Review: Sony MDR-EX55LP Stereo Headphones
For years, Sony has been selling earphones that just happened to cosmetically match Apple's iPods -- a fact which allowed the well-known Japanese consumer electronics company to satisfy iPod owners at the same time as it sold competing Walkman-branded devices. The best known iPod-matching earphones have been in Sony's MDR-EX series, including a number of models we've previously reviewed from the EX70, EX80, and EX90 families. Today, we briefly review the new MDR-EX55LP ($40), a low-end in-canal earphone that looks a lot like the earlier EX70 and EX71, but doesn't deliver the same sound quality.
It must be noted up front that Sony has intentionally distinguished its earphones by model number, and the EX55 is no exception: it is the latest in the MDR-EX50 series, which Sony has traditionally sold for $10 less than the EX70s and $20 less than the EX80s. The price tradeoff has generally meant that you can expect the EX50s to look and sound worse than the EX70s, which sound worse than the EX80s, and so on, a reason that we haven’t previously bothered to cover the EX50s: the EX70s have classically offered enough of a step up or aside from Apple’s packed-in iPod earbuds to be worth considering, but the EX50s haven’t.
This year, the EX55 looks pretty sharp—some people may even prefer the design to the new EX70-series model, the MDR-EX75. In EX55, Sony has preserved the familiar, popular shape of past EX50 and EX70 models, adding flashy real metal stems to the prior silicone tips and plastic driver housings, which are now rubber-coated plastic. Thankfully, the new design in no way compromises comfort: the metal stems and plastic bodies still felt great in our ears, a key reason we’ve liked Sony’s past in-canal designs. Users also have more and better color options: gone are the chrome backs of the 70s and cheaper matte backs of the 51s; similarly, instead of just white and black versions, you can now pick from black, blue, white, and pink colors. The blue and black versions include opaque black eartips, while the white and pink ones include clear tips instead. As with other Sony earphones, the MDR-EX55LP features an asymmetrically split cable design intended to keep an accidental tug from pulling them out of both of your ears; an iPhone-compatible, thin L-joint headphone plug is also new to this version, though as with other Sony earphones we’ve tested, there’s no microphone, so these are for listening to iPod or iPhone audio only, not taking phone calls. For the first time in the EX50 family, MDR-EX55LP comes with a soft drawstring-style carrying case, and continues the family history of including a pop-open plastic shell for holding two of the three total sets of silicone ear tips included in the package.
From an audio standpoint, the only good news about the MDR-EX55LP relative to Apple’s packed-in iPod earbuds is that it provides better noise isolation: Sony’s silicone tips fit in your ear canals and seal out considerably more noise than the open-speaker Apple designs and similar earbuds. Unfortunately, what’s piped into your ears is a step down from the sound you get for free in Apple’s box. EX55 presents music with Sony’s characteristic modest bass bias, but without the clarity and corresponding treble or midrange detail we expect these days from good, similarly-priced earbuds. By comparison with even the iPod’s pack-ins, the EX55 sounds downright flat, with less treble, clarity, and a more bloated bass thump. No matter which song we tested, Apple’s presentation of audio was bigger, clearer and better balanced—instruments comparatively “popped.” We also tested the EX55 against the EX71, the EX81, and the EX85, and didn’t hear any surprises in the process: as the first digits of their model numbers suggested, the 55 sounded crippled by comparison. The EX71s, known these days for being on the bassy and boomy side, sounded a little clearer; the 55’s bass was even less controlled, and it appeared to have only enough treble to keep from sounding completely flat. Not surprisingly, the MDR-EX81 was noticeably better than both of the others, with superior balance and clarity.
Is this sort of comparison between more expensive earphones fair? Yes: while the higher model numbers carry higher sticker prices, they’re so often discounted—outside of Apple Stores, at least—that you can frequently find the 70s or 80s for roughly the same street price as the 50s, or pay only a few dollars more for the better earphones. In our view, the premium’s most certainly worth it; the MDR-EX55s might look quite nice, but they don’t deliver a sound bump over Apple’s freebies or Sony’s slightly more expensive, higher-numbered models. Consider these only if you need something cheap, isolating and cool-looking, and don’t mind stepping down in sound quality in the process.