Review: Sony MDR-EX90LP Stereo Headphones
Pros: A hybrid metal, plastic, and silicone rubber earphone design that delivers better clarity than Sony’s lower-priced MDR-EX series offerings, complete with a small leather case and plastic cord management insert. Design fits in both outer ear and ear canal, using silicone inserts to seal ear against outside noise.
Cons: Large earpieces provide less of a seal, and thereby less isolation, than both same-priced competitors and company’s earlier designs. Flatter sound and less detail than peer in-canal earphones; impressive mostly by comparison with same company’s cheaper offerings.
iLounge readers and editors have for years considered Sony’s MDR-EX series of in-canal earphones to be amongst the better replacement options for Apple’s iPod pack-ins - sold for $50 or less, the company’s EX71s and 81s were amongst the first low-end earbuds to use silicone rubber tips to provide both superior comfort and isolation from outside sound. Though they haven’t compared to more expensive offerings in sound clarity, and the 71s in particular have been very successfully challenged by newer, more dynamic-sounding options, both models delivered very good value for the dollar when they were released.
Now Sony has released the MDR-EX90LP Stereo Headphones ($100), a step up from the EX81s apparently designed to offer superior sound and build quality, at twice the price. But the EX90 is a substantially different earphone: it’s made from a combination of silver metal and plastic, and no longer fits almost entirely inside your ear. Rather, the large earpieces are roughly the same size as Apple’s latest iPod Earphones, and rest in your outer ears, using protruding silicone rubber tips to sit inside your ear canals for EX71 and EX81-style isolation. Sony includes three sets of differently-sized silicone ear tips for small, medium, and large ear canals, plus a leather carrying case, and a plastic earphone holder with edge cord management.
Overall, we didn’t find the new earpiece design to be great. Though it benefits from the added stability of securing inside both your outer ear and ear canal, and for that reason may be a good option for active users, we found that its added surface area made it less comfortable in our ears than the smaller EX71, and more recent $100 competitors. Your mileage will vary based on the shape of your ears, moreso here than in other models. Since its silicone tips don’t fit quite as fully inside your ears as in its predecessors, it also doesn’t isolate outside sound quite as well - a loss of one of the EX71 and 81’s biggest assets relative to their competitors. Similarly, though we liked its attractive use of metal, iSkin’s recent Cerulean X1 earphones (iLounge rating: B+) use metal to equal aesthetic advantage, and are far closer to the prior EX71s in size, style, and isolation.
Some of MDR-EX90LP’s other design touches are less positive. It uses an asymmetric neck cable - a controversial feature decision carried over from certain earlier models, such that the right earphone cable dangles from the left earphone rather than both phones splitting off at a neck-level Y-joint. Some users like this design: others actively dislike it. Sony has also dropped one of the EX81’s nice features - a two-piece cable that could be split into a length appropriate for use with wired remote controls. The LP model of EX90 we’ve seen has a single unified cable.
Sound quality is another touchy point with the EX90: in our view, Sony’s benchmarking more against its own earphones than the competition, and falling behind as a consequence. On positive notes, we started by testing the EX90 against the EX71 and EX81, and found that the 90 delivered noticeably superior clarity, especially in the mids and mid-lows, and also offered slightly stronger highs. Because Sony’s cleaned up some of the boominess in the 90’s low end relative to the 71s and 81s, the bass sounds tighter and less “thumpy” than it did before, just as was the case with the 81s versus the 71s. In other words, if you’re upgrading from an old Sony earphone to this one, you’ll hear detail and treble improvements, most notably less muddiness. This should have been expected for the $50 price difference.
The only question left is this: how does the EX90 stack up to other earphones you can buy for the same $100 price? In our view, the answer’s that the EX90 is respectable, but not outstanding. With little prior expertise in in-canal earphones, iSkin’s same-priced Cerulean X1 design delivers superior detail - similar bass, but clearer mids and sharper highs - plus the added comfort of a smaller housing. And Etymotic’s ER-6is, long an iLounge favorite for this price on comfort, detail, and balance, sounds better than the EX90s in all regards save bass: the EX90 sounds comparatively flatter, with artificially boosted mids and lows, while the ER-6i lets you hear more detail in the highs and mids, and makes the EX90 sound boomy and bassy. The Etymotic design offers comparably better isolation, too. Additionally, JAYS’ recently released, same-priced d-JAYS earphones (iLounge rating: A-) deliver a better overall sound and physical size balance than the EX90s, albeit with less stability for active users.
Overall, Sony’s MDR-EX90 strikes us as a weird design - one that’s sonically superior to the company’s sub-$50 earphones, but not as impressive in size, isolation, or sound quality as its top competitors in the $100 price range. While it’s good enough to be recommendable overall, it’s not the top option in its price range, and will appeal more to fans of Sony earphones than sophisticated earphone buyers. If you’re a MDR-EX71 fan and looking for an earphone with similar design and superior sound, we’d advise you to consider iSkin’s Cerulean X1 instead; if you want something with superior isolation and quality, look to the d-JAYS for nicely balanced highs and lows, and the Etymotics for greater stability and detail.