Review #50: RHA MA650 Wireless Earphones ★★★★☆

When wireless doesn't mean getting less! 


Bluetooth headsets have always been a matter of convenience for me rather than a technological evolution over wired headsets. For a long time, I preferred to use wired headsets whenever possible and took recourse to Bluetooth headsets when on the move. However, the abysmal performance of Bluetooth plug-in headsets like SBH54 and the Fiio BTR1 left me extremely disappointed and finally set me on course to finding a standalone wireless earphone.


As always, I began researching the mainstream options and found the Goldilocks zone to be around the Rs. 10000 – 15000 mark locally ($149-199 as per US pricing). This is where you can find the truly wireless options like Apple AirPods, BeatsX, Bragi – The Headphone, and the wireless variants of RHA MA750, Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear, Shure SE215 and V-Moda Forza Metallo. However, after much pondering, I set my bar a bit lower.

The fact is that the wireless equivalents are priced at least double of the wired counterparts while Apple charges a large premium for some nifty tricks rather than for audio quality. Hence, the best compromise seems to be in finding an option that offers performance closest to a similarly priced wired variant. In my case, that meant sticking to the $100 price point while picking up something that offered performance on par with the wired Sennheiser Momentum In-ear that I was using for over 3 years and which was originally priced at $100.

With my primary device being an iPhone, the other requirement was for the earphones to natively support AAC to ensure direct transmission from Apple Music without further re-encoding. At the same time, aptX support is a necessity for all other devices. The cheaper Bluetooth earphones often skip on both due to licensing costs, relying on the mandatory and much inferior SBC codec. With this set of requirements, it didn’t take long to settle on the RHA MA650 Wireless. While the brand may be relatively unknown, I had come across it multiple times when making past earphone purchases and hence it wasn’t too difficult for me to proceed without batting an eyelid. The 12-hour battery life and 3-year warranty were just an icing on the cake.

Packaging:


I firmly believe that a manufacturer’s love for its products manifests itself in the design of the packaging, though not the wastefulness of it. In the past, Fiio’s packaging of the BTR1 left me thoroughly unimpressed as even barebones packaging can be done gracefully. In the case of the RHA MA650, the packaging seems just about right. It offers a minimal unboxing experience while properly protecting and unfurling the contents. It starts with the outer cover which contains a pull tab and magnets to gracefully open/shut the box. Thereafter, you can pull out the foam box containing the earphone to reveal the 3 inner sections pictured below.


Thankfully, RHA hasn’t compromised on the number of tips by offering 8 pairs of silicone (six embedded in the case, one on the earphones and another one in a separate pouch) along with a pair of the much-lauded Comply foam tips. The default silicone tips worked quite well for me, but I found the Comply tips to be the most comfortable and settled on using it on a daily basis. The package also includes a clip that helps in neatly tying up the two ends along the bottom of the neck such that the microphone and controls are easily accessible. Lastly, there is a somewhat ordinary mesh carry pouch included that just about does the job. You may justifiably mistaken it to be one for wired earphones but it is in fact a testament to the flexibility of the MA650.







Design:




To be honest, I have never been impressed with the neckbud form factor with some of them bordering on ridiculous. Hence, going with this option was more about practicality than looks. I had to rule out the 'truly wireless' options like AirPods as my primary aim was to use it for my daily commute and losing them in a completely crowded public transit system was not something I could afford. I had once dropped a Fitbit One and had a harrowing time following it as it was subjected to some impressive footwork by other commuters. The round-the-neck option like the BeatsX wasn't any better considering the compromise on battery life and the possibility of an unclipped wire scraping against my back.

The aspect that makes the RHA MA650 more bearable as a neckbud is the lightness, thinness and flexibility of the “SecureFlex” band. It is easily hidden under the collar on formal days while collarless shirts wouldn't leave you scratching your neck as the band is imperceptible when walking or running strenuously. It is rated as IPX4, making it sweat and splash resistant, which is good enough for everyday usage, but not for dropping in the pool. The two tubes at the end of the band are perfectly weighed down against the collar bone with the ends being made of high-grade 6063 aluminum alloy.

All the controls are present on one side with the rubber part of the “tube” housing the power button, a dual colour (red/white) LED, NFC chip, USB Type C port and a vibrator. The wire extending from the “tube” contains an inline universal 3-button controller. I have refrained for terming any side as left or right as the band is side-agnostic, with its flexibility allowing it to be worn in any which way. Having said so, the "side" opposite to the one containing the controls is completely barren and bereft of any externalities which would indicate that it solely houses the battery.

To add a few more words on the 3-button controller, the aluminium covering gives it a premium look and houses the microphone along with the branding. The rubber-coated buttons allow for touch-usage with the depression in the middle easily allowing one to feel their way through, though the buttons are certainly a bit hard to press.

Lastly, the aluminium housing of the earphone adds to the premium feel and is extremely lightweight, thereby not tugging at the earphone. Making them magnetized is a good touch and makes the housing wires feel like hoodie strings when left dangling. However, it is of more utility in keeping the wires untangled when the earphones are parked within the pocket or the pouch. The aluminium housing also keeps the weight down, enabling the earphone to be worn directly as against the over-the-ear design of the heavier MA750 with the steel housing.


One thing I really didn’t like about the design out of the box is the blue regulatory label dangling from one of the wires. It looks ridiculous and I kept it on for a week as I made my mind about keeping the device. However, once decided, I simply tore the label off since it mostly paper.

Controls:

Although I have covered the arrangement of the buttons, I thought it best to cover the functionality separately. As is the case with most Bluetooth devices, the power button is a multi-functional one. The headset switches on with a 2-second press and subsequently a recorded female voice announces the battery level in 20% intervals. The voice-battery status can also be invoked anytime by pressing the power button. Pairing is initiated with a 5-second press of the power button and is accompanied by an identifiable, oscillating pairing tone. I couldn't test the NFC pairing due to lack of compatible devices but considering how quick and flawless the normal pairing was, I trust this to be as good if not better.

The 3-button controller comes with a standard set of controls which allows for playback and volume control including track skipping. However, long pressing of the central "action" button also invokes the default virtual assistant, Siri on iOS and Google Assistant on Android which I found to be convenient on several occasions, be it for search or for invoking an OS function.

Fit:

A lot of the perception of sound quality and comfort comes from the fit of the earphones. The myriad tips that come with the MA650 ensure that there is at least one that will work for everyone. I found the Comply foam tips to be the most versatile of the lot. They can be dug in to the ear canal without any discomfort to cut off from the world and can be loosened to let ambient sound in, without falling off. Of course, it is not about the tips alone. The noise isolating Aerophonic design of the housing is more than a trademark and seems to do its job to the extent where noise cancellation may not be craved for.

Codec Support:

Bluetooth audio quality is invariably a function of the codec used. The world of Bluetooth audio codecs is a minefield, governed more by corporate interests than technical ones. The prominent ones include aptX from Qualcomm, AAC used primarily by Apple and LDAC from Sony. Many manufacturers are not transparent about the codec support which makes it difficult to purchase a Bluetooth headset for iOS, for which AAC support is essential. Thankfully, the MA650 supports the same along with aptX for Windows and Android.

The Bluetooth codec selection option on Oreo makes switching the Bluetooth codec much easier and hence I primarily tested the codec support on Android. The screenshots below illustrate the codec support. Playback was done using Spotify and Apple Music.

The mandatory SBC codec playback is at 16-bit/44.1 kHz, 328 kbps.


Playback using the explicit AAC option is at 16-bit/44.1 kHz, 228.42 kbps.


While the default aptX playback is 16-bit/44.1 kHz, it can be changed to 48 kHz. aptX-HD and LDAC are not supported.



An important observation in all this is that it is best to leave the codec selection to 'Use System Selection (Default)' on Android. This ensures that aptX is auto-selected whenever available. More importantly, it ensures that the AAC audio from Apple Music is passed through without re-encoding at 256 kbps. Explicitly selecting the AAC codec results in the AAC audio from Apple Music being re-encoded to 228.42 kbps using the software encoder which deteriorates the audio quality.


Sound Quality:

When you already have a target in mind, you are least surprised by the results. In this case, I expected the MA650 to sound as good as my Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear and I wasn't disappointed. In fact, getting close to $100 sound from a wireless earphone costing $100 is by no means a small feat.

The clarity and soundstage on this device is totally worth its price. The bass is not accentuated while the mids are remarkably clear and well-defined. On the other hand, the upper mids and highs are quite shrill, fresh out of the box, to the extent that I immediately resorted to using an equalizer on iOS. The Treble Reducer preset worked well to reduce the shrillness at first but I eventually settled on the Flat preset, which I incidentally discovered is not the same as turning off the equalizer on Apple Music, though Spotify differs on that front.

The good thing is that the shrillness at high frequencies is a bit transient. I have never specifically exercised burn-in, but in this case, the sound signature certainly changes with time. I think it was about a week later when the highs started sounding much more subdued and I could turn the equalizer off once and for all.

While the custom 380.1 drivers are a mystery, I am pretty sure it leaves a lot of room for improvement for the MA750 to fill in. This is a case of getting good value for your money rather than ultimate sound quality. After 3 weeks of listening, I would put the sound signature as a shallow “V”, where the right leg is bit steep than the left one. The sharpness at highs is still perceptible but on the whole the sound tends to be flattish and balanced.

On a side note, Apple Music and Spotify aren't at the epitome of quality with their respective choice of 256 kbps AAC and 320 kbps Ogg Vorbis (at Extreme setting), but the native Apple Music AAC playback sounded the best. I was surprised that for the tracks I tested, Apple Music sounded better than Spotify even over aptX. However, Spotify remains my favourite for music discovery. Lossless files might be a different beast altogether and certainly not worth streaming over Bluetooth.

Latency:

I wouldn’t go to the extent of measuring the lag without precise measuring instrument but one can assume it to be about a quarter of a second when using AAC and about two tenths when using aptX since I don’t believe this device has aptX-LL support.

What I can state is the practical impact of this latency. Both, iOS and Android have built-in mechanisms to compensate for this lag such that videos don’t go out of sync. On iOS this works fine for the majority of the apps. The default player as well as VLC seem to be perfectly in sync. For whatever reason, the YouTube app on iOS is tremendously out of sync, more than what the latency would account for. The same videos work fine over Safari on iOS, so I assume the YouTube app isn’t taking advantage of the API offered by iOS to compensate for the lag. Other streaming apps like Prime Video and Hotstar are a few milliseconds out of sync but are not distracting enough to ruin the experience. On the Android side, the YouTube app is perfectly in sync while other streaming apps have minuscule lag, like they do on iOS.

Battery Life:

As I had mentioned previously, an immense advantage of using neckbuds is the extended battery life. While “truly wireless” solutions like AirPods are capable of 5 hours, most other devices aim at 8-10 hours of battery life. Hence, kudos to RHA for managing to fit in a 12-hour battery while retaining the device weight at 33g.

My measurements are purely anecdotal since I haven’t run-down the battery from full to empty in one sitting. However, the very first time, I made a note of the duration as the battery life changed to 60% and it was about 5.5 hours since I had started my listening session with a fully charged device. More recently, I managed to get an hour of call and another one of music playback with the battery already “below 20%”. In fact, with my daily commute lasting a couple of hours every day, I managed to get through an entire work week without charging, which is no mean feat. While battery life may vary with usage and volume, I would put my neck on the line and state that the 12-hour figure is a conservative one and you are likely to get a bit more out of it.

The battery life can be tracked in 20% increments using the status bar indicator or widget on Android and iOS. However, taking in to the consideration the voice prompts, it is extremely difficult to not be aware of it all the time. When the battery falls below 20%, the device intervenes even when you are listening or speaking, every half an hour. While this may be irritating in certain circumstances, it is a reminder to not let the battery life enter that region.

To save battery, the device switches off automatically after 10 minutes if it is not connected to any device. However, it remains connected to the device even when there is no music playing as it functions as a call headset, so one has to take care to disconnect the device when not in use.


I did clock the charging time with the device fully drained and it took about 95 minutes for a complete charge. The charging current was a steady 0.05A, so an extrapolation would put the battery capacity to about 80 mAh. The LED changes from red, when charging, to white when fully charged. However, the device cannot be used while it is being charged. The charging to discharging ratio of 1:8 is phenomenal and makes up for the lack of a quick charging feature.

Connectivity:

Too often, wireless variants of earphones are made in a very slipshod manner where all the wireless stuff is mashed with the wired earphones without much consideration of the wireless performance. However, that is not the case here.

Pairing with any device is immediate and not a “device searching” mess. Thereafter, the MA650 automatically connects to the phone whenever it is switched on. The only time it doesn’t auto-connect is when Bluetooth is explicitly toggled on the host device. On iOS 11, I think this is simply due to the manner in which Bluetooth operates.

The connectivity is rock-solid over a radius of 30 feet (9 metres), the distance I usually roam around the phone, so the actual range is much higher. When in the pocket, in a crowded subway, I had the sound drop off, for a second or two, twice over a 3-week period which is commendable considering my erstwhile SBH54 lost full connectivity in a similar situation.


The MA650 also features true multipoint connectivity where two devices can be simultaneously paired to it at the same time. In such a case you can accept calls from either of the phones and in fact simultaneously play music as well. However, in such a case, you can only hear the music that was initiated first, even though both the phones have the pause button enabled on their music players. I also tested the scenario where I initiated a call from one paired device to another. On the Sony SBH54, it would cause the device to reboot but RHA has handled the situation well as it simply mutes the line. Switching to speakers or the phone microphone immediately causes the line to become active which is how it should be.

Calling:


In many cases, the call functionality is an afterthought for manufacturers of audio equipment. In the past, I had found the Fiio BTR1 to be particularly poor designed in this regard. However, the MA650 does well on this front. I haven’t heard much complaints about the audio quality over a few dozen calls, apart from a few occasions in noisy environments. The microphone quality might not be the best but is more than serviceable. Thankfully, RHA has made sure to include a vibrator to alert about calls when you have the neckbud on you without being plugged in. Similarly, the LED flashes to let you know of incoming as well as missed calls.

Volume:

For a Bluetooth headset, the RHA MA650 gets really loud. Part of it is assisted by the incredible noise-isolation that this device offers. Either way, it is unlikely that you would ever miss part of a conversation or a podcast due to ambient noise.

A prickly situation related to volume are the steps in the volume control. The volume steps on a Bluetooth device are normally lesser than the host device, mostly numbering 15 steps while the phone has 16. For some reason, RHA decided to go with an 8-step volume controller. This maps to the following volume levels on iOS: 1-3-5-7-9-11-13-16. I do find this irritating and wish RHA offered more precise volume control.

Price:

$99 is not a universal price for the MA650 as customs and taxes bring the price to Rs. 7999 in India or a little over $120 in equivalent terms. The price has never been discounted by Headphone Zone, the official importers in India, though I picked it up from them on Amazon during a sale which offered 10% cashback and thereby brought the effective price down to about $110.

Conclusion:

The co-relation between price and performance is never linear as far as earphones are concerned. Over the years, I have found $100 to be the sweet spot for on-the-move earphones and $200 for sedentary headphones, as far as value for money is concerned. The good thing is that the RHA MA650 Wireless can easily trade blows with the top 10 earphones, including wired ones, within the $100 bracket. It may not have the W1 chip or auto-pause sensors but more than makes up for it with its audio quality, battery life and connection quality. You may spend 50% more to get better performance or fancier features, but at this price point nothing else comes close. It also means that I am unlikely to review any other Bluetooth earphone for the next 3 years, with the MA650 giving me little reason to think otherwise.

() Great sound clarity across frequencies
(Superb noise isolation, especially with the Comply foam tips
() AAC (must for iOS) and aptX support
() 12-hour battery life, 3-year warranty
(Yoga-capable flexibility and lightness
(⬌) The blue label which can be and should be torn off
(⬌) Serviceable microphone which picks up ambient noise
(⬌) aptX-HD might be missed by some, though not the higher licensing costs
(▼) Shrill upper-mids and highs which mellow down with time but remain perceptible
(▼) Inexcusable 8-step volume control

2 comments:

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