Lately we’ve been reviewing all sorts of high-end audio gear which we can't complain about, but it also means that these gadgets come with a hefty wallet-draining price tag to match. So we think it’s time for something a little more affordable, and it just so happens that British audio brand, RHA, has come out with a brand-new pair of in-ear headphones at a very attractive price. These aren't just another cheap and inexpensive pair though, the super tiny S500i are as premium as some of the most expensive in-ear headphones on the market when it comes to styling, build quality and sound - only at a budget friendly $50 price point. But are they any better than one of our all-time favorite in-ear headphones under the $200 mark – the $89 NS500 made by the Swedish audio brand Nocs?
For a pair of $50 in-ears you certainly get a lot for your money. Even before we get into the meat and potatoes, the S500i come decked out with a few goodies inside to set you on the straight and narrow. Inside the box you'll find a very nice drawstring pouch to safely store your shiny new headphones, a shirt clip to stabilize the cable running down your body should you choose to use it, as well as a large selection of silicone ear tips. Although there's no shortage of ear tips sizes to choose from, it would have been real nice if RHA included some foam tips as well. Even though we're not sponsored by this brand in any way, we always advocate using a set of Comply foam tips for superior sound isolation and fitting. Pro tip: the S500i are compatible with the Comply T-200 tips.
What the S500i has going for it is as clear as daylight. I'm of course talking about that svelte, tiny form factor. Each in-ear is machined out of solid aluminum, which in person, looks a lot more like titanium due to the darker, almost gunmetal shade of the colorway used for the S500i. At a side profile you can see the S500i's distict, angular design that is also in the shape of a very compact cylinder. Looking closely you can see that these feature a fine brushed textured finish giving off quite an attractive technical aesthetic that I can very much appreciate at such an affordable price.
And the way that these fit into your ears is simply phenomenal in that not only do they seemingly disappear when worn due to their tiny size, but the round silicone tips create a great tight seal that’s really secure and just feels so comfortable. Of course with the crazy amount of tip sizes, you’ll have to pick and choose the size that’s right for you. That said, the standard tips pre-fitted should already fit most people’s ears just perfectly. The dual-flanged tips of example did not fit me correctly as they are too small for me personally, and only one size is included whereas the rest of the tip sizes are all uniformly rounded. You can also see that the casings are both laser etched with legible left and right indicators for quick and easy identification for how to correctly wear them.
The build quality is phenomenal, and I’m really impressed by it. For a pair of inexpensive in-ear headphones the RHA S500i are some really well made pieces. From the solid aluminum housings, the hybrid rubber and fabric woven cable, and all the way down to the material-coordinated 3-button remote and slim audio plug.
Smaller in-ear headphones means less tug and pull when you're wearing them, which increases comfort as well as affording a securer fit inside your ears. Aside from that though, the S500i simply fade away when you're carrying them, so there's less of a reason not, whenever and wherever it is that you go. Now as much as the in-ears themselves are small and lightweight, the cable attached to them is easily as important when it comes to weight and usability. A heavy, bulky cable can ruin the experience if not properly designed with user comfort and wearability during intensive activities in mind. Where the Nocs NS500 feature a robust, flat cable with a weighty presence that can at times rub against your body to the point where it can become somewhat of a nuisance, the cable of the S500i is impressively unique and as lightweight as it can get without having to sacrifice durability. What RHA has done differently is use a braided fabric cord terminated by this wonderfully made, slim 3.5mm connector while the rest of the cable splits into a thinner rubbery cord leading to each of the in-ear headphones.
The in-line 3-button remote and microphone built-into the S500i model (RHA S500 is the remote-free variant) offers standard features like volume adjustment, play/pause/skip, call answer/end, and Siri interaction. Buttons have a disguise able design that make it easy to feel for what you're pressing and overall I didn't find the remote itself too bulky or heavy on the cable. The buttons work beautifully too and offer a fair amount of tactile feedback when pressed. And like the in-ears themselves, it's also made out of solid aluminum with a layer of rubberized buttons integrated into the cylindrical casing. It's worth noting that the microphone does a really good job picking up your voice loudly and clearly without any interference so you can be heard cleanly and clearly to your callers.
What I like most about good looking, impressively made in-ear headphones is that they also sound as good as they look and feel. And as soon as I listened to the S500i I thought they sounded great, but something was missing. The sound signature is very bright and on the treble-heavy side, so things sound amazingly clear throughout the highs/mids/lows. But that’s the thing, bass is somewhat lacking and the S500i barely produce a truly deep low-end bass compared to the Nocs NS500, which have the S500i beat as they produce a fuller audio experience. That said, the S500i are still very capable considering their price tag and offer a tight sounding mid-bass that is never overpowering. They produce crystal clear sound with an acceptable amount of bass that I’m sure a lot of people will find satisfactory - except for bassheads that is.
It’s also worth noting just how much bulkier the NS500 are in comparison, and the fact they also cost twice as much and have a heavier cable doesn’t make them as attractive next to the S500i after all.
The RHA S500i offer a lot of value for money. And considering just how small they are, they deliver an impressive audio performance without any significant compromises. Should you buy RHA’s S500i? If you’ve got $50 in your pocket waiting to be spent on a fresh set of quality in-ear headphones, you should definitely pick up a pair. And if you can live without a remote and microphone features, RHA's S500 is an even cheaper, stripped-down alternative to the S500i. You’ll be hard pressed to find something that will offer what the S500i have put down for you to pick up. You’ll be happy you bent over this time, that’s for sure.