What are the best sounding IEMs under two hundred bucks? Assuming ‘best’ exists, a cursory Google search for <$200 IEMs will return options in their hundreds (not tens) to lead many would-be upgraders to give up the ghost and stick with what they have: the IEMs that shipped with their smartphone. That’s the paradox of choice.
RHA makes affordable IEMs whose clean industrial design acts an aesthetic filter to narrow the field of options. Those same aesthetics are likely why Apple once put RHA products in their stores. For mainstream buyers who don’t attend headphone shows, the Apple store might be the most powerful audio product filter of them all.
At CanJam Europe in Berlin, I sat down with RHA’s Marina Schurer to pick apart their range of entry-level IEMs where everything sells for €150 or less.
In the world of RHA, separating the wo/man in the street from his/her smartphone IEMs takes a mere €25: the aluminium-shelled MA390 Universal includes a one-button remote/mic to interface reliably with both Android and iOS devices.
Moving price and performance northwards with a better dynamic driver and a better cable – also with one-button remote/mic – is the S500 at €40.
However, to the RHA table at CanJam Europe I brought my own filter – digital audio – meaning the newer wireless Bluetooth models, teased at Munich High-End in May and launched at Berlin’s IFA in September, would become my primary focus.
The MA650 Wireless (€99) and MA750 Wireless (€149) look more alike than different: metal earpieces, in-line three-button remote/mic and a neck band that houses a 12-hour rechargeable battery and Bluetooth receiver circuitry.
The MA650 Wireless offer a brushed aluminium earshell that house the company’s 380.1 dynamic driver (which doesn’t tell us much) whilst the MA750’s puts their 560.1 (read:better) dynamic driver in a weightier stainless steel earpiece, hence the need for over-ear hooks.
A quick listen to both had the MA650 sounding emphatically warmer than the MA750. The more affordable model’s lighter earpieces also made for a better fit for this user. But these were show conditions where extended listening sessions just aren’t possible. Perhaps the MA750’s more neutral take on music worked its magic more slowly? Review samples of both will tell us more.
Fundamental to the Bluetooth audio conversation is the issue of codec support. The MA650/750 Wireless support the superior-sounding aptX (for Android) and AAC (for iOS) out of the box.
This means every iPhone/iPad will stream audio to the RHA IEMs via AAC, which should result in a very pleasing sound. Some Android users will also get to hear the good stuff because of the equally decent aptX codec – no issues there – but other Android models will fall back to the inferior sounding SBC resulting in an ever so slightly greyed out tonality and unrefined top end. Android users are advised to consult Qualcomm’s aptX device database for more information.
What struck me listening to the MA650 Wireless paired with my iPhone 6S Plus was just how far Bluetooth headphones have come. With AAC in play and the MA650’s slightly softened transient delivery, the RHA IEMs don’t have me longing for a wired connection. This jives with my ongoing experiences with Sony’s MDR-1000X (that also support AAC).
It would seem that a sizeable proportion of Bluetooth’s audible limitations can be mitigated when wrapped in better-than-average hardware, which makes choosing our next pair of IEMs that much easier.
So let’s wrap with this thought for iOS users: ignore all the shouting about aptX – its inclusion (or not) doesn’t affect you. Taking your Bluetooth listening experience beyond SBC’s ground floor is AAC support. Sieve your Bluetooth headphone/earphone shortlist accordingly.
Further information: RHA