But as with a sleeper car, it's what's hiding under the hood--or, in this case, inside the earpieces--that counts, and the A161p features balanced-armature drivers, a type of miniature speaker used in many high-end headphones. The actual driver is from the Knowles ED series, a family of drivers found in well-respected (and generally more expensive) models from other companies. That makes the A161p potentially a great bargain, but, to continue the car analogy, you don't know whether a nice engine makes car a perform well until you take it on the track.
On the track
Balanced-armature drivers are known for their relatively neutral frequency response, with approximately equal amounts of bass, midrange, and treble frequencies. But they can also sound overly polite, whereas dynamic drivers sometimes sound more exciting and, well, dynamic. I found that to be the case with another balanced-armature model from MEElectronics, the $75 A151 (4 of 5 rating)--I liked the A151's relatively flat frequency response, but I thought it was unexciting at times, and I missed the bass impact you frequently get from dynamic drivers.
In contrast, I found little to complain about with the A161p. Bass--even lower bass--was not only present, but convincing. There's a case to be made that the A161p might benefit from a slight bass bump (this is arguably true for all headphones, because they don't move the air in the room the way full-size speakers do), but otherwise, bass performance was almost beyond reproach.
Midrange and high-frequency performance was similarly impressive. Both were clear and detailed, with no high-frequency harshness on good recordings. Instruments were clearly separated in the mix, making it easy to pick out individual parts of a song, as well as the instrumental textures of those parts. Overall, the A161p's sound was clear, detailed, and natural. The only thing I can really say against it is that if you spend more money (probably a lot more money), you can get higher-end, multi-driver canalphones with sound that is even clearer and more natural. But I don't believe you can find substantially better sound near the A161p's price.
In terms of the A161P's microphone performance, I found the mic to sound a bit distant compared to the one in Apple's EarPods (which offers the best sound I've heard from an inline microphone module). However, vocals captured by the A161P's microphone were nevertheless smooth and natural, avoiding some of the harshness that I heard in the EarPods. Overall, the A161P's microphone offers solid performance.
As I stated, the A161p is a significantly better performer than the A151. The A161P's more aggressive (but not overdone) bass balance makes a big difference, but the A151 also just sounds somewhat veiled and distant in comparison. I also compared the A161P to another long-time favorite, the $99 Etymotic mc3 (4.5 of 5 rating).
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