Monday, January 13, 2014

Tech Review: Sony XBA-H3 Hybrid Balanced Armature Headphones

 One of the natural drawbacks of using earphones is that with 8mm circular drivers or balanced armature drivers, however many, the sound that is piped through, regardless of accuracy, remains rather lateral and flat. You don't enjoy the same experience you get with headphones of larger driver sizes, which get much closer to reproducing the natural sound-stage of the recording - in other words, the placement of instruments within an ensemble, as well as the unique reverberations of the individual locations where the recording took place, whether a stadium with a live audience, a concert hall, a high-ceilinged cathedral or a small studio.

After the boom, and to a certain extent consumerization (lookin' at you Sony, you market spoiler you) of Balanced Armature products in the market, manufacturers of personal audio products have recently turned to exploring hybrid earphones, in which the two dominant technologies of personal audio, dynamic drivers and balanced armature drivers, are combined within a single product to provide the best of both worlds. To this end, Sony has produced the XBA-H series of products.

The XBA-H3 is the highest grade of the series, with one large 16mm dynamic driver to provide the bass, and two balanced armature drivers: a full-range driver, and a tweeter to further drive higher frequencies. Other products in the series include the XBA-H2, with a 13.5mm dynamic driver and a full range BA driver, and the XBA-H1, with a 9mm dynamic driver and a full range BA driver.
In short, the H3s (I'm just gonna call them that cos it's really quite tiring to keep typing XBA-H3s) completely caught me by surprise with its huge soundstage. It scored impressively on clarity, but having tested the XBAs before I already expected it to. To so tangibly feel the breadth and depth of the recording though, is this product's greatest success.

The dynamic driver is tuned to handle the bass, and it does so tightly and impactfully, cutting through the music most delightfully. I've learnt early on that if you were to press dynamic drivers in to your ears such that a seal is created by the diameter of the earbuds, you actually can get very good fidelity from most earphones, including Apple's iBuds. Given that doing so all the time is not at all a comfortable experience, plus the fact that you look like you are trying to block out your own music and therefore quite mad, that is an impractical solution. I would theorize with admittedly no knowledge of this particular field that a lack of free-flowing air and an overly muffled sound prevented manufacturers from simply sealing the sound in and channeling it through silicon earbuds, much like what the H3 does, but with the addition of balanced armature drivers to cover the higher frequencies, plus the innovative addition of an air vent at the back of the housing, this has been all but smartly eliminated.

Continuing their aforementioned legacy of balanced armature drivers, highs are cleanly delivered, and rarely sound sharp to the ear. It took some mad crashing of cymbals in a drum solo to make me start to wince, but it was generally tolerable and should be extra good news to most other users because 1) I am extra sensitive to higher frequencies, and 2) I listen to my music at generally louder volumes.

Now the catch. Yes. Yes there is, much as it pains me to say it.

There is a disappointing lack of mids in the tuning. Funnily enough, the two pieces of music I found completely acceptable were by the Chick Corea Super Trio and Diana Krall, where mids came through in full glorious force, so I suppose if you are a jazz person, mai tu liao, as they say. I did however, consistently notice hints of crackling at mids-intensive portions of the songs, which again may not happen if you listen to your songs at a lower volume. I was doing about 70-75% on the iPhone audio scale. I know I know. But with the other songs I sampled, spanning across Pink Floyd, Asian Kung-Fu Generation, Disney, Immortal, Les Miserables and more, there was a resounding absence of mids, which contribute to the soul of the music - the oomph, excitement, richness and warmth. Many a times this made the music sound like cold and clinical renditions.

Driving the earphones are no problem - there wasn't a significant difference between listening from my audio amp, and listening from the iPhone directly, except for the source amplitude.

Here are a list of artistes and songs that I tried out, and my impression of the output from the H3s:
  • Chick Corea Super Trio: sparkling, lively rendering, crackling at piano solos, nearly peaking at drum solo cymbal crashes.
  • Diana Krall: near-perfect rendition. Both ensemble and solo parts clear as day.
  • Asian Kung-Fu Generation (Japanese rock): great Rock-like EQ, but lack of mids = lack of excitement.
  • Disney classics: every individual instrumental and vocal part in Disney orchestras and ensembles, which are HUGE (think Under the Sea and Be Our Guest), can be clearly heard. You can quite clearly imagine where each section would be sitting if you were in the conductor's spot.
  • Pink Floyd: The stereo bounce in Us and Them was aurgasmic, to say the least. The high reverb in Money's emotive, soaring solo is generously reproduced, although the solo itself felt thin with the lack of mids. Similarly for the scatting in The Great Gig in the Sky, one of the most emotional lengths of senseless yelling anyone's ever done, there was little impact in the output.
  • Immortal (black metal): no mids, but extreme metal relies a fair bit on the high mids, so the tweeter sort of saved it by reproducing the gritty crunch of the highly distorted electric guitars.
  • Muse (live rock recording in a stadium): no sense of excitement, and this from a mids-heavy live recording.
  • Les Miserables: Nicely reproduced, almost captivating. I do play this quite high on the volume.
  • Casiopeia (Japanese fusion jazz): anti-climax at electric guitar solo.
  • Daft Punk - Random Access Memories: Great tight bass, immersive environment.

Quick note about ergonomics before I conclude: it is quite cumbersome handling. The audio unit itself is already so blocky, you definitely aren't gonna be sleeping on your side with them on. The wires are rather disobedient, especially the top loop around your ear, although I will say it does a mostly good job of keeping itself out of tangles. ... when it doesn't get caught up with the rubber portion of the top loop.

The success of the H3s, therefore, are highly dependent on how sound engineers tune their final mix to be burnt on to the disc, which should not be the case. Even as someone who understands that I have a highly personal taste in musical output, I can't really imagine alot of people appreciating the lack of mids, unless perhaps clarity is a personal preference for you. For audio engineers and other professionals whose jobs require on audio monitoring, the earphones don't have the flattest tuning, but depending on your personal audio consumption tastes and needs at work, this pair of earphones can serve a good balance between both. They retail for a recommended price of S$438, and can be found at Sony stores and retailers around the island. Go to Sony's Singapore flagship store at Wisma Atria to try them out.


Michael Gunin said...

Thanks for the review! I mainly listen to jazz and classical on iBasso DX50, do you think XBA-H3 will be a fine pairing for my case?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your review, I'm contemplating the XBA-H1 but I wanted to see what I'd be missing out on ;)

Chai Tree said...

Lovely reviews, Thx

Now I'm using Klipsch X10 but the wire is getting ruin now,so I looking for new IE Headphone.

Do you think should I go for XBA-H3 to be my Klipsch X10 replacement?

Renhao said...

@Michael I think it works, although I do remember iBassos in general to be abit bass-heavy (not just cos it's named as such) so that boils down to personal preference. But certainly makes sense.

@Chai Tree H3s and X10s are very different in sound, I use the X10s as well. If you're looking for a fresh experience go for the H3s... though they certainly won't be as light haha

Anonymous said...

I have a pair of XBA-H3's and B&O H6 Play's. I'm a big fan of transparent studio response and love detail. While the Sony's definitely bring the bass I am less critical than some about a lack of mids in the Sony's. if anything the hi's in the Sony's can get harsh, but both pairs are very good and I am glad to have both. My friend has a beautiful Naim stereo system, including speakers, and the Sony's reminded me of the deep bass sound, particularly on Daft Punk's RAM. I've played a range of AIFF's on both one after the other and could find little to complain about in either pair. The hi's on the B&0's are sublime!

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