Member of the Trade: Lachlanlikesathing
- Mar 20, 2009
XBA-4 Review vs Sony MDR-EX1000: Two Flagships Pass in the Night
April 2013 EDIT: Updated with notes on the 7550 and XBA-40! See post #3
Introduction: It’s A Sony!
This review is a rather lengthy comparison of two Sony flagship in-ear monitors: the MDR-EX1000 vs the XBA-4. Before we begin the actual comparison, I thought it would be nice to provide a little background for the two models. If you are familiar with these two models you could skip this entire, rather lengthy, section. I won’t cry or nothin.
Why such a lengthy introduction? For those of you who mostly know Sony as a increasingly troubled consumer electronics giant, the company has had a significant history in premium audio; the Sony MDR-R10 and Qualia 010 are considered collectors headphones worth several thousands each, elevated to that controversial pantheon of ‘best-ever’ headphones alongside models like the Sennheiser HD800 or AKG K1000. When they make a flagship headphone, like the MDR-EX1000 and the XBA-4, there are always going to be people who wonder if they can recapture the magic.
The MDR- EX1000 is Sony’s high-end dynamic driver IEM. The design follows on from the legacy of the somewhat ill-received MDR-EX700 and perhaps shares some DNA with the seemingly experimental PFR-V1. It features 16mm Liquid Crystal Polymer drivers – supposedly a form of Vectran fibre membrane (thanks Kiteki!) that is lightweight yet durable. The housing is made from magnesium metal, again for its supposedly high strength, light-weight and non-resonant qualities.
Sony has had an interesting history of using unique materials in their in-ear and full size headphones, including magnesium alloys, bio-cellulose fibre and LCP. While its easy to dismiss this as marketing fluff, I’m inclined to believe that significant R&D has gone behind choosing appropriate materials. After listening to enough headphones starts to notice how material choice is a significant factor in sound, particularly in terms of distortion artefacts and resonance issues.
The MDR-EX1000 sits on top of the MDR-EX range, with its use of premium driver and housing materials positioning it over the MDR-EX600 and MDR-EX800ST / MDR 7550.
The XBA-4 is the vanguard of Sony’s entry into the Balanced Armature IEM market. The vast majority of BA IEMs utilise balanced armatures from Illonois based Knowles Electronics or Sonion, both companies extensively involved in the hearing-aid electronics industry. Notable exceptions including Etymotic Research’s proprietary single balanced armature designs, Final Audio Design’s mystery ‘balanced air movement’ units, and the Ortofon EQ-5/7 and Grado GR10’s ‘moving-armatures’ based on a design by the OEM Yashima Electric.
To this rather exclusive and boutique club of companies using proprietary BA designs comes Sony, the world’s largest manufacturer of headphones. In the advance marketing for the XBA series Sony, with typical obsession and pride about their proprietary approach, yelled from the rooftops about their in-house BA design and manufacturing. BA drivers are not new, but Sony claims that its BA transducers are uniquely developed from the ground up for music and not hearing-aid applications in mind. It honestly seems a little strange for Sony to be jumping into the BA market when for so long they have been known for pushing the envelope with dynamic driver designs (the EX1000 being the prime example). The following video perhaps gives some clues as for their motivation – miniaturisation and environmental isolation.
The XBA-4 in particular leads the way in this BA ‘revolution’. It features 4 balanced armature units – a full range driver, a tweeter, a woofer, and a ‘super-woofer’ – secured in a magnesium inner housing with an ABS plastic exterior. The XBA-4 (and indeed each of the XBA series headphones) does not employ a crossover to divvy up the frequencies between the different drivers. While this avoids any distortion introduced by a crossover network, it does create its own issues that I’ll note later.
Sony backed the global launch of the XBA headphones with a 14-day satisfaction guarantee, which seems to indicate a degree of confidence in the product. They were willing to take the bet that most people would like their shiny new toy.
So we have two flagships, both supposedly employing some whizbang proprietary Sony technology and engineering expertise. Which one are we supposed to think is better? Which one does Sony actually think is better?
When a company makes a flagship product, they are making a statement: this one model represents the current state of our art, our understanding of the technical and engineering limitations of the field, our understanding of the needs and wants of the most serious customers in the market. As if to say, ‘If you have the money, buy this one model, and we will show you what we know.’
To preserve the clarity of their ‘statement’, some companies, like Apple, go so far as only to release one model in one category. In the case of the iPhone and the iPad, the one model IS the flagship, and at times marketed as the flagship for the entire industry.
What kind of statement is being made when a company makes two flagship models available at the same time? At the very least, it makes for confusing marketing. Two products cannot simultaneously be ‘the best’. They may be two different efforts to respond to entirely different market segments or technical limitations, but these are considerations and compromises that the average consumer should not be expected to have to sort out. It might be fun to imagine a dream / nightmare world where everyone is a Head-Fi’er and wallets are banned. The reality is that the average consumer, even in the high-end market, really does not have the time nor the inclination to pick through the finer points of differentiation between two flagships.
In this case, is it perhaps better to go with the final price tag? After all, if there is anything we have learnt in recent years, it’s that market forces are always reliable and rational indicators of value.
If we apply this rule to the two Sony IEM flagships, then it’s clear that the market has spoken in favour of the EX1000. At the time of writing, the EX1000, released in 2010 with an MSRP of $799 USD, fetches 37,961 Yen (~ $470 USD) on Amazon Japan. The XBA-4, released in 2012 with an MSRP of $499 USD, today can be had for the mere sum of 17,574 Yen (~ $220 USD). The XBA-4’s Japanese street price has dropped by a significant proportion in only a fraction of the time. In the US market, where the XBA-4 is probably still enjoying its marketing honeymoon, is a little kinder: $395 USD versus $348 USD. (Who else hears these figures and feels some nostalgia stirring for the tumultuous Playstation 3 launch?)
It seems that Head-fi has been a little closer to the Japanese market in its opinion on the EX1000 vs the XBA-4. Despite some grumbling about the stratospheric launch price and a residual distrust of Sony from the MDR-EX700’s price/performance ratio, the EX1000 seems to be a relatively popular with a general consensus that it is a top-tier, if not the top tier, dynamic driver IEM. On the other hand, the XBA-4 has had a very mixed reception, and only a handful of reviews. Out of those reviews, only joker’s review was relatively positive, though not without some real caveats.
It seems the XBA-4 just can’t get a break on Head-Fi, despite having the full-faith of the Sony machine (for what its worth) behind it. Despite all the negative press, I bought myself a pair after an unexpected opportunity to demo them arose, and I was offered a good price by the Sony dealer. (Spoiler alert: I liked them enough to buy them.) Now that I have also acquired a pair of EX1000’s, I thought it would be interesting to provide the following comparison between these two flagships – and maybe to get some idea of what statements the engineers were trying to make.
Specifications: Sony Prints the Darndest Things
Type Dynamic, Closed
Driver Unit 16mm, Dome type (CCAW adopted)
Power Handling Capacity 200mW
Impedance 32ohms at 1kHz
Frequency Response 3-30,000Hz (Oh you Sony)
Cord 7N-OFC litz cord Y-type / Detachable
Cord Length 1.2m*
Plug L-shaped stereo mini plug (Gold)
Weight (Without Cord) Approx. 8g
*On review is the US version of the EX1000 which comes with the same cord as the EX600
Type Closed, Quad Balanced Armature
Driver Unit Quad Balanced Armature
Sensitivity 108dB (150mV)
Power Handling Capacity 100mW
Impedance 8ohms at 1kHz (Umm…)
Frequency Response 3-28,000Hz (Really? Again?)
Cord Length 1.2m
Plug Four-conductor gold-plated L-shaped*
Weight (Without Cord) Approx. 8g
*On review is the iPhone headset version of the XBA-4, with a microphone / music controls and a Y-type cord. The standard XBA-4 has a J-type cord.
Design / Build Quality: Does This Super Woofer Make Me Look Fat?
The MDR-EX1000 has stunning build quality, and typifies Sony’s premium, utilitarian and slightly brutal ethos at its best. The EX1000’s appear to be not just earphones, but hearing instruments – the mix of magnesium and matte/gloss black plastic accents make for a decidedly industrial feel. While the MDR-7550 is actually the professional variant of the EX series, the EX1000 still looks every bit the business. There is a small dot on the inside of the left earpiece to identify them in the dark. The earpieces themselves have a reassuring weight and rigidity, and the dull clink they make when knocked together lets you know you’re not playing with some plastic toy. While I’m not a big fan of wearing jewellery, I feel as though these make for some worthy substitutes.
As for the cable, soft and supple are the keywords, with a lack of memory and a great resistance to tangling - similar to the MDR-Z1000 cable. On my version of the EX1000, the included detachable cables are the same as those found on the EX600. They are nice cables, with a no-nonsense plug at the end that looks durable though a little disappointingly meagre.
Compared to the EX1000, the XBA-4 looks downright clumsy. Despite the possibilities for saving space with balanced armatures (the XBA-1 is pleasingly tiny) it’s obvious that the XBA-4 is bursting at the seams with its four BA’s. The overall build is surprisingly light on the XBA-4, but the incongruity of the light weight, along with the slightly chintzy mix of chrome and dark plastics, silk-screened lettering (the markings on the EX1000, including the Sony logo, are actually embossed) makes the whole gettup seem a little cheap. Still, the design seems sturdy and rigid. I would have liked to see, given the price, a body made of magnesium or some other light weight metal.
The cable is a thin, slightly elliptical flat cable. While it doesn’t tangle easily, it does seem to retain quite a bit of memory and doesn’t feel nearly as supple as the EX1000 cable. The plug design is sturdy (I believe that the Japanese version of the EX1000 shares the same plug) but honestly seems a little overbuilt, with the same combination of chrome and plastics that screams premium like a big gold chain on a hairy chest. Like the EX1000, there is a helpful raised bump on the back of the strain relief of the left earpiece. About the nicest looking part of the XBA-4 is the microphone / music-controls on the IP variant. Sadly this is something that many buyers won’t benefit from. Also, while it’s not part of this review, the microphone is not very good.
Verdict: If it isn’t abundantly clear, the EX1000’s build and design is far and away the winner here. While it might be tempting to put it down to the difference in price, other brands like Audio Technica have demonstrated that its possible to have a premium build for a lower cost. The XBA-4, whether by poor choices or deliberate decision, does not immediately instil confidence in its credentials.
Portability / Isolation / Comfort: The PFR-V1 Stirs Uneasily
Earlier in the introduction I mentioned the Sony PFR-V1 as a possible relative to the EX1000’s design. For those of who you don’t know, the PFR-V1 was a whimsical Sony headphone which consisted of two small speakers suspended in front of the user’s ears, with a metal pipe leading into the ear to conduct bass. The PFR-V1 was considered something of an odd design, considering that it offered the kind of isolation and ergonomics you get by suspending two small speakers in front of a user’s ears. By which I mean, none whatsoever. The PFR-V1 was praised for its great soundstage, but was presumably so impractical that a PFR-V2 never saw the light of day. (One day I will own one, just out of sheer perverse curiosity.)
I mention this because the EX1000 seems to bear some resemblance to this design. The EX1000 is suspended by its earhooks in front of the ears, with a nozzle that pipes sound into the ear. It’s comfortable, but the earpieces stick out significantly from the ears. The design, along with the large driver vents, mean that the EX1000 offers less isolation than any other IEM I’ve ever tried except perhaps the Bose IE2. Wind noise is also an issue considering how far the unit sticks out from the ears. Even with the noise isolating hybrid tips I’ve come to prefer on the EX1000, it’s not a particularly portable affair. Of concern would be the potential for hearing damage caused by turning up the volume to overcome a noisy daily commute.
Thanks to the ear-hooks and suspended design though, cable noise is essentially non-existent. This makes it a great option for wearing around the house. The lack of isolation means that you might be able to respond to people shouting at you for spending too much money on treating your headfitis.
The EX1000 seems to call for quiet times, a comfortable chair, or maybe a walk in the park. I would strongly advise against the EX1000 as a general IEM for some people for portability reasons alone. Even the distantly related GR07 offers more isolation.
If the XBA-4 were to begin to make its case against the EX1000, it would be on the basis of portability. The XBA-4, being a fully sealed design, obviously isolates much better. Despite the earpieces being quite large, their light weight means that they sit quite comfortably in my ears. The cable can be worn up or down, with microphonics quite tolerable when worn down and virtually gone when worn up. Sometimes though, the cable will flop out from over the ears when worn up, something that can be avoided by angling the earpiece in the ear so that the strain-relief points outwards.
With the noise isolating tips, the XBA-4 offers great isolation and in my experience was a pleasure to wear out and about.
Verdict: The XBA-4 has the advantage here in portability, beating the EX1000 as handily as the latter wins out over the former in build quality. You win some, you lose some, though for many users this may be a deal breaker for the EX1000.
PSA: A Small Word On Tip Selection and Impedance
For this comparison, I’m using the orange foam ‘noise-isolating’ hybrids on both sets. I’ve found these to be quite comfortable and isolating, as well as helping me deal with issues I’ve had with both the XBA-4 and EX1000’s sound.
My impressions of the sound of these two IEMs in the next section are written from my experiences with using the EX1000 and the XBA-4 on my iPhone 4, and my desktop setup consisting of a HRT Music Streamer II+ -> Objective 2 Amplifier. I thought it would be very important at this point to detail something about source / amplifier matching, especially for the XBA-4.
I mentioned earlier that the XBA-4 has no crossover, and this leads to some issues. In particular, the XBA-4 has a very low nominal impedance of 8 ohms, which means that the sound will vary very significantly when using different sources.
Often times its mentioned that a particular headphone is sensitive to the source, and that balanced armatures are particularly challenging for amps compared to dynamic drivers because impedance tends to vary across frequencies. It’s less often explained how this actually works, so if you are interested, I’d like to suggest some reading. This Goldenears article is helpful, even if like me you don’t quite grasp the mathematics of the whole idea:
The thing to take away is that an IEM like the XBA-4 with its very low 8ohms ‘nominal’ impedance is very sensitive to the output impedance of the source. Keep in mind that 8ohms is the ‘nominal’ figure – the actual figure varies wildly across frequency.
How wildly you ask?
The darker line represents impedance across frequency. As you can see, the XBA-3s impedance starts around 10ohms, until the higher frequencies where it climbs to a peak of 90 ohms. This would understandably be a challenge for a weaker amplifier, where a 90db impedance could produce distortion as the amplifier is being asked to deliver more power than it can. It can only be assumed that the XBA-4 would be even worse.
The graph of the XBA-3’s frequency response against different amplifier output impedances is also a bit of a warning sign. What is most significant are the two lines, the red and the blue. Goldenears tests with a headphone amplifier that has an output impedance of 0.05 ohms. As extra impedance is added, you can see a very strong variation, especially in the high frequencies. This corresponds with the rise in impedance in the previous graph. The variation between the red and the blue graph (0.05 ohms versus 10 ohms) seems to be about 3db at times, would almost certainly be audible and would lead to very different impressions of the XBA-4’s sound if you used an source amp with a high output impedance.
For reference, Goldenears helpfully provides tables listing the measured output impedance of various sources:
What we can gather from this is that the XBA-4 would sound quite different coming out of a Fiio E9, than say, an iPhone 4. Even when using Sony’s own players with impedances of around 3-4 ohms, there would be a difference in the highs compared to a low output impedance amplifier. Even an iPhone 4S with a ~ 2 ohm impedance would sound a little different from an iPhone 4.
There has been many complaints of the XBA-4 sounding somewhat disjointed, especially in regards to how the high frequencies do not mesh well with the lows. The XBA-4’s low / variable impedance could go some way (but not all the way) towards explaining some of these impressions. It could be expected that the XBA-4 would sound like garbage coming out of most of the listed desktop amps, with a gigantic 10k frequency spike. Besides simply changing the frequency balance, as I mentioned above, it would be expected that a 90 ohm spike in impedance would produce a challenge for some weaker headphone amplifiers, resulting in possible distortion.
When reading my impressions of the XBA-4 and thinking about how they might sound on your source, this is an extremely important consideration. For reference, the O2 amplifier and iPhone 4 I have been using have a relatively low output impedance of 0.5 ohms and 0.97 ohms respectively, with a great deal of power overhead for the XBA-4. The Objective 2 amplifier in particular is well regarded and is what I will be using for the critical A/B comparisons that follow.
Update: Since the posting of this review, more measurements and information about the XBA-4's impedance and frequency response have become available. This information can be found in the second post of this thread.
Sound: Overall Comparison (Real vs Real+)
When I first put the EX1000’s in my ears and chose a track, it was something of a revelation. The key word here is natural.
Seemingly because of their unique design, the EX1000 have a very balanced and yet airy presentation that feels almost like wearing a pair of good full size open headphones, with no hint of congestion or bloat. They are also aided by their lack of microphonics and good wearing comfort, which means that they seemingly disappear, leaving you with the music.
The overall tone is neutral, with a tilt towards treble that lends the sound a hint of dryness. This dryness makes it obviously distinct from a slightly warmer IEM like the GR07.
Dissecting the sound, we can start with the lows. The bass is well extended, deeply authoritative and articulate. I’ve noticed over time that with better headphones with no mid-bass bloat, it becomes very apparent which tracks have normal beats that the average car speaker should have no trouble reproducing, and which ones actually have deep sub-bass that is felt and not heard. The EX1000 is a fine example of this; there is no mid-bass bloat, and depending on the headphones you are coming from you may think the bass is hiding. When the bass is called for though, you get a fistful for your ears. It’s effortless bass which give instruments like taiko drums scale and majesty.
Using this great test, bass kicks in immediately before 20hz, and rises smoothly, which agrees with what my ears hear.
The mids are crystal clear, with articulation and detail in droves. Because of the lack of mid-bass emphasis and the tilt towards treble, the mids sound dry and crisp rather than lush or sweet. This works especially well for higher female vocals, giving them a spaciousness and energy in many recordings.
Treble is well extended, and everything has sparkle and natural shimmer. However, this is where I feel the biggest fault lies with the EX1000 and it is the lower treble that may present difficulties for some. I had to change tips several times before I was able to determine that only one size of tip – the Small-Medium orange foam hybrids – was able to tame the tendency in some recordings towards a particularly painful hissing treble. Reading the impressions of others on Head-fi, it seems that this is an issue that varies from user to user, but obtaining a good seal is critical to preventing the sibilance. It’s actually difficult to determine what gives a good seal, because with the EX1000s lack of isolation and greatly vented design, there is none of the ‘suction’ to tell you when you’ve chosen exactly the right size for your ear canal. Quite honestly, before I spent some time experimenting with the tips I was ready to call it quits with the EX1000, because they reminded me of the EX700 with a somewhat spiteful, unforgiving treble hiss.
Even with the right tips, the EX1000 is an unforgiving earphone. When given a good recording, the EX1000 is beautiful and emotional, with a fluid, cohesive sound and natural timbre. On a badly mastered track, it will sound unengaging or even painful if the track has been mastered too ‘hot’.
As I listen predominantly to a mix of ‘indie’ acoustic music and a lot of electronic, electropop / electroclash etc music, I got to know these two faces very well. The EX1000 shines when given the opportunity to convey natural tone, but tends to betray some modern recordings as overmanipulated, hot and bland.
Soundstage is wide and airy, with good articulate placement of instruments. The slight treble emphasis tends to enhance the perceived soundstage width and detail by bringing out high frequency reverb and decay information.
Overall, the EX1000 is the most technically proficient dynamic driver IEM I have ever heard, with a clear, natural, and effortless tone. This clarity does have its drawbacks – which is what makes the XBA-4 an interesting counterargument.
It is immediately obvious that the XBA-4 is an entirely different beast at first listen. Whereas the EX1000 sounds natural and airy, the XBA-4 on first impression sounds dark, lush and almost murky in comparison.
However, listen a little longer and you will find tremendous, almost startling detail, layering and articulation in the sound, and in this respect I am very much reminded of my beloved Earsonics SM3’s. Sadly, I cannot make a direct comparison because the XBA-4 was what I purchased to replace my SM3’s when I lost them.
For those of you are wondering if the 'cloudiness' is from stuffing too many armatures into the same IEM, it's not. The single armature XBA-1 has the same kind of tone. (I have a pair.) The cloudiness actually seems to be the general tone of the full-range driver.
The XBA-4 is far from balanced or neutral in presentation. There is a full, rounded lower mid emphasis, yet unlike the SM3 there is also an emphasis in the treble range, particularly in the “shhh” region, where the shimmery after ring of a cymbal hit resides. The balanced armatures are able to retrieve huge amounts of micro-detail, yet they present it rather subtly to the ears. What this means is that the XBA-4 sounds almost a little congested, yet pulls off the dual feat of sounding lush, relaxed and emotional like the Radius DDMs, and yet articulate and detailed.
Again, taking the sound apart, the lows are rounded, deep and slightly slower than the EX1000’s in sound. Despite the addition of the so-called ‘super-woofer’ and all the basshead connotations that might imply, the sub-bass is actually quite subtle. Compared to the XBA-3, which I auditioned before buying the 4, the super-woofer actually seems to just fill in missing low frequency information in the sub-bass that lends the 4 a better sense of pace and scale than the somewhat glossy sounding 3. Bass is musical, with better tonal information than the EX1000 that makes the low frequencies very rich. However, the overall sound and decay is not as natural as the EX1000. If the EX1000’s favourite bass instrument is the taiko drum, the XBA-4’s favourite partner is synthesised bass notes – all of them – where the low frequency armatures can flex their considerable weight without fear of sounding artificial.
With the same frequency sweep test, the XBA-4’s bass (or some kind of mechanical action) starts off right after the 10hz mark but does not rise as smoothly as the EX1000’s.
The mids on the XBA-4 sound liquid and smooth. This is the area which probably sees the greatest difference from the EX1000. Vocals on the XBA-4 never ever sound dry; they always have a lushness and softness that is particularly relaxing, though sometimes not particularly natural. Again, they are similar to the SM3 in this respect. Male vocals tend to do well, with a deep authority and richness. Female vocals sound rich as well, but tend to have a bit of a veil.
Treble on the XBA-4 is unusual. There is a peak in the treble, but not in the usual region where you would expect from a Sony; the peak is in the lower treble where as I said the shimmery “sh” falls, rather than in the harsh “s” of the EX1000. This means that again a lot of treble information is conveyed, but inoffensively. The drawback is that treble does tend to sound metallic at times – some instruments don’t sound quite right because of this shimmer.
Now, while this all sounds very discouraging, the XBA-4 has an ace up its sleeve. The XBA-4 has absolutely stellar, pin-point soundstage placement. Although the soundstage initially sounds more closed in than the EX1000’s (both because of the higher isolation and also the slightly congested tone) the actual placement within that soundstage is startlingly holographic – again a similar trick to the SM3’s, without artificially centering the vocals quite as much. In fact, and the XBA-4 has an almost eerie sense of soundstage placement – instruments and vocals seem to come out of nowhere out of an dark, inky background, and particularly in electronic music which tends to play all kinds of tricks with pans and voicing across the soundstage, the effect is downright breathtaking and ethereal. There is an almost tactile sense of where the instruments are on the soundstage, and even though it never sounds as ‘out of your head’ as the EX1000 does, it is absolutely superior to the EX1000 in what it does inside this smaller space. This is the biggest calling card of the XBA-4 and something which I haven’t heard out of any other earphone.
As the brain computes soundstage by listening for spatial audio cues, this is why I claim that the XBA-4 must have a startling level of detail despite the seemingly cloudy sound – it can convey enough micro detail to the brain that it can create the illusion of space effortlessly. This is different from the EX1000’s approach, which sounds more spacious by providing more treble detail and reverb quantity, but actually has less transient and micro-detail.
Overall, the XBA-4 is not a natural sounding earphone. I can completely understand why some people think the XBA-4 sounds somewhat disjointed. The artificial frequency balance, combined with the ethereal soundstage and layering, means that the XBA-4 always sounds like someone turned on some kind of studio DSP enhancer on the sound.
As a result the sound is always engaging and interesting to listen to – where bad recordings sound great and great recordings sound doubleplusgood. Like the SM3, I would expect it to be a very polarising signature but also like the SM3, one which would find many fans. It’s such a different approach from the EX1000 that it almost seems absurd to compare them. So, what is my final verdict?
I am not going to declare a verdict on the sound, because they are both incredible sounding earphones, despite the consensus that has emerged on Head-fi that the XBA-4 is somehow vastly inferior to its cousin. While this might seem a cop-out, I think they both have advantages and fatal flaws that make them behave completely differently. To paraphrase from the opera ‘Nixon In China’ (a bit of a favourite of mine), I believe they are on the same highway, in different lanes, but parallel, heading towards a single goal. Or, simply put, they are both top-tier headphones taking two very different approaches to musical enjoyment.
Perhaps the best thing I can do is bring up an example of a track I enjoyed very much more on the EX1000 and a track I loved more on the XBA-4, which will bring their differences into focus.
‘Hope There’s Someone’ by Antony & The Johnson’s, from the album “I Am A Bird Now’
On the EX1000, this sparse, deeply emotional recording is haunting. The unusual, lilting male vocals explore the studio space, and you can hear all the small inflections in tone. On the XBA-4, this track still sounds incredibly impressive and what stands out is the richness of the vocals and soft, articulate pace on the piano. However the EX1000’s additional energy, natural timbre and clarity bring this track into the sublime.
‘Circumabient’ by Grimes, from the album “Visions”
Prime evidence for the XBA-4’s case. From the opening bass line which lurches from left to right and then morphs into a deep, insistent beat, to the ghostly, sugary, chopped up vocals that build in complexity and seem to come out of nowhere, the XBA-4 seems to lead the listener through a dream/nightmare soundscape of wraiths and spectral visions. In comparison, the EX1000 sounds flat and lifeless on this track, where the soundstage almost sounds slightly smeared.
I cannot declare a winner on sound alone, because it seems so inherently specific (as these things tend to be). I can however, provide the following practical recommendation.
My Conclusion: A False Dilemma
In the beginning of this comparison I speculated about the reasons why Sony might have decided to split up their product line. After spending some time comparing the XBA-4 with the EX1000, the answer is very very obvious – and falls down to marketing generalisations.
The XBA-4 is absolutely intended for portable use, younger users listening to more studio recordings and electronic music. With its high isolation, forgiving signature and absolutely stellar layering, the XBA-4 is built for portable audio. 9 times out of 10 if you are out and about on the street, you will get better sound out of the XBA-4 than the EX1000 simply on the basis of isolation alone.
The EX1000 actually seems to be the more confusing product to me in comparison. Wind noise and lack of isolation can be truly dismal for portable applications. You could argue that the EX1000 is for home use, but then for the price you could get yourself a pair of full size open headphones that would provide similar sound quality and a better sense of scale. The sound is absolutely fantastic, but the application seems far more unusual. That the EX1000 never came in with a headset variant seems to indicate that Sony was aware of the limitations of their vented design.
In light of this, I can understand why Sony has decided to enter the BA market so late. I would not be surprised if Sony was to gradually narrow the scope of the EX series to professional studio applications, and continue iterating the XBA line for consumers.
That isn’t to say that the XBA-4 is flawless for portable use. I would have expected, given the price, a better level of build quality and a more tasteful design on the XBA-4 in line with the EX series. Plastic chrome accents stopped being 'classy' a long time ago, despite what Steve Guttenburg might have you believe. I would have expected a better cable and a better shell, and a better microphone. ‘Consumer’ should not be synonymous with ‘cheap’. I also would encourage them to find a way to sort out the low impedance of the XBA-4, at least to make a more consistent sound across sources.
I don’t want to present this comparison as a false dilemma. There are many, many IEM’s under the sun. The GR07 presents a better value alternative to the EX1000 with better isolation and excellent sound quality that is a little more forgiving. Conversely I am confident that, while I haven’t heard them, the Westone 4 would deliver similar levels of layering and isolation to the XBA-4 with a more neutral frequency response.
However, I have been using the XBA-4 out and about for a few months now, and after adjusting to its idiosyncrasies, I think it is absolutely worthy of top tier status, and at the current Amazon Japan prices, a steal for anyone after a dynamic, exciting IEM.
I don’t want to sound like an apologist for the XBA-4’s shortcomings, but on the other hand I do urge Head-fi’ers who are interested to at least take an opportunity to give them a good, long demo before passing judgement. Head-fi’s initial response to the XBA series has seemed hasty to me, when in reality I think they are a very unique option on the market, especially for anyone after a good IEM with iPhone headset controls.
While I like the EX1000 and will keep it as a reference earphone, I know that personally I am going to spending a lot more time with the XBA-4. In the end, that’s what really counts.
April 2013 EDIT: Updated with notes on the 7550 and XBA-40! See post #3