Hey all, DavidMahler here!
Just a little precursor to this review. I spent a lot of time contrasting and comparing it with the Westone 4 and the Audeo PFE-232. What Audeo really solidified in my mind was that driver amount was really secondary compared to the overall design. I really think the PFE-232 is still in many ways the most impressive universal IEM on the market.
That said, I think there is most definitely a place for another Quad driver IEM. The XBA-4 is one of the many new balanced armature driver in-ears and I'm really excited to have the chance to review them all.
on to the review....
Sony has long been the one of the most prolific headphone manufacturers in the world. Their legacy includes some of the greatest headphones ever made and several other fantastic efforts. When I heard that Sony would be releasing an entire series of balanced armature in-ears, one question came to mind: What took so long? J
When compared with dynamic drivers, balanced armature drivers are for me, the preferable earphone driver design. Without getting too much in the science of it (see our glossary for more information), balanced armature often have multiple drivers which focus on independent frequency ranges. In the case of the XBA-4, there are 4 drivers (a tweeter for highs, a midrange driver, a woofer for bass and something Sony refers to as a super-woofer for sub-bass frequencies.
THE FIT & THE FINISH
My overall impression of the XBA-4 it is a success. But this does not mean I do not take issue with some aspects of the design.
CRITICISM: For one I don’t like the cable design all too much. As they have done with several in ear models, Sony has designed the XBA-4 to have the cable rest behind your head, but not in the standard Y-split cable fashion. The cable design of the XBA line has it so that the left and right are unevenly split. This design prevents the user from letting the cable hang in front since the left and right ear piece are connected to one another. This is a bummer for those whom don’t prefer this style, but a great asset to those who do prefer the cable to be worn behind the head. Ultimately the cable falls on the left side and terminates to a right-angle plug in order to prevent strain on the headphone output.
Another criticism I have of the XBA-4 is that the earpieces are designed to be worn with cable hanging straight down, rather than behind the ear. I prefer a behind the ear design for several reasons. Firstly, I think it is ultimately more comfortable to have the cable behind the ear. Secondly, I feel that having the cable behind the ear, prevents much of the sounds which emanate from the cable being touched or moved. These sounds are known as microphonics and are not preferable when listening to music.
One final criticism I have regarding the design is the lack of removable / replaceable cable. If the cable should break, you will need to send the earphones in for a warranty repair/replacement. Surely, not ideal, but nonetheless the cable appears sturdy enough to withstand normal use.
PRAISE: Now that I’ve gotten my criticisms out of the way, let me express how well built these earphones come across. The chassis of the earphones is extremely well engineered, demonstrating a tremendous amount of attention to detail. I like the angling of the earpieces and find them reasonably easy to fit comfortably in my ears while getting a more-than-adequate seal. I find that the earpieces themselves are very nice looking. A nice metallic shine and unique overall shape makes the XBA-4 a real eye-pleaser. Sony did a wonderful job at getting larger than average earpieces to fit in the ear with ease and look nice at the same time.
The nozzle is the perfect length and girth to ensure the earphone’s longevity. One common misfortunate for many earphone users is the dread day they accidently broke the nozzle of their earpiece while changing the ear tips. This will not likely ever happen with the Sony’s since the nozzle which holds the tip is neither too long nor too thin.
The ear tips (or sleeves) supplied are silicon. Normally I would express complaint about the absence of foam tips, but this case I have to praise Sony for including something which the DIY community has already been creating for years: silicone tips with a foam interior! WOW! Sony really came through on this. With this design, you get the sweat resistant long-lasting benefit of silicone with the improved seal which only foam can provide. Of course, if you would prefer just silicone without the foam, Sony provides this as well. All tips come in a variety of sizes.
The cable appears to be kink resistant and terminates to a right-angle plug. As I had mentioned earlier, I always prefer a right angle-plug since it relieves strain on the input. The cable is roughly 4 feet long.
The XBA-4 ships with a uniquely-shaped pleather semi-hard carrying case. The flap-door locks via magnet. Very nice! Sony includes a cord adjuster which allows you to customize the length of your cord and wind it up securely for storage. While it is a thoughtful inclusion, I ultimately did not find it useful.
*The XBA-4iP is the same as the XBA-4 except that it features an Apple remote and microphone for use with the iPhone.
ALL ABOUT THE SOUND…
With a impedance rating of 8 ohms at 1 Khz and a Sensitivity reading of 108 db / 150 mV input, the XBA-4 is a very efficient earphone. Pretty nice!
The Westone 4 is, to my knowledge, the only other quad balanced-armature-driver universal earphone being produced today. Which sounds better? Long story short…neither! It will depend on which sound your after. The Westones are smoother and more midrange focused, while the Sony’s boast more upper harmonics. It is also worth mentioning that Audeo and Shure both offer flagship models, that while not showcasing quite as many drivers, can still sit alongside the shortlist of best earphones on the market.
- Amazing detail! I am literally able to hear certain nuances which I’ve only experienced with a very expensive full size setup
- Impactful but tightly focused bass response. May be just slightly leaner than neutral.
- Can be driven loudly without evidence of clipping even on abrupt transients.
- Very good spatial definition and instrument placement for an in-ear-monitor. Soundstage is wide, but not the widest I’ve heard,
- Close to neutral, if just a bit colder than neutral due to a slightly accentuated treble.
- The treble is wonderfully extended and for this reason the XBA-4 is a classical music monster!!!
- The frequency response demonstrates certain peaks in the upper mids which detract from the transparency of the overall sound. It can sound metallic and tinny at times especially on percussion.
- The Super-woofer is largely focused on frequencies which demand a higher-than-avergage quality source. This means specifically that with an iPod or iPhone you may actually be not making much use of this driver since the iPod output rolls-off the sub bass frequencies. I noticed a significant bass increase when using an amplifier.
Listening to Eiji Oue’s interpretation of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde on Reference Recordings, I was simply blown out of the water! I have to tell you that it is so seldom that an in-ear can sound so open and breathy. There’s a sense of closed-in that in-ears just can’t escape. The XBA-4 comes the closest I’ve heard to providing that natural airy sound. Michelle DeYoung’s voice can sound thicker than it is in actuality if there is roll off in the treble region. I know this because I have seen her perform this exact work several times in real life. Her vocal range is mezzo-soprano, but her voice is filled with overtones that make her so unique and wonderful to listen to. This recording of Mahler’s masterwork is extremely well recorded and the XBA-4 did not let me down. I was stunned!
Listening to Erykah Badu’s “On & On” it was a shock to me to hear minimal sub-bass out of the iPod. When I plugged it into my computer soundcard, BOOM there it was. These earphones can do bass, but you definitely need to feed it to them more than the average earphone. The overall sound was slightly sharper than I would have liked but I was capable of hearing the resonating delay on Badu’s voice very easily. Usually I have to “ear-squint” in order to hear this delay, but not here. So far so good…
In the words of Chuck Berry…”Just let me hear some of that rock and roll music…” How does the XBA-4 do rock? Listening to Van Halen’s debut I felt the guitar crunch was spot on. It reminded me of Grado in some ways – a bit bright, but filled with bite and punch. The drums sounded slightly harsh at the introduction of “You Really Got Me,” but possessed a speaker-like presence in the way the filled the space. Roth’s vocals were brought forward which added to the three-dimensionalism.
With the XBA-4, jazz and blues feel very intimate and lively at the same time. I like the way piano transients are rendered with here. The attack is very natural sounding to these ears. One thing which did surprise me was that, while listening to Lee Morgan enter into his solo on “Moanin’” the trumpet was more piercing then usual and I was forced to reduce the volume.
Sony, gets most things right with the XBA-4. It is an extremely compelling in-ear-monitor, offering a great sense of space and neutrality. It may be a bit uneven in the mids for some. If a smooth and forgiving tone is what you seek, I would consider the Westone 4 as an alternative. Even though the design does not thrill me in every way possible, I highly recommend that XBA-4 to those seeking a top-level, revealing in-ear!
RATING CHART @ PRICEPOINT
DESIGN & FEATURES: 7.5
Edited by HeadphonesCom - 3/23/12 at 1:28pm