Like choosing a favorite parent, we consumers are often confronted with the difficult decision between affordability and sound quality. Both are important, and we’d rather not sacrifice one for the other. Well, RHA liberates budget-restrained audio aficionados with the sub-$60 RHA MA650 earbuds. Based in Glasgow, Scotland, the independent audio company strives to join technology, sound, and the human experience. Do the MA650 step up or strike out?

Who is the RHA MA650 for?

Unlike more expensive models within RHA's line of products, the MA650 are constructed from aluminum, rather than stainless steel. Pictured: The two earbuds dangling in front of an old slot machine.

Unlike more expensive models within RHA’s line of products, the MA650 are constructed from aluminum, rather than stainless steel.

  • Students: The tangle-resistant, braided cable bodes well for the college student who—as I do—lazily tosses their ‘buds into any available pocket. Plus, Android users can hold down the multi-function button to ask Google Assistant for last-minute homework help.
  • Audiophiles on a budget: Like other RHA products, the MA650 are Hi-Res certified; meaning that the product performs at 40 kHz or above. Sure, this is overkill at double what the human ear is capable of perceiving, but the stamp of approval is there. Official endorsements aside, these sound great for the price and are backed by a three-year manufacturers warranty.

What’s Inside

The aluminum carrier holds eight pairs of ear tips, two of which are double-flanged for increased passive noise isolation. Pictured: The aluminum carrier filled with ear tip options, the mesh carrying pouch, a shirt clip, and the earbuds.

The RHA MA650 aluminum carrier holds eight pairs of ear tips, two of which are double-flanged for increased passive noise isolation.

Beneath the plastic-protected RHA MA650 is a mesh carrying pouch and an aluminum carrier that holds seven pairs of ear tips, ranging from double-flanged to dual-density silicone. They even include two pairs of Comply memory foam tips, a $22-value; this reinforces my feelings that—spoiler alert—MA650 are well worth the price.

Build & Design

An aluminum chassis, molded to match RHA’s “aerophonic” design, catches light and draws the eye to its understated profile. Though the exterior is wide compared to the conventional earphone shape, it lays flush with the ear, so they can be worn without ruining the line of your beanie. The aluminum ear tip holder is a modest touch that highlights RHA’s attention to detail.

The Scottish company made an interesting design choice regarding the 1.35-meter, mixed-material cable. Its divided construction consists of a lithe, rubberized cable running from each earbud; beware as it’s conducive to microphonics and can carry unwanted vibrations up the cable. To mitigate this, wear them up and around the ear, like a hook. At the Y-splitter intersection, it merges into a tangle-resistant braided material.

The RHA MA650 earbuds mimic the same aerophonic design as the MA750; this reduces distorting reverberations within the audio chamber. Pictured: The RHA MA650 earbuds in front of the revolving coin insert of a vintage PACE slot machine.

The RHA MA650 earbuds mimic the same aerophonic design as the MA750; this reduces distorting reverberations within the audio chamber.

The multi-function button rests in a divot that’s concave, relative to the volume controls. This makes for a sleek design, but frustrating experience.

Descending from the right earbud is an in-line mic and remote, a facsimile of the RHA MA750 Wireless’ remote. The multi-function button rests in a divot that’s concave, relative to the volume controls. This makes for a sleek design, but frustrating experience. It’s hard to differentiate between the controls, especially with gloves on. If that’s the case, have fun skipping tracks when you’re trying to adjust the volume.

As far as the carrying case goes, it’s exactly the material that I was my shoes to be made out of (Nike, take note). Mesh encourages air circulation, while retaining a nearly weightless form. The case’s malleability makes it easy to fit into any pocket, but if you’re like me, the hassle of winding earbuds up to throw them into a case seldom occurs. It’s a nice gesture though.

What does “aerophonic” mean?

Aside from sounding cool and drawing people in based on curiosity alone, RHA’s “aerophonic” design increases clarity by mimicking the airflow properties of musical instruments inside the unit. The earbuds are engineered so that the air is channeled from the driver to the ear without extraneous reverberations within the chamber.

To reduce microphonics, wear the RHA MA650 around the ear. Pictured: The earbuds wrapped around the ear like a hook to reduce reverberations from echoing up the cable and into the ear canal.

To reduce microphonics, wear the RHA MA650 around the ear.

If you’re bored, look at a trumpet; RHA did, and they discovered that if they invert the instrument’s design, sound can concentrate without altering its reproduction. Logically, the company consolidated the sound chamber and sound pipe, into a single seamless, funnel-shaped piece, thereby removing the unnecessary obstruction.

Connectivity

The drawstring, mesh carrying pouch is lightweight and can hold the ear tip carrier and RHA MA650 earbuds. Pictured: An overhead shot of the included accessories of the MA650.

The drawstring, mesh carrying pouch is lightweight and can hold the ear tip carrier and RHA MA650 earbuds.

The RHA MA650 kick it back old school with the standard 3.5mm headphone jack, and yes, this one’s gold-plated. No Bluetooth codecs to worry about here. Then again, if your phone is lacking a 3.5mm input, you’re going to be strong-armed into a dongle adapter, or if you prefer, check out our list of Bluetooth headphones. Unfortunately, the remote is limited to Android-only.

Sound Quality

There isn’t any attempt to trick listeners into thinking the RHA MA650 are something that they’re not. Rather than posturing, the company presents frequency chart to show that the midrange receives the most attention in the earbuds’ sound signature. On a similar note, the soundstage is okay. Listeners get a vague sense of space, which is head and shoulders above most options in this price bracket. On the other hand, passive noise isolation is fantastic and greatly improves low-end performance.

Above the Y-splitter of the RHA MA650 is a rubber piece that zips the separated cables together to prevent them from getting caught on objects. Pictured: The cable of the RHA MA650 earphones and 3.5mm headphone jack on top of a slot machine.

Above the Y-splitter of the RHA MA650 is a rubber piece that zips the separated cables together to prevent them from getting caught on objects.

During a three-hour Amtrak ride, I was hardly able to hear my gregarious neighbors with the Comply ear tips. If you fancy yourself more of a dual-density silicone-type, they don’t insulate you from the environment quite as well. On the flip side, they’re easier to insert and remove during intermittent conversation.

Lows

Despite their reported emphasis, bass notes tend to take a backseat in most music mixes. Vic Mensa’s 16 Shots highlighted this issue pretty well in our listening.

If the only time that you hear 16 Shots is with the RHA MA650, then you’ll think the low-end reproduction is actually pretty good. Well, that’s a result of the song’s intentionally overstated bass to illustrate the brash nature of police brutality. However, listening to the song on studio-oriented, the Audio-Technica ATH-M40X, reveals the lacking bass presence in the original mix.

“Wait, but it looks like all the frequencies are pretty even on the graph!”

The frequency response graph for the RHA MA650 presents information in an aesthetically-pleasing manner but fails to explain what the data mean.

The frequency response graph for the RHA MA650 presents information in an aesthetically-pleasing manner but fails to explain what the data mean (RHA Audio).

This may seem contrary to RHA MA650 frequency graph, but audio perception is a fascinating thing. See, to discern a low frequency, say 20 Hz, compared to something at 2 kHz, you’re going to have to really crank things up according to ISO 226:2003 (also known as equal-loudness curves). Though it appears on RHA’s graph that the sub-bass is bumped a bit, it’s not nearly enough to be perceived at the same loudness as the mids. Most headphones struggle in this area, especially when the tradeoff is usually added distortion. RHA instead elected to aim for a clear sound, which many people will like for vocal and string-heavy music.

Mids

I’m ambivalent about the midrange. A lack of emphasized bass means that the vocals are so unusually clear that I kind of like it. But as it is with any sort of tuning, there are tradeoffs.

The drawstring, mesh carrying pouch is lightweight and can hold the ear tip carrier and RHA MA650 earbuds. Pictured: An overhead shot of the included accessories of the MA650.

The drawstring, mesh carrying pouch is lightweight and can hold the ear tip carrier and RHA MA650 earbuds.

(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding boosts vocals too much for mid-dominant headphones. During the verses, listeners can hear the acute drop in Redding’s pitch at the last word of each line (“bay,” “for,” and “way”). I love this; the depth of vocal transition from mid to low-range reproduction is unparalleled for earbuds of this caliber. Unfortunately, this exaggeration—while bringing out the mids—curbs the song’s main beat and my ability to truly vibe.

Highs

The highs are perfectly fine; though, they’re occasionally obscured by the mids. The use of violin in Split Screen Sadness by John Mayer not only tugs at listeners’ heartstrings, it also tests the MA650’s treble response when reproducing high frequencies in tandem with vocals. After a pensively paced intro, the ballad livens for the chorus. The accompanying violin accents Mayer’s melancholy tone and sits appropriately in the background.

Conclusion

Located on the back of the in-line remote, the RHA MA650 microphone effectively picks up the speaker's voice during calls. Pictured: The RHA MA650 microphone and 3.5mm headphone jack on top fo an open music box.

Located on the back of the in-line remote, the RHA MA650 microphone effectively picks up the speaker’s voice during calls.

As far as presentation is concerned, RHA never disappoints—and the MA650 are no exception. These aren’t grandiose show-stoppers, but their timeless, brushed aluminum aesthetic is sure to amass quite a few nods of approval from those with sophisticated taste. Looks aren’t everything, though, and RHA backs up their well-crafted product with a plethora of ear tips for a comfortable fit. What’s more: you can ask Google anything you can possibly think of at the press of a button. Audio reproduction isn’t flat, but it is fun and sounds good, assuming that you don’t mind a a little less bass. Tthe RHA MA650 earphones are well worth the affordable price of $50 and a meal at Noodles and Company.

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