Gadling Gear Review: RHA SA950i Headphones

RHA SA950i HeadphonesThis past holiday season we reviewed two pairs of earphones from a U.K. company called RHA, giving them high marks for excellent sound quality at an affordable price. We were quite impressed with how well both products performed as they presented listeners with clear, crisp audio that was on par with earbuds from the competition that cost considerably more. After testing their in-ear options I couldn’t help but wonder what the company could do with an on-ear product, which typically provides even deeper and richer sound. I recently got my answer in the form of their newest product, the SA950i headphones, which deliver outstanding audio performance for just $59.95.

The first thing that struck me upon taking these headphones out of the box is just how incredibly lightweight they are. The SA950i’s tip the scales at a mere 3.7 ounces, which means they don’t have much heft to them either in your hands or on your ears. But despite their lack of weight, they still feel sturdy enough to survive day-to-day use at home or on the road. A detachable, tangle-free cable, complete with an Apple-compatible, in-line remote and mic, helps to maintain the overall feeling of quality.

RHA went with a nice, subtle, understated design with this product and while they are attractive, they won’t scream, “look at me” when you’re wearing them through the airport. Some of the other headphones on the market today have taken to using flashy colors and unique designs as a way of garnering attention, but the SA950i’s have a simple, classic look about them that I personally appreciate greatly. To say they are understated would certainly be an apt description.It is a simple affair to adjust these headphones to fit and when placed over the ears they are quite comfortable. The lightweight construction coupled with the soft material that lines the speakers makes it easy to wear them for an extended period of time. Noise isolation is good, although it isn’t outstanding by any means. The on-ear design doesn’t provide as much coverage as say an over-the-ear headphone, which can seal out background noise to a much higher degree. The SA950i’s don’t have any kind of active noise-canceling either, which you wouldn’t expect at this price point.

RHA SA950i headphonesOf course, when purchasing a pair of headphones the most important thing to consider is how they sound. After all, they can be as comfortable as wearing a pillow on your ears but if they sound horrible, you won’t enjoy using them. Fortunately, just like the earbuds we tested back in December, RHA’s trademark sound quality shines through once again with this product. Music reproduction is crisp and clear across the entire spectrum with the mid- and high-ranges both sounding exceptional. If you’re someone who really loves deep bass, you probably won’t come away quite so impressed, but I found the low-end audio to still be very good and delivered without distortion. Vocal tracks also sounded great, as did several podcasts that I listened to as well. This prompted me to wonder how RHA could manage to sell such great sounding product at such a low price.

From a traveler’s perspective, the SA950i’s are a nice addition to your carry-on bag based on weight alone. Their solid construction means they should be able to stand up well to the rigors of travel, although a protective case would be a welcome addition to the package. I’m sure RHA made the conscious choice not to include one in order to keep costs down, but the option to purchase a case would be nice. These headphones also don’t collapse down to a smaller size the way some competitors do, which can help limit the amount of space they take up in our bag. But unless space is already at a premium, I don’t think most of us will notice.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, the SA950i headphones carry a price tag of just $59.95. That puts them squarely into the mid-range category in terms of pricing and competition, but they certainly don’t perform like they are in that category. Considering how clear and crisp music from these headphones sounds, these just might be the best bargain in portable audio at the moment. I would venture to guess that most listeners would not be able to tell the difference between the SA950i’s and a pair of headphones from a competitor that cost twice as much. If you’re in the market for great sounding on-ear headphones but don’t want to break the bank, then I think you’ll be completely blown away with what RHA has to offer here.

In the U.S., the RHA SA950i headphones are available exclusively at Amazon.

[Photo Credit: RHA]

Gadling Gear Review: RHA Earphones

RHA MA450i earphonesStill looking for a last minute gift for the music lover on your holiday list? Look no further than the incredible sounding earphones from RHA Audio. The British company, which is relatively new to the U.S. market, makes some very high-quality earbuds that pack impressive sound without inflicting a lot of damage on your wallet. Here are two of their products that I’ve recently had the opportunity to test, coming away very impressed.

RHA MA450i Earphones ($49.95)

The MA450i is RHA’s flagship in-ear model that is available through Apple Stores – both online and brick and mortar – as well as Amazon. These earphones are built from aircraft grade aluminum, which gives them a very solid and durable feel that you don’t always find in similar headsets. They also feature a three-button inline remote that allows users to skip tracks, adjust volume or pause their music on an iPhone, iPod or iPad. The remote even has a built-in mic, which makes it easy to both place and receive calls that sound crisp and clear on the tiny speakers. RHA has also included seven sizes of interchangeable soft tips for the earphones allowing users to find just the right fit for isolating outside noise.

If you’ve ever gone in search of good earphones for your portable devices, the above description probably doesn’t seem very out of the ordinary. After all, there are literally hundreds of options for earbuds on the market from dozens of different companies that offer a similar set of features. But where RHA’s products stand out from the crowd is in their performance for the price. Simply put, these are easily the best sounding earbuds I’ve ever used in this price range and they equal or exceed the quality of many higher priced offerings as well.As I tested these earphones I was continually impressed with how clear the audio was across the entire range of sound, including the lower bass levels, which are not easy to reproduce on an earbud at any price point. Highs and mid-ranges came across very cleanly too, making these a great choice for music lovers who prefer a full audio experience. Listening to my favorite music on the MA450i’s was a rich, personal experience, highlighting subtle notes that aren’t always noticeable on other earbuds.

I found these earphones to be super comfortable to wear as well, once I found the proper size tips to use. True to form, my ears always require different sizes to fit properly, but with all of the options that RHA includes, it was easy to adjust as needed. Once I had the right sizes dialed in, the MA450i’s did an excellent job of isolating outside noise, which can be particularly distracting at times. These earphones were also comfortable to wear for hours on end, something that comes in very handy on long flights.

Available in both black and white, the MA450i’s come with a nice little soft case for use while traveling. Throw in a long, durable cable and a full three-year warranty, all for a price of just $49.95, and you really have a set of headphones that are incredibly tough to beat. This kind of sound quality just doesn’t show up very often at this price point, which makes them a bargain that is tough to pass up.

RHA Audio MA350 earphonesRHA MA350 Earphones ($39.95)

Looking for a similar level of sound quality to the MA450i at an even lower price point? That’s why RHA has the MA350 earphones in their lineup. These smaller, lighter headphones offer a no-frills approach to design without compromising on sound quality in any way. These earbuds feature the same aluminum housing, high-quality fabric braided cable and interchangeable silicon soft tips, although this time you only get three sizes to choose from. They even include the nice travel pouch and three-year warranty. But best of all, the MA350′s provide the same high level of audio performance as the MA450i’s, which is to say, exceptional sound at a great price.

So, what exactly are you missing with these slightly less expensive earphones? For the most part, the main difference is that they lack an inline remote control and mic for answering calls. Considering that functionality is specifically built for Apple’s i-devices, if you use an Android phone or some other audio player, these earphones are probably the better choice. But if you are an iPhone or iPod owner, spend the extra $10 to get the MA450i’s instead. You’ll be glad you have the ability to use the remote.

Other than that, the audio quality on the MA350s is still outstanding and better than anything at this price. That is even more true when you consider that these earbuds come in under $40, which is considered the bargain basement in terms of most earphones. I’ve paid more than twice that for competing products that don’t sound nearly this good.

The bottom line is that if you’re looking for outstanding audio performance at an affordable price, it really is tough to beat these options from RHA. Try them for yourself, and I think you’ll find they provide amazing sound at an amazing price.

They also make great last minute stocking stuffers for your favorite audiophile.

[Photo credit: RHA Audio]

Gadling Gear Review: Phiaton Noise-Canceling Earphones

Phiaton noise cancelling earphonesTraveling with our smartphones, mp3 players and tablets has made life so much more enjoyable. Those devices bring a host of entertainment options in compact packages, allowing us to listen to music, watch movies and television shows, play games, chat with friends and a whole lot more. But to truly enjoy all of those features you really need a good pair of headphones or earbuds. The problem is, headphones can be large and bulky, taking up excess room in your pack and earbuds generally don’t provide enough noise isolation to allow us to listen comfortably while on a plane or in a busy airport.

Enter the PS 20 NC earphones from Phiaton. These earbuds promise audiophile levels of sound quality in a comfortable and compact package that also happens to include noise-canceling technology that is more commonly associated with larger and more expensive headphones. In theory, this combination of features should make for a great audio experience, as you get the ability to tune-out unwanted noises, such as a jet engine, while still having your music or movies presented with crystal clear sound. The earphones are also lightweight, compact and easy to carry with you no matter where you go, making them a terrific choice for travelers in particular.

For those who have never used noise canceling headphones before, the first time you activate them can be quite eye opening. These types of devices are powered by a battery and when they are switched on, they create low-level white noise that is designed to block out background sounds and allow the listener to hear music or other audio sources more cleanly. I’ve used a variety of noise-canceling headphones over the years and the good ones function remarkably well. In fact, they can often be a revelation when you first experience them. The downside is that if the battery dies you lose the noise-canceling functionality, and in some cases the headphones won’t work at all.That isn’t the case with Phiaton’s earbuds. The PS 20 NC’s continue to function quite well, with or without the noise-canceling system powered on. I found the sound quality to be impressive across the full range, especially compared to other earbuds, and when the noise-canceling system was activated, that level of quality didn’t change in any way. But what did change was that background noises simply melted away, leaving me isolated with the music or movie that I was listening to at the time. Phiaton claims that these earphones are capable of blocking out 95% of background noise, which seems a little optimistic to me. While they do a very nice job of preventing most unwanted noises from creeping in, some outside sounds still manged to break through. That said, the noise-canceling system in these headphones is impressive nonetheless and I think most people will appreciate how well it does its job.

Phiaton PS 20 NC earphonesAs mentioned above, the audio quality of these earphones is much better than I expected. The mid- and high-ranges came through crystal clear and I heard elements to some of my music that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s tough to get any solid bass out of a pair of earbuds, but even the low-end sounds solid and substantial. That high quality shines through even as you increase the volume to higher levels, where similar earphones begin to get muddled and break-up.

I was also impressed with the comfort level of the PS 20 NC’s. Phiaton ships them with four different sizes of silicon tips, allowing owners to dial in just the right fit. And when they are placed inside the ear they feel like they are naturally meant to be there. This makes it extremely easy to wear them for extended periods of time, which hasn’t always been the case with most earbuds I’ve used in the past. In fact, I tend to prefer over-the-ear headphones to these types of audio devices, but Phiaton has me strongly rethinking that preference.

Phiaton obviously had travelers in mind when it designed the PS 20 NC. Not only does the noise canceling come in handy while on the road, but the earphones also ship with a soft carrying case and an airplane adapter. The latter of those is increasingly not needed in this day and age, but it is still a nice touch nonetheless.

Despite the fact that I obviously love these earphones, there are a few things that I would change about them. First, the battery compartment, which is just large enough to hold the single AAA battery that powers the noise-canceling circuitry, is located along the audio cable. This is a bit awkward at times and even the built-in clip doesn’t help all that much. Also, my other favorite earbuds feature an inline remote and microphone, which especially comes in handy when using them with my iPhone. The PS 20 NC doesn’t include that option and it was missed on occasion.

At $130 these earphones are also a relative bargain. That price tag puts them squarely in the same range as other high-end earbuds, but none of them include the noise-canceling technology and few offer comparable sound quality either. If you’re a frequent traveler looking for an new way to enjoy your favorite audio while on the go, I think you’ll find the Phiaton PS 20 NC headphones a more than worthy investment.

[Photo Credit: Phiaton]

Gadling gear review: Ultimate Ears 600vi earphones

Ultimate Ears 600vi headphonesModern technology has obviously had a dramatic impact on how we travel. Thanks to small, lightweight portable devices, we now have the ability to carry our entire music library or a collection of our favorite movies and television shows, with us where ever we go. But one of the key elements for enjoying our music and videos is a good pair of headphones, preferably headphones that are comfortable to wear, isolate outside noise, and offer great sound. I recently found all of those qualities in a new pair of Ultimate Ears 600vi earphones from Logitech.

Before testing the UE 600vi’s I was a bit skeptical as to whether or not I would find them comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. After all, on a long international flight, they could potentially be used for hours on end. For years I’ve traveled with a pair of Bose Triport headphones, which are traditional, over the ear headphones that are super comfortable and provide great sound. The Ultimate Ears on the other hand, are in-ear models that are a bit of a departure for those accostumed to the larger, bulkier models that cover the entire ear.

To get the best performance, and comfort, out of the Ultimate Ears it is important that you get the right fit. Fortunately, Logitech packs in six sets of ear cushions, varying in size from extra-extra-small to large, which are designed to help us find that fit. Those cushions can be mixed and matched as needed, and it took several days of experimenting to find the right combination for my needs. Once I did however, not only did the UE’s fit very well, they also offered a high level of isolated from outside noise as well. That isolation is important when you’re stuck on a plane for 15 hours and you want a little relief from the sound of jet engines.Ultimate Ears 600vi headphonesWhile finding that perfect fit is important for the long term use of the Ultimate Ears, one thing that will strike you right away is the sound quality. Upon taking these earphones out of their package, I immediately hooked them up to my iPod and started listening to a few of my favorite tracks. The sound quality was astounding, and as I worked my way through various genres of music, I discovered that I was picking up elements to the songs that I hadn’t ever heard before. Background vocals and instruments came through clear as a bell and volume levels didn’t need to be cranked high to get the full effect of the music. I also used these headphones to watch videos and play games on my iPad, and came away impressed with their versatility and sound quality with those types of media as well.

This particular model of Ultimate Ears also includes a built in remote control right on the cable. That remote allows you to adjust volume, as well as pause and skip tracks on an iPod and other supported mp3 players. On the iPhone, the remote allows you to answer calls, and a tiny mic lets you chat directly through the earphones themselves. They also work with Siri on the new iPhone 4S, giving you the option to ask her questions and give commands without ever taking the UE’s out of your ears.

Despite their comfort and fantastic sound, the Ultimate Ears aren’t necessarily the best option for everyone. if you’re not already of fan of the in-ear model of headphones, it can take some time to get use to the feel of the cushions resting inside your ear canal. They also aren’t as good at filtering outside noise as over-the-ear headphones either, even when you have found the best fit possible. However, they don’t nearly weigh as much as their bulkier counterparts and they take up almost no room in your bag either. Those are two factors that are very important for travelers looking to travel light.

Logitech includes a nice, hard case with the Ultimate Ears, which protects them nicely when not being used. The case also help to keep the delicate cord from getting tangled, which can cause problems with any headphone. I found the case to be a nice touch in protecting my headphones while on the go.

With an MSRP of $120, the UE 600vi’s are a bit on the pricy side. But Logitech offers several models at a variety of price points, and while I’ve only had the opportunity to test this particular model, I was suitably impressed enough to recommend the rest of the line as well. If you’re looking for a new way to enjoy your music, movies, and other digital media while on the go, then you’ll definitely want to give the Ultimate Ears a listen. I think you’ll find they offer amazing sound and comfort in an incredibly small package.

Are noise-canceling headphones frivolous or necessary?

Until recently, I’d always silently scoffed at the travelers who boarded planes with a pair of those obnoxious noise-canceling headphones pulled over their ears or wrapped around their necks. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my (free) iPod earbuds, and the over-the-ear noise-canceling versions always seemed too bulky, too expensive, too obtrusive, and too frivolous. But now after testing out Phiaton’s PS 300 NC noise-canceling headphones, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I can see the appeal and am now trying to justify the cost.

Here are four reasons why noise-canceling headphones no longer seem as unnecessary as I (foolishly) once believed.

More compact than it looks

What I like about this Phiaton set, which debuted in April 2009, is that the collapsible design eradicates one of my previous complaints about being too bulky for travel. The ability to rotate the earmuffs for flat storage makes this pair a worthy rival for earbud headphones.

More affordable than you’d think

As for being too expensive, well, noise-canceling headphones will still cost more than the earbuds that come with your iPod. Bose seems to have cornered the market, and it’s not uncommon for a high-end pair to run you more than $300. It’s a little painful to realize that these high-end versions can cost as much as a plane ticket: PCMag.com favorably compares Phiaton’s PS 300 NC ($299.99) to Bose’s QuietComfort 3, which retails for $349.95. Not exactly budget travel.

Some good news: though Phiaton’s PS 300 NC retails for about $300, since it has been out for about a year now, Amazon.com is currently selling it for $189 with free shipping. (Bose’s QuietComfort 3, on the other hand, still shows up on Amazon.com for about $350).

UPDATE 5/3: Amazon.com seems to have increased its Phiaton price from yesterday’s $189 to $279. There are also apparently only five left in stock. Someone has been buying the headphones! The lesson? Sale prices do end, so act fast.

More inconspicuous than it seems

For those who just can’t stand the feel of over-the-ear headphones, noise-canceling earbud designs are available and at more affordable prices: JVC makes a solid pair for about $80.

More versatile than you’d assume

Are noise-canceling headphones too frivolous? Well, I still don’t think they’ll ever be necessary. Then again, not much travel gear is actually essential. I’d always assumed that people who owned noise-canceling headphones dusted them off a few times a year whenever they wanted to make plane rides a little more bearable. But as I’ve discovered, the right set can also soften the deafening drone of the New York City subway. Being able to hear my music or podcast? That alone could justify a purchase.

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