It's pretty tough to find decent sounding earphones at the real budget end of the market. Despite plenty of advances in audio technology, cheap drivers tend to sound, well, cheap. That said, Apple recently set a bar with its EarPods, which now come bundled with iPhones and higher-end iPods, and sound surprisingly punchy for a design that sits just outside the ear canal. However, RHA seems to have the formula down pat. Its latest model, the MA150, packs some serious audio power for just £15, a tenner less than Apple’s offering.
The MA150 looks like any other inexpensive pair of earphones; each plastic enclosure is all black, with rounded, rubber eartips. RHA packs two additional eartip pairs in the box in different sizes, but I had no trouble with the default ones. The soft rubber eartips are very comfortable and create a nice seal that blocks a considerable amount of external noise.
The black cable is thin and a little prone to tangling, but it's no worse than any other inexpensive earphone pair. That said, I heard some cable thump through the earpieces while walking; it wasn't terrible, but if you're sensitive to that effect and plan on running with the MA150, you may want to try a different pair.
Note that the MA150 lacks an inline mic and phone controls. If you need something that lets you make and receive calls, have a look at the £40 RHA MA450i. The MA150 also doesn't come with a carrying case, but then at this price level, some corners have to be cut – and it does have recycled paper packaging, which is a nice touch.
For this review, I tested the MA150 with an iPhone 5 and a series of tracks in a variety of formats and bit rates. More often than not, I liked what I heard. Rage Against the Machine's "Fistful of Steel" sounded positively huge, with a massive kick drum, and clear if slightly muted vocals and hi-hat cymbals. The Apple EarPods delivered a more open sound in a back-to-back comparison, but with considerably less bass and overall excitement in the high range.
"No Lie (Feat. Drake)" by 2 Chainz rumbled and boomed just the way it should; the MA150 doesn't deliver the same level of bass as, say, a Beats by Dr Dre pair, but you do get the same voluminous low-end extension and real, if a little soft, electronic kick punch. Flunk's trip-hop track "Indian Rope Trick" sounded clear and reasonably spacey, thanks to the heavily effected and delayed vocal, but it wasn't the most open sound I've heard. Nonetheless, the tight bass and sufficient weight from the 10mm drivers was enough.
The taiko drums at the start of "Vespertillo," from the Batman Begins soundtrack, sounded ominous and rumbled beautifully, while tortured airy synthesisers loomed in the background. On the other hand, Depeche Mode's "Precious" sounded a little too closed in and flat; this is a tough track that becomes murky with the wrong headphones, and it's clear it was too much for the MA150.
Make no mistake: The MA150 is not a high-end earphone pair. But for just 15 quid, it gives you a taste of what's possible with good audio, and shows you just how bad bundled earbuds sound, assuming your phone or MP3 player even came with any at all. At this price point, there’s no question that the MA150 deserves a Best Buy award for the sound it produces.
That said, if you prefer a more open design that doesn't mask environmental sounds – say, for running outdoors – and that has no audible cable thump, the Apple EarPods will serve you well, and they also include an in-line remote and mic, although they cost £10 more.
The aforementioned RHA MA450i, in addition to also including a remote and mic, deliver slightly more transparent and detailed sound, although the sonic signature is also considerably brighter, with less bass punch (and they’re £40). Another option for those with a bit more to spend is the AKG K 350, which when compared back to back with the MA150, deliver more detail, more air, and more space around the instruments, as well as a tighter (if less bombastic) low-end.
Active Noise Cancellation