Sony MDR-EX300SLOn first impressions, there are quite a few things to dislike about Sony's earphones. Cable snobs will immediately note that the cable is relatively thin, and that the plug doesn't look as rugged as the ones on the Ultimate Ears or Denon 'phones. What's more, the 0.6m cable is a little too short if you put your player in a trouser pocket or a bag, but too long if you add the supplied 0.9m extension. Luckily, a little plastic winder is provided to take up the slack. Even the design is a little weird, with the earbuds emerging from a magnesium disc-like structure that sits almost vertically in the ear, with the logo facing forward announcing to the world that you're wearing Sony 'phones. Sure, the reinforced nylon case with its slip-out cable winder is handy, but I wasn't particularly excited about these earphones before I turned the music on.
In actual fact, the build quality is perfectly fine; the design seems built around flexibility and discretion rather than in-your-face toughness, and the lightweight earbuds are very comfortable provided you don't lean your head against a hard surface while you're listening (fans of The Smiths, Joy Division and Editors who like to listen to music at the table be warned - don't let your head slump when the glum mood overpowers you).
And the Sony earphones score where it matters most: sound quality. If I were being picky I'd say that the output from the 13.5mm drivers is a little brash in direct A/B comparisons against the Shure SE102's or more expensive Denon and Sennheiser 'phones, and that there are hints of distortion at high volumes. Overall, though, the EX300SL's dish out a strong combination of low-end power, mid-range body, a wide, well-defined soundstage and a superb grasp of detail.
These are good pop performers, working the hard beats, smooth vocals and rich textures of Justin Timberlake's Lovestoned, but also bringing out the old-school synth and drum-machine warmth from Kanye West's Paranoid. They can articulate the rumbling bass of the brooding opener, Closer, from Kings of Leon's Only by the Night, but without muddying up the sound of the slow-building, effects-laden guitars or urgent vocals. Talk Talk's Inheritance yields up instrumental secrets lost to the Denon phones, but without losing the warm, rounded stand-up bass that anchors the track. With Blue in Green you get the full melancholy sound of Miles Davis's trumpet and Cannonball Adderly's saxophone, but you don't lose the rich bass in doing so. And where Smashing Pumpkins' Stand Inside Your Love sounds woolly through the Denons and thin through the Ultimate Ears 'phones, it just sounds surging and powerful through the Sonys.
Let's not get too excited: a £70 pair of single-driver earphones or a good pair of over-the-head cans would still blow the Sonys away for rich tone and textural detail, but for the money you really can't do a lot better. The Shure SE102's have a definite edge on rockier material, but these are a versatile pair of earphones, and a set I'd be happy to use myself, for all the oddities of the design.
The sound is slightly too brash for audiophile tastes, but as a pair of inexpensive earphones for everyday use these take some beating.