ACKNOWLEDGMENTS & DISCLOSURE
I'd like to thank Isabel at RHA for promptly sending me my review sample, many months ago by this point. I'd also like to apologize for taking so long to get this review out. I've tried on numerous occasions to convey what I wanted to say, only to read over what I'd written and discard it. Partly it's because I'm a rabid perfectionist, though mostly it's because the MA-350 is more than it might appear at first look or listen, as you'll soon read.
NOTE: The contents of this review may well be augmented and/or subtly edited over time if I catch mistakes or think of other things I'd like to say. Also, my camera often seems to lack high end features like the ability to focus, otherwise I'd have pictures. I may yet capture a few shots for this review and add them at a later date.
Feel free to ask me questions if there's anything I haven't covered.
Headquartered in Glasgow, UK, Reid and Heath Acoustics (hereafter RHA) is a relatively new company that produces affordable headphones and IEMs with a focus on good performance and usability alongside fashionable aesthetics. Their current product lineup includes three IEMs. This review is of the MA-350 (~$40)
, the middle unit in the range, which also includes the MA-150 (~$20) at the entry level and the MA-450i (~$50) as the flagship. (Incidentally, the MA-150 was reviewed
by friend and fellow Head-Fi'er warrenpchi, if you're interested).
-Three (3) different sizes of silicone tips (S/M/L)
DESCRIPTION & CONSTRUCTION
The earpieces are funnel-shaped and are fashioned from machined aluminum, with black aluminum end caps. The barrels have small lips on the edge to hold tips on securely, and there are non-removable metal screens over the openings to keep out debris. RHA is quite proud of their design, and setting aside discussion about any sonic benefits this shape might confer, it certainly makes for a well-built and (subjectively, of course) attractive product. The cable is fabric-sheathed, around four feet in length, and terminates in an I-plug. Both ends are well-relieved. There's a cable cinch that works well enough, and I suggest you use it when storing this set because the cable has a tendency to tangle. It's not terrible in this regard, but it's something worth noting.
FIT, COMFORT & USABILITY
Very good in both fit and comfort. The included tips are quite comfortable, and the medium size (installed by default) fit me perfectly. Your own ear geometry will obviously differ from mine, and if you do need aftermarket tips to get a proper fit, the ever-popular Sony Hybrids fit perfectly and are an inexpensive option.
Fit-wise, the flared bell design ensures some latitude in positioning. I found that a medium distance into the ear canal--just far enough to get a good seal but not jammed in the maximum distance possible--yields the best sound. The earphones tend to end up in this spot naturally, so it's not something I really think much about. Also, the design allows the cables to be looped over the ear to reduce cable microphonics, which is something you should always do with any IEM that allows it.
On that note, the cable tends to be quite microphonic. There were numerous complaints about this in the online reviews I've read. Looping the cable over the ear helps a lot in this regard though does not entirely eliminate the issue. I find myself holding my head a bit stiff when wearing them to avoid upsetting the cable too much, which is never a good thing. It's inherently difficult to entirely eliminate this phenomenon from IEMs, since by nature they block up the ear canal and translate cable motion directly to sound, but there are some designs out there (like my MEElectronics M6/S6) which do a better job than the MA-350 here. A bit of extra engineering would get rid of one of the few obvious negatives of this product.
Apart from this one issue, and the occasional cable tangle, the MA-350 works great in day-to-day use. They've traded time with my S6 as my portable driver, and I've found them to be quite a bit less fussy than the MEElecs (which love to pop out of my ear whenever they sense my hands are tied and I can't get to them). The cable is just the right length, IMO, for a general-purpose, portability-focused earphone. Being metal, they're a bit cold when first inserted (especially in cold months), but that's just part of the charm, I think. It's certainly not a deal breaker.
After seven months of use (yes, I've really kept the poor folks at RHA waiting this long for their review), my MA-350 has held up perfectly. It's been jammed into my shirt and pants pockets repeatedly without incident. The only issue I had occurred right near the beginning, when within the first week one of my tips tore clean apart when I was attempting to swap it with another from my collection. I've heard of this happening from at least one other Head-Fi'er who was sent a review unit. That was a while ago, however, and a cursory glance at online reviews failed to turn up another example of this happening. I informed RHA of the issue a while ago, and if there was a problem at all I imagine by now steps have been taken to remedy it. Tips are easily replaced, and I've been using Sony Hybrids (which are quite similar in dimensions to the original RHA ones) without issue.
Overall, apart from the tip issue this seems like a durable product, and I have no significant complaints.
Quite good. I have a unique ability to assess this in that part of my day involves spending about half an hour in a room with a loud air compressor forcing air through thousands of PVC tubes and into hundreds of fish tanks (I work in my family's tropical fish hatchery). The sound this produces is essentially white noise, along with the loud hiss and whine of the compressor itself, so I have an excellent test for the isolation of headphones and IEMs. The MA-350 blocks out much of the racket, enough that I can enjoy the music without having to bump up the volume. Predictably it has a tougher time with the lower frequency component of the sound--for that you need active noise cancellation. Similarly, they work great for walking around in public as well, though the usual rule with IEMs applies: DO NOT wear them when situational awareness (e.g. crossing a street) is necessary.
With 103dB/mW sensitivity into 16 ohms, these are the most sensitive piece of audio equipment I currently own. They WILL get up to EAR BLEEDING LEVELS if you so choose. I would absolutely advise that you do NOT choose to do this, and RHA agrees with me. In the box there are numerous warnings about the dangers of high SPL listening, and they even include contact information for help should you believe you have already caused your hearing damage. Do NOT put yourself in this situation. Think of the extra volume headroom as your guarantee that the MA-350 will have good power handling in the portion of its volume range you will actually use.
The short version: The response is V-shaped, emphasizing midbass and lower treble. Neither is overdone, however. Nonetheless, this IEM clearly demonstrates the difference between "neutral" and "balanced."
The long version: The main reason I have tried and failed literally a dozen times to get this review done is that the MA-350 is quite enigmatic in its sound. We'll begin at the bottom. Consumer-class bass monster these are not--bass is elevated, but smoothly and as part of a general warm tilt. As such, the bass isn't ever overbearing, and it's not unreasonably loose or slow like in typical consumer-oriented bass-heavy sets. Texture, however, is a bit lacking, tending toward a smooth overall character in the bass. Impact is neither punchy nor boomy, strictly speaking. It's difficult to describe, actually--it sounds like a headphone with less bass than it actually has, if that makes any sense. The best way to put it is that the bass integrates well with the rest of the signature, despite being above baseline.
Moving up to the midrange, predictably it's warmed up a bit by the bass, resulting in rich, full-sounding fundamentals. The level also seems to recede a bit toward the upper mids, enhancing this smoothness at the expense of presence and a bit of detail. However, there's a bit of coldness as well, likely imparted by the boosted lower treble (see next section). Overall, vocals and guitars come across as warm and slightly soft, but with an edge. Worth noting is that V-shaped responses usually result in a noticeably recessed midrange. Not so with the MA-350--the mids remain nicely present throughout (though certainly not emphasized), imbued as they are with the particular character described above. Enigmatic indeed.
The treble is probably the easiest part to describe. While it mostly takes a step back from the lower midrange, there's a prominent spike in the lower treble range (5-6 kHz) that balances out the bass but adds a bit of harshness to the sound. This ultimately limits the maximum volume I can play these at. I tend to be very sensitive to elevated response in this area, so my assessment here is going to be biased by that fact. To many people, extra energy in this region is benign and merely adds an edge and a sense of excitement to the sound, while rarely (if ever) exaggerating sibilance. Indeed, I've never had trouble with sibilance with the MA-350, though things like snare drum cracks can occasionally step out of line. Moving on up, extension above this range rolls off steadily and a little soon for my taste, though it's augmented by a few peaks in the upper treble that help add some sparkle. These are not an airy sounding IEM by any means, but they also don't really sound closed-in or stuffy.
Overall, the MA-350 is not strictly neutral, but it is balanced. In fact, it's an excellent example of a product that makes the distinction between these two designations clear.
The short version: The soundstage is intimate but nicely coherent, with good imaging and layering, but the sound is somewhat lacking in texture.
The long version: As enigmatic as the sonic contour of the MA-350 is, the presentation is much more straightforward. The soundstage isn't particularly large, but it is well-rounded, with roughly equal width and depth. It avoids the "line between the ears" phenomenon that even some more expensive headphones often exhibit. It even has a bit of height, which is quite impressive indeed. It's also nicely coherent, managing to avoid the common "three blobs" pitfall (where sound seems to fall into one of three dissociated spots, one near each ear and one in the center). It spans a bit less than 180 degrees--more like 160 or 165. This is actually more natural than if it went the whole 180 or beyond (like my reference DT880), since very rarely do you find yourself actually surrounded by a musical performance. Usually you're listening from a distance, meaning the sound is primarily in front of you. The MA-350 does as well as any headphone can simulating this orientation.
Imaging is also good, which should be expected given the coherence mentioned above. It's not the razor-sharp delineation I get from my reference DT880, but it definitely separates out sonic elements in space. Layering isn't bad, either, though interestingly there seems to be an inner limit, closer than which sounds seldom appear--very little emanates directly from the center of the head, which I think is a good thing. There's definitely a sense of distance with sounds that are further away, though, and the MA-350 can throw sonic cues a surprising distance when prodded.
Texture is a definite weak point, though depending on how you look at it, that's probably a consequence of the particular sonic signature chosen. Strong texture generally requires present upper midrange and extended treble, both of which are deemphasized in the MA-350's balance. There is, however, a bit of grain across the entire range, likely as a result of the lower treble emphasis. All this manifests itself as a sense that the music has been simplified, even though all the sonic elements are present. Overall, the sound is mostly smooth (treble edge notwithstanding) rather than extensively textured.
Surprisingly wide. I found myself enjoying some Vivaldi and Mendelssohn alongside my usual rock, pop, and electronic collection, which is a bit unexpected. My surprise here is not meant to discredit the MA-350 by implying that I expected its capability to be limited from the start. Rather, it's a testament to the versatile, not-quite conventional signature RHA voiced this IEM with. It manages to add bass and treble without drowning out the mids, which allows it to sound good outside the typical pop/rock/hip-hop/electronic material most buyers will likely throw at it. The MA-350's generally above average presentation and lack of excessive bass bloom even lets them perform respectably with classical, where imaging and a sense of the venue are quite important.
Within the impossibly huge umbrella of classical, there are areas where the MA-350 does better than others. It seems most at home with solo instruments, playing alone or over an orchestra (e.g. a concerto). It loses a bit of ground when things get more complex and with large string and choral sections, where the timbre seems a bit off and the lower treble spike introduces a bit of harshness. It does least well with organ, which is highly demanding on any audio equipment--the treble spike tends to spotlight certain portions of the tutti, and the bass, despite being powerful in the midbass region, lacks convincing extension into the deep sub bass regions (either that or this area is being overshadowed by the midbass). Still, not a bad showing at all for a product that probably isn't aimed at people rocking out to Bach on campus. It's nice to know you still could if you really wanted to, though, and that you'd enjoy the experience.
I believe RMA has a clear idea what their target market wants. In the MA-350 they've crafted a subtly-styled, comfortable, and durable product (apart from the tips perhaps!) that fits easily, achieves high volume from portable sources, and sounds quite good for the money. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that many in its target market might never have heard better, and that includes those who have sneaked a listen to their friend's Beats or Bose gear. I can't really find any drawbacks, apart from the microphonic cable and the lack of strict, ruler-flat neutrality and extension (which may not even be desirable to the average listener). Fashion-conscious companies tend to be all over the map when it comes to raw performance, but it appears RHA has done the necessary engineering to back up their aesthetics with a sound that, interestingly enough, reflects something of the understated and refined outward appearance. The MA-350 gets a solid recommendation for those looking for an inexpensive, versatile IEM that plays nice with portable sources.