We just met with Sony at its New York City store on Madison Ave. in Midtown, and boy did it have some excellent news for in-ear headphone lovers. While sitting down in the PlayStation Lounge, we briefly demoed nearly every piece of its lineup of XBA balanced armature intra-aurals, which if you'll recall, were announced for parts of Asia back in September. While the 11-model lineup, ranging from standard buds to Bluetooth and noise-cancelling sets, is just beginning to hit those regions now, we've been told that folks in the US can expect them to arrive on American shores next year, with official availability details due at CES. The units we checked out are voiced and finished as those set to hit production, but according to Sony, some of the cabling now in place will change before the stateside release. Interested audiophiles and music lovers can click on past the break for the full details, as well as our initial -- and brief -- impressions.
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Sony XBA balanced armature in-ear headphones (hands-on)
On the standard IEM front, you've got the $80 XBA-1, $200 XBA-2, $280 XBA-3 and the $350 XBA-4, which as the names imply, feature single to quad-driver setups. To get an idea of sound quality, we played sections of Bassnectar's "Bass Head" along with Jimmy Eat World's "Futures," while going back and forth between the headphones. The XBA-1's single mid-focused driver delivered acceptable performance with a decent amount of clarity, but it unsurprisingly struggled to reproduce lows and highs, sounding slightly thin and tinny -- reminiscent of our time with the (now-defunct) Nox Audio's Scout. The XBA-2s step things up with a single woofer added into the mix. Our music was delightfully injected with a punchy low-end kick, reminding us that bassists do in fact exist. Being that the 2s (as with the others) merely pile more armatures on top of the ones that exist in each underlying model, we still noticed that treble reproduction remained nearly identical to the XBA-1s.
Our favorite of the bunch was the XBA-3, thanks to its addition of a treble-focused driver. The sound just felt right with this set, and gave us the most intelligible rendition of our two-song playlist. Cymbals and guitar strums remained crisp without hurting our ears and the overall mix remained well-balanced, with the treble, mids and lows maintaining their own space. Overall, the voicing is very similar to that of the MDR-NC200Ds we enjoyed back in September. Worth noting, though, is that the 3s had an unbalanced fit, which required us to wear them wire-up like a traditional IEM for an improved feel. Notably, the chromed-plastic fit and finish of each set is very similar, and despite the weirdness we experienced with the 3s, each was essentially light and forgettable and offered a moderately noise-isolating seal. To be fair, the lounge we tested in wasn't exactly loud, though.
Rounding out the bunch, we gave the XBA-4s a spin. This set adds in Sony's "super woofer" to that of the XBA-3's setup -- bass enthusiasts rejoice. While our inner bassist loved the extra ear-rattling lows, we did notice that the exaggeration drowned out of some of the clarity we loved with the 3s. Still, fans of dubstep and the like will undoubtedly get a sparkle in their eyes for this set. If you're an iDevice user, you'll also be pleased to know that for an extra 20 bucks any of the four models will come with an Apple-certified inline remote / mic for walkin' and talkin' between bouts of rockin'. Sadly, however, these weren't available for us to view in the flesh.
Of course, it didn't end there, as Sony had three other BA models to show us. Each variant basically features the XBA-1's driver in different type of purpose-built kit. First off, we tried the $90 BA Sports (XBA-S65) for size. The S65s are loaded adjustable silicon loops to keep them in place when you're active. The loops wrapped around our ears with comfortably snug, fitness-worthy fit. We're also told that they feature a slight amount of water resistance so that your jams don't cut out when you work up a sweat -- and they can even be "rinsed" afterward.
If you enjoy headphones with active-noise cancellation, the $500 BA digital noise cancelling set (seen before the break) might be up your alley. We're happy to report that the NC85Ds are loaded with the same intelligent noise-cancellation circuit found on the NC200Ds, and best of all, forgo the bulky battery units usually required for this kind of kit -- a world's first, according to Sony. You'll still find a tiny inline remote for activating the ANC, but it's no bigger than what you'd find on iPhone 'buds. Although both earpieces are tiny, one of them features a NiMH battery that's rated for an impressive 20 hours of use. Unlike the NC200Ds, however, they don't feature a talk-through mode and won't work passively. This disappointingly means you'll need to ensure that you're charged on long bouts away from power sources. To charge, you'll simply plug the headphone's 3.5mm jack into a USB dongle, which in turn plugs into your computer. Admittedly, for all its noteworthy specs and features, the $500 price feels very steep given that the sound quality is on-par with the $80 XBA-1s.
Lastly, we were able to look at -- but not listen to -- the BA Bluetooth XBA-BT75. This $300 set with an around-the-ear wire looks very similar to offerings by Jaybird, but has the sort of funky and forwardly-thinking aesthetic that's typical of Sony. The BT75s feature on-bud controls and their case can hold up to 2.5x worth of charging power for juicing up on go. No word on expected battery life, however.
Although we didn't spend nearly the amount of time needed for a proper review with these pieces, our first thoughts on the lineup are positive. The only extremely notable neg we have is that the latter models -- while offering some intriguing features -- are only available with the XBA-1's driver, which is a shame considering how much the sound improves with each driver addition. Still, it's safe to say that come next year, companies such as Westone and Sennheiser should expect some venerable competition from Sony in the US.