Reid and Heath Acoustics (RHA) MA-350 Review
Still no camera, so no pics – sorry.
RHA (Reid and Heath Acoustics) are a new audio ‘phone company based in the UK (Glasgow, specifically), who have been making some waves on the internet with their keenly priced (not to mention “British designed and engineered”) OEMs and, currently the only in-ear ‘phone in their catalogue, the MA-350s. The consensus among most who have tried their range is that, at the price level they fall into (sub £30 for the MA-350s, sub £50 for their headphones), there is little better out there in terms of bang-for-buck performance. I’ve been wondering about the MA-350s for some time now, ever since the first few fledgling reviews on Amazon turned into almost unanimous praise from several quarters of the ear/headphone industry in a relatively short space of time (the company as-is is still very new). Favourable “pro” reviews are now ten-a-penny (as proudly displayed on RHA’s website) from both industry and public alike and, whilst there are negative comments to be found if you look hard enough (ABI’s very own bennyboy is not a fan of them, to put it lightly), these seem to generally be minor asides about personal preferences rather than blatant failings. Further, the company have developed a very good reputation for excellent no quibbles customer service, which is all too rare in the market generally.
I recently acquired a pair of the MA-350s and have been testing them properly on and off for about four or five days now (paired up with an iAudio X7, using one of the BBE pre-sets), chucking everything at them – prog rock, modern jazz, classical, 80s pop, metal, a huge dose of Frank Zappa for good measure and even some stand-up comedy. Although I do believe in burn-in, I always like to listen to new ‘phones straight out the box to get a feel for their evolution because, as many of you will agree, sometimes the change after just a few hours can be stunning (I refer to my other recent acquisition - a set of Panny RP-RHE900s – which sounded like a completely different pair of ‘phones in no time at all and are now performing amazingly). But more about the sound in a minute…
The MA-350s come in a small, unassuming box. Accessories are minimal (but at this price level they always are, so that is not a complaint) – three sets of reasonably good quality silicon tips (small, medium and large) and a cloth carry bag. The first thing you notice when you open the box is the unusual trumpet shape of the ‘phones themselves. They aren’t the prettiest looking ‘phones on the planet, but here there is function over form – this, according to the Reid and Heath website, is an aerophonic design to naturally transfer sound from the speaker to the ear (I’m not techie enough to fully understand or explain the science behind it, but full details of this and the technical specifications of the ‘phones can be found on the RHA website). Machined from aluminium, the ‘phones feel solid and weighty enough for one to assume a good level of durability, without it feeling like you’ve got a concrete lump in each ear. The cable is fabric braided, which not only cuts down on tangles, but also reduces microphonics to near non-existent whilst in use (which is further minimised by a small plastic barrel holder which can be slid up or down to the desired level). The claim is that the braiding should also prolong cable life (obviously too soon for me to comment fully on that, but logic would dictate that to be the case). They aren’t the most durable feeling ‘phones I’ve ever used, but compared with pretty much everything else at this price level (and I need to keep stressing that these retail for less than £30) there’s little that matches them. Build quality is more than acceptable – we’re not talking bullet proof, but certainly better than most low-end and mid-range Sennheisers, a million times better than cheap Koss and Skullcandy ‘phones and even better than many at a higher price level. And, one would hope, the fabric braiding will make those annoying cable kinks (the death knell of many a poorly coated and/or wimpy cable) a thing of the past. The only real criticism I have about the look/build of the ‘phones is the not-at-all clear markings of L and R – although raised, both letters are black in colour which, even in dim light, makes it quite hard to make the distinction between the left and right ‘phones. The left one does have a raised dot underneath the L, but it’s so close that, unless you have REALLY sensitive touch, it’s nearly impossible to make out. This leads to some frustration for me as, whilst some people don’t really care which ‘phone goes in which ear, I’m quite fussy in that respect and know exactly what I should be hearing and where I should be hearing it on, for example, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Something to think about for future, perhaps.
Comfort wise they are fine – no ear fatigue after several hours use and they sit very comfortably in the ear. I did struggle to get a good fit from any of the supplied tips at first but, after some squishing and stretching, the small tips now fit perfectly in my (small) ears, providing a good seal. Isolation is incredibly good – my walk to work goes past busy main roads and a train station, none of which muscled its way into the music. In fact, as I sit at my desk typing this during my lunch break at work, even with the volume very low I cannot hear my colleagues opposite me even though I can see they’re having a conversation. Although the MA-350s are closed ‘phones, there is a fair amount of external bleed at higher volumes (which doesn’t affect the audio), but at low and medium volumes it’s non-existent, all of which means that these are perfect for people who are super cautious about protecting their hearing (which is all of us, right? …right??!!) and prefer to listen at low volumes.
In use, the audio is where interesting things start to happen. Out of the box there was a definite bias towards the bass (no problem for me as I’m a bit of a basshead) and the highs were quite high, whilst mids were relatively neutral. Like my Pannys, the RHAs seemed to perform particularly well with acoustic music, picking up all the delicacies and ambience of a studio or concert hall. At higher frequencies, however, and/or when music got “busy” (I’m typically thinking prog or jazz, when the whole band is firing on all cylinders at the same time, playing in odd time signatures), things tended to mush into each other a bit, almost as if the ‘phones were a typical 21st century X Factor loving teenage girl trying to click her fingers and tap her foot in 9/8. The RHAs were, basically, struggling a tad. At this point I decided to leave them to burn-in overnight on quite a high volume with Led Zeppelin’s The Immigrant Song on repeat.
Day two and three (no overnight burn-in between the two) with some 20+ hours of use behind them, and things have settled somewhat – the bass is more fluid and less overpowering (but still very present), the highs have calmed significantly and have changed from being “quite trebly” to what is best described as “having good clarity”. Mids were still quite neutral, but not as lost in the mix as before. There was still some mess every now and again (the mid section of Miles Davis’ Spanish Key from Bitches Brew was all over the place in all honesty), but things had clearly improved from the previous day. As before, acoustic music sounded great through them and the resonance from a plucked guitar string could easily be heard on a live version of John Martyn’ May You Never. Unusually for me (cos I find that one long stretch of burn-in is normally adequate), I decided to leave it overnight again, this time with a Run DMC compilation on repeat.
Day four and further changes are perceptible, but not as obvious as before – they’re really settling now. Bass and treble remain the same as day three, but the mids are a bit more pronounced, and very welcome that is too – vocals on later period King Crimson (with two drummers, two bass players, Adrian Belew’s angular stunt guitar work and Robert Fripp’s immense wall of sound behind them) are crisp and clear, and brass on The Band’s Rock of Ages live album sits pleasingly well amongst the electric instruments.
Day five (today). They’ve fully settled into their natural groove now. Bass, mids and highs are on a more even keel with no one level shouting out over another. I suppose, technically, these should be described as “neutral”, but that’s doing them an injustice and making them sound like they’re boring middle of the road phones, like Sennheiser’s CX range. But that is not the case - bass is bassy but not boomy and overpowering, mids are up front and clean and (disagreeing strongly with bennyboy’s comments here) highs are clear without being shrill and the soundstage is, probably, as wide as I’ve heard in this price bracket. The most impressive change since day one (and what has only become really obvious today) is the separation – things no longer bleed into each other and you can clearly hear each individual instrument without anything crashing head-to-head. I’ve spent some time this morning doing direct comparisons with my Pannys (which reminds me – I need to update that review) and, I have to say, these RHAs perform amazingly well. Whilst the Pannys are a bass and treble perfectionist, those mids are still slightly recessed, whereas the RHAs bring the mids right out. Of course, in general terms, the Pannys out-perform the RHAs, but remember the Pannys are effectively a very high end IEM with an original RRP of £200. The RHAs cost nearly a seventh of that, but they do not have just a seventh of the sound quality – they easily perform way above their low-end price bracket and, whilst there are some ‘phones at this end of the market which are very good rivals (SoundMagic and some Sennheisers [build quality aside], for example), they are all the exception rather than the rule. When I first tried these things out and then read bennyboy’s comments (before they had burnt in), I was concerned that I was perhaps heading towards a huge disappointment. But now, five days on, my own personal opinion is that, once they’ve settled, the MA-350s are simply stunning given how much they cost. Whilst they will never compete with the ultra high-end Shures, Sennheisers, Phonaks and Grados (but then they are not competing with the £250+ market), I think they are ten times better than many ‘phones I’ve owned and tried that cost £50/100/150, and there is little (if nothing) in the £30+ price bracket that beats them. Obviously personal opinion comes into this and bennboy and myself clearly have different tastes when it comes to ‘phones, but I have no doubt that these are, if nothing else, good sounding ‘phones for the price.
So who will these suit? Most people, I think, but best served by the MA-350s would be audiophiles with a limited budget and people who want a good backup for emergencies when their Grados give up the ghost.
Performance at this price point
Strong and clear bass, mids and highs
Minimal to non-existent microphonics
Looks may not be for those who factor form into their buying decisions
L and R markings on each ‘phone are not easy to make out
I’ve had some correspondence with Lewis Heath (the H in RHA) and, from what he tells me, RHA have some interesting plans for 2012. If this is what they can chuck out for less than £30, I can’t imagine what genius they can do with £100 or more. Best of luck to the company for a successful future and more recognition in the market, other than being the “half decent cheap alternative”.
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