MEElectronics A151 is a quality headphone at a reasonable price
Until a few years ago, the in-ear headphone market was split. Generally, $100 or more got you in-ear-canal headphones (or canalphones) that used drivers (miniature speakers) based on balanced-armature technology. This technology has a reputation for being accurate, but also sometimes light on bass and “polite” sounding. (These models often used multiple drivers for more impressive bass dynamics.) If you paid $100 or less, you got canalbud models—essentially a hybrid of canalphones and traditional earbuds—that used dynamic (moving-coil) drivers—miniaturized versions of the cone drivers used in traditional loudspeakers. Dynamic drivers generally produce impressive bass volume and large dynamic swings, but they usually aren’t as accurate as balanced-armature models.
Over the past few years, the line between these types of in-ear headphones have blurred, at least when it comes to driver technology. For example, Future Sonics uses high-quality dynamic drivers in its Atrio ( ) canalphones, while the dynamic drivers in Etymotic’s mc3 canalbuds ( ) are tuned specifically to sound like the company’s high-end balanced-armature models. And some companies, including Apple with its Apple In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic ( ), brought balanced-armature technology to under-$100 headphones.
Thanks to this mingling of technologies and price points, two inexpensive balanced-armature headphones were recently the buzz of the headphone community: MEElectronics’s $75 A151 Balanced Armature In-Ear Headphone and Nox Audio’s $79 Scout. I review the former here; I hope to review the Scout in an upcoming article. (While MEElectronics produces a confusingly wide range of in-ear headphone models—including several models around $20, models with wood or ceramic bodies, and models with tunable bass ports—the A151 is the only model to feature balanced armatures.)
The A151 is a canalphone-style model. Headphones with this design typically fit snugly—and relatively deeply—in your ear canals, blocking most external noise and creating a solid acoustic seal to improve bass performance. The downsides of canalphones are that some people find it tricky to get a proper fit, and you may hear some microphonic cable noise—bumps and scrapes of the cable that are amplified by the headphones’ tight coupling with your ear canals. (See our in-ear headphone primer for more info.)
The A151 has an interesting physical design. A plastic nozzle, held in place by a black-silicone eartip, feeds audio into your ear. (Small, medium, and large single-flange tips, as well as double- and triple-flange options, are included.) The nozzle is attached at an angle to the spherical body of the earpiece, so that the earpieces rest in the folds of your ear. An L-shaped protrusion (with metallic highlights sporting “MEE” branding) exits the earpiece to provide strain relief for the thin, braided headphone cable.
The cable exits the earpieces upward (toward the top of your head), allowing it to be routed behind your ears—an arrangement which reduces cable microphonics. A thin, flexible-plastic cable slider holds the left and right cables together, allowing you to tighten the cable against your head—although during my testing, this slider didn’t always stay in place. The connection at which the left and right cables are permanently joined is surrounded by substantial plastic strain relief. From that point down, the A151 is all cable until you reach the straight, 3.5-mm plug, with a plastic jacket printed with the model number.
The design is largely successful, as it allows for an easy, deep, but comfortable fit for most listeners, while the cable is light and well-behaved, but still resilient. The the largest silicone eartips were a little small for my (admittedly) large ear canals, causing me some hassle in getting a good fit and some discomfort in longer listening sessions; however, I suspect most users won’t have a problem with this. The A151 also includes a semi-rigid, zippered carrying case with a mesh internal pocket.
When it comes to audio, the A151 does little wrong, mostly getting out of the way of the music, rather than trying to add to it. This may sound like faint praise, but it’s actually a high compliment—treble, midrange, and lower frequencies all have good detail and are very well-balanced. The high frequencies are not artificially boosted to make the sound more exciting, and the low frequencies are strong and deep when necessary without being bloated or intrusive. Instruments such as piano that span the frequency spectrum sound particularly good. On the other hand, like most balanced-armature models, bass lacks visceral impact, and the A151’s dynamics didn’t convey the full drama of my test tracks. The A151 also exhibits some of the “polite” character frequently found in balanced-armature models, but this is less of an issue than with some models, such as Apple’s In-Ear Headphones, especially in the bass frequencies.
A comparison with the $99 Etymotic mc3 (which sounds like a balanced-armature model, but isn’t) showed that the A151 has a stronger, more-realistic bass response (and a slight mid-bass bloat I noticed only in direct comparisons), but that the A151 doesn’t match the mc3’s detailed and engrossing midrange and high frequencies. In contrast, the emphasis on bass and high frequencies of Maximo's $80 iP-595 made some tracks sound more exciting, while others sounded less “driven” and thus less exciting (usually an indicator of lower resolution of musical transients). So while the A151 is probably more accurate overall than the iP-595, whether this translates to a better listening experience depends on the track. Notably, though, the mc3 and iP-595 each provide a three-button inline remote and microphone module, whereas the A151 does not offer headset functionality.
Macworld’s buying advice
For $75, the MEElectronics A151 offers balanced-armature technology and the accurate, balanced sound that comes with it. Compared to many balanced-armature models, the A151 offers impressive bass response, but bass impact and dynamics fall short of dynamic-driver models in this price range. However, the A151 doesn’t sacrifice bass performance the way Etymotic’s competing models do, and it doesn’t emphasize bass and high frequencies the way some other competitors do. Overall, the A151 is a strong performer that offers a neutral sound rarely seen at this price.
R. Matthew Ward lives in St. Louis and enjoys the finer things in life: food, drink, Apple products, and well-reproduced music. You can find his thoughts on these and other subjects on his personal blog.