You’re not likely to find a sonic masterpiece in the $50 earphone realm, but one company is at least raising the bar significantly higher. At $49.95 (list), RHA’s MA450i is the second offering from the manufacturer in the last year to exceed our expectations. Like its on-ear sibling, the RHA SA950i, the MA450i delivers deep bass frequencies at high volumes without any distortion—an uncommon feat in this price range. The MA450i also comes with a nice array of extra ear tips, an inline microphone, and controls for Apple iOS devices. Its audio performance can be a bit on the harsh side—high frequencies can sound overly boosted and bright, or even piercing at higher volumes. For the price, however, it delivers powerful audio that bass lovers on a budget should enjoy.
Visually, RHA doesn’t break any new boundaries with the MA450i’s design, but its construction seems relatively sturdy for inexpensive earphones, and it has a simple black design with some metallic accents on the earpieces and inline remote. The cloth-covered cable is a nice visual touch, and should also be (slightly) less likely to tangle than a typical headphone cable.
A three-button Apple inline remote for iPods, iPads, and iPhones is included along the right earpiece’s cable. It’s simple to operate, and the built-in microphone’s quality is not phenomenal, but your call partner will understand you just fine. To be fair, there are few microphone options for mobile phones that can overcome the audio clarity limitations of cellular service itself.
Also included with the MA450i: seven pairs of ear tips in various sizes. For this price range, that’s well beyond the standard three or four pairs you’re likely to receive.
At the $50 price level, RHA has again shown us that, while audio perfection is more or less impossible, that needn’t mean things have to sound awful. First and foremost, the MA450i accomplishes a feat several pairs that cost hundreds more fail at—it does not distort on deep bass tracks.
Even at maximum volume (a very unsafe listening level, by the way), the MA450i cleanly delivers the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” a song with powerful, consistent sub-bass thuds. While there’s no distortion, it’s not because the MA450i shies away from deep bass response—it’s easy to avoid sub-bass distortion if your drivers can’t reproduce those frequencies. Instead, the MA450i delivers a robust low frequency response that should make bass lovers on a budget smile.
It would be easy for the sound signature to become a muddy mess with so much deep low-end presence, but RHA keeps things articulate and defined by sculpting and boosting the high-mid and high frequencies significantly. Sometimes, however, the high frequency boosting can be a bit too intense. Some of the higher frequencies are so tweaked and boosted that the high-mids and highs—where much percussion, guitar work, and vocals live—can sound pinched, and even harsh. The boosting works in the MA450i’s favor occasionally, as on Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” where the added treble gives his unique baritone vocal delivery a more defined edge to help it stand out from the heavy, insistent beat of the kick drum.
The high frequency boost works less well in other scenarios. On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” Frank Ocean’s opening vocals sound overly sibilant, while the already treble-boosted attack of the kick drum loop can sound piercing at higher volumes. Basically, if a track already is mixed with lots of crisp treble edge, the MA450i can take things in an intensely bright direction, which can be unpleasant, particularly at high volumes.
On classical tracks like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” the MA450i can sound a bit too bright—almost harsh—at times. The strings and higher-register wooden percussion have a treble edge that goes a few degrees beyond a nice crispness. The added low frequency response helps round things out a bit here, with the low register strings getting a nice bit of bass boost, along with the lower register percussion and drum hits, which are delivered with a pleasant thud that doesn’t go overboard or sound unnatural.
In this price range, it’s unrealistic to expect too much from your earphones. That the MA450i delivers deep bass at all is impressive. That is delivers it distortion-free is an even bigger deal. Yes, it can sound way too tweaked in the highs, but if you want real clarity and quality, you simply have to spend more.
One great way to get added value for spending the extra money is to invest in a pair with a removable—and thus replaceable—cable. The Shure SE215 provides solid audio performance and features a removable cable, so you can buy a replacement cable rather new earphones should the connection or cable fray or snap—a common issue. And, while its cable isn’t removable, the AKG K 350 offers a more well-rounded audio performance than the MA450i for only about $20 more. If you feel that even $50 is too much to spend on earphones, there are other, less-expensive options, like the Apple EarPods—just don’t expect more than what you’re paying for.
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