Hi everyone! This is a review and side-by-side comparison of the XBA IEMs from Sony (1, 2, 3 and 4). I am new to Sony’s headphones and IEMs and have never heard any of Sony’s audio products before the arrival of the XBAs so I am really, really excited. Since the XBAs are Sony's first shot into balanced armature driver technology, I decided to give them a go and share my (Sony) experience here. *I have provided some general information on the IEMs, detailed reviews on SQ is coming soon*
Some stuff about me, I listen to a variety of genres but mainly jazz and classical. Headphones I like were neutral ones and also coloured cans as long as they don’t sound too dark or overly bright. I will try to make my review as clear and succinct as possible because your time (and mine) is extremely valuable.
Firstly, I do not want to cause any misunderstandings - the things I talk in this review such as the “average” soundstage refers to IEM standards NOT headphones. On how some elements are recessed or emphasized, my standard of neutrality (in respect to lows, mids, highs, timbre) is the Sennheiser HD600 which you can judge for yourself how close to neutral it is by looking at the graphs. And like always, this review is carried without any EQ and is strictly my own opinion. External opinion will be highlighted.
I have spent some time with XBAs, close to two weeks to be exact to prevent bias/honeymoon period. Feel free to believe in burn in but in my experience, they don't change at all. Even if they do, the change is so small that I can barely notice.
Source used: MBP, Touch 4G
Sound files: ALAC and MP3 320kbps
Misc: Previous IEMs (W4, IE8, ADDIEM, UE700, TF10, SE425, etc.)
Retail Price (AUD) [Brace yourselves] - No mic version
Not a lot but okay. They came with extra sets of hybrid tips (normal + noise isolating ones) and a carrying case. Only the XBA-4 carries an additional shirt clip. An essential thing that needs to be included: cleaning tool.
Carrying Case: Clockwise starting from 1 o'clock: XBA-4, 3, 2, 1
Design, Build Quality and Comfort
The XBA series (1-4) are solidly built from top to bottom and the semi-flat cables do prevent tangling. Unfortunately, the cables aren’t detachable but non-detachable cables are known to be stronger than detachable ones. The tips are comfortable, like any Sony Hybrids. Wearing them straight down might be the best option because using the XBAs over the ear is just plain annoying. The cable over-the-ear falls every 30 seconds. Microphonics aren’t too bad. At least, it doesn’t interfere with my music. But shirt clips are always welcome. All right housings have a red strip so finding which one's right/left is easy.
Isolation and noise leakage
The XBAs isolate like any other IEM. It blocks out a good amount of noise but certainly doesn’t make your world go silent. Noise leakage is minimal but the XBAs do leak a bit when songs are played at medium to high volumes.
At first listen, the four IEMs are coloured positively and the sound signature is quite similar. XBA-4's presentation is the best out of the four giving a great bass response and interestingly, the XBA-1 sound pretty good. The XBA-3 is also on the top of line and the difference between it and the XBA-4 is subtle. Sitting on the fence is the XBA-2 which is a slight upgrade from the XBA-1. It offers a bit of improvement over its little brother but costs 2X more. Let's go deeper shall we?
Note: The noise isolating tips provide a much better level of isolation but bass is increased, creeping into the mids and tones down the treble peaks.
Bass: Very powerful, controlled and full bodied. I have to say their bass quantity is a lot more than I have ever expected from a BA IEM. Impact is very good and has great extension. Although I make them seem very bass heavy, they do not disturb the mids or the highs. Bass is too much for my liking. Classical symphonies/orchestras sound a bit too heavy but hip hop/r&b sounds awesome.
Mids: The XBA-4 possesses smooth, soft, rounded mids. I find it really pleasant and slightly laid back. Vocals are a little distant like the TF10 (not as far) but it's still intimate. A small complaint from me is that the vocals are a bit dry while other instruments are fantastic sounding. Generally the mids aren't thin at all and in fact, they have thick mids. Talking about detail, the XBAs have a lot of detail but not to the point they are too analytical or revealing. Violins on the XBA-4 sound a touch darker then usual but I am a fan of dark tonalities in a violin. Sometimes, when "dark" is mentioned, people start to think about veil or muffles. That is not what I am intending to say. The tonal quality is a bit dark but it's not as dark as the HD650.
Highs: In my opinion, I think Sony needs to work on the tweeter. Sibilance can be a major issue when volume is cranked up. The highs are emphasised and have a lot of sparkle. At times, highs may sound metallic.
Soundstage: Soundstage is very spacious and 3D-like. Size isn't as big as the IE8 but it's relatively wider than most IEMs. Whereas the IE8 positions the listener at the middle of the hall, the XBA-4 tends to put the listener closer to the stage. Instruments/vocals are separated cleanly and you will have an idea where instruments are positioned. The separation, however, may cause incoherence.
Timbre: It's very decent. Instruments are wonderfully textured and detailed enough although it may still lose to dynamic IEMs.
Despite the small troubles I have mentioned earlier in the review, they can easily be fixed through EQing (tone down highs, slightly push the mids forward). If all you're looking for is an IEM to chill and relax to, you will love them. The XBA-4 has one of the best bass response on any BA IEMs and its spacious presentation as well as its good weight makes it a great choice among others. I personally enjoyed listening to them and the XBA-4 still have that WOW factor even though I have heard a number of flagships prior to reviewing these. Honestly, I love how the XBA-4 presents my music. It may be a little different from typical top tier IEMs but the presentation is spot on. They are a perfect complement to neutral/cold headphones or IEMs.
Bass: Great beats and extension but it may sound a tiny bit more muffled than the XBA-4. Sub bass is also cleaner and more defined on the XBA-4 thanks to the additional bass driver. Sony seems to concentrate more on the bass as XBA-1 moves up to XBA-4. Bass on the XBA-4 is very similar to the XBA-4 except for the things I mention before and the bass on the XBA-3 doesn't expand as wide as the XBA-4.
Mids: Vocals are surprisingly better/more natural on the XBA-3 and aren't as dry as the XBA-4. Mids and vocals are balanced while maintaining the smooth and laid back signature. Like the XBA-4, details are almost or on the same level as its big brother and the details presented are not analytical.
Highs: Again, similar to the XBA-4. Sibilance can be a bit of annoyance sometimes on high volume. Cymbals are a little too bright.
Soundstage: Less spacious than the XBA-4. Instruments are clearly separated but maintain coherence.
Timbre: Like the XBA-4.
Oh look what do we have here! The XBA-3 is similar to the XBA-4 but does some things better than the big brother. But of course, the XBA-4 is superior in some other ways. Weight on the XBA-3 is better in my opinion on classical music and a whole range of genres. In other words, it's a safer bet. If you're trying to decide whether to get the 3 or 4, it depends on the things you prioritise. Frankly, the XBA-3 is clearly not a downgrade from the XBA-4 just like UM3x and W4.
XBA-1 vs. XBA-2
They have a lot in common so I decided to put them together as a single review and comparison.
Bass: The XBA-1 has sufficient bass and was exactly what I expected from a single BA IEM. With an extra woofer, the XBA-2 has more bass than the XBA-1 but on some songs, bass leaked a bit into the vocals. Bass impact is more or less similar. It has no problem taking deep fast punches.
Mids: Mids on the XBA-1 is a little more forward and much more involving than the XBA-2. To be honest, the XBA-2 sounds boring. Not because it’s neutral, but the lack of dynamic energy. Both have smooth and lush mids but the XBA-2 has the upper hand in detail retrieval.
Highs: Both XBA-1, 2 have rolled off treble so the highs aren’t as fatiguing as the XBA-3, 4. They are both non fatiguing and relaxing to listen to which is precisely the main aim.
Soundstage: Not particularly wide or as wide as the XBA-3, 4. Resolution and imaging is just fine on both IEMs. Instrument separation is decent and every particular instrument is heard clearly and distinctly.
Timbre: Pretty good for BA IEMs. Music is textured and not one song sound too thin.
Conclusion? I think the XBA-1 is fantastic at the price point. It’s not incredibly detailed but it is sufficient. Very well rounded - good bass punches and quantity, smooth lush mids and very involving. Street price is usually under RRP so that’s good news. The XBA-2, on the other hand, has some improvements over the XBA-1 in terms of clarity, bass quantity and instrument separation. But is it worth a little more than 2X the price of the XBA-1? You decide.
Putting price aside, this is my preference: XBA-3, XBA-4, XBA-1, XBA-2. Any questions? Just leave a comment and I will try my best to follow up.
Edited by nikp - 5/4/12 at 6:09am