Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sony 2nd-generation XBA Balanced Armature Earphones

When Sony first launched the XBA series in late 2011 (and in Singapore early 2012), its suggested retail prices took many by surprise. Single driver in-ear monitors (IEMs) from well-known high grade audio brands such as Ultimate Ears, Westone and Shure were priced at approximately S$199, often breaking the $200 point. Sony's XBA-1 was priced at S$109. Did they spoil the market? Absolutely. Did they minimize the risks associated with entering the market?

I doubt. Being a corporation of their size they could definitely lower production costs by mass manufacturing, but that would have made for a major loss if it didn't sell. In fact, the 2011 Japanese tsunamis nearly wrecked the manufacturing process, and threw Sony into a delay.

I only have a fleeting impression of the first generation XBAs, since they were mostly tested at the event, save for the XBA-1 that we had each received. This time however, I have been sent all 4 earphones (XBA-10, 20, 30 and 40) to try out, so I can take my time to make my humble judgments on each one.

The Set Up
I decided to test the earphones in 2 different settings - powered by my iPhone (5, if it matters to you) on the go, and powered by my trusty little desktop headphone amp, with my old iPhone 4 as my music source via Line Out. The amp did not make as much of a difference as it usually does because the XBAs have relatively low resistance, but it did help me confirm certain points that I couldn't judge with my iPhone. All models' silicon earbuds were swapped out with the noise isolation earbuds, which includes an extra layer of sponge within the inner flange of the bud to absorb ambient noise. I always start my tests with tracks from Muse's HAARP live concert (hard rock, sharp bass, keyboards, stereo effects, live audience) and slowly branch out after that to jazz, metal, opera, classical and classic rock tracks.

General Good
If I had to describe the series in a single word, it's obvious that clarity is the XBA's main focus. How that clarity manifests itself though... that comes up a little differently. The XBA's extensive range of silicon earbuds, both normal and noise isolating, also ensure that you have the best fit possible. Little things like lapel clips and cord managers also let you customize the way you use your earphones.

General Bad
The wires aren't so much anti-tangle as tangle-resistant. A fair bit of acoustic noise from the cable can be heard, but that can be solved by looping the cable over your ear. The problem with the higher models though, especially the XBA-40, is that the light wires keep popping up when looped around the ear, making you look weird. And slightly loony.

XBA-10 (Full Range, S$98, iPhone version S$118)
The XBA-10's clarity take the number 1 spot out of the four models. Mids were rich and full-bodied, and to my treble-sensitive ears, highs were delivered with sparkling precision, without shredding my ear canals. This actually allows your music to cut through and overpower a fair bit of ambient noise.

However, as brilliantly as Sony's full-range driver handled mids and highs within a single armature, bass, the number one problem with single armature earphones, was still conspicuously missing. This gets slightly better while the earphones are driven by the amp, along with slightly more pronounced mids, but the higher frequencies can get overwhelming before the bass reaches an amplitude of your liking.

Use for: traveling on public transport, plugging in at work or in cafes

XBA-20 (Full Range + Woofer, S$238, iPhone version S$268)
The simple addition of a woofer driver pretty much compensates for what the Full Range driver is missing, and adds bass to your experience, with both drivers operating at full amplitude (if you don't quite get what this means read on to 30 and 40). This can make the earphones too bassy for some ears, but for me and my favourite music, this is an almost ideal output that comes close to matching my triple-driver custom earphones in richness and clarity. For this reason, the XBA-20 wins my vote as the best model of the lot.

Use for: needs specified in XBA-10, your bass-hungry ears, and probably if you listen to hard rock with heavy distortion and overdrive.

XBA-30 (Full Range + Woofer + Tweeter, S$318, iPhone version S$338)
The triple-driver offering adds booster drivers to either end of the audio spectrum, but instead of accentuating the high frequencies, some tuning and volume leveling of the drivers completely flattened the sound signature of the XBA-30. Especially after having listened to the richness of the XBA-20, the XBA-30 seems to withhold the life from my music, pumping it out in a very matter-of-fact way. What it does give you, however, is an incredible soundstage, so wide and distinct that I could clearly map out the placements of sections of a 50-piece orchestra, along with a similarly sized chorus and the main singers. I could tell when singers shifted position on the stage, or when two similarly voiced sections of the chorus were singing different lines side by side (for example, Tenor 1 and Tenor 2). That, to me, is the XBA-30's principal selling point. That said, I hate my music flat (delivered as-is without aural influence of the output device), but if there is some insight that most audiophiles who would consider the XBA-30s like their music flat, then hey, go for gold I say.

Use for: a portable solution to serious music study, listening to how orchestras or bands work and how they place themselves. Or if you are a stickler for flat output.

XBA-40 (Full Range + Woofer + Tweeter + Super Woofer, S$388, iPhone version S$408)
From a manufacturing point of view, the XBA-40 could be said to be Sony's bud-sized trophy. Where similarly-speced earphones cost close to or over S$1000, the XBA-40 retails for just over 40% of that price.

Aurally though, it feels like the XBA-40 falls short of the success it very well should be. Little more can be said about it that hasn't already been articulated for the XBA-30, save for the fact that with the addition of the last driver, the Super Woofer, music with very deep and subtle bass parts, such as that elusive bass drum in classical orchestras, are done justice with a satisfying rumble. That said, it isn't a 100% hit rate, and for bass heavy music like techno and rock, it doesn't really matter as much because the Woofer can more than deliver on the output.

Use for: ultimate music enjoyment if you enjoy your music delivered flat

The packaging. Really love the design and efficient use of space!

Sony's definitely gone in the right direction, and for the brilliant work they have done in commercializing balanced armature drivers for the mass market, I'm willing to shrug off their misses with the 30 and 40. Personally, I think they can make the 30 and 40 even friendlier to a larger crowd of prospective buyers, and I think these buyers wouldn't even mind forking out more than the current price for future iterations, if it can hit their sweet spot.


Anonymous said...

Sporsu Sporsu

Victor said...

This is cool!

Collin Phang said...

thanks for the great review just got the xba-20 thanks to your advice the sound is just awesome best value for money among the lot definitely worth it tks again

Collin Phang said...

thanks for the great review just got the xba-20 thanks to your advice the sound is just awesome best value for money among the lot definitely worth it tks again

Vel said...

Hi. Would you prefer the current generation xba 30 or the previous generation sony mdr 7550 / ex series?? Can you give us a comparison between those?
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently using the 40s and I love them.

Anonymous said...

Agreed with U that 20 sounds closer to my liking among the 4.
I bought it in tokyo at 13800 yen, I guess it is a lot cheaper in Japan.

Better than my kilpsch S4

Varun Reddy said...

A good pair of in-ear headphones offer a great listening experience for you and, if designed right, will mean your fellow commuters can't hear your choice in music. Even if not, you won't be able to hear them complaining.If you're less than impressed with the earphones that were bundled with your Headphones fear not - there are plenty of great alternatives that ensure you won't be suffering in silence.

Henry said...

These are really nice earphones,.
apple bluetooth earphones

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