Reid and Heath Acoustics • MA350 and MA450i In-Ear Headphones

by Richard Freed | August 20, 2013


Last winter, when Reid and Heath Acoustics (hereinafter RHA) announced its two in-ear monitors (IEMs), the MA350 ($39.95) and MA450i ($49.95), their low prices did not have an entirely positive impact. Some respected names in audio -- such as speaker manufacturers B&W, Paradigm, and MartinLogan -- had offered impressive IEMs for less than $200, but a pair of IEMs for less than $50 was something else again, possibly undercutting preconceived notions about the cost required to attain hi-fi sound. And yet the specs given by RHA, together with the straightforward, no-hype manner of their presentation, suggested a seriousness of purpose that might trump any issue of price.

Following up on this impression proved a wholly positive experience, as already indicated in my review of the Bryston BHA-1 headphone amplifier, in which I used both of the RHA IEMs, as well as such established favorites in this format as the Etymotic Research ER-4S and the B&W C5.

RHA, which describes itself as "a small British audio company," is based in Glasgow, Scotland, and seems to have won large-scale approbation for its commitment to high standards of sound and manufacture and its success in meeting them, as well as prices that put its products within everyone’s reach. This background is reflected in the brief paragraph that introduced the MA350: "Designed and engineered in the UK, the MA350s are machined from solid, aircraft-grade aluminum, sandblasted and partially anodized in matte black. The earbud’s aerophonic design transfers sound organically from the 10mm driver to the ear canal. The result is a clear, rich tone through the audio spectrum, with a deep, full bass response."

The particulars RHA publishes for the MA350 and the MA450i are identical: a 10mm mylar driver, 16Hz-22,000Hz frequency range, 16-ohm impedance, and 103dB sensitivity. The difference in price reflects a difference in function rather than performance level. While the MA350, like the Etymotic ER-4S, is designed solely to deliver accurate musical sound, the MA450i, for $10 more, includes a remote control for use with pads, pods, smart phones, etc. -- as do the B&W C5 and recent IEMs from Etymotic, Paradigm, and MartinLogan. Of lesser importance, the Y-cables on the two RHA models, both sheathed in braided, tangle-free fabric, are of different lengths: four feet (1.2m) for the MA350, five feet (1.5m) for the MA450i. And the models are distributed differently, at least for now: the MA350 is available through Amazon, the MA450i at Apple Stores.

Except for the different cable lengths and the '450i’s remote control, the appearance of the two models is also nearly identical: sleek, contemporary, unfussy, giving an impression of solidity and the aforementioned seriousness of purpose. Surfaces on various parts of the '450i are finished to a higher gloss than the corresponding surfaces of the '350. The '350 comes with three pairs of bud-type silicone eartips (S/M/L), while the '450i comes with two pairs in each size, plus a single flanged pair. Each model also comes with a three-year warranty, as do all RHA products.

Both IEMs include small but appreciated touches that bespeak concern for the user’s comfort and convenience. One of these is the eartips, which struck me as being unusually comfortable. Another is the plastic grip on the connector pin: While several manufacturers have replaced the right-angled grip for the 3.5mm stereo pin with a straight-line cylindrical one, RHA’s straight grip is somewhat thicker and has a less glossy finish, which make for a surer grasp. Even the gold-plated 3.5mm pin itself seems to provide a more secure fit than the norm.

The one physical feature that might be improved is the indication of the right and left sides, now shown only by a raised capital R and L on the respective stems, in the same black plastic as the background. The user, of course, may apply markings of his or her own, but it’s a little surprising that, with all the thoughtful touches just mentioned, RHA didn’t simply provide color coding. With the MA450i, of course, the presence of the remote on the Y-cable’s right-ear branch takes care of this issue. I found the greater length of this model’s cable a convenience, even if an extension cable is required with either model when used as part of an indoor system.

While the two models’ specs are identical, RHA has advised that the MA450i has a slightly larger sound chamber than that of the MA350. Some listeners may hear ever-so-slightly-richer bass with the '450i -- or ever-so-slightly-crisper sound with the '350. Otherwise, the sounds delivered by the two IEMs were as close as their identical specs would lead you to expect; the consistently pleasurable impressions reported here apply to both.

I admit to at first feeling a certain sense of disbelief in what I was hearing from such inexpensive headphones, but I continued to use them simply because I was enjoying them. For this review, I used the same recordings I’d used in reviewing other, higher-priced IEMs and, more recently, the Bryston BHA-1 headphone amp (which now is a permanent part of my system). There was no need for the BHA-1’s high-gain option, as both RHA models are high-efficiency performers. I did, however, listen to nearly everything twice: once using the conventional setup in which the headphone amp was fed from the tape out on my system’s preamplifier, and once using the alternative offered by the BHA-1: balanced connection directly from CD player to headphone amp.

As weeks became months, I found myself using the RHAs more and more for general listening, and to such an extent that the idea of reviewing them became more or less secondary. For a longer period than I could have anticipated, the MA350 and MA450i simply became my default, or reference, IEMs, as I went through my usual lineup of test and demo recordings, and went through them again.

My first of these is always Sir Adrian Boult’s 1961 recording, with the London Philharmonic, of the Ballet Music from Holst’s opera The Perfect Fool [Decca 444 549-2], because of the range, both musical and sonic, it covers so effectively. This music functions as a miniature concerto for orchestra: In its first two-and-a-half minutes it ranges from crisp and golden trombones with a reassuring slight burr, to a frolic for double basses, to a groundswell from the orchestra’s collective low end, to a full flight of the violins in their highest register, to a shower of sparks from tambourine and sleigh bells. The results were similarly reassuring with the open DDD realism of Sir Granville Bantock’s Pagan Symphony (the scherzo in particular) with the Royal Philharmonic under Boult’s superb protégé Vernon Handley [Hyperion CDA66630] and with Boult’s own 1956 account of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, again with the LPO, recorded originally by Westminster and splendidly remastered for CD [First Hand FHR 06]. These three works leave few orchestral effects untried, and the RHAs brought everything home with hearty vividness and natural balance, while adding no artificial coloring.

In other wide-ranging, large-orchestra material -- Anatole Fistoulari’s 1958 recording of Delibes’s complete score for the ballet Sylvia [Mercury 434 313-2], with its brilliant fanfares exploiting the brass, drums, and strings; and Lorin Maazel’s still more stunning 1980 account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, with the Cleveland Orchestra demonstrating the meaning of the phrase virtuoso orchestra [Decca Eloquence 460 506-2] -- both of the RHA IEMs put everything in pleasingly realistic and lifelike perspective.

An earlier recording of excerpts from Delibes’s other ballet masterwork, Coppélia, on an LP recorded monophonically in the early 1950s by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under Robert Irving [RCA Victor LM 2035], provided a somewhat different but no less impressive demonstration of what the RHAs could do -- not in one of the big numbers for full orchestra, but in the detail and overall realism of Musique des automates, scored for a tiny ensemble of piccolo, violins, and small percussion. These delicately stratospheric sounds, which so often tend to run into one another and bump against the alleged limitations of monophonic recording, were clarified as never before, to the point of making the instruments almost visible as well as self-definingly audible. This recording and the others only served to underscore these IEMs' fundamental honesty to both the signal fed to them and the music's intent.

Voices and instruments were always well balanced with one another in such occasionally problematic choral recordings as Sir Thomas Beecham’s memorable early-stereo one of the Polovtsian Dances, from Borodin’s Prince Igor [EMI 5 66998 2]; and Václav Smetácek’s ingratiating performance of Giuseppe Sarti’s (c. 1729-1802) barely known Russian Oratorio, whose wonderful final section is a strikingly colorful setting of Psalm 150 for a lusty chorus, an orchestra rather large for 1785, and a prominent organ [Studio SM D2456]. Here, in fact, the excessive reverberation of the old church in Perugia in which the oratorio was recorded seemed to be attenuated just enough by the RHA IEMs to enhance listening comfort, without altogether eliminating the enlivening ambience that gives this recording so much of its charm.

Chamber music provides fewer opportunities for sheer sonic dazzle, but is actually a good test because of its intimacy and its emphasis on the characteristics of a few individual instruments (mostly strings, occasionally winds, no sleigh bells or tambourines). The RHAs left very little to be desired here. They were capable and impressive, not only in the Hagen Quartet’s marvelous DDD recording of Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op.74 No.3, with the fantastic finale that gave that work its sobriquet, "The Horseman" [Deutsche Grammophon 423 622-2], but also in the Grumiaux Trio’s somewhat older and less well balanced but indispensable recording of Mozart’s marvelous Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563 [Philips 454 023-2]. Here it was not a matter of "taming" the sound, by softening transients or smoothing strings, but, again, of giving each of the three instruments a fuller presence on its own terms, and in a more agreeable balance with the other two.

When I did get round to making direct comparisons, both the Etymotic ER-4S ($299) and particularly the B&W C5 ($179.95) retained an edge here and there -- not, as I might have expected, near the top end, where both RHA models soar without apparent restriction, but in those areas that give ultimate definition to certain brass and percussion sounds. I would emphasize that that edge is for the most part so slight as to be one of those details we may regard as matters of personal preference rather than measurable differences in performance. Throughout an extended period of listening, the RHAs left an overall impression of being first-rate in their own right, regardless of price -- listening instruments with which a discriminating listener could live very happily.

While there are, of course, more than a few factors in listening to music -- and to recorded music in particular -- that stubbornly remain personal to the individual listener, I think there can be no question regarding these incredibly inexpensive IEMs’ justifying comparison with virtually anyone’s established favorites, regardless of price. But price will be an issue for many prospective buyers: for some, it will activate that heady sense of getting something quite grand for next to nothing; for others, it may provoke an unfortunate reluctance to even consider anything priced so low.

The bottom line for me is the sound. The Reid and Heath Acoustics MA350 and MA450i delivered the sonic goods on a truly competitive level, and have been designed as thoughtfully for user comfort and convenience as for sound quality. While they cost very little, there’s nothing at all "cheap" about them. Quite apart from considerations of price, they seem to combine the virtues I have admired and enjoyed in the other IEMs I still own and use: their sound is wide open, natural, and truly musical throughout the audioband, with nothing shrill or tubby, nothing missing, and all parts in ideal balance -- while causing no listening fatigue or hint of physical discomfort. At the very least, they should be economically painless ear-openers for those who have yet to discover the pleasures of listening through IEMs, and a corrective for those who may still regard price as a predictor of performance.

Prices: MA350, $39.95; MA450i, $49.95.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.

Reid and Heath Acoustics

Associated Equipment

Analog: Denon DP-2000 turntable, Denon DA-401 tonearm, Denon DS-1 moving-coil cartridge.

Digital: Bryston BCD-1 CD player, NAD M5 CD/SACD player, Denon DCD-1650AR CD player, Adcom GDA-700 DAC.

Headphones: B&W C5, Sony MDR-7506, Ultrasone PRO-750, Etymotic Research ER-4S.

Headphone amplifier: Bryston BHA-1.

Headphone extension cable: Kimber Kable GQ-MINI-CU.

Interconnects: Kimber Kable KCAG and KCTG.

Digital cable: Kimber Kable AGDL.

Power conditioner: PS Audio AV 5000.

Power cords: Kimber Kable PK-10.