- Manufacturer & Model
- RBH Sound EP3 Noise Isolating Earphone
Solid bass, flat mids, smooth highs, detail you can really dig into to. A range of ear pieces to fit any ear size. Four-conductor plug for Android or Apple device compatibility.
The EP3 is a single-driver earphone design from RBH Sound in Utah. Supplied ear pieces fit almost any ear size for a comfortable fit and listening privacy. Sonic performance is absolutely first-rate. Finally an earphone to love rather than tolerate.
My Personal $100 Earphone Quest
The first in-ear headphones, or earphones, that I purchased years ago for around $100 were shrill and disappointing. And they were made by a prominent European headphone manufacturer whose name I have long trusted. Numerous brief trials in the meantime have fared no better. Then I tried out a pair of RBH earphones at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) last year. They had possibility. And last December while visiting family I borrowed a set of recently-purchased earphones made by a popular personal media device company. They also seemed worthy of serious consideration. Maybe it was time to discover a favorite earphone.
A major plumbing job followed by a household move this year forced me to pack up my reference speakers and listening gear for what turned into an extended hiatus. So when RBH Sound reduced the price of their top earphone models from $139 (at the time) per set to under $100, sweetening the offer with a 30-day evaluation period and free shipping, it was time to take the earphone plunge.
Many speaker manufacturers have begun marketing headphones in recent years, and the number who now offer earphones is suddenly exploding. RBH Sound is a maker of high-end and specialty speakers from Utah, one of a few such companies still owned by its founder. The team at RBH insists on designing and engineering all of their offerings, a more ambitious undertaking than it sounds. Their mission - to "Redefine the Way You Experience Sound" - is in evidence in their earphone products, the only RBH products I have experience with to date.
RBH's EP2 (left) and EP3 (right) earphone models
Not yet remembering that the EP3 is RBH’s most recent earphone model, I first ordered the RBH EP2, the more efficient of their two top models at 101 dB efficiency. Its sound did not quite tickle my fancy. They offered flat bass response, which I generally prefer, but a sharp peak in the 8 to 10 kHz region was not at all what I was looking for. So I ordered the EP3 (95 dB efficiency) for comparison. Efficiency is not typically a major consideration with headphones and earphones. With speakers, high efficiency translates to low distortion, and lower efficiency to flatter frequency response. While I never heard any evidence of distortion with either RBH model, there is no doubt that the EP3 has a flatter response through the high frequencies.
Then a competing model’s price dropped to the under-$100 point, and it was ordered for further comparison. For this review, the competing set will be referred to as Earphone #3. That model will be reviewed separately at a later date. With street sale prices hovering around $100, it seemed a reasonable expectation that the three models in hand would compare favorably.
The RBH EP3 is a noise isolating design. A compressible foam tip forms the seal in the ear and helps keep out external sound disturbances, making solid bass possible. This tip, made of a memory-foam-like material, is easy to squish down between one’s fingers, and slowly expands back toward normal size once inserted in the ear canal. The chosen tip size has to be large enough to provide a snug expanded fit in the individual listener’s ear. This requires a deep insertion into the ear canal and light pressure from the expanded material. The occasional user might find this fit uncomfortable, but most will not. RBH supplies each EP3 with several sizes of regular silicon tips and two sizes of Comply-brand foam tips.
In the end, tip choice was driven by personal preference, with my middle-ear dimensions being a big factor. I have no hesitation in stating what those preferences were, and in stating how they affected the choice, but emphasize that deciding on a favorite earphone will be a highly personal decision, and many will arrive at a different end-point than I did.
The RBH EP3 earphone
I have tried many different earphone models in recent years, and have found very few that I enjoyed hearing at all, much less considered purchasing for my own use. By the time this evaluation experiment began, there were only two recent models that I cared for, the RBH model at RMAF 2016, and the earphones that I borrowed over the last winter holidays. Seeing the RBH models on sale at almost 1/3 off their normal price, and having my speaker-based listening setup stuck in Relocation Neverland, the time was right for some serious headphone time, and a need not satisfied by any of the headphone models on hand was that of being able to lie down and listen with my head on a pillow comfortably. This does not work at all with most headphones. Earphones to the rescue.
The RBH EP2 and EP3 are both single-driver designs, and the comparison Earphone #3 model contains 3 drivers. The original two models offered by RBH were the EP1 and EP2, with the EP1 being a budget model at around $50 per. I chose not to bother with the lower-priced EP1 and went straight for the EP2. The EP2's design looks more modern than the EP3, with an angled ferrule and metal housing versus the EP3’s straight ferrule and ceramic housing, but the EP3 is actually the most recent in-ear design from RBH, containing their latest technology advances. Both models came with an assortment of earpieces, some regular silicon and some of the compliant-foam design. In both cases, it was the largest of the compliant-foam ear pieces that fit best for me, and this was supplied with both of the RBH models (this refers to the outside diameter and depth of the earpiece).
No Seal, No Sale.
Issues with getting a good earphone seal are not minor. In fact, it is now my opinion that they are the most critical issues for an earphone design. As I discovered, the company that resolves them for the user might end up being the winner in getting a sale. No Seal, No Sale. Another competing design just received recently for evaluation contained no tips that gave a good seal for my ears, and a call to that company’s customer service got little more than a shrug. That product got returned. No Seal, No Sale.
The RBH EP2, the first of the three that I ordered to try out, was sonically unacceptable to me. That peak at 10 kHz caused a biting shrillness for sounds with much high-frequency content, and it only took a minute of use for me to decide the EP2 was not my cup of tea.
I immediately ordered the EP3, and (in the process) realized that it was the more recent model from RBH, and probably the one that I had actually heard at RMAF 2016. Although low bass is a little bit emphasized with the EP3, where it had been very flat with the EP2, it was the high-frequency voicing that really caught my attention. There is no shrill peak at 10 kHz at all, and instead there is a very slight emphasis at 4.5 kHz. It would not take me very long to fall in love with that little peak at 4.5 kHz. More on that later. The bass emphasis was smooth and not enough to be off-putting.
Starting with the design, I like the visual aspects of the angled ferrule design used for the EP2 and Earphone #3. It just looks more modern. In addition, these models are both made with metal bodies. The EP3, with its ceramic body and straight ferrule, has the appearance of an older design, almost a retro look. The cable material used for the two RBH models is a tangle-proof plastic, which I like very much, although the fabric cable use for Earphone #3 was perfectly acceptable as well. All three models have a mic and remote control buttons built into the cable. All three models also ship with a 4-conductor 3.5 mm connector which can plug straight into your smartphone. Keep an eye on the diameter of the connector body for such a connector, as many of the protective cases that fit on smartphones will not accommodate one that is very large. All three of these fit easily with the case for my LG G5.
Now, let's talk about the earpiece seal and bass response. With my large ear canal, I had to use the largest available earpiece seals for the RBH models. Each of the three models under discussion came with a variety of silicon and memory phone compliant ear seals. Earphone #3 wins with the greatest variety of sizes, although none were large enough for my ears. RBH claims a noise-isolating design, meaning a longer foam tip is used to give a better noise isolation seal. The length of the fattest compliant foam tip for Earphone #3, while the same outer diameter, was a little bit shorter, and did not quite give a proper seal for me.
The EP3's tangle proof cable features a multi-functional mic module
Here I will add that when trying the EP3 at RMAF 2016, one of the reps from RBH took the time to help me get properly fit with the largest Comply tips for a good seal with the EP3. If not for that, I might have walked on and not been interested. But with the proper fit, the bass response was good and the model seemed worthy of an evaluation. Using the right diameter tip and getting it properly seated are two factors that will make or break the bass response for every user. Do not judge an earphone without getting that seal right. Neither of these is a trivial matter, but the fate of an earphone evaluation rests on the success of these factors for each individual. Don't take shortcuts here. No seal no sale.
As an aside, here is a repeatable technique for placing the earphones into the ear canals:
- Brush the hair out of the way on the right side, then left.
- Gently squish down the foam tip on the right and place it in ear canal, then check that no stray hair got caught in the seal, then do the same on the left.
- Reach behind the head with the left arm to grasp the right outer ear and pull it back so that the right earpiece can be pushed deeply and properly seated in the middle ear canal. Then do the same on the opposite side.
- Check symmetry, by touch with the fingers on both sides, and by the feel in the ear and by listening for any difference between the rustling sound while positioning the tip within the ear canal.
- Start up a track and listen for even, centered bass, centered vocals, and balanced soundstage and imaging (SS&I).
As mentioned, the EP2 vs. EP3 difference in bass response had me favoring EP2's flatter bass profile. If that had been the only difference, the EP2 might have been my choice. Earphone #3 seemed a little bit weak in bass response. This turned out to be a result of the shorter ear tip design (the seal was simply not as good).
Curiosity got the better of me, and before long the tips from the EP2 were installed on Earphone #3, a move made possible by the matching ferrule diameters. With that change, I found that Earphone #3 now had stronger bass, very flat and smooth as with the EP2, and that the high frequencies seemed slightly smoother and the soundstage and imaging a little more natural and even. Upon close inspection, it appears that the longer tip design spaces the end of the ferrule slightly further away from the eardrum, and that slightly greater distance helps the listener get better consistency in the seating of the earpieces. Getting that seating proper and getting the distance to the eardrum consistent, I am now convinced, is very important with earphone designs.
I even dug up a pair of earphones that had been sent to me for evaluation a couple of years ago (I could never get a good seal with these earphones and chose not to review it for that reason). I then borrowed tips from one of the newer models and found it to be a very good design, with flat bass response and smooth high frequency response. Too bad, they might have been a favorite long ago if I could have achieved an acceptable seal back then. No seal...
A minor point, the EP2 and Earphone #3 use a smaller-diameter ferrule than the EP3, and I found it harder to install and work with the earpieces on those models. With the EP3. the seal simply snapped into place. Not a huge factor since one will usually settle upon a desirable earpiece and stick with it, but a factor I appreciated.
Earphone #3, with the borrowed noise-seal earpieces, almost became my favorite. It had a very smooth high-end and no shrillness (as is often found with earphones). But the 4.5 kHz voicing peak from the EP3 was replaced by a very slight depression in the same frequency band, slight, but noticeable and very important.
With headphones and earphones, the frequency range above 3 kHz becomes quite irregular due to hearing sensitivity and the shape of the ear and its interaction with the headphone. Many headphone manufacturers choose to solve that problem by holding back on that part of the frequency range (around 3 to 5 kHz), claiming a voicing choice to reduce listener fatigue. And this it does, but at the sacrifice of detail in the music. The engineers at RBH chose to emphasize that part of the frequency range ever-so-slightly to get that detail delivered to the listener. Bravo, guys, and thank you!
The EP3 and Earphone #3 both received serious evaluation time. Here begins the battle of the personal preferences. Flatter bass? Or the slight 4.5 kHz emphasis of the EP3? In this case the bass emphasis with the EP3 was mild, and therefore very tolerable. This factor ended up taking back seat to the main decision point for me which was the upper-mid emphasis at 4.5 kHz. Again, the contrast was minor, and might not have been noticed at all if not for direct A-B comparisons. It was a crucial difference, however, and the EP3 soon became my favorite. It was a very easy choice.
The more time I spent with the EP3, the more attached that became to that slight emphasis at 4.5 kHz. Anything but strident, it was as though the vibrations in that range became little Sonic Messengers of Truth, delivering the inner secrets of a given track. I felt I had become an insider, being made privy by these vibrations to sonic details that others were missing out on. The breath of a female vocalist, the character of a plucked guitar string, the rich nature of a synthesizer tone. The vast reverberant spaces often used in electronic music became even more immense and yet more boldly intimate at the same time. The EP3 delivered a wide-awake sound in contrast to the accurate but drowsy voicing of the competition.
I would switch to Earphone #3 and enjoy them for awhile. They are a strong little pair of earphones. But in a few moments I would start to wonder what I was missing, what was being left out in that one little frequency band? Then I would switch back to the EP3, play the same track again, and hear the secrets within the sounds of the song. Oh, yes, there it is. More than once I was delighted at the difference that choice of voicing for the EP3 made for me. After a few days and many A-B changes between the EP3 and Earphone #3, and the tendency to feel I was being deprived of something special unless I was listening with EP3, those comparisons became shorter and less frequent and the EP3 became my earphone.
With the slightly emphasized bass and the 4.5 kHz emphasis, I tended to listen with the EP3 at a somewhat lower volume setting than I might have otherwise. Since I listened for hours at a time with the EP3, and more than once fell asleep with them playing away, that was probably a good thing.
Here are a few tracking details:
deadmau5, “I Remember” (Vocal Mix)
Haley Gibby’s airy vocals on this dance track feel like they are being partly sung and partly whispered in your ear with the EP3.
deadmau5, Chris James, “The Veldt” (8 Minute Edit)
This track just explodes with detail on the EP3. The richness of the opening synth tone, the delivery of Chris James’s vocals with smooth crispness, the snap of the hand claps, and the rounded tinkle of the rhythmic background synth tone that arpeggiates its way to prominence in the middle section, all are presented like a special gift by the EP3, “Bet you didn’t notice this before!” If earphones could be excited about the exciting detail they are delivering, the EP3 might literally be the funnest little earphones around. Zimmerman’s propensity to allow the brightness of a tone to grow into place over a 16- or 32-bar progression receives special emphasis through that EP3 voicing peak.
David Bowie, “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance” (1999 Remastered Versions)
Robert Fripp’s background guitar work stands out with new clarity on the EP3. Let’s dance also sings with crisp clarity. Almost every familiar track I tried sounded fresh on the EP3.
Mutemath, “Everything’s New,” “Achilles Heel”
The first track’s title becomes the theme for listening with the EP3. Paul Meany’s vocals are clear beyond clear. “Achilles Heel” contains intentionally distorted tones. Modern mixes often use distortion on vocals and individual parts while leaving others clean and clear, and the EP3 makes them easy to tell apart. Darker synth tones are common on this album and also disappear from time to time with some listening devices. Whether distorted or dark, the EP3 points out all the “tells” that help you keep them tonally and intentionally sorted out and straight. Nothing disappears. Archaeologists of tone, the EP3 keep the dust, distortion, and darkness brushed away and at bay so we can appreciate the artifacts in the music before us. The psychoacoustical brain even manages to fill in some phantom chest thumps from the low drums on these tracks. Pretty good for earphones.
Atoms For Peace, “Before Your Very Eyes”
There are background sounds I have never noticed before on this track. Such a discovery is a testament to the detail-revealing power of the EP3.
Arvo Part, “Summa”
Stringed instruments beware, the detail of your souls will be left bare by these little earphones. Even the notes from the double bass, for all their depth, sound fresh and light on the EP3. SS&I are really a treat with the EP3. Within moments after placing them and starting a track, their presentation feels as in-the-room natural as any headphone or earphone I have worked with. I have hesitated to say this, as it seems an extreme statement, but this string track was the final convincer of its truth. I will add that sharp imaging is an important contributor to being able to catch fine details and subtle background effects and sounds that might otherwise be masked out. Left-right driver matching is a key to sharp imaging, and RBH’s design and quality teams are to be complemented, yet again, for the success of the EP3 in this regard.
For the last two tracks, I also hooked up a headphone amp from FiiO, their little E06, wondering if the low output impedance and stronger drive capability would make a difference with the EP3. I did not notice one. Beware that backwards compatibility of 4-conductor device connectors and 3-conductor jacks is far from perfect, as it is going the other way from 3-conductor jacks into 4-conductor connectors. I keep a few “headset buddy” adapters around for converting in either direction should there be a problem - one or both channels cutting out, or two channels seemingly out of phase or in mono, are problems that can vex the user unaware of this potential. The three-conductor cable connecting my LG G5 to the FiiO E06 needed the adapter mentioned.
The $100 range for earphones is becoming crowded with competition, leaving no shortage for consumers to choose from. The wide-awake delivery of the EP3 is refreshing yet refrains from becoming brash, and the model from RBH Sound stands out as an offering that should be seriously considered by earphone fans or those who are soon to be (just TRY to resist!). Once a dedicated non-owner of earphones, I now listen almost daily with my RBH EP3 Noise Isolating Earphones, and recommend them highly.
EP3 Noise Isolating Earphone Specifications
- Driver Size: 8mm Dynamic Dome
- Impedance: 16 Ohms
- Frequency Range: 10Hz~20KHz
- Sensitivity: 95dB
- Noise Isolation: 16dB w/Comply™ Foam Tips
- Input Connection: 3.5mm Mini-jack
- Cable Length: 1.2m (±0.03m)
- Color: Ceramic/Gloss Black
- Warranty: 90 Days (excluding Comply Tips)
- Package Contents: Includes 1 pair of EP3 earphones, 1 set of Comply™ isolation tips (black T-200 medium - attached to earphones), 1 set of Comply™ isolation tips (black T-200 large), 1 set of silicone ear cushions in small, medium and large, cord clip, carry pouch, and owner’s manual.
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