In-ear headphones are truly a dime a dozen. There's everything from super cheap, sub $10 'phones that just barely get the job done, to insanely expensive models such as the Westone 4R, clocking in at a cool $499. That being said, it's pretty easy to get a good sounding pair of in-ears for under triple digits, and I did just that with my previous favorite set, the Klipsch Image S3's. When RHA offered to let me try their MA-350 in-ears, which can be found in Apple stores and online retailers, I was intrigued -- but skeptical they'd be dramatically better. I was wrong.
Unboxing of the MA-350's and First Impressions
The MA-350's are nicely packaged, much better than the S3's were, although minimal as expected. In the box you'll receive the headphones themselves and three sets of ear tips, plus a felt carrying case.
The first thing that struck me about the MA-350's was the build quality. They're constructed of a firm plastic outer shell, and an inner chamber made of cast aluminum. Super classy and cool looking, this. Plus, the felt cord eliminated the usually shoddy rubbery feel of what's attached to most in-ear sets. One minor gripe is the "L" and "R" symbols are molded right into the plastic, allowing for a cleaner look but it's difficult to tell sometimes without looking closely to see which is which.
Sound and Noise Isolation
Like my previous Klipsch's, I felt these sounded pretty terrible right out of the box--but I'm picky. I'll elaborate more on that in my conclusions, but in a nutshell, I think these are tuned specifically to please most consumers who are listening to iTunes on an iPad, iPod, or other Apple device without any additional effort.
Moving on, I was able to achieve a superb sound quality out of the MA-350's with a little equalizer tweaking. The greatest benefits were significantly reducing the gain in the 3 kHz range (they are very shrill and overdriven here) and significantly increasing gain in the 60 Hz and 230 Hz ranges to increase bass and fullness. After these adjustments, I was completely blown away by the sound.
The best word to describe the RHA's, when tuned properly, is "balance." Unlike other in-ears in this price range, they don't hurt your ears at listenable volumes, and are very (very) dynamic at lower volumes. These days, I'm trying to not blow out my ears, and as such I appreciate a headphone or speaker that provides a full, rich sound even at lower audio levels. These do that. Vocals on School of Seven Bells' fantastic track "The Night" are clear yet light, almost wispy, but never overpowering the bass drum and snare present throughout the song. The thundering bass and reverberating guitars of doom metal band Serpentine Path are reproduced with remarkable depth on these things, much better than I would expect from an in-ear. The crisp sound of Rodrigo y Gabriela shines, the echoes from the guitar body made me feel like I was in the guitar (Listen to "Santo Domingo.")
Noise isolation: excellent. My wife was talking to me for 5 full minutes straight while I was writing this, and I didn't hear a word of what she said. (True story.)
Yeah, so these are super awesome. Don't believe me? Here's what you should do.
- If you're somewhat serious about music and have a device with a useable EQ, e.g., an Android or iOS device with third party software: Tweak these up with a boost to bass frequencies, a slight bump to the high end, and significantly reduce the 3 kHz range to get a rich, relatively balanced sound with a focus on bass. Lower the bass if you want. Listen and profit.
- If you are more casual about music listening, or don't have a device with a decent EQ: Just plug them in, they'll still sound good. In fact, some will like it better.
To elaborate, I conducted a very non-scientific, but effective test. Double blind, I had my wife listen to several of her favorite tracks (mostly pop stuff) on the iPad with the "Rock" EQ, and then on my Nexus 7 with my preferred EQ tuning. She vastly preferred the iPad, stating "it was crisper, vocals sounded better too." I think she's crazy, but I'm guessing I'm more the crazy one, and less representative of what most listeners will like.
Overall, these are my new favorite in-ears, and I plan to use a pair to retire my S3's. They're well made, sound fantastic, and even look sleek and stylish without being garish. It would be hard for most to find a better set of all-purpose in-ears for the price.