The Sony XBA-3 in-ear headphones are part of a renewed Sony foray into the high-end audio market — with the XBA-1, XBA-2, and XBA-4 (and -IP iPhone variants) the XBA-3 is aimed at music enthusiasts with deep pockets.
Sony XBA-3: Design and specifications
The Sony XBA-3 use an in-ear design, so you’ll need to be comfortable pushing a pair of headphones deep into your ear canal if you want to wear them properly.
Despite the headphones’ ‘micro-size’ balanced armature design, the XBA-3 headphones are quite large. Rather than nestling inwards like the Jays q-Jays, the body of the Sony XBA-3 sits in the outer part of the ear. We found them a little large for comfortable wearing over long periods, but we’re used to much smaller in-ears: if the XBA-3 is your first set we doubt you’ll notice them. The headphones’ cables come from the rear of the body, and runs 1.2 metres to a chunky L-shaped 3.5mm stereo plug.
There’s 1.1 metres of cord before the headphones split off into individual runs. The left headphone hangs straight down on a 16 centimetre cord, but the right earphone is designed to be looped around the back of the wearer’s neck — a ‘J-cord’ design — with a further 54 centimetres of cord. This is far too much; we think it should be around 15 centimetres shorter, which would still allow plenty of movement. As it stands, the extra cord length sits uncomfortably or tangles itself around the back of your neck.
A total of seven ear-tips are included in the packaging for the XBA-3. Super-small, small, medium and large standard silicon earplugs join small, medium and large ‘noise isolation’ plugs: silicon tips lined with light foam, adding a little extra cushioning and baffling between your ear and the outside world.
We didn’t hear a significant difference in isolation from ambient noise between the standard and isolating ear-tips. We would have liked to see some full foam ear-tips included in the package; we think a set of cushy Comply tips would be a worthwhile upgrade.
Sony XBA-3: Sound quality and performance
We used a range of compressed and CD audio to test the Sony XBA-3, from sources and equipment ranging from a Apple iPhone 4 to a Lehmann Audio Black Cube Linear headphone amplifier.
An old favourite, the M83 remix of the Bloc Party Track The Pioneers, showed off the XBA-3’s strong bass performance: plenty of low frequency extension, with only a small amount of muddiness. The headphones do a good job in mid-range frequencies as well, with the vocals and guitar of I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow (from the excellent O Brother, Where Art Thou?) reproduced smoothly, if very slightly lacking in the nuance and detail we’ve heard in more expensive high-end full-size headphones.
Mid-range frequencies are slightly recessed compared to the strong bass, but this is typical of most consumer headphones. When we listened to some Alison Krauss, Katie Melua and Katie Noonan tracks to test out higher frequencies, we found the Sony XBA-3 headphones handled treble smoothly — the headphones aren’t what you’d call ‘crisp’, but there’s plenty of detail in female vocals and tinkling piano notes.
We’d characterise the sound of the Sony XBA-3 as rich: the headphones have a slight emphasis on bass and mid-range notes, and a smooth treble roll-off. They’re well suited to deep, layered music: jazz works equally as well as electronica with the XBA-3.
The ambient noise isolation of the Sony XBA-3 was good but not great. We didn’t notice much difference between the standard and ‘noise isolation’ silicon ear-tips, but generally the Sony XBA-3 headphones block out most low-volume ambient noise, purely by virtue of their sealing the wearer’s ear canal. We were still able to hear office conversations a few metres away if we listened carefully, but the low hum of air-conditioning and office PCs was almost entirely removed. If any music is playing, even at a low volume, the Sony XBA-3 headphones effectively drown out any traces of ambient noise.
There is some minor microphonic noise in the headphone cable, but the J-cord design does minimise this. Sony doesn’t include a lapel clip for the cable of the XBA-3.
Sony XBA-3: Conclusion
Sony’s new XBA-3 headphones, topped only by the XBA-4 in Sony’s in-ear range, have sound quality that competes well with the long-established Shures and Etymotics of the personal audio world. We don’t like some aspects of the design and the sound could be a little more detailed, but we think the XBA-3 is worth considering.