As high-end audio enthusiasts, the components we enjoy tend to be, by normal mortals’ standards, crazily expensive. There are many people who love music (passionately so), but are not made of cubic money, and therefore need listening devices that are genuinely good yet also inexpensive to acquire. In an ideal world, it would be nice to think that competent manufacturers of high performance earphones would work to address this market niche. The trouble, at least in my experience, is that you can easily find cheap earphones or you can search out good earphones, but rarely do you encounter earphones that are at once good and eminently affordable.
Happily, though, the relentlessly inventive Scots at RHA Audio heard the pleas of music lovers on tight budgets and answered them with a lovely little £39.95 earphone called the S500i. Before we begin, though, one point we should clarify is that while the price of the RHA S500i is quite modest, everything else about the earphones—including materials, quality of build, sound quality, and included accessories—is up to RHA’s typically high standards.
The S500i is a very compact, iPhone-compatible, dynamic driver-equipped earphone whose earpiece housings are made of an aluminium alloy. Indeed, the housings look like tiny metal cylinders or barrels (roughly 7.5mm in diameter) with their outer ends cut on a stylish diagonal angle. Like all other RHA models we have reviewed to date, the S500i features its own miniature, purpose-built ‘micro dynamic driver’—in this case, RHA’s model 140.1 drivers, which according to RHA provide ‘vibrant, immersive and detailed full-range sound’.
The earphone is fitted with an iDevice-compatible three-button remote/microphone and a distinctive signal cable that is fabric-sheathed over most of its length, but that features a smooth, snag-free covering for those portions of the cable that run from the ‘Y-yoke’ to the earpieces themselves. The connector plug, in keeping with RHA practice, is a machined metal part with a knurled gripping surface and a gold-plated, four-conductor 3.5mm plug. Completing the picture are sets of dual density silicone ear tips (two pairs each, sizes S, M, and L) and one pair of dual-flange silicone ear tips, a plastic ear tip storage carrier, a garment clip, and a mesh carry bag. Those who are not part of the Apple ecosystem may wish to note that in addition to the S500i RHA also offers an even less expensive version called the S500, priced at £29.95. The S500 foregoes the in-line, three-button remote/microphone module, but is otherwise identical to its sibling.
Before talking about the S500i’s sound, one item we should discuss is the matter of ergonomics. RHA models we have tested in the past have shown admirable flexibility of fit and have come very close to the ideal of being true ‘one size fits all’ designs, but the S500i struck me as being somewhat more ‘fit-sensitive’ than its siblings. I think this perceived ‘fit sensitivity’ perhaps results from the fact that the S500i earpieces are almost too compact for their own good; the cylindrical earpiece ‘barrels’ are very short, meaning that for those with deeply set ear canals, the earphones need to be inserted to a depth where they nearly ‘disappear’ both from view and from reach. Another factor is that the S500i signal cables exit from the sides—not the ends—of the earpiece housings, which can in some instances create interference between the cables and the wearer’s outer ears. But with these observations noted, let me emphasize that, after a bit of trial and error experimentation, I was able to find a wearing position where the S500i’s fit comfortably and provided the airtight ear-tip seal so vital to optimal sound quality.