A new contender in the high-end earphone market has entered the ring: Sony's MDR-EX700 sound-isolating earphones (also known as the MDR-EX700LP). These slick black beasts have waltzed up the earphone warpath, shaking their £200 fists at Shure, Ultimate Ears, Etymotic and Denon, and they're on sale now.
Lightweight but sturdy cabling accompanies less conventional-looking earpieces. Compared to many earphones, the EX700's boast larger, circular enclosures. But their design is surprisingly unintrusive and a range of seven differently sized silicon tips ensure a snug fit in the ear canal without exerting too much pressure in the process.
And they're reasonable isolators, too. Okay, they don't block out noise as well as Shure's thick foam or Etymotic's triple-flanged approach, but they're well above average. iPhone users will be further pleased to hear they're also compatible with their phone's annoying recessed headphone socket.
One of the most interesting features of the EX700s is their claimed frequency response range of 4Hz-28,000Hz. To put this into context, Shure's flagship SE530s respond between 18-19,000Hz, Etymotic's hf2s between 20-16,000Hz and Denon's deeply powerful AH-C751s between 12-24,000Hz. Though many, many variables -- such as driver abilities, the seal in the ear canal and quality of recording -- make these figures purely promotional material unless proved to us otherwise.
And we weren't. Not with bass, anyway -- Denon's AH-C751s had significantly deeper, more skull-pounding bass, despite their 'poorer' response range, making bass lines through Pendulum's Tarantula far more prominent through the Denons.
This focus on upper bass, combined with a powerful mid-range, makes the EX700s excellent at driving loud, powerful music -- Sepultura's Ratamahatta, with its array of percussive tribal instrumentation, powerful drums, dirty guitars and intense screaming, hits us with the full force it needs to, without skimping on each instrument's definition.
However, we'll see shortly that these 'phones lack crystalline qualities in the high-end. But when partnered with the upper bass and mid-range strengths, this enables them to deliver a warmth that does nothing but complement many softer numbers, too, such as the beautiful Untitled 3 by Sigur Ros.
As mentioned, we noticed fairly early on during our complete test that Sony's new 'phones are far more concerned with the mid-range than the highs. Jenny Owen Youngs' upbeat Drinking Song lacked the shimmering treble we've heard on other earphones, making it sound like a piece of cloth was placed between the driver and our ears. Tambourines sounded rather damp and cymbals didn't resonate with the sparkle captured in the studio.
Whether or not this is a good or bad thing is very subjective, but it does mean high-end detail is less clear and therefore a mild issue to us. The main thing to consider is if you're prepared to sacrifice some treble for a more enjoyable warmth of tone, the lack of shimmer in the high-end is not likely to be a weakness to you.
This all leads us to conclude that the MDR-EX700s are a powerful and enjoyable pair of earphones, highly suitable for metal, folk and anything to which warmth and power are of paramount importance.
However, fans of dance music should absolutely choose Denon's AH-C751s instead, or for a happy medium between the two, Shure's terrific SE530s, which offer equally balanced lows, mids and highs.