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Klipsch Reference S4i vs. Sony XBA-1iP Earphones - Balanced Armature vs. Dynamic Drivers
By Hurrairah bin Sohail - 18 Jun 2012,5:51pm

All About the Sound

Hear The Difference

We decided to pit the two technologies head to head and present you the findings in this feature article. Representing Balanced Armature technology, we have the Sony XBA-1iP (first introduced here and here) while the Dynamic driver contender is the Klipsch Reference S4i. In no way do we suggest that these two products are the best from their respective categories, bu they were selected based on their ease of availability at the time of writing, are similarly priced and have comparable hardware. It is important to note that the Sony XBA-1iP has a single Balanced Armature unit tasked with providing the full range of sound.

Balanced Armature and Dynamic Driver representatives have been chosen. Let the listening tests commence.

Both models are compatible with iPhones and Apple products. We chose to use an iPod Classic 160GB as the player of choice because we personally have greater faith in its amplification prowess when compared to its cellular cousin. Before going on to the individual performances of the two earphones, it would be prudent to consider an overview of both contenders and the hardware they pack.

Klipsch Reference S4i

The Klipsch Reference S4i includes 8.5mm full range drivers which are responsible for pumping out the sound. Earbuds are slightly tilted to provide a good deal of noise isolation. The in-line control pod has three buttons to control volume and playback. A bronzed finish gives them a unique look and helps the product score marks for aesthetics. The Klipsch Reference S4i is priced at S$169.


Sony XBA-1iP

On the other hand, the Sony XBA-1iP features a single balanced armature unit. The housing for the product is much smaller than the Klipsch Reference S4i and the earphones also feel lighter. The smaller stature of the product has allowed Sony to grant these earphones good noise isolation. Similar to its competitor, the in-line control pod features three buttons which help you manage playback. The Sony XBA-1iP is priced at S$129.


Listening Tests

As always, we have our usual suite of test tracks to find out the worth of these two earphone technologies. Taking on a neutral approach during our listening trials, we ensure that our personal preferences do not color our judgments. Rather than prioritizing excellent bass or shimmering highs, we tried to gauge how close the earphones were able reproduce a neutral tone that stayed true to the intended mix of the track.

Main MP3 Audio Track Testing:

  • Hotel California - Eagles
  • Sail on Soothsayer - Buckethead
  • Melt My Heart to Stone - Adele
  • Elements of Life - Tiesto

We started off with Melt My Heart To Stone. The treble intensive track should play right into the hands of the Balanced Armature technology, which is touted for its attention to detail. Surely enough, Adele’s voice sounded crisp and bright when we heard the tune with the XBA-1iP. The Klipsch Reference S4i did its best to ensure that its Dynamic drivers gave a good showing and displayed nice warmth of tone. But it was unable to reproduce the subtle nuances and timbre of the instruments used as well as its Sony counterpart using Balanced Armature technology.

With the high frequencies tested, we move on to the bass performance of the two contenders. Using Elements of Life by Tiesto, we found out that the Klipsch Reference S4i totally outperformed the XBA-1iP. Low frequencies require large movements of air to be accurately rendered. The small Balanced Armature unit is unable to achieve this feat all by its lonesome. While the Klipsch S4i only has 8.5mm Dynamic drivers, it was still able to deliver good bass with impact and oomph.

Next up was “Sail On Soothsayer”. The heavy distortion of the rhythm track and chiming guitar lines layered out on top make this song a joy to ear, but a nightmare to reproduce for earphones. The Klipsch Reference S4i performed admirably with its Dynamic drivers handling the harshness of the track with aplomb. The Sony XBA-1iP however faltered under the strain. The Balanced Armature 'driver' technology was unable to fully cope with the Buckethead track too and we even heard a slight hint of speaker blowout.

While the tracks up till now have been designed to pointedly test a certain aspect of the earphones’ performance, we used Hotel California by The Eagles to gauge how good are the earphones when trying to handle a variety of audio aspect. The live and acoustic track has so many melodic and instrumental phrasings, which thoroughly task every iota of the devices’ capacity. Both the Sony XBA-1iP and the Klipsch S4i performed admirably in their own way.

The Sony XBA-1iP with its Balanced Armature technology had brilliant attention to detail in Hotel California. Coupled with its impressive transient response, aspects of the song such as the shakers and alternate percussions sounded extremely good. The guitars lines also came off well with crisp reproduction. A spacious soundstage also brought the live atmosphere of the track to life. The Klipsch S4i did not have the added embellishments of its competitor, but strong mids and bass with warm highs thrown into the mix meant it was not any less enjoyable to listen to. 

Balanced Armature vs. Dynamic Drivers Audio Performance
MP3 Track Sony XBA-1iP Klipsch S4i
Melt My Heart to Stone - Adele 8.5 8.0
Elements of Life - Tiesto 7.0 8.0
Sail on Soothsayer - Buckethead 6.5 7.5
Hotel California - The Eagles 8.0 8.0
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