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May 27, 2010

Sony EX71

It's not fair. Why do these in-canal phones have such sweet bass but leave something to be desired at the higher frequencies? And why the anomalies in testing/listening?

In a head-to-head (heh) comparison with the Etymotic ER6i, the EX71s sounded richer and deeper in the bass, but that's not how my instrumentation saw it. It told me that the Etymotics went deeper and had flatter frequency response. Time for a closer look.

And so the frustration begins of trying to get meaningful, much less repeatable, information when doing audio testing. One of the biggest variables is how an in-canal transducer sits in your ear. It's never the same twice, and my testing involved a lot of switching back and forth, using only one rubber ear, because I didn't want another variable (a different microphone) to enter the equation.

This first run is smoothed response to pink noise from the ER6i in red, and the EX71 in blue:

Both phones are being driven from an Archos PMA430, a player with a strong output stage that's not intimidated by low-impedance headphones. Both the EX71s and the ER6is are nominally 16 ohms. I made both measurements without changing the volume level on the player or the gain on my instrumentation.

You can see that the ER6i response is very smooth, while the EX71 is kind of bumpy. Those little stairsteps on the top end of the ER6i curve are distortion artifacts, by the way. The Archos player is distortion-free, which is another reason to use it as a source for testing like this. The distortion appears to be harmonics generated in the earphone transducer. But it's unimportant in this test anyway.

Looking at these curves, the EX71s are clearly not as efficient, and the midrange hump is sure to color the music.

I took another shot at these measurements, turning off smoothing and reinserting the transducers in the measurement ear:

This time I didn't get distortion from the ER6i at the high end, but it picked up a little 800Hz bump, probably because of slightly different location in the ear. The Sony, meanwhile, looks pretty much the same, except that it's actually doing better in the high treble range. It's also picked up some 60Hz hum. I tried to eliminate it or figure out what appliance or piece of equipment was generating it, but no dice. It's just a bump, however; draw a mental line through it.

On this third run, I used my sound level meter to set the in-ear loudness the same on both earphones, figuring that if one was quieter than the other, you'd naturally turn it up to your preferred level of enjoyment. Both of these runs were at 78dB in-ear loudness. My onscreen instrumentation read the same input level for each, too.

Equalizing the volume tells a different story. Both earphones show a peak in their response curves, and now the Etymotic run has caught the 60Hz disease. But the important thing is that when equalized for loudness, the Sonys are stronger in the bass range.

Back here in the real world of listening, the EX71s definitely have more thump than the ER6is, and nowhere near the extended top end of the ER6is. So don't believe everything you see on a computer screen.

Blocking out noise
The EX71s are typical of most in-canal earphones, and my meter shows an average reduction of 10dB. You can see the attenuation of the actual frequencies here:

The blue line is white noise in my testing room. The red line is what my measurement ear hears with the EX71 inserted. They do a good job in the midbass, but flanged designs seem to have a penchant for letting 1KHz through. They get a lot better in the high end. This performance is somewhat surprising, considering that the EX71 is a single-flange design that doesn't go very far into the ear.

These are very comfortable earbuds; they rest lightly in the ear, but don't tend to fall out. They fit very small ears well, which is sometimes a problem for in-canal phones. This measurement ear was molded from a small woman, and is very petite:

The EX71s come with two different eartips for smaller and larger ears, a hardshell case, and a unique, smaller, cylindrical case that you snap the earbuds into.

The cylindrical case prevents the earbud leads from knotting up around one another and protects them. The left cord is shorter than the right, something that has become fashionable among some earphone manufacturers. I dislike it; I'd rather have them equal length so that the cord stays centered and doesn't tug on just one ear.

The Sony EX71s are a rock-'n'-roller's ear canal phone. I haven't encountered another in-canal phone with as much bass. They're very small, very comfortable, and don't attract the "mug me" attention of The White Earbuds. They don't exert the pressure on your ear canal that you get from the phones that go deeper. They also don't deliver the crisp, laser-sharp highs of the Etymotics, but at $50 or less, they're a good trade-up from your everyday earbuds.

Posted by machrone at May 27, 2010 10:30 AM

Comments

Bill,

Nice article.

I liked the way my EX71s sounded until they broke. They lasted only a few weeks before one of the buds went dead. $50+ shot. I have no idea whether the problem is in the bud or its cable.

The frailty of all these rather expensive ear buds makes me very nervous. After this experience, I threw fashion consciousness to the wind and now walk around with Grado 60s. Even these make me nervous because the cables are permanently wired into the earphones instead of plugging in.

Posted by: Drew Lucy at July 6, 2005 10:49 AM

I would agree, they were great until one of them went out. I had also gotten my son a pair - they were great and he really liked them until they also broke. I would not recommend them, buy the more expensive ones.

Posted by: David at July 16, 2005 09:22 AM

Aw jeez, I was going to buy some of these, but so far, 100% of the respondents have had them BREAK. Not a very good comment on their quality procedures.

BTW, Dvorak is right, the crackpot dating scheme on the entries has got to go. What's with these things that are supposed to be posted in 2020 and 2010???

Posted by: Mustard at August 5, 2005 09:03 AM

I have had mine for almost a year now and they have not broken. They are a great product for $50. I use them at least one a week. They get yanked out of my ear all the time and I abuse them more than I should. Seem durable enough to me.

Posted by: Bryan at September 14, 2005 11:04 PM

A comment on the durability of these earbuds: I ordered a pair from Amazon and they sounded pretty good to me (especially the noise reduction ability). However, having done some research on these earbuds, I knew that they would be somewhat fragile from reading user reviews. I did notice that the cord was very "weak" feeling -- squeezing the cord between your fingers flattened it almost immediately and you could tell the material was thin and elastic (not very good points for durability), like as if it could snap in two if I pulled hard enough. And if you pinched the cord between your fingernails, it's enough to leave an indentation.

I had some kind of defect with these particular earbuds so I exchanged for a new pair from Amazon. The new pair I got definitely addressed the cord issue. MUCH more durable and thicker. It was no longer as elastic and thin. Pinching between your fingers or fingernails did not flatten the cord much, if at all. I've been using these earbuds now for almost a year and they've been fine (of course, normal wear and tear and even a bit of abuse). The pair I have are the ex51 earbuds but I have heard that both the ex51 and ex71 use the same drivers so the sound quality is the same, with the difference being that the ex51 cord is supposedly shorter and accommodates the wearer much better. So I suppose the moral of this story is that the ex51 are the earbuds to go with, without having any experience with the ex71.

By the way, what's with the dating of these articles... this was written on May 27, 2010??

Posted by: kevin at September 19, 2005 07:14 PM

> One of the biggest variables is how an in-canal
> transducer sits in your ear.

I had a slightly gross revelation about this the other day.

If you're TOO anal in your ownership of silicone-seal canalphones, you can be reducing perceived audio quality.

I've noticed on several occasions that, after cleaning out my ears with rubbing alcohol (or any sort of drying estringent) and/or cleaning the silicone with rubbing alcohol, that I can't get a good seal and lose sound pressure -- that is, significantly less sensation of bass response.

Conclusion: maybe you need at least a small amount of moisture in the ear canal to make a good seal?

Of course, this is highly subjective -- maybe I'm just too rabid with the ear and earbud cleaning regimen and/or my ear canal surfaces are irregular, hairier, etc.

Anyway, if I'm onto something here, Bill, maybe putting a thin coat of petroleum jelly on the contact surfaces of silicone-type seals would help give you more consistent results?

Also, am I degrading/drying the silicone prematurely with rubbing alcohol do you think? I've pulled them off once and used some soap and water, but I've noticed they don't fit as tight over the driver shaft after that, so am loathe to remove them on a regular basis (I'm using the Apple canalphones.)

Posted by: fogd00d at October 21, 2005 03:03 AM

For any of you who think you have one earbud dying, chances are you DON'T! I thought one of mine was dying, occasionally it would have half-volume, then sometimes it would be nearly silent. Well, I happened to be looking directly at the center area of both of them, side by side, and noticed that my left one didn't have a hole in the center of it that the right did - earwax had gotten in this tiny hole. It's small enough that if you use a mechanical pencil with a .07mm pc of "lead", you can poke straight through the earwax or whatever is clogging it, and now they sound brand new! I did the same on the right side, which was partially covered, and it made an incredible improvement! PLEASE try this before throwing out a set!

Posted by: Garrett at January 30, 2006 12:05 PM