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Earbud-style headphones are ultracompact and extremely portable, but most offer substandard sound and don't fit well. Sony's Fontopia MDR-EX71SL, listed at $50 (but widely available for less), is one of the few earbud models that rise above the fray, demolishing the low-cost competition by delivering solid sonics and a supercomfy fit. Long available in black and silver, you can now get the EX71SLs in iPod-friendly white.
To its credit, Sony ships the little EX71SL with a small earbud holder. Putting the headphones in it protects the earpieces from grime but leaves the cord hanging loose. To reduce tangle potential, you can place the holder and the cable inside the larger included carrying case, which has about the same dimensions as a pager. While competing models have headbands that can collapse to fairly small sizes, most don't come with a hard, travel-ready case like the EX71SLs do.
The MDR-EX71SLs have an over-the-shoulders/behind-the-neck cord design (one side longer than the other); we like it, but some find it annoying. A greater concern is the earbuds' too-short 1.5-foot cable. It's augmented by an included 3.3-foot extension cord, but when paired together, the resulting cable is almost five feet in length--way too long even for most NBA stars. If you have an iPod (or any other portable player) with an in-line remote, however, the EX71SL likely will be a perfect fit. Otherwise, check out the MDR-EX51LP models, which feature a single 4-foot cord and are available in a variety of colors.
The comparatively large, rigid drivers of typical earbuds fit in your ears too tightly yet fall out at the slightest tug of the cord. That's not the case with the EX71SL. Its small (9mm) drivers have flexible silicon pads that mold to the shape of your ear canal for a comfortable but snug fit. Sony supplies two sets of the pads in slightly different sizes. But while the EX71SL is one of your best bets for earbud comfort and will certainly be fine for use on a StairMaster or a bike, we can't totally endorse it for jogging. The earpieces tended to slip out whenever we broke into a hard run.
With sealed driver casings that help block out background noise, the EX71SL offers better sound isolation than vented models. However, if you want an even more effective barrier between your ears and the environment, consider Sony's MDR-NC11, which employs active noise cancellation and has similar silicon pads.
We tested the EX71SL with both our MP3 player and our laptop by playing Outkast's CD, The Love Below. Featuring 100dB sensitivity, the headphones provided adequate volume and didn't easily distort when we cranked the music. On the "Love Hater" track's jazzy piano line and vocals, the EX71SL delivered slightly bright but not overemphasized treble. The song's deep electronic-bass line was reasonably present, proving that these earbuds supply considerably more bass than most of their kind, though plenty of portable over-the-ear models trump the EX71SL in this department. Some, such as Sony's MDR-G72, also sound airier and generally a little better, but the EX71SL does create a relatively three-dimensional sound field.
In the final analysis, the EX71SL's slick, comfy design and good sonics make it a solid choice for anybody looking for premium earbuds at a fairly reasonable price. Yes, there are better-sounding models, such as Shure's E3c, but those are considerably more expensive. If you can't afford them, this Sony is the next best thing.