Earbud-style headphones are ultra-compact and extremely portable, but most offer substandard sound and don't fit well. Sony's Fontopia MDR-EX71SLs, listed at £35 (but widely available for less), are one of the few earbud models that rise above the fray, demolishing the low-cost competition by delivering solid sonics and a super-comfy fit. You can now get the EX71SLs in iPod-friendly white as well as in black and silver.
To its credit, Sony ships the little EX71SLs with a small earbud holder. Putting the headphones in this protects the earpieces from grime but leaves the cord hanging loose. To reduce tangle potential, you can place the holder and the cable inside the larger included carrying case, which has about the same dimensions as a small mobile phone. While competing models have headbands that can collapse to fairly small sizes, most don't come with a hard, travel-ready case like the EX71SLs.
The EX71SLs have an over-the-shoulders/behind-the-neck cord design (one side longer than the other) -- we like it, but some find it annoying. A greater concern is the cable, which is too short at just under half a metre. It is augmented by an included 1m extension cord, but when fitted together, the resulting cable is almost 1.5m in length -- far too long. If you have an iPod (or any other portable player) with an in-line remote, however, the EX71SLs are likely to be a perfect fit. Otherwise, have a look at the MDR-EX51LPs, which feature a single 1.2m cord and are available in a variety of colours.
The comparatively large, rigid drivers of typical earbuds fit in your ears too tightly yet fall out at the slightest tug of the cord. That's not the case with the EX71SLs. Their small (9mm) drivers have flexible silicon pads that mould to the shape of your ear for a comfortable but snug fit. Sony supplies two sets of the pads in slightly different sizes. But while the EX71SLs are one of your best bets for earbud comfort and will certainly be fine for use on a bike, they are not entirely suitable for jogging. The earpieces tended to slip out whenever we broke into a hard run.
With sealed driver casings that help block out background noise, the EX71SLs offers better sound isolation than vented models. However, if you want an even more effective barrier between your ears and the environment, consider Sony's MDR-NC11s, which employ active noise cancellation and have similar silicon pads.
We tested the EX71SLs with both our MP3 player and our laptop by playing Outkast's CD, The Love Below. Featuring 100dB sensitivity, the headphones provided adequate volume and didn't easily distort when we turned up the music. On the Love Hater track's jazzy piano line and vocals, the EX71SLs delivered slightly bright but not overemphasised treble. The song's deep electronic-bass was reasonably clear, proving that these earbuds supply considerably more bass than most of their kind, though plenty of portable over-the-ear models trump the EX71SLs in this department. Some, such as Sony's MDR-G72s, also sound airier and generally a little better, but the EX71SLs do create a three-dimensional sound field.
In the final analysis, the EX71SLs' slick, comfy design and good sonics make them a solid choice for anybody looking for premium earbuds at a fairly reasonable price. Yes, there are better-sounding models, such as Shure's E3cs, but those are considerably more expensive. If you can't afford them, this Sony option is the next best thing.Additional editing by Elizabeth Griffin