RBH Sound recently launched a follow-up to its popular EP1 and EP2 in-ear monitors. The new EP3 has been completely redesigned to offer improved performance, comfort, and noise isolation. The new 8mm dynamic driver elements are now housed in a ceramic casing, which RBH chose for its light weight and neutral acoustic properties. The goal was to extend the earphones' frequency response on both ends of the spectrum--in the bass and high frequencies. Each casing is finished in a glossy black, with an RBH logo etched on the end. The EP3 also has a new tangle-free cable that features fabric wrapped in a composite plastic. The EP3's MSRP is $179; however, these in-ear monitors are available right now for an introductory price of $99, and the final street price will likely be somewhere between the two.
RBH includes a variety of ear cushions: three sizes of silicone tips and two Comply foam options. The EP3 comes with the smaller-sized T-200 Comply tips attached; while I experimented briefly with the silicone tips, the T-200s proved to be the best choice for me, both in their comfort and performance. Because this is an in-ear design, fit is crucial to getting the best performance, particularly in the bass region. The supplied User's Manual gives some advice for getting the best fit with the Comply or silicone tips. For the Comply tips, you should compress the foam, then quickly pull your ear back a bit, insert the earphone, let go of your ear, and hold the earphone in place for a moment while the foam expands to provide the best seal. For me, following these instructions made for a great fit: the EP3 stayed in place in my ear, and I found its lightweight housing to be very comfortable for extended listening sessions. My reference headphones are the B&W P7 over-the-ear headphones; and, while they are the most comfortable over-the-ear headphones I've ever worn, it still gets a bit fatiguing to keep them on for a really long time. Not so with the EP3. It's easy to put them in and forget about them...
Well, except for the noise isolation, that is. You'll notice that. RBH claims 16 dB of noise reduction when using the Comply tips, and indeed they provided a great seal in my ear that allowed for very effective noise isolation--great for a noisy airplane, train, bus, or gym, but perhaps a little too effective for situations where you want some environmental awareness. I used the EP3 several times while walking my dog, and I felt too isolated from outside noise cues (like other barking dogs that might get mine all riled up). Of course, you aren't gonna get the perfect noise-isolating seal that's possible with a more expensive custom-molded in-ear monitor, but these are quite effective in allowing you to escape into your music when you want to.
The EP3's sensitivity is listed at 95 dB, and its impedance is 16 ohms. With the headphones connected directly to my laptops and iPhone 6, I was able to drive the EP3 in-ears to louder volume levels than I'm comfortable with, although I can't speak to your tastes. I got a little bit more volume when I added my Sony PHA-2 headphone amp to the mix, but it wasn't a huge difference. Most of my evaluation tracks were full-resolution AIFF files stored on my MacBook Pro and iPhone 6, with some 24/96 FLAC files downloaded from HDTracks and played through VLC on a PC. I also auditioned many lower-res MP3s and streamed content from Pandora to see how the EP3 fared with lower-fidelity content.
The first thing to jump out at me about the EP3's performance was the bass, which was more pronounced than that of my B&W P7 over-the-ear models. Is that good? It depends on your preference. The EP3 may serve up more bass than some audiophiles would prefer, but I found the quality of the bass to be excellent. With tracks like Tom Waits' "Long Way Home," Steve Earle's "Goodbye," and Ani DiFranco's "Little Plastic Castle"--tracks where the bass can easily turn to boomy mush and overpower the rest of the audio presentation--the EP3 maintained good control and definition on the low end. Although I never reviewed the RBH EP1, Brent Butterworth did, and he prefers the more restrained and defined bass of the new EP3 compared with its predecessor.
At the same time, the EP3 produced a solid sense of space, and the midrange male vocals in the tracks above had a nice richness and texture to them. Compared with the very polite P7, the EP3's highs were crisper and more upfront, but not in a harsh or overly sterile way. Tracks like Chris Cornell's "Seasons" and Junior Kimbrough's "Junior's Place" that can veer toward the overly bright end of the spectrum remained pleasantly listenable even at higher volumes. Perhaps if the midrange and bass were more anemic, this high-frequency extension would be problematic, but RBH has done a nice job of creating a balanced presentation that allows the EP3 to perform well with a variety of music types, from rock to classical to blues to jazz. I found myself just jumping around my iTunes collection, auditioning music tracks of all genres and compression levels--from Rage Against the Machine to Rachmaninov to Afro Celt Sound System to Fleetwood Mac--and being very happy with the performance I heard from these in-ear monitors.
The EP3 includes an in-line mic/controller unit that has a single-button design. RBH says functionality varies depending on your smartphone. With my iPhone 6, one button push will pause/play music or answer/end a phone call, two button pushes will advance to the next track (there's no track-reverse), and press-and-hold launches Siri. Since it's a one-button design, there are obviously no up/down volume controls.
I'm someone who's notoriously bad about caring for my earbuds. I seldom take the time to roll them up and put them away properly. In my laziness, I just throw them in my purse or backpack, then I curse myself later when I'm trying to untangle the mess I've made. The EP3's tangle-free cable delivered on its promise--sure, the cable got wrapped around itself at times, but a gentle shake generally loosened and untangled everything.
• The EP3 offers well-balanced performance--with clean, crisp highs, a solid midrange, and controlled bass--and they are easy to drive directly from a mobile device.
• The EP3 has a lightweight ceramic housing and comes with Comply tips that provide good noise isolation and are comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
• If you own an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, you may have noticed that third-party headphone plugs don't always fit quite right, causing static and interruptions in music playback. RBH addresses this issue by including tiny stabilizing spacers with the EP3 to ensure a secure fit between the EP3's plug and the phone jack.
• The tangle-free cord works well, and the decision to cover the fabric in plastic makes the cable less noisy when it rubs against clothing, etc. RBH also includes a leather carrying pouch and a cord clip in the package.
• The in-line mic/controller allows you to answer phone calls, control music playback, and even activate Siri if you have a compatible iPhone.
• Fit is crucial to performance, and it may take some experimentation and patience with the different ear cushions to find the ideal fit for your ears. Naturally, you won't get the perfectly tailored fit that's possible with a pair of custom-molded in-ear monitors, like the Ultimate Ears products we've reviewed in the past. But those products cost a whole lot more than the EP3.
• The in-line mic/controller des not include track-reverse or volume control.
Comparison & Competition
Needless to say, there are a ton of in-ear options between $99 and $150, so I turned to headphone experts Brent Butterworth and Lauren Dragan of The Wirecutter for a recommendation of three or four worthy competitors to the EP3. The Wirecutter currently has the Beyerdynamic MMX 102iE as the best $100 in-ear headphone, which appears to be very similar to the EP3 in form and features. Brent mentioned the Sony XBA-H1 and Phiaton MS 100 BA as other competitive in-ear designs that sell for $150 or less. The Brainwavz S5 in-ear monitor is another compelling choice around the $100 price point.
RBH's new EP3 in-ear monitor hits all the right notes, combining excellent performance with great comfort, effective noise isolation, and good build quality in a reasonably priced package. The EP3's well-balanced audio presentation and easy-to-drive nature gives it the versatility to suit most types of music and playback devices. At $179 MSRP, the EP3 is a compelling entry. At the $99 introductory price, it's a steal. That price won't last much longer, though; so, if this review has piqued your interest, you might want to act fast.
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