The RHA Audio S500i ($39.95 MSRP) are one of the few in-ears that are worthy of your attention at this price point. Clad in durable aluminum and providing audio performance that rivals more expensive options, bargain hunters should keep the S500i on their radar.
However, these buds aren't for everyone: pop fans will be fine, but fans of other genres—such as classical music—may be less pleased by what they hear.
Any way you slice it, the RHA Audio S500is are decent in-ears. Not amazing, but they fit their price point well. There's a little bit of wonkiness in the frequency response making the highest notes of a piano and piccolo unexpectedly loud, but little distortion, and no tracking errors are good notes to hit.
Minimalist design lets sound take center stage.
RHA Audio really took their time with this one. From the moment you pick them up, it's readily apparent that these in-ears benefited from several revisions in the design process.
For example, the aluminum casing to the earbuds ensures that they won't get crushed or rattled too badly, and the braided cable sheath from the jack split on down helps prevent everyday wear and tear from damaging the thin wires. Follow the wire down from the jack split and you arrive at yet more aluminum protective plating, this time guarding the standard 3-channel 1/8th inch plug.
Smartphone users will appreciate the in-line remote hanging from the right earbud, though the controls are only billed to work with iPhones and iPads. The remote itself—encased in yet more aluminum—hides a microphone, volume controls, and a multi-function button allowing you to play/pause music, or simply answer and end calls.
Included in the packaging are six different sizes of silicone tips, along with a set of double-flanged tips that are a little better at isolating sound. While you may have to go through a bit of trial and error to find the right fit, having so many options to choose from is a big plus.
Also in the box is a handy mesh pouch for easy storage. It won't exactly keep your cables from getting tangled, but any sort of pouch or case is a must-have for in-ears. The added shirt clip is a nice touch, though I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the time people will elect to shove the case in a bag or pocket.
For the most part, the RHA Audio S500i follows the same sort of response most consumer headphones do: the ISO226:2003 "equal loudness" standard. However, it deviates in that the bass is a little de-emphasized (not a bad thing), and a peak between 2-4kHz makes the highest fundamental notes of an 88-key piano, woodwind, or cymbals unusually shrill in comparison to the rest of your music.
Fans of a more "flat" or studio response will probably not like these buds all that much, but you can always equalize your music to your tastes if you're really seriously bothered by it. This type of response is much better for those of you who are looking to listen out in the wild instead of in an isolated and quiet environment. These are for the real world.
Imperfect, but effective
For a $40 set of in-ears, you could do a lot worse than the S500i. I say that, because there are plenty of headphones that fall short at this price point—and it's tough to separate the wheat from the chaff.
There's really not much to kvetch about when it comes to common entry-level problems. There aren't any notable channel balance issues, and distortion is mostly inaudible. However, it does rear its ugly head in harmonic notes, so cymbal-heavy music may sound a little off. This will be most pronounced when listening to classical music, or songs with fewer instruments playing over each other.
In terms of note emphasis, the S500is sound quite a bit like most other bargain in-ears. They shoot for a response that mimics how your ears perceive sounds at roughly the same loudness across all audible notes, but with a few deviations here and there. However those deviations allow certain instruments to take center stage, and others fade into the background.
Specifically, the S500is make the highest two octaves of a piano, high piccolo, and sibilant cymbals will sound very pronounced in comparison to the rest of your music. Fans of orchestral music or trap hits are going to notice this more than fans of other genres.
It's not necessarily a bad thing: sometimes it can bring out background vocals and instruments from a saturated mix like the example above. The melody in that song is also quite high, and because it dances around a range normally downplayed by consumer audio standards, it can be a little harder to hear over the snare samples.
For a more seasonal example, consider Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker (suite), Op.71a: the highest piccolo notes in several of the songs will sound quite loud in comparison to the rest of the music. Owners of the S500i will want to avoid this if they can.
There are a couple peaks here, but really only two ticks above our tolerance curve: One at about 1kHz, and another at 3kHz. You might hear it if your music has a bunch of notes in that range, and it might be annoying, but it's also possible that these ticks could be the result of manufacturing variance.
To be perfectly frank, I'm not terribly worried about these spikes, because listening to the RHA S500is, my music wasn't ruined, and even though I'm no spring chicken, at 29 I didn't really hear a ton of distortion that wasn't meant to be there.
I should point out that what music you listen to will make this minor issue more or less noticeable. Specifically, classical music with piccolos, harps, viola, and piano pieces that use the highest two octaves of an 88-key instrument will highlight this minor flaw more than any other music out there minus trap music.
Value buy if ever there was one.
If the RHA S500i can be summed up in one word, it's "value." While they're not the best-sounding in-ears out there, you can do far worse for the money. If you like how they look, and you like how they sound, there's really not a good argument against spending the two Jacksons to grab these buds.
Sure, they're not perfect. They'll probably last a good long while before the wire comes undone at the solder points, maybe they get tangled and break, or maybe they just get misplaced. In any case, the S500i is a set of in-ears that performs exactly as you'd expect for the money: They beat the pants off of airport magazine stand buds, but they don't break the bank either.
If these don't appeal to you for whatever reason, you can always get a good deal on in-ears in this price range—there's a million of 'em out there. For example, the Decibullz Contour is always a good bet, and the JBL Synchros Reflect is decent too. You could also go cheaper with in-ears like the House of Marley Smile Jamaica, MEElectronics M9P, or Sol Republic JAX.
Maybe you want a step up, and here there are plentiful options too. Specifically, the JBL Synchros S200i, Beats Urbeats, and the AKG K 323XS in particular fit the bill. They slightly outperform the S500i, cost a bit more, but will give you a good bang for the buck.
Quite frankly, we can't find a reason to not buy these in-ears, unless they're simply not what you're looking for. If you like the look, pull the trigger.
The RHA Audio S500i isolates very well, but it's a little poor at blocking out low-end noise. Sounds like engines running, airplanes, and the general bustle of a city street will mask your tunes a bit provided your volume is a little low.
Channel balance is functionally perfect, and never ventures outside of our tolerance limits. For all practical purposes, there's really nothing to talk about here. These are headphones without obvious flaws in channel balance.
Meet the tester
Staff Writer, Imaging@cthomas8888
A seasoned writer and professional photographer, Chris reviews cameras, headphones, smartphones, laptops, and lenses. Educated in Political Science and Linguistics, Chris can often be found building a robot army, snowboarding, or getting ink.
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