Top positive review
31 of 31 people found this helpful
Worth it? Most definitely
on 7 December 2012
It's been some time since I've reviewed something, but since nobody has yet commented on these remarkable earphones I feel I should.
Firstly, if you've made it this far down the page it's fair to assume you haven't balked at spending a substantial (some would say horrific) amount of cash on a pair of earbuds, and therefore it's probably also fair to assume that you're mainly interested in sound quality. Certainly these top-line Sonys don't subjectively appear to be great value for money at first glance. Earphones aside, you get a small leatherette carry case (which you'll rarely make the effort to use), four sets of Sony's usual silicone rubber inserts (super small, small, medium and large), a further three sets of "noise isolation" silicone inserts (much the same, but with a urethane foam ring packing out the insert to cut down noise), and a cable tidy (little more than a miniature version of the cable tidy found on lawnmowers). The earphones themselves don't impress either, being chunky and somewhat ungainly - though that doesn't make them any less secure in your ear - and made of bog-standard ABS plastic rather than the metal which you might expect for the money. A surprisingly thin wire and chrome effect L-plug complete the "Hmm, is that it?" reaction. They're very much like the Grado SR325i headphones I use at home on my seperates stack, which are equally underwhelming to look at. Perhaps, like the Grados, all the money's been spent inside. I certainly hoped so myself, having bought them on a whim based on their frequency response etc.
So you find the correct size insert (the biggest that will fit in your ear really) and then you plug them in...and it gets worse. These use Sony's new Balanced Armature drivers, which come in single, twin, triple or quadruple versions. These earphones are the full-fat quadruple driver versions, with seperate treble and bass drivers, backed up with a midrange driver and a subwoofer driver. So that's four in each ear, and when you first plug them in you figure they'll be bloomin' powerful and punchy. Nope. Volume is weak - poor, frankly - and there is a very brittle, sharp tone to them, no warmth at all, very little bass, no sign really of one woofer, let alone two woofers in each ear. It's actually quite unpleasant.
HOWEVER - before you panic, think "What have I done?!" and desperately see if you can return them, be patient. Those who have proper hifi will know about "running in" new equipment, and surprisingly these little earphones from a mainstream manufacturer benefit more from being run-in than pretty much anything I've bought in 20 years of small-scale audiophile equipment. A hundred hours does it for these Sony's - yes, one hundred, just leave your Walkman/Ipod on repeat, charging, in a drawer for at least four days - and try again. You'll be astonished. I use my XBA4's with a Sony A-series Walkman and albums transferred from CD at 320kbps, and they need to be heard to be believed, even more so with FLAC etc. Detail is really good, the most subtle instrument beautifully clear, vocals are brilliantly realistic, and the bass that was conspicuous by its absence when you unboxed these XBA4's now slams through you. They are very close to my big Grado headphones in many respects, which would be seriously impressive for any portable over-ear headphones...for a pair of in-ear buds they are nothing short of astonishing. A perfect private performance in your head from little earphones that can be wrapped around your player and stuffed in a jeans pocket? Oh yes, and then some.
Are they the most fashionable option? Probably not. Who cares. If you want in-ears for their portability and sound performance is your priority, it HAS to be these, and who's bothered that they're plasticky and basic looking. I've used around a dozen pairs of earbuds (mine and mate's) over the last few years, and these are so far ahead of anything else it's almost embarrassing. Four people I know have bought the XBA4's in recent weeks on the back of listening to mine, and given the price, that is quite significant. Run them in first, enjoy them and look after them as they'll be unbeaten for some time I think. Get past the initial "reservations", shall we say, and these are fabulous earphones, worth - oh yes - every penny to those who value good sound...