Review: Sony MDR-EX81 Earphones
Pros: Lightweight and comfortable iPod-matching white and chrome earphones with great sound balance and very good sound quality for the reasonable price.
Cons: Could use a slightly better included case.
Though there have been a few exceptions, iLounge generally reviews products that match or are expressly made for the iPod. For that reason, we haven’t reviewed every pair of headphones we’ve tested - so many pairs of otherwise acceptable headphones just don’t match the iPod’s look and feel quite right. Glaringly absent from the iPod accessory arsenal has been a really good set of matching earphones at the lower end of the price spectrum.
Apple’s iPod pack-ins are good freebies, but we had reservations about its separate In-Ear Headphones ($39.00, iLounge rating: B). And though Sony and Sennheiser make good alternatives, neither company’s earbuds were available in iPod-matching white outside of Asia until Sony quietly released white versions of its MDR-EX71 headphones ($49.99, iLounge rating: A-) here some weeks ago.
Today we’re ready to recommend a set of low-end earphones without reservation. Sony’s new MDR-EX81 earphones ($59.00, available from Audiocubes.com) improve upon the best features from the MDR-EX70s and MDR-EX71s to create moderately priced in-canal earphones that virtually anyone could enjoy. While not yet widely available in stores at the time of this review, the MDR-EX81s are worth the little bit of extra effort they’ll take to find and order.
Having tested everything from $19.95 Sennheiser MX500s to $900 Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pro custom-fit earphones, we’ve sampled the entire range of “fit” options available for in-canal earpieces - hard mass-manufactured plastic, soft plastic, foam, rubber, metal grilles, and so on. Perhaps surprisingly, no matter what else we’ve tested, we’ve always come back to Sony’s MDR-EX70 and EX71 headphones as sterling examples of comfort.
The EX70/71s are both tiny black and chrome nuggets of plastic and rubber that slip into your ears without any hard headband or neckband; a thin cord runs between them and to your iPod, dangling either behind or in front of your head. Using your choice of three sizes of gray silicone rubber ear flanges, they fit snugly in your ears, plugging them up to seal out external noise, and feeling within seconds like integrated parts of your head. After many hours of use, your ears may feel a little moist, and if you tug on their cords, your ears may be ever-so-slightly fatigued. But these issues don’t even compare with the one- or two-hour sustained comfort of other earbuds, which typically don’t isolate you from outside noise as well, or stay in your ears when tugged, either.
Sony has gone a couple of steps better with the EX81s, which fall into a new category of in-canal earbuds because of their design. Now the earbuds don’t just sit in your ear canals; instead, Sony uses flexible hard white rubber mounts that wrap around your upper ears and hold the white and chrome earbuds upside down in your canals with gunmetal-colored tubes. It’s being called a “clip-on” earphone, except there are no clips, and only gravity and smart design keep the EX81s on your ears.
The buds twist a little to accommodate the shape of your ear, and almost instantly feel comfortable. Just like the EX70 series, you can forget they’re inserted once they’re on your head. And they couldn’t be a better visual match for the full-sized iPod: if you thought you stood out as an iPod owner with the white cords, these offer just the right touches and quantity of white, chrome, and gray to accentuate what you’re listening to.
Then there are the cords. Sony’s offered different types of cord in the past - LP, which is a single length of medium-length cord, and SL, a two-piece separating cord with around two feet of length (18” plus neckcord dangle) on the earbuds, then roughly four additional feet on a second part, all connected with gold contacts. We recommend the LP cord for people who don’t use Apple’s iPod Remote control, and the SL cord for people who do - these cord lengths are just right if you’re going to belt clip or pocket your iPod.
For better or worse, the MDR-EX81s we’ve seen only come with the SL cord, which is the one we would choose for ourselves, but may or may not be right for every user. At worst, if you don’t use the iPod Remote, it’ll be a little longer than you might prefer when used at its full length.
The EX81s also include a soft gray carrying pouch, and a small milky plastic case that can either hold the two sets of extra silicone rubber ear inserts or the bud portions of the earphones. While the carrying pouch looks and feels nice, we tend to prefer zippered cases, and the plastic case isn’t an optimal inclusion for earphones like these. But these are trivial points, and don’t affect the earphone experience in any serious way.
Our only two gripes about the EX70 and EX71 series are these: they are very aggressive in the bass department (especially, in our opinion, the EX71s), and for obvious reasons, their audio isn’t quite as clear as what we’ve heard in more expensive earphones. While we were under the impression that the EX81s would be virtually identical to the EX71s in audio performance, they turned out to remedy the first concern entirely, and took steps towards the second as well.
We found the sound from the EX81s to be very close to optimally balanced. Most likely because most listeners prefer a richer, deeper sound to a crisp and accurate one, they lean a little more towards bass response than the neutral and expensive studio monitor earphones we’ve tested. But from our perspective, that’s a very good move given the product’s target audience. The EX71s especially went way too far in our opinion towards exaggerating the bass, and while that’s acceptable in an inexpensive pair of headphones geared towards certain types of listeners, the slightly warm EX81s are more likely to satisfy even discriminating listeners, at least in terms of their balance, while giving typical users enough bass to be satisfactory. The EX81s also have noticeably better treble response and less distortion at the low end.
This isn’t to say that they’re perfect earphones. Though cleaner than the EX70s and EX71s, the EX81s won’t let you hear as many hidden details in your music as more expensive headphones will. Compared against Etymotics’ ER-6i Isolators ($149.00), for example, the EX81s sound flatter across the board, with less treble response, a more compressed midrange, and less differentiation in bass notes. These results aren’t surprising given the price difference, and considering the EX81s’ under-$60 pricetag, they do an excellent job - one that typical users would have to go out of their way to take issue with.
Sony may have royally screwed up in the MP3 player market (amongst others), but there’s no doubt that they can make a good pair of earphones when they want to. The MDR-EX81s are amongst the most comfortable headphones we’ve ever tested, sound great, and sell for a price that’s very easy for iPod owners to swallow - comparatively speaking. We recommend them without hesitation to all of our readers save those with audiophile aspirations and the cash to back that up. And even then, it never hurts to have a set of spares just in case.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school - ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.