Review: RHA MA-350 Headphones

I am quite a hard person to please when it comes to headphones. Having spent years working for the BBC, I’ve been used to using the best quality Sennheiser equipment.

I also have unevenly shaped ears — the width of the canal on the right side is much smaller than the left. That makes it hard to find discreet in-ear equipment; the bud in the right ear has usually to be physically held in place or it simply falls out. There are also very few of this kind of earphone which have noise-cancelling built in. As a result, I have tended to buy over-the-ear phones as most will solve both problems.

It therefore came as a pleasant surprise to be introduced to the RHA MA-350. They come with a selection of different size of bud (a slight fiddle to change but that’s a minor point) so I now for the first time have earphones which actually stay in my ears. They are also noise-cancelling which means I can happily use them on the bus or train.

Scotland has a small, exclusive cluster of companies producing high quality audio equipment. The excellent Linn Products immediately comes to mind. So it also came as a very pleasant surprise to discover that RHA develop their products in Glasgow. They’re good enough to have been chosen by Apple for sales in their stores, including in Australia and America.

Unlike other such earphones which are made from plastic and feel it, these have been machined from solid aircraft grade aluminium which immediately gives them a much sturdier look. Although that might suggest that they are heavier and less comfortable to wear, nothing could be further from the truth. They sit almost unnoticed in the ear. According to RHA, the reason for this is that their design was inspired by the aerophonic shape of a trumpet’s bell.

As a video producer as well working for the Caledonian Mercury, I listen to a lot of music, much of which is non-commercial material written especially for the broadcast market. It’s quite possible to spend a couple of hours choosing the right piece of music to go with a particular sequence of images. Once again to my surprise, I found that they compared well with the other equipment I normally use. I even found myself hearing details in the upper registers that I hadn’t really noticed before.

However, it’s when you take them outside that you really hear the difference. Listening to both music and podcasts on the move put them to the test. They are good at cutting out background noise, such as traffic when out walking or the general hubbub on a train. Both were reduced even with no sound playing; almost non-existent when playing music.

I have quite an eclectic selection of music that I carry around with me. When working on a train, I often prefer the calming influence of classical music. However, the quieter sections of (say) the Sea Interludes from Britten’s “Peter Grimes” can get lost unless the volume is turned up quite high — risky when it comes to the next, much louder, sections. With these headphones, I didn’t have that problem. The background noise was filtered out and the music came through clearly and sweetly.

By way of contrast, I found myself listening to Heritage Songs by Capercaillie, first released over five years ago. I was on a rather noisy bus into Edinburgh which would have made it quite hard to hear Karen Matheson’s voice in some of the quieter tracks, such as An Ribhinn Donn. However, these headphones largely, but not completely, cut out the cacophony. Noise reduction copes best with steady background sound rather than a group of excited school children.

Later, I was was looking for music to accompany a video and chose some very dramatic, bass-heavy music from a specialist composer of film music, Amotz Plessner. His track “Hard Rain” (not generally available) bounces around the head from left ear to right and back again. I turned up the volume and found there was no evidence of any distortion at all.

Lastly, I’ve also plugged them into my camera when monitoring the sound from the radio microphone and the one that records atmosphere — which brings me to the one major criticism I have of these headphones. The markings for “left” and “right” are very hard to see. In my daily work, that is important and I’ve had to use a light coloured marker pen to highlight them. Major criticism? It’s a tiny thing compared with the benefits of using them.

To sum up, the MA-350′s cost £29.95 and come with a 3 year warranty from RHA. At this price, you would be hard pressed to find an alternative which produced either the sound or build quality. I have paid more in the past for less in a set of headphones. Indeed, they are now my headphones of choice both in the house and when travelling.

You can buy them direct from RHA or from Amazon.

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David Calder has been a broadcast journalist for over 30 years. Before moving to the Caledonian Mercury, he worked for the BBC (national and regional) as well as parts of ITV and the World Service. He worked for prestigious programmes such as The Money Programme, You & Yours, Today and The World at One. He spent two years making mini-documentaries for Radio 5 Live and was a regular correspondent for CBC (Radio Canada). He was a regular reporter on various news and current affairs programmes on BBC Scotland as well as producing or presenting (sometimes both) science, legal affairs and arts programmes. As well as his contributions to the Caledonian Mercury, he is also a freelance producer in Scotland for the satellite channel, Al Jazeera.