hardware: Sony Earphones HPM 70 and MDR-EX90LP

Having one pair of earphones doesn't seem to happen with us. They get left somewhere. The rubber things come off and supplies aren't available or a situation where better ones are needed comes up. In any case, we have a collection now, spread between three cities, and every now and then they come together - and have a party! JK.

Our luck with mid-field "improvements" hadn't been that great - one foldable one with earpads was uncomfortable and the pads sat too far away from the ears; a Panasonic pair were just plain unimpressive despite their specs and price.

The mid-level Sony HPM-70 which comes with the like of the W880i Walkman phone are better than the Panasonics despite being a bit cheaper - quite an open sound with a reasonable bass response and probably quite good enough for most people. There's nothing particularly distinguished about their looks - plain black with a discrete Sony logo. One point here is that if you're shopping for earphones and see the part of the earpiece that goes in the ear is completely covered by a little foam cap, then you know immediately that they won't be up to much. The Sonys and most other good models don't cover the center of the speaker... and so there will be less attenuation of high frequencies.

Well, just how concerned should you be if you're just listening to MP3's? In theory, the super-expensive earphones are wacko-land for this sort of listening. In practise, things are a little different. Sony's MDR-EX90LP aren't super, super high-end but at 100 Euros in Europe, they're getting there. This is a similar price to the Shure SE110's for example. They have nice, machined earpieces, good quality cabling, and a handy pack to store everything. Our only quibble is that the nice long cable could have done with an extra connector to give you the choice of short or long as we ended up looking like an iPod ad with great loops of cable hanging from us - yes, you can stuff them in a pocket ... if you have one.

The sound? Way more extended than anything else we have, both at the top and in the bass. This also means that high frequency artifacts can be noticed in some mp3's but mostly it means more of everything. Also, although it's purely subjective, the sound is what used to be called the "American sound" - quite bright in the high mids and top. The "European sound" is more muted in the top and, quite often, this was just down to their use of paper-coned dome tweeters in speakers. Comparison with a pair of Sennheiser HD 200 headphones (the white ones - not particularly highend but beloved by quite a few sound engineers and the like for their flat responce and lack of colouration plus their good price) confirmed that they are "bright" but not madly, badly so.

Anyway, we loved the MDR-EX90LP's and found ourselves listening to a bunch of mp3's all over again just to see how the extension of sound sounded. There weren't any that were actually made to sound worse. 'Oh really, there was high-hat on that track?'

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