. Sonics are full and lifelike, and the overall package delivers an enjoyable listening experience that is fatigue free, whether you’re out for a half-hour walk or settling in for a cross-country plane ride.
Machined from solid aluminum
Fabric braided cable
3.5mm gold-plated connection
Carry case, S/M/L size tips included
16-22,000Hz frequency rating
Very comfortable and durable
Solid build quality
“L” and “R” designations tough to read
Bass could be a tad heavier
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.