Pros: Sound Quality, Isolation, Removable Cables, Fit
Cons: Negative profile fit doesn't suit everybody, Size
Hello Head-Fi! This is my second review here and this time its about my personal favorite IEM, the Sony XBA-A3!
A quick intro, this IEM was released a while back, around the end of 2014 (~September) in Japan by Sony. This IEM was meant to be a replacement to the XBA-H3, the previous flagship for Sony's hybrid (H) lineup. It retails for US$499 when it first launched, but right now one could own this for around ~US$380 on Amazon. I would tell you right now that this IEM is worth every penny, and I will explain why!
--BUILD , DESIGN, ACCESSORIES--
This IEM followed the design footprint of its predecessor, the H3 but has minor cosmetic changes all around. I did not own the H3 to post comparison pictures, but from what I can tell, the A3 has a slimmer body, and a newer coat of paint which apparently lasts longer than the H3 (my friend has one so I can tell). The vents on the backside of the dynamic drivers still exist, which Sony calls the Beat Response Control. Aside from those, there are absolutely no difference when comparing the H3 with the newer A3. The body is made out of the same hard plastic used in the H3, which is nice since the plastic itself is durable and doesn't crack under stress. However, I would prefer Sony to use the machined zinc(?) they used for the Z5, especially since for me personally, the A3 sounds more balanced than the Z5, but people could deter from purchasing due to the plastic material. The cables were same ol' Sony I would say, the typical serrated, flat, tangle-free cable which Sony is very proud of and is implemented on every new Sony IEMs. 2 cables were provided, one with an in-line microphone with a universal remote control, and one without. Its nice to see Sony include 2 cables this time, as buying a new one in case the old one breaks sucks. The inclusion of an in-line mic is also nice since this IEM has 64 Ohms of impedance thus people could drive them from their smartphones. The cables are detachable from the housing, but I would not recommend doing so as I heard reports saying people experienced looseness on the receiving end of the socket, which could bother your listening experience. I am however happy to report that mine did not come loose, but again who wants to detach the cables after every use anyway XD. Regarding extra accessories, this IEM comes with a clamshell case, which is about the same size as my Seagate Slim External HDD. The case is well made, protective, and has 2 interior pockets if u wish to store cables or other extra accessories. The other accessory included are 2 sets of ear tips, one being the standard silicone, and the other being the foam-infused ear tips which Sony claims will provide more isolation than the standard hybrid tips.
This IEM employs the negative-profile fit, or loop-around the ear fit, or hanging fit, or whatever u guys call it lol. Personally, my past experience mingling around with Shure's SE215 has taught me that IEMs which provide this kind of fit is the best, since it reduces wind noise, ensures a tighter fit, and almost zero percent chance of it dropping down your ears if you slept on them (in an airplane, whenever I sleep I realized my IEMs always dropped down the chair XD). Most of them remains true with the A3, with the wind noise reduction and dropping down your ears excluded. Since this IEM has MASSIVE size, the body or housing of the IEM tends to stick out, unlike the SE215 which goes inside your ear gaps, which again results in wind noise during windy days. The dropping down your ears case was not extreme, its just again due to the size, sometimes the headphones just slide off your ear canal and hangs around your ear, forcing you to reposition them quite frequently, especially if you jog or exercise with these (although I dunno why u would). Overall, the fit is nice, and the included foam tips also provides more isolation from my experience which adds the icing on the cake.
Now, the sound. I would say this IEM sounds amazing. Its guts are composed of 2 Full-Range Balanced Armature (BA) Drivers, with one being the all rounder, and the other being the HD Super Tweeter, and a large, 16mm Dynamic Driver to top it all off. Sony claims this IEM provides a full-spectrum sound, ranging from 3Hz to 40kHz, and supports Hi-Res Audio. These amazing components are the ones to blame for this IEM's large size. However, size is a very minor trade-off compared to the sound quality these IEMs produce. Before breaking down the holy trinity (treble,mids,bass), the overall sound this IEM has is balanced, natural, and a little bit bright. Do note that i typed NATURAL and not NEUTRAL. there is a difference between them
Okay so now lets break down the highs. Technically, the 2 BA Drivers contributes to the high end of this IEM, which makes the overall high frequency of this IEM sound supreme. The combination of the 2 drivers were apparent here, with the Full Range BA delivering body and texture to the highs, which makes the high frequencies sound clean, clear, and again as I said before, textured. The 2nd BA Driver, or the "HD Super Tweeter" is tasked with extension, and boy do they do it very very well. Due to this tweeter, the high frequencies have that really nice extension, which carries the body and texture for the extended ride, which is amazing. The high frequencies however could sound sibilant especially with lower bitrate files, and poor source. With proper source and files, the highs for me never disappoint.
The mids in this headphone is produced by the 1 Full-Range BA Driver which also does the highs. This however does not make the mids shy out of the competition, as the midrange in this IEM is very smooth and well defined. The upper mids sound natural and has this organic feel to them, which makes both male and female vocals sound great and lively. The lower mids have this nice weight to them but does not thicken the whole listening experience. I also previously owned the 1 Driver Etymotic Hf5, and from my experience, they have amazing midrange, and this is even better compared to the Hf5. They sound fuller, with alot more body and weight to them. Compared to the SE215, the mids dont sound too "pulled-out", and does not sound as thick either. Its the perfect balance between the two (Hf5 and SE215) but with way better quality.
The bass or the low end of this IEM is the best part imo, and I was not shocked nor amazed when I first listened to them as bass response is no stranger to Sony, especially with their huge-ass lineup of XB (Xtra Bass)- series headphones lol. The bass was contributed by mainly the 16mm Dynamic Driver, and as expected of a dynamic driver that large, bass response here is very good with superb quantity and quality. Listening to music such as jazz, slow rock, or J-pop (yes, i love J-pop alongside Anime music) showcases how smooth the bass could go, with every bass note from the bassist represented beautifully and clearly, without overpowering the other players. This also shows that the bassline has a very good extension. This IEM, despite sounding smooth and polite for those aforementioned genres of music, they show their true wild nature when EDM, Trance, or other bass-thumping music were played through them. They suddenly become fast, punchy, and accurate. Every thump in the music have this sort of 'deep punch' to them, and they go very very low with no distortion in higher volumes at all. Overall bass in this IEM is superb, with superior quantity and quality, which most IEMs and Headphones, heck even Sony's own XB-series lineup fail to deliver properly.
To top it all off, the Soundstage of this IEM is AMAZING. They came toe-to-toe with the majority of closed back pair of headphones, and comes close to my Sony H-Ear On and MDR-1R MK2, which again is amazing for an IEM. During winter, you could put them under earmuffs and there you go, an IEM turned to a Full-Size Headphone. This was mainly achieved thanks to the highs, and with superb soundstage comes superb instrument separation and spacing between each players, eliminating the 'clutter' in sound and deals with complex music better than other IEMs in general (p.s. if u also like to listen to j-pop and anime music, u know the pain cluttered songs such as Himouto's OP could cause you XD). Overall, soundstage is really good here and gives you the illusion of wearing an over-ear pair of headphones.
This IEM, I would say, is a dark horse in the hi-fi IEM market, where the likes of Campfire Audio, Noble, FitEar, and other High-end CIEM/UIEM manufacturers dominate the battlefield. They might not win against them all when battled head-on, but I would say they came very very close especially to the $500-700 range of Nobles and Campfire (similar to Nova, and came close to Sage, although the latter has a more refined sound). If you would like to enter the Hi-Fi IEM market but are scared of not being able to tell the difference between ur Apple EarPods/AirPods and Noble Katana and regret ur purchase, this is a good IEM to purchase since it has the qualities of being on the Hi-Fi IEM market with a more affordable price, but sadly its aforementioned competitors are more refined, which is why the A3 is positioned as the gatekeeper. A damn good gatekeeper.
p.s. I'm sorry if I couldn't compare them to more IEMs, mainly because I did not collect IEMs, asI invest most of my money in Full-Sized Headphones. Thanks for reading my review and I hope it helps your purchasing decision!
Pros: warm and deep, yet very detailed sound signature; superb sound stage for an IEM; manages the balancing act between "warm" and "analytical"
Cons: size, comfort and looks; average isolation with stock silicone tips
Long time reader, first time poster, it's time for some contribution to the forum: here's my appraisal of Sony’s XBA-A3, compared to its peers in the Sony Hybrid-BA lineup.
I mostly use my IEMs out on the street or while traveling, usually connected to an iPhone. I listen predominantly to AAC (256kb/s) and MP3 (320kb/s), which doesn't give me bragging rights about the most audiophile setup, but for me this is a good compromise between sound quality and file size, when on the move. My music taste includes all kinds of electronic music (mostly house, dance and trance) as well as jazz and latin music, R&B and soul. I prefer a rather balanced sound with a solid, not overwhelming, bass fundament. And I am very sensitive to harsh or sibilant treble. I was quite happy with the Yamaha EPH-100, yet I appreciate the typical Sony "sound signature" since a long time. I was particularly intrigued by the upfront and analytical sound of the Sony XBA-A1. That's not an obvious choice for a high-fidelity IEM, I know, but you really should try it out: I think it is a hidden gem for the price. The XBA-A1, for instance, can deliver some nice, tight bass in a quiet environment, but here's the catch: out on the noisy street you merely hear mids and treble, especially as you're constantly moving and a perfect seal isn’t always guaranteed. Thus, I was planning to upgrade to the XBA-A2, in hope for a similar sound signature with stronger bass. I'm glad I didn't, and here's why: On a recent trip to Asia I went to the http://earphoneshop.co.kr store in Seoul, which I discovered through fellow head-fi members. This is an amazing store with a myriad of headphones on display for trial at your convenience. My three-hour session included Sony's whole actual XBA range: XBA-300, XBA-A1, XBA-A2, XBA-A3, XBA-Z5 and in between other popular makes for cross-reference. The Korean staff, certainly not used to patient clients, were probably puzzled what took me so long to settle for one single headphone. But spending the time was definitely worth it.
XBA-A3 vs. XBA-A2
First of all: the XBA-A2 is a very good IEM, and well worth its asking price. Initially, it even sounds more „engaging“ than the XBA-A3. But longer comparison reveals some significant differences that make it worthwhile settling for the A3. Both show a substantial bass fundament, yet they aren't "bass-heavy" IEMs: the bass is always present but it never dominates. At first impression, the A2 delivers a bit more bass than the A3, and is generally a bit more aggressively tuned, well suited for modern pop and dance music. Yet, the A3 is the more refined IEM by far. The bass on the A2 seems to peak in the typical bass drum frequencies, whereas the bass of the A3 extends much deeper, which actually makes it quite a musical sounding headphone. Thus, the A2 sounds more like boom boom, while the A3 actually plays complete bass lines with verve and intensity! It delivers a precise and quick bass if the source has it. Electronica, trance or drum ‚n’ bass music sound fantastic with the A3! Ditto with the "analogue" basslines of jazz or Latin music. A similar picture at the other end of the spectrum: the A2 sports less refined treble, occasionally tending to harshness, and even slight sibilance, if the source isn’t of the best quality. It also sounds a bit more „metallic“ than the A3 which delivers treble as silky smooth and shimmering as it could be. Both IEMs emphasize on detailed treble in abundance, with the A3 being less fatiguing over longer listening. Compared to my aforementioned "reference" XBA-A1, the mids sound a bit recessed on both IEM's, making them sound a fair bit "darker". But, and this is important, go out on the street, and the "deep" sound becomes just right, still delivering a satisfying bass fundament despite all the surrounding noise. Last but not least, the A3 sports a significantly wider and airy soundstage while the A2 places instruments rather within your ears. Admittedly, the over-ear cable design makes the XBA-A3 look a bit silly. Think sheep’s ears in front view, caused by the curved shape of the cable connectors. I earned quite a few looks when wearing these. (Yet, maybe it was because me constantly smiling over the fantastic sound quality.) This over-ear design, however, is much more comfortable to wear, effectively reducing cable wind noise. The IEMs stay in your ear, and aren’t torn out of position when you turn your head. The A3 remain always present in your ear because of their size, but long time comfort is better than with the much smaller A1, and presumably better than the A2, too.
XBA-A3 vs. XBA-Z5
The XBA-Z5 is an incredibly well-built IEM. A true collector’s item. Dimensions are virtually identical to the A3, but the black magnesium housing makes the Z5 look so much more „professional“ than the metallic painted plastic of the A3! The Z5, most importantly, sounds even more refined and relaxed than the A3, but not by much. I felt that bass intensity, quality and extension are almost identical. The treble of the A5 sounded a little less sparkling, but even a little more refined. Changing back and forth between A3 and Z5 leaves a similar impression as the comparison between A2 and A3: The lesser sounds a bit more aggressive and „engaging“ at first, but the latter excels with a more refined and rewarding presentation when you listen for a longer time. That said, the tonal difference between A2 and A3 seems huge compared to the difference between A3 and Z5. Is the Z5 the king of Sony’s XBA-lineup? Definitely. Is it worth the steep markup to the A3? Decide for yourself. I think it ain't.
Pros: Great bass extension, Great clarity, wide sound stage, quasi-neutral sound signature
Cons: Stock cable feels cheap, Average isolation, prone to chipping
Sony Introduced the XBA-Ax range in 2014, meant to replace the XBA-Hx range of a year earlier, the new range uses a new developed BA by sony which cliams better clairty and details than the traditional Rod-driven BA's.
Comfort, Build quality, fit
I Find the Build of those is pretty sturdy despite bieng plastic unlike their more expensive brother XBA-Z5 which is made of magnesium. The XBA-A3, for now i iwll just refer to it as A3 - has an inner housing of magnesium to rpovide rigidity and remove unwanted vibrations. The stem of the MMCX is shorter than that of the XBA-H series thus the cables of the A series won't fit those, the earphone MMCX port is very robust but the cable MMCX end feels so cheaply made thant i fear it will not last long and you can fell it wobbles once connected to the earphone yough it does not spin.
The pianting on those is better than the one of the H3's, is more matte looking with black accents.
Comfort-wise and fit-wise they are better than the XBA-H3, as the casing was made smaller (slimmer) so i can insert them deeper withouth feeling pain, the sony Hybrid-tips seem to have removed the itching i felt. Despite having a deeper fit they don't iolate as well as completely sealed IEMs due to the vent for the Dynamic driver (moved to te MMCX stem and made smaller than that of the H3/XBA-A2).
The box comes with the same accesories as the XBA-H3, sony hybrid tips in SS, M, L nad S, foam-filled tips: in , M and L sizes, cable winder, cable clip for shirt, carrying case - not hard as a pelican one but does a good job at protecting them - Two cables with supposedly separated grounds - tpught not completely as they are reunited in the Jack - one is normal stereo cable and the other has an in-line mic for smartphones (haven't tested it yet).
I listen to classical music and as gear i am using a NW-ZX100 walkman DAP, my files are 16/44.1 FLAC and some Hi-res audio (FLAC 24/48 - 192).
The inmediate changes over the H3 are the bass quantity and QUALITY and the mids and trebles being a forwarder than the H3.
Bass: They got rid of the Mid-bass bump of the H3 - which hindered clarity - the bass on the A3's extends deeper has no trouble reaching so low and add rumble. The good is the bass on these don't bleed on the mids like the H3 did thus maintaining the clarity, also i've noted the bass kiks hard only when needed (often older recordings which had awarmer nature).
Listening to cellos, Organs 16-footed string Harpsichords and Lute-Harpsichords you can really fell the bass extends and rumbles withouth difficulty giving those instrumnets their character, gruntsy cello bass strings, rumbling 32 footer pipes and chamber organs with wood pipes doe xtend so low to the fundamental tones, The lute Harpsichord rumbles and sustains the bass thummm! for a while until the artist decided to depress the key...
Mids: Forward sounding, with the clarity need for a hi-res phone. It gives the rest of the instruments their voices, by being fowarder than those of the H3 the fake reverb of the H3 gets eliminated here and thngs sound more natural, seems the warble distortion of the H3 is addressed in these too.. They do retrieve lots of details with my ZX100 walkman.
Highs: Very nice extension and detail retrieval, Harmonics, reverbs, high-pitched instruments like piccolos and violins without being harsh, I don't feel any ear-piercing with these yet amintaining good extension.
Sound stage: Bigger, more natural than the H3, they manage to separate the instruments well and i can easily identify them one by one and sense their location, it has no hint of fake reverberation as dry recorings sound dry and reverberous ones sound quite well (cathedral music), The H3 seemed to add fake reverb and all sounded like it as recorded in a bathroom / tiled room due to the housing shape and the V-shape.
Overall i feel those to be more neutral sounding thnan my MDR-1R and the H3... they give an airier presentation, good detail retreival, nice soundstage, nice deep bass when needed.