Pros: Good units produce better sound for the price than Sony’s well-regarded and comparable MDR-EX70/71 headphones, include similar silicone rubber ear inserts, great value.
Cons: Wild variation in audio and build quality from unit to unit – some units exhibit serious problems. Best units are not as comfortable as Sony’s MDR-EX70/71s, leaders on the low-end.
Update (3-23-06): Due to numerous reader complaints and considerable evidence that the quality of Yahba earphones varies dramatically from unit to unit, and is frequently not as good as the review unit we received, the editors of iLounge have decided to fully strip the Opus of our high recommendation, and re-rate the product accordingly. Though we are leaving the original text of our review below for your reference as to how good Opus headphones sounded at their best, we warn readers that there is now no way to predict whether what you receive will resemble what we tested in early 2005 – and even whether three different units purchased at the same time will sound the same as each other. For additional details, please read the comments from readers below.
Our Original Review Begins Here: Apple’s packed-in iPod headphones have their advantages, but comfort and isolation aren’t among them. Made from hard white plastic and rendered less harsh on the ears by black foam covers, they don’t fit snugly enough in an ear to seal out outside noise, and can fall off fairly easily when the cords are tuggled. But they’re not bad at all from an audio standpoint, reasonably balanced in treble, bass, and midrange, and acceptably clean for their price range ($39 when sold with Apple’s iPod Remote). You wouldn’t confuse their quality with our top-picked headphones sold for $60, $150, $300, or $900, but they’re certainly worth keeping as back-ups.
Yahba’s Opus is designed as a low-priced but more comfortable, price-sensitive customer’s replacement for the iPod’s pack-ins. Retailing for $29.99 but sold online for as little as $15, the Opus is most comparable to Sony’s aging MDR-EX70/71 series headphones – less elegant in appearance, but surprisingly delivering more enjoyable audio for the dollar.
Though many companies sell iPod-matching hard white plastic earbuds, most are generically designed, uncomfortable, and not isolating. As one of the only low-end headphone makers to buck that trend, Sony for years has been selling the MDR-EX70/71 series, silicone rubber-tipped earbuds that are incredibly comfortable and also do a fantastic job of isolating your ears from outside noise while you’re listening. But they’re only respectable from an audio standpoint given their price. The MDR-EX70/71s are very bass heavy and more than a bit muddy – not very clear, even by comparison with Apple’s pack-ins. Still, if you like bass, and don’t have audiophile-grade listening aspirations, you may well like the EX70s or EX71s.
Just like the white versions of the EX70s and EX71s, the Opus headphones use a mix of white plastic, gray plastic, chromed plastic, and silicone rubber tips – black in the case of the Opus. They’re a solid visual match for white full-sized iPods, and feature around four feet of gray cord with equal-lengthed left and right sides before the cable’s Y-split.
Yahba’s design unfortunately blends an iPod earbud feature with a Sony one: you get the rubber tips of Sony’s phones, but the oversized exterior plastic piping of Apple’s. As a result, the Opus headphones don’t fit into your ears as completely and snugly as the smaller EX70s and EX71s do. But they’re still better than Apple’s in this regard, and provide considerably better isolation from outside noise.
Though they don’t fit as perfectly as the Sony’s, they sound better. A lot better. Sony’s EX70/71 headphones exaggerate bass, muddy up the mid-range, and all but mute the treble. The Opus phones provide a cleaner “thump” than the Sonys – still a solid quantum of bass, but now with crisper definition of bass sounds, with better treble response. Mids aren’t as muddy, either. Increased clarity lets instruments sound far more distinct from each other than in the EX70/71s, too.
Users of Apple’s standard iPods will notice an improvement when switching to the Opus phones, as well: besides the isolation improvement, and perhaps in part because of it, they’ll hear more bass – a frequent criticism of Apple’s phones – and more detail in their music. Again, no one should expect these earbuds to compare against the more expensive phones we’ve reviewed. As is our standard disclaimer, audiophiles may well find Yahba’s bass- and treble-enhanced sound to be less desireable than an unadjusted, ‘accurate’ set of higher-end earpieces. But for the price, there’s a lot to like here, and most people will love the sound of the Opus headphones.
Assigning a letter grade to the Opus is easier than deciding whether to re-evaluate Sony’s older EX70/71s in light of more recent releases like this one. The Opus rates an A-, not as comfortable as we’d like, but otherwise great for the low price, and the EX70’s are rapidly being undercut by numerous lower-priced and better-sounding competitors. In light of the competition, all the EX70 series has to offer now is its supreme level of comfort, which the Opus headphones are approaching. At this price level, you’ll have to make the call as to whether comfort offsets audio quality, but in either product’s case you’ll likely feel happier than with Apple’s iPod pack-ins.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.
Company and Price
Model: Opus Earphones
Compatible: iPod 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, iPod mini, iPod photo, iPod shuffle