02 June, 2007
Product review: Sony MDR-EX81LP
My last flight from ATL to SAN was absolute hell. When I flew for MSFT, I was usually in first class because I was flying a lot more, had a lot more miles (we used a lot when we went on the trip to Hawaii back in 2006), and so on. But this trip around, I only had a paltry 60,000 miles, and only had "silver" status. So I got cattle class on the way from ATL to SAN. I presume the same thing will happen on SAN to ATL (although ATL to DCA is upgraded gratis, usually).
Sony has essentially one kind of head phone. At least, as far as the in-ear headphones go. They are actually all called "high performance ultra-secure fit." When you start looking at the specifications, you can see that they are impressive. Frequency response is actually greater than my Senns or my Etys, 5 - 23,000Hz.
What confused me initially about the cans was that there was a pair for $99, and another pair for $49 (note Amazon's pricing is a little different, and they're a lot closer in price). They have actually the same frequency response. They have the same fitment (Sony's, uh, weird in-ear-canal fitting). Sure, they look a little different, and they fit on the ears a little differently, but for all I could tell, these cans were the exact same speaker in a different package. It took me about five minutes of reading the documentation for the $99 pair to realize the power to that pair is twice that available to the cheaper pair.
Being somebody who actually has a headphone amp, this doesn't trouble me too much. Besides, it's not like the MacBook has line-out and we're talking un-dirty signal to begin with. So, the first recommendation is buy the EX81's, not the EX90's, if you're serious about sound.
The next thing to bring up is the fact that they are incredibly bass-heavy. The EX90's indicate that they have "superb bass performance" or something equally insipid. The notion is that people that are listening to contemporary music are really into bass. Folks, let me fill you in on something. Music doesn't have more or less bass. Music has a standard frequency response for each of its instruments, and artificially inflating the amplitude of a bass guitar, bass drum, or even bass vocalist distorts the music, it doesn't make it better. This is something you learn when you start paying really close attention to music.... which most of the people who read this blog don't actually do. But let me assure you, the sound that comes out of these cans is crisp, warm, mostly accurate, but horridly bass-biased. There's no reason at all that Lauryn Hill should be able to overpower Killing Me Softly with her... song. The point is, there's a happy medium between anemic lows and earth-shaking bass notes. These cans don't try for that medium. They're on the side of the earth-shakers.
As for highs, the highs are kind of muddy. If you're listening to hip-hop the only highs you're going to be getting are the hi-hats and maybe some of the female vocalists. So, maybe that doesn't bother you. But even if you listen to the Black Eyed Peas, and you listen to Don't Phunk With My Heart (which was, of course, before she became Fergalicious and was just a talented vocalist), the incredibly expanded bass response clobbers her nasal and artificially pitch-increased voice (listen to Wyclef's explanation of how they achieved that effect on the iTunes Originals for BEP) – which is crucial to the mood and tone of the track itself. It's supposed to invoke hindi chanting on Indian music. So it's no particular surprise when the track that particularly offended me was in fact Indian (by way of England, to be honest) Panjabi MC's outstanding (and remixed about a zillion times) track, Jogi – to say nothing of Beware the Boys (Mundian to Bach Ke). In one case, you're clobbering perfectly good female vocals (Jogi) and in the other, you're clobbering perfectly good male vocals (Beware).
The mids are really unremarkable in that it's hard to pick them out from the muddy highs and the absurd lows. They're there (the beginning of Mundian to Bach Ke before the sitar starts), but the clarity is missing.
Now, to be fair, I own a pair of Sennheiser 590's, Sennheiser 650's, Etymotic ER6's (not the ER6i, which is bass-distorted), and a pair of Etymotic ER4's. So it's not as if I'm comparing these fifty dollar Sony headphones to ten dollar K-Mart "cool looking" headphones. But I am really disappointed in their sound capabilities. I'm also kind of disappointed because it means that Sony made the decision for the speakers on these cans based upon what they thought the public wanted. Which means, of course, that the public is entirely stupid and wouldn't know what a DAC was (or, frankly, a headphone amp or vacuum tube) was if any of them bit them on the face (I can think of a few people I'd love to see attacked by vacuum tubes).
The last real item to include is the fit. The fit is awkward. I am accustomed to double (Ety ER-6) and triple (Ety ER4) baffled cans. The baffles that ship with these headphones (they ship with three sizes so you can get the ones that fit you best) are capable of isolating sound, but because they don't actually affix too well to the cans themselves, you can pull the cans out while leaving the baffles in your ears, which can be embarrassing at best, and disgusting at worst (ears tend to produce things you don't want to go digging for, and maybe that stuff should stay on your baffles until you clean them...)
So, my hope is that the baffling will be substantial enough that the inevitable infants who will encircle me on my flight to Atlanta (that Earth equivalent of the pit of Carcoon) will be drowned out be either some nice hindi chanting, some thumping trance, or maybe even some Alkalkine Trio or Depeche Mode. Because it sure as shit isn't enough to make audiobooks possible.