The RHA S500 Phones

Let’s cut to the chase, our first experience with RHA is fantastic. Their $39.95/pair S500 in-ears are incredible for less than a pair of Apple ear buds. You need to go no further to start to get the audiophile bug.

The construction quality alone will floor you for just under 40 bucks. And, the S500s offer a mic for those of you using a smartphone so equipped. As we tend to be more music listeners than multi-taskers, we’ll be concentrating on the music experience in this review. Popping the S500s out of the box is a first-rate affair – again, the level of quality in the packaging at this point shows tremendous attention to detail. Impressive.

Starting the listening with an iPad and streaming selections from TIDAL, the first impression is a good one, playing Rick Springfield’s angst-filled Songs For The End of The World. Springfields’ vocals go from trippy to overprocessed, and the S500s do a great job chronicling the changes in mood.

The other half of the first impression is a high-frequency response that is much better behaved than you’d expect in a $40 set of IEMs – better than you’d expect from a $100 pair. Thank the scads of r&d that goes on at RHA. Even at this price point, the 140.1 driver used is a custom unit, not merely something off the shelf that was appropriated to hit a price point. Combine that with the machined aluminum body, and the S500 exudes class all the way.

Skating through a wide range of rock and jazz tracks, nothing throws the S500s a curve. They play loud and clean enough that you should be careful. You’ll be able to crank the S500s up high without distortion so that you can do some damage. Public service announcement taken care of, a bit of AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap proves entertaining. The S500 keeps the Young brother’s lead and rhythm lines well sorted, instead of just blurring together like one fat guitar (as every inexpensive phone we’ve ever heard does).

The refinement again comes through listening to Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall. Revisiting his younger self, singing classic tracks like “A Man Needs A Maid,” and “Heart of Gold,” the S500s deliver a smooth, undistorted clarity, making these time-worn tracks fresh again.

Heading Upscale

To this point, an iPhone 7 and iPad have been used for playback, with excellent result. The S500s work well with off the shelf hardware, yet even these modestly priced phones respond well to moving to an outboard headphone amplifier. Road warriors that take portable headphone amp/DACs with them will not be disappointed. Used with iFi’s new i-Micro Can SE, the S500s take a serious step up in fidelity, revealing enough music, to make them worthy of using in this matter.

Just for giggles, we plug the S500s into the $9,500 Octave V16 that is our reference headphone (when not using the Sonoma Model One) amplifier; they produce even more music. Though you probably aren’t going to go for this pairing, it does show off the ultimate ability of these modestly priced phones. With a pair of last generation Apple Ear Buds, they start out flat and stay flat, no matter what you feed them.

Final Points

The S500s do an excellent job keeping ambient sound out of the listening experience. Though not active noise canceling phones, they performed well on a couple of short plane trips, filtering the screaming baby in 22A out of my mobile listening session.

The RHA 500s are top shelf in every way. Sound and build quality is phenomenal, well beyond the price asked. For $40, you should buy five pairs and hand em out to your non-audiophile friends – if this doesn’t get them hooked on stepping their audio game up, nothing will. And if you live in an affluent neighborhood, buy 50 pairs and hand them out next year for trick or treat!

The RHA S500

MSRP: $39.95