*Originally posted to Head-fi.org on October 10th, 2015*
Today we are going to be taking a look at the S500i, an awesome new microdriver iem from the folks at RHA. I would like to thank RHA and Iain for selecting me as one of six lucky people to review this great new product. Please keep in mind that I am not affiliated with RHA and all views and opinions expressed within this review are my own.
A little about me:
I am still fairly new to the world of portable audio, only jumping into the game a few years back. JVC’s HA-FXT90 showed me that earphones could sound absolutely amazing at an affordable price. I continued trying out a wide variety of products with varying form factors and driver configurations to find my preferred signature, such as the NarMoo S1 and Dunu Titan 1. In the end, I realized micro dynamic drivers, 6mm and smaller to be specific, are my favorite since they often seem to combine qualities of both dynamic (DD) and balanced armature (BA) drivers. You get the speed and detail of a BA with the bass presentation of a DD. How fitting that RHA, a company I’ve been interested in since first seeing the MA600 online, would come out with a new microdriver earphone? Needless to say, when the first teaser pics were posted a few months I was pretty ecstatic and couldn’t wait to try them out.
Gear and Music:
For the purposes of this review I borrowed a 4th Gen iPod Touch, however the majority of my listening was conducted through an HTC One M8, occasionally accompanied by a Topping NX1 portable headphone amp. Given I was going to be treating these as my everyday earphone for the week prior to writing this review I wasn’t too picky about the music I listened to or the file quality, much like the average consumer. Most of my music is FLAC or 320kb/s format and runs through a variety of genres with my preferred genre being Drum & Bass. I also listened to quite a bit of Digitally Imported’s Liquid Drum & Bass channel, as accessed through Window’s Media Player, to get a feel for how they handled low quality files. I have no idea how much play time these have on them at this point, but know it’s quite a bit. They were on non-stop every day at work, used while relaxing at home, and left to “burn” while I slept.
Accessories and Packaging:
The S500i’s packaging does a great job of showing off the product without being overly flashy or wasteful. There are three viewing windows divided between the sides of the box, it shows off the tiny aluminum housings, in-line mic, and generous assortment of tips.
Given these have an MSRP of only £39.95 / $49.95 / €49,95, the number of tips provided is outstanding. You get two sets each of high quality small, medium, and large silicone tips, plus one set of medium dual flanges. That would have been enough for me, but RHA also includes a shirt clip and carrying pouch. This easily puts other more expensive earphones to shame, especially the micro-driver equipped JVC HA-FXH30. It would be nice to see RHA toss in a pair of extra-small tips to accommodate those with the smallest of ear-canals, and maybe some foam tips too since that seems to be the “in thing” with all the hip kids now-a-days.
Build Quality, Comfort, and Usability:
The S500i is beautifully crafted from aluminum and looks and feels much more premium than most of its competition. The housings are immaculately constructed without any blemishes, odd gaps, or sections that do not line up perfectly. The thick and durable cable follows the popular trend of being sheathed in cloth below the y-split, rubber above leading to the housings. It is terminated in a slender aluminum straight jack with knurling that provides some much needed grip. The housings and jack are well-relieved while the y-split is not. Due to their tiny footprint and absurdly light weight, I can’t see comfort being an issue for anyone. I found isolation to be below average which came as a surprise. Using them at work I could carry on a normal conversation with my colleagues despite sound playing in the background.
There are really only two complaints that I can lever at the S500i when it comes to this section: microphonics and the in-line mic. The cable is absolutely outstanding for a number of reasons (feels very durable, is clearly made of quality materials, and doesn’t tangle) but is let down by intrusive cable noise. Even with the S500i worn with the cable behind the ear, chin cinch up, and the clip securely tethered to my shirt, I still hear a fair bit of bumping and rubbing. These things help reduce microphonics, but I definitely wish the cable transmitted less noise.
The in-line mic is where I have the most issue. The rubber sheath coating the buttons isn’t quite long enough to fill in the gaps at either end, so I fully expect dust and dirt to work its way in and cause issues down the road. The buttons themselves lack much in the way of tactile feedback so it can be hard to tell when you’ve applied enough pressure. This is definitely something that you would get used to in time but it’s hard to deny that a solid click feels much more satisfying than the faint echo of one. On the plus side, interaction with the iPod Touch was great. I was able to pause/play, skip between tracks and fast-forward and rewind without issue once I became accustomed to the amount of pressure required to depress the buttons. The relief plugs at either end of the mic setup were also poorly seated, one glued noticeably deeper into the housing than the other. Keep in mind that none of this would have stood out if the rest of the earphone wasn’t so immaculately crafted. All that being said, it looks like the same setup used on some of their other products including their newest flagship the T20i and I’ve never heard any durability complaints so maybe my worries are for naught. I guess only time will tell.
Microphone performance was also a bit of a letdown. Yes, my callers verified that my voice was very clear, but they also complained quite a bit about other noises; rubbing, cars, bumping, clicking, etc. I heard them too unfortunately. When standing perfectly still in a quiet room these were non-issues, but in motion or in a busy area external noise was highly intrusive. When compared to the in-line setup on the JVC FRD series earphones, the S500i definitely falls a bit short. With the FRD60 I was able carry on a full conversation in a windstorm without my caller realizing I was outside.
One final positive and one that I think many will overlook involves none other than…safety! You will find the S500i has a neat little trick up its sleeve when you look closely at the chin slider. On one cable, there is a small slit that allows the slider to detach. This saved me from some potential cable/ear damage when I caught it on a door handle with the chin slider in use. The slider detached and prevented the earphones from being yanked painfully from my ears, but also gave the cable some extra slack so what would have been a violent tug was severely lessened. Other manufacturers need to consider this quiet feature.
With the exception of the in-line mic (I’ll give the cable a pass since it aids in the S500i’s tiny-tank appeal) RHA has nailed it so far. You will be pleased to know that they sound absolutely outstanding too.
As with the driver size, the sound signature is a bit of a departure from what users familiar with RHA have come to expect. The S500i is an earphone on the brighter side without the warm sound and big bass other RHA products are known for. For a first go at producing a microdriver, RHA has crafted a finely tuned and honed earphone.
Treble can get a little strident and edgy at high volumes but is for the most part quite well-controlled. It never comes across as splashy but can sound a touch thin. On the plus side, this helps aid in the awesome clarity and detail which easily outpaces anything else at this price point that I’ve come across. Mids are quite forward and the S500i handles guitars and drums with aplomb. The S500i is godly for rock music, and shines especially well with male vocals. I found female vocals came off a touch cold and feel that a bit of added warmth throughout the entire frequency range would be helpful. Bass is slightly boosted above what I would consider a neutral level, never becoming overpowering or bleeding into the mids. I found it surprisingly punchy and that it dug nicely into sub-bass regions as well. Never did I feel the S500i was bass shy or could use more, however, if you feel otherwise they are quite receptive to equalization.
The S500i has a spacious soundstage and presents a nice airy feel. Separation seems to be pretty good overall, but it gives up quite a bit to JVC’s HA-FXH30 in stereo imaging and layering. The S500i avoids a “wall-of-sound” effect, but only just barely.
VSonic VSD2 (50.00 SGD from Lend Me Ur Ears, or 42.00 USD through PenonAudio)
When I first listened to the S500i, the first thing that popped into my head was “less bassy VSD2”. They’re both a bit cold, trebly, and have a great soundstage. Sitting and listening to them back-to-back, bass quantity is actually quite similar with the S500i having better texture and speed. Mids on the S500i are more forward, but the VSD2 handles female vocals more capably due to a slightly warmer sound. Treble on the S500i is tighter and overall more refined. I don’t really see any reason to recommend the VSD2 over the S500i, unless all you want is a bit more bass and great isolation. Otherwise the S500i is better built, cleaner sounding, smaller, and more refined.
JVC HA-FXH30 (as low as 51.00 USD on Amazon.com)
When the S500i was finally revealed, I couldn’t wait to compare them to the FXH30. The FXH30 bested the Titan 1 which had been my favorite earphone since picking it up earlier in the year through Massdrop. While I didn’t expect the S500i to be better, and it isn’t, it certainly puts up a darn good fight.
Treble extension on both earphones is fantastic, however the FXH30 and their titanium coating take the lead. They offer up even more detail, the perfect amount of shimmer and sparkle, and regardless of volume or recording quality never seem to come across harsh or edgy. Just refined. The FXH30 take a bow to the S500i in the mids. Mids on the FXH30 are very similar in texture and quality to those on the S500i, but are pulled back a touch too much in comparison. The FXH30 is more accomplished with female vocals since they are a noticeably warmer sounding earphone, but that’s not enough to dethrone the S500i. Bass on both earphones is outstanding, but the FXH30 backs up the quality with even great speed, accuracy, flawless decay, and some serious sub-bass rumble when called upon. The FXH30 outputs bass in a visceral and engaging way that most earphones only dream about. The FXH30 also bests the S500i in soundstage presentation. I’m a sucker for a spacious sounstage which the FXH30 does not have, unlike the S500i. This is given a pass due to the way the JVC uses it’s soundstage. Their sense of depth and ability to layer sounds is like nothing I’ve experienced, and is something the S500i unfortunately can’t touch.
When you consider the complete package; build quality, accessories, and sound quality, the S500i is the one to buy, especially if an in-line mic is key. If sound quality is your primary focus, hands down the FXH30 is your micro-dynamic must buy.
NarMoo S1 (Currently 39.99 USD on Amazon.com, or 49.99 through NarMoo.com)
While this may seem like an odd match-up, I think the W1M is a great counterpart to the S500i. Where the RHA uses a single 6mm microdriver and focuses on treble and mids, NarMoo tuned the dual driver W1M with mids and bass in mind. The S500i is brighter, clearer, quicker, and more detailed. The W1M offers up deeper bass, relaxed treble, smoother upper mids, and markedly better isolation. The ability to work with both Android and Apple devices is a big plus. Both earphones are built like tanks. I recommend checking out the NarMoo if you want an easy listening Apple compatible device that won’t put a big drain on your budget.
Overall Thoughts and Feelings:
I am very happy that RHA dove into the realm of dynamic microdriver earphones. The S500i is an amazingly good product for a variety of reasons. Great build and material quality? Check! Generous accessory package? Check! Superb sound output? Check! And the list goes on. Any issues I have are mostly nitpicking at this price point, and there really isn’t anything that could compete when considering the complete package, not even my beloved FXH30.
Are there improvements that could be made? For sure. I wish they were slightly warmer sounding with a more dynamic and flexible soundstage. Eliminate the cable noise and improve the overall call experience. These issues aside, the S500i is a stellar new product and one I am thrilled I was given the opportunity to review. Thank you again RHA! I hope you continue to build on the foundation set by the S500i and that its predecessors continue to provide such outstanding quality from top to bottom. For now, we can enjoy what is easily a top tier budget earphone.
Thanks for reading!