As high-end audio enthusiasts, the components we enjoy tend to be, by normal mortals’ standards, crazily expensive. There are many people who love music (passionately so), but are not made of cubic money, and therefore need listening devices that are genuinely good yet also inexpensive to acquire. In an ideal world, it would be nice to think that competent manufacturers of high performance earphones would work to address this market niche. The trouble, at least in my experience, is that you can easily find cheap earphones or you can search out good earphones, but rarely do you encounter earphones that are at once good and eminently affordable.
Happily, though, the relentlessly inventive Scots at RHA Audio heard the pleas of music lovers on tight budgets and answered them with a lovely little £39.95 earphone called the S500i. Before we begin, though, one point we should clarify is that while the price of the RHA S500i is quite modest, everything else about the earphones—including materials, quality of build, sound quality, and included accessories—is up to RHA’s typically high standards.
The S500i is a very compact, iPhone-compatible, dynamic driver-equipped earphone whose earpiece housings are made of an aluminium alloy. Indeed, the housings look like tiny metal cylinders or barrels (roughly 7.5mm in diameter) with their outer ends cut on a stylish diagonal angle. Like all other RHA models we have reviewed to date, the S500i features its own miniature, purpose-built ‘micro dynamic driver’—in this case, RHA’s model 140.1 drivers, which according to RHA provide ‘vibrant, immersive and detailed full-range sound’.
The earphone is fitted with an iDevice-compatible three-button remote/microphone and a distinctive signal cable that is fabric-sheathed over most of its length, but that features a smooth, snag-free covering for those portions of the cable that run from the ‘Y-yoke’ to the earpieces themselves. The connector plug, in keeping with RHA practice, is a machined metal part with a knurled gripping surface and a gold-plated, four-conductor 3.5mm plug. Completing the picture are sets of dual density silicone ear tips (two pairs each, sizes S, M, and L) and one pair of dual-flange silicone ear tips, a plastic ear tip storage carrier, a garment clip, and a mesh carry bag. Those who are not part of the Apple ecosystem may wish to note that in addition to the S500i RHA also offers an even less expensive version called the S500, priced at £29.95. The S500 foregoes the in-line, three-button remote/microphone module, but is otherwise identical to its sibling.
Before talking about the S500i’s sound, one item we should discuss is the matter of ergonomics. RHA models we have tested in the past have shown admirable flexibility of fit and have come very close to the ideal of being true ‘one size fits all’ designs, but the S500i struck me as being somewhat more ‘fit-sensitive’ than its siblings. I think this perceived ‘fit sensitivity’ perhaps results from the fact that the S500i earpieces are almost too compact for their own good; the cylindrical earpiece ‘barrels’ are very short, meaning that for those with deeply set ear canals, the earphones need to be inserted to a depth where they nearly ‘disappear’ both from view and from reach. Another factor is that the S500i signal cables exit from the sides—not the ends—of the earpiece housings, which can in some instances create interference between the cables and the wearer’s outer ears. But with these observations noted, let me emphasize that, after a bit of trial and error experimentation, I was able to find a wearing position where the S500i’s fit comfortably and provided the airtight ear-tip seal so vital to optimal sound quality.
For my listening tests I decided to evaluate the RHA S500i with the following source components: a Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone, an Apple iPad Air tablet, a Lotoo PAW Gold digital audio player, and a Questyle QP1R digital audio player. The train of thought, here, is that these components nicely represent the range of sources with which the S500i might be used, from very modest ones (the Galaxy smartphone) to very high quality portable ones (the Lotoo and the Questyle).
Once properly fitted, the S500i was ready to strut its stuff, and very good sonic stuff it turned out to be. Let’s start with voicing. Some RHA models such as the MA750 and T10i earphones exhibit voicing that is generally neutral, but tinged with gentle touches of natural organic warmth and desirable hints of bass emphasis. In contrast, the S500i offers a somewhat brighter, more midrange-forward, and thus more clarity and detail-centric presentation. In turn, the S500i’s lower midrange and bass are wonderfully neutral, with only the slightest touch of bass lift—a quality that might come as a disappointment for those seeking a goodly dollop of bass boost, but which will seem nearly ideal for accuracy-minded audiophiles. Granted, those who favour the warmth, bass punch, and balanced refinement of the more costly RHA earphones might initially find the S500i a little too ‘cold’ or forward sounding for their tastes. Nevertheless, I think many listeners would be favourably impressed by the S500i‘s openness, transparency, and clarity, coupled with its taut and well-defined bass—all of which are exemplary for its modest price.
Part of the method behind the S500i’s voicing has to do with the fact that it is meant to be driven directly from iPhones, iPads, and the like, which tend to have relatively dark sounding and softly focused analogue output sections. Happily, the S500i’s voicing marries up in a symbiotic way with most smartphones and tablets, drawing out musical details and nuances that, with less accomplished earphones, would simply be lost or buried. In essence, then, the S500i lets users of iDevices and the like enjoy a significantly ‘higher end’ listening experience than might ordinarily be available to them.
To hear the benefits of the S500i’s voicing in action, let me suggest listening to the track ‘Broken Arrow’ from Robbie Robertson’s eponymous album [Robbie Robertson, Geffen]. The song is introduced by a softly syncopated, reverberant high percussion figure that quickly is echoed by a much lower-pitched tom-tom pattern; a few bars later, a gently plucked electric guitar and the brooding, mysterious sound of a synthesizer join in, creating a deeply ethereal mood. Finally, a second keyboard instrument joins the mix, adding a plaintive and subtly melancholic sound that perfectly underscores the song’s melody line.
As the song unfolds, the S500i’s upper midrange and treble clarity do much to gently expose (and allow listeners to savour) the sounds of the high percussion instruments, the plucked guitar, the keyboards, and Robertson’s vocals, yet without giving them too much emphasis or causing them to become brittle or strident. At the same time, the RHA’s taut and articulate lower mids and bass do a fine job of revealing the purring, growling modulations of the synthesizer’s bass passages, making them sound all the more compelling in the process. Overall, the S500i’s sound directs the listener’s attention toward the sumptuous textures that help drive the song forward, providing an ideal backdrop for the overarching sound of Robbie Robertson’s voice.
When playing the same track through RHA’s upmarket T10i earphone, it is apparent that the more costly model serves up a somewhat more sophisticated sound, but also sound that is noticeably warmer and more bass-centred. In back-to-back comparisons with the T10i, then, the S500i actually fares quite well, because it gently pushes Robertson’s evocative vocals and the soulful guitar work featured on the track forward in the mix. While we can and should admire the well-rounded performance of RHA’s more costly earphones, the key point is that the modestly priced S500i is fully able to hold its own—even with its own big brothers—owing to its unexpectedly clear and well-defined sound.
As with many audio overachievers, the hard part about assessing the S500i is avoiding the temptation to compare it to far more costly sonic fare (something the earphone’s overall fit, finish, and mix of accessories invites you to do). So, to get a proper appraisal of the S500i, you almost have to force yourself to chant repeatedly, “It only costs £39.95…” If you sample other models in its immediate price class, it soon becomes clear that RHA’s entry-level earphone is, in a sense, a man among boys. As such, it serves as a delightful way to introduce music lovers on a budget to genuinely high quality sound at a price that won’t break the bank. Well done, RHA.
Type: Dynamic driver-equipped, iPhone-compatible, universal-fit earphone
Driver complement: RHA model 140.1 ‘micro dynamic’ drivers (one per earpiece)
Accessories: six pairs of dual density ear tips (S, M, L), one pair of dual‑flange ear tips (S), plastic ear tip holder, mesh carry pouch, garment clip
Frequency response: 16Hz–22kHz
Impedance: 16 Ohm
Price: £39.95, $49.95
Manufactured by: RHA Audio
Tel: +44 (0) 141 221 8506
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