Sony was kind enough to allow us some serious quality time with the XBA earphones and we were able to put them through their paces. Here is what we found out after our audio trial session.
The Sony XBA-4 earphones are the crown jewel of the new Balanced Armature range. It's also the most expensive at a suggested retail price of S$529. Fitted with four balanced armature units handling full range, tweeter, woofer and super woofer duties, the earphones pack a lot of hardware. And even though the balanced armature driver units are small, four of them under one housing results in the XBA-4 looking bloated.
However the hardware really shows off its worth when the XBA-4 is put to the test. The earphones have an extremely natural tone and show excellent attention to detail, evidenced on our play through of Adele's Melt My Heart To Stone. Low frequency performance borders close to being classified as bass heavy but delivers great impact making techno tracks like Tiesto’s Elements of Life come alive. Personally though, we found the bass to be just a smidgen too high with the XBA-4.
Distortion was handled with aplomb when the XBA-4 was tasked with reproducing the harsh guitar tones of Buckethead’s Sail On Soothsayer. The high point of our listening test was a live rendition of Hotel California by The Eagles. The wide vertical soundstage produced by the XBA-4 made it feel as if we were present in the concert hall itself.
One step down from the XBA-4, the Sony XBA-3 earphones has a full range driver, a tweeter and a woofer, missing only the super woofer found in the other model. The casing is large but not as off-putting as the XBA-4. With one audio driver less, this unit's SRP is tagged at S$419.
A good soundstage and good transient response made for enjoyable listening when playing Hotel California by The Eagles. Adele's Melt My Heart To Stone was also rendered beautifully although the trebles were not as bright when compared with our experience of the song when testing with the XBA-4.
Balanced Armature technology is known to struggle with the lower tones, but with the XBA-3‘s bass performance on Tiesto's Elements of Life, we were unable to spot any shortcomings. Similarly with Sail On Soothsayer, the headphones navigated the distortion and chiming guitar lines with ease.
In our opinion the XBA-3 seems to be the milder, more sedate brother of the XBA-4. While the latter is full of verve and energy, the XBA-3’s sound is more neutral without sacrificing any of nuances and details. Both are great headphones and the choice between the two would depend on the individual aural preferences of the user.
If you have not picked up the pattern of the nomenclature as of yet, the number at the end of the XBA series denotes how many balanced armature driver units are present. The XBA-2 features a full range driver and a woofer and is comparable to the usual dynamic driver fitted sounds buds in the market. Of course, given the nature of these drivers which are inherently more expensive to manufacture, the XBA-2 goes for a pricey S$279.
Bass performance for the XBA-2 can be qualified as weak even though Sony decided to fit it with a woofer rather than a tweeter. Elements of Life by DJ Tiesto lacked the oomph required to really grab the listener's attention and the song suffered from the loose bass characteristics of the headphones. Similarly, distortion on Sail On Soothsayer was muddy.
However, Adele’s Melt My Heart To Stone and Hotel California by Eagles were right up the XBA-2’s alley. As mentioned earlier, balanced armature drivers excel at reproducing details as the melodies for both songs flowed beautifully.
The most affordable of the new Balanced Armature headphones from Sony is the XBA-1 at just S$109. With just a single full range driver handling audio duties, the in-ear headphones are quite small. Like the rest of the XBA line-up the XBA-1 features double housing for greater noise isolation and better handling of vibrations.
Plugging the XBA-1 into our iPod Classic and popping them in our ears, the first thing we noticed was the snug fit offered by the headphones. Ambient noise was also blocked out to an impressive degree.
Overall, the tracks sounded slightly flat and clipped especially when compared to our listen through with the more expensive models. That said, the XBA-1 paid great attention to detail for a natural, neutral mix as the earphones aspired to make sure that the songs sounded pleasant to the ear.
Slight blow-out was observed when we tried to tax the headphones at high volume with Sail On Soothsayer’s distortion. But on the whole, the XBA-1 is a good proposition for the audiophile on a budget as the audio quality for its asking price is very decent. These earphones should also serve as an easy stepping stone for audio lovers to try out balanced armature technology.