Across the entire catalog of inexpensive earphones we’ve reviewed over the past six and a half years, none are more interesting to us than Sony’s MDR-EX70 and MDR-EX71. Commonly sold for less than their $50 asking prices, the EX70 and EX71 were early in-canal earphones, sitting inside the ear canal and using silicone rubber tips to isolate their output from outside sounds. Sony’s designs inspired countless other products, including Apple’s iPod In-Ear Headphones, which tried to duplicate Sony’s rubber-tipped formula with only some success. Today, five years after we reviewed the EX70, and having followed the many subsequent twists and turns in the Sony earphone family, there’s finally a worthy sequel, the MDR-EX75 ($50).
To start with a few points that past Sony earphone users will want to know, MDR-EX75 is, without question, still a member of the EX70 family: sonically, it continues to pump out more bass than flat, neutral earphones, and physically, it’s a step forward in design from the EX70 and EX71, with more subtle use of reflective surfaces and a smaller rubber stem. But—and this is an important but—it’s not using the same driver that was found in EX71, which delivered chunky, flat bass that became less and less impressive over the years as competitors improved their technology. Sony says that the driver is new, and though MDR-EX75 still has the unmistakable “bass boost” effect that Sony’s low-end earphones are known for, the clarity and detail have taken a nice step up. While not the equivalent on detail of $100 earphones, MDR-EX75 is just about where a $50 earphone should be at this point in time.
Sony’s package continues generally in the traditions of the MDR-EX70 family and its semi-successor, the MDR-EX81. You get three pairs of silicone rubber eartips to fit different ear canal sizes, as well as a hard plastic carrying case to hold the earbuds and their cabling. The case isn’t spectacular—we wish Sony would just come up with a zippered nylon design that didn’t look or feel cheap—but it’s less susceptible to randomly opening than the cloth drawstring bags included with the lower-end MDR-EX55 and EX81. As a step forward from the EX71, which came only in black or white versions, black, silver, or white versions of the EX75 are available, each with silver backs; the black and silver EX75s include black cables and tips, while the white version has white cables and tips. Fashionistas should note that there are more colors available in the EX55 lineup, but the sound quality difference is pronounced, and well in EX75’s favor.
Once you’ve chosen the MDR-EX75 that fits your aesthetic needs—the presence of black, silver, and white different color options offers something for owners of most iPods—there may be one other step to consider. In the past, Sony has offered confusingly different cable options for some of its earphones: the “LP” cables have been asymmetrically cut single lengths of cable, while the “SL” cables are symmetrically cut and also can be split into two parts—earbuds and extension cord—at a mid-way point in the center. The LP cable’s left earbud typically has only a few inches of cable while the right one has a foot or more, a design which helps keep the earbuds from being tugged out. But the SL cable’s symmetrical earbud cabling is just like Apple’s; the split in the middle is remote control-friendly, too. Unlike the MDR-55LP and MDR-85LP we just reviewed, our MDR-EX75 did not have LP or SL labeling on its box, but shipped in an SL version. If Sony follows tradition, two versions will be available; just make sure you get the one that suits your needs. In any case, the cabling ends with an iPhone-compatible, L-shaped plug; it does not include a microphone or control button of any sort.
So how does MDR-EX75 feel and sound? Good news: Sony has learned from its earlier experiments, as well as recently aggressive competitors. The newly curved enclosures fit snugly in our ears, and provided as much isolation as before—far more than Apple’s pack-ins, and in fact enough to make it impossible for us to hear someone walking up right behind us. We’ll also note that, despite whatever other issues past EX70-series earphones may have had sonically, they’ve always been amongst the most comfortable in-canal earphones out there, and EX75 continues that tradition. Once they’re in your ears, you don’t think about their presence, and the world seems to disappear behind the music you’re hearing.
Sonically, MDR-EX75 is an improved return to form back in the direction of the MDR-EX70, and away from the MDR-EX71, which was overbearing and chunky in the bass department. While the bass level here is markedly higher than in the comparatively flat MDR-EX81, it’s cleaner than in the EX71, and augmented by some additional treble detail that no longer leaves you feeling like you’re hearing an exaggerated version of all the low notes and missing all the highs. There are similarities here between Sony’s approach and V-Moda’s in the popular metal Vibe earphone, though it’s obvious that the $100 Vibe both uses a better—read: more detailed and wider-frequency—sound driver and, regrettably, lets the bass go further out of control. EX75 sounds like what most users would expect from the words “bassy sub-$50 earphone,” and accentuates the low-end in a manner that is tolerable or enjoyable on first listen; Vibe tends to hit the ears hard, with a lot of bass, and requires user-acclimation.
The difference between MDR-EX75 and Apple’s packed-in earphones is also pretty pronounced. We like Apple’s design a lot, but beyond their lack of noise isolation, which EX75 excels at, the pack-ins make songs sound less lively and more compressed than EX75—not an easy task given that the iPod’s pack-ins do a good job for the price of bringing music to life. Sony’s new drivers, combined with the silicone tips’ isolation, sound better. That having been said, Apple’s $40 separately-sold iPod In-Ear Headphones are very close to the EX75 in aggregate sound quality, falling short only in bass and comfort.
For the $50 sticker price—or substantially less, assuming past Sony street pricing trends continue—the MDR-EX75 is the right type of earphone to satisfy the masses: an affordable, comfortable, passive noise-isolating earpiece that leans warm and bassy without making your music sound like it’s losing something. Though we still prefer more balanced earphones, and think that the pricing sweet spot for truly superb audio is higher than this, MDR-EX75 has the sound, look, and feel that will thoroughly satisfy budget-conscious users. Our advice: if you’re thinking of buying an affordable Sony earpiece, skip the bigger, more expensive EX85, don’t even think about the slightly cheaper, muddier EX55, and go straight to the EX75. Consider other options only if you have a bigger budget or really dislike earphones with enhanced bass.
Company and Price
Company: Sony Electronics
Compatible: All iPods, iPhone