There used to be two distinct categories of inexpensive earphones — “earbuds,” miniature speakers that rested outside your ear canals, and “in-canal earphones” or “canalphones,” which used rubber or foam tips to channel audio directly into your ear canals, isolating your ears from outside sound. But when two companies — Hearing Components and Griffin Technology — released cheap add-ons that converted earbuds into oversized canalphones, earbud manufacturers saw an opportunity. Would people be interested in buying standard-sized earbuds with silicone tips attached?
Last year, Sony tested the waters with MDR-EX90LP, a $100 hybrid earphone that looked like a metal, large-speakered earbud with a silicone eartip attached. But with a selling price substantially higher than Sony’s in-canal MDR-EX70 and MDR-EX80 models, a larger enclosure, and audio performance comparable to less-expensive earbuds, EX90 was at best good, but too expensive. What would people have thought if it had sold for much less?
Sony’s new MDR-EX85LP ($60) offers the answer to that question, only a year later. Simply put, the MDR-EX85 is an EX90 that has been deliberately downgraded in mostly cosmetic ways to reach a lower price point, offering an almost identical form factor and pack-ins at a $40 MSRP discount, placing this model where EX90 should have been. The past model’s leather case has been replaced with a ballistic nylon version, and the amount of metal used in its housing has been decreased from roughly 40% down to 20%. EX90’s partially metal stem and driver housing have gone completely to rubber and glossy plastic, with only a swirled metal hub remaining on the back. Yet EX85 looks just as nice as the EX90, just different.
Other parts of the design have remained basically the same. You can still choose from three sets of included silicone tips, and EX85 is still wrapped around a hard plastic carrying shell before it goes into the softer case. Sony’s US division offers MDR-EX85LP in high gloss black or white versions, each with silver metallic accents and a color-matched cable. Overseas, partially red- or violet-bodied versions are also available, with black cords. Each cord uses the same asymmetrical design intended to prevent tugs from removing the earbuds from your ears, and ends in an L-shaped headphone plug that Sony’s box touts as “compatible with iPhone.” As with Sony’s other headphones, there’s no microphone on this model, so it’s useful solely for listening to audio, not making phone calls.
The best part of the news here is in the audio department. MDR-EX85 sounds almost identical to the EX90, with only a tiny crimp in the treble department, which is so minor that you’d have to listen closely and comparatively to notice. That means that the EX85 benefits from sound that’s noticeably clearer and more detailed than its earlier, lower-numbered peers in the Sony family, a good thing given that the $60 asking price is also a little higher.
How does the EX85 serve as an alternative to Apple’s packed-in iPod earphones? While it’s not as strong on treble as Apple’s, and has a little more bass bias, it’s smoother in the mids, presenting music a bit more naturally, and with less obvious compression. The warmer and more mid-focused sound has been a selling point of past Sony earphones, and though the warmth is more subtle here than in Sony’s lower-end bass boomers, users will like it. On the flip side, EX85 is not as efficient as Apple’s earbuds, and therefore needs to be turned up more to get the same level of volume.
Comfort and size deserve small notes, as well. In addition to replacing some of EX90’s metal with plastic, Sony has also streamlined the plastic in the EX85 into a smoother shape, changes which make the new model feel a little lighter and more comfortable than its predecessor. While these aren’t huge changes, and isolation hasn’t changed much—the silicone eartips channel some of the driver’s sound into your ear canals, while letting other sound radiate from partially-exposed grilles in the earbuds, and also letting other outside sound in—EX85 is at least as good as the prior model, perhaps a little better. That doesn’t make it a complete replacement for the fully in-canal earphones we’ve tested and preferred, but it’s not a bad option for those who don’t like traditional canalphones.
Overall, the MDR-EX85 makes smart compromises to bring last year’s EX90 model to a price level that is more appropriate to its audio performance. Though it loses a few small metal and leather touches that made EX90 a standout from typical earbuds, it’s so close sonically and still so attractively designed that users considering the more expensive model would need to have really strong aesthetic reasons not to go with this one instead. While we’re not completely wowed by the form factor, we consider this a good but not great alternative to traditional canalphones, and a more natural-sounding replacement for Apple’s packed-in iPod earphones with more color options—at a premium price.
Company and Price
Company: Sony Electronics
Compatible: All iPods, iPhone