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It’s not hard to imagine a music fan dropping $50 or $60 on a new pair of headphones. Stepping up from those horrible buds that come with your iPhone or iPod is one of the best investments anyone can make. It takes a special kind of enthusiast to drop several hundred dollars on a pair of headphones, though. Sony’s XBA-3iP in-ear headphones cost a cool $300, and at that price you expect a no-compromise experience: fantastic sound quality, style, and comfort. I’ve been living with these headphones for a couple months now. I wear them on the bus, as I walk to work, while I work out at the gym or go for a run, and sometimes when I need to drown out distractions at the office. They’re great, but I don’t know if they’re three hundred bucks great.
The big selling point of Sony’s new XBA series is its balanced armature design (hence the “BA” in “XBA”). What’s a balanced armature? Simply put, it’s a different mechanism for producing sound than the typical round speaker shape we’re all familiar with. Balanced armature sound drivers are good for tight enclosed spaces and low volumes, which make them well-suited to headphones. In fact, most hearing aids use balanced armature drivers. There are three of them in the XBA-3 headphones: one for full-range sound, one tweeter, and one woofer. The little “iP” at the end of the product name means the headphones support standard in-line iPhone controls: so you can raise or lower volume, skip tracks, fast forward, and answer calls with a touch of the tiny controls on the left earphone cord.
I really love Sony’s design for the XBA line. The earpieces on the XBA-3 model are a little on the bulky side, but they’re still lightweight and don’t stick out from your ears too far. It seems as though the better the sound quality of a pair of headphones, the less suited they are to lots of activity, but I’m able to go for a run without the XBA-3iPs falling out. I haven’t had such luck with other pricey in-ear headphones, which are often so bulky and stick out so far that you look like Uhura from the classic Star Trek series. The exceptionally thin and light cord has got to be partly responsible for the headphones staying in my ears while running. I love ribbon-shaped cables like these, because they’re far less likely to become a tangled knot in your bag or pocket.
A key component of any in-ear headphone is the fit of the earpiece. It has to sit snug in your ear, block out lots of outside noise, and keep in place over long periods of time without causing discomfort. The XBA series all come with seven pairs of replaceable earphone tips – you get extra-small, small, medium, and large tips in a basic silicone dome shape, similar to what you get with most other premium in-ear headphones. Sony also gives you small, medium, and large “noise isolation” tips. These are just like the silicone buds, but with filled with a little foam so they fit more firmly and block out more outside noise. I always have a hard time finding headphone tips that fit my ears comfortably, but I really like the feel of the small sound isolation tips and they really do block more sound than typical hollow silicone tips.
If you spend $300 on a pair of headphones, you expect a few nice extra accoutrements. Sony gives you a few nice extra, including a simply plastic shirt clip, a simple plastic spool to wrap the cord around (making it shorter), and a very nice carry case with a magnetic latch.
Of course, the million dollar question for any pair of headphones is: How do they sound? I’m notoriously picky about headphone sound quality. The sight of the basic buds that came with an iPhone or iPod makes me cringe, and when I see someone in public wearing Skullcandy headphones I feel slapping them off their head. So when I say that I’m happy with the sound from the XBA-3iPs, understand that I’m not easy to please. The tone is relatively even, without too much enhanced bass or high-end. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of kick in a song that demands it. I just don’t hear all that extra thump and bump that’s not meant to be there, I feel like too many premium headphones just crank up the bass and consider that a substitute for good overall sound quality. I want to hear what the song is supposed to sound like, and if I want to further boost the bass, I’ll do it with an equalizer setting. I don’t need my headphones to change the mix of everything I listen to.
While I think the sound quality is quite good, it’s not quite up to the level of some other high-priced in-ear headphones I’ve used, like the Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10 or Shure SE425. The audio quality is on par with the best headphones in the $180-200 range, but it feels like you’re paying about $100 extra just for the Sony brand. Of course, if you don’t have an iPhone and want the same headphones without the Apple controls and built-in mic, you can get the XBA-3 (with no “iP”) for about $20 less.
My general real-world impressions of the XBA-3iPs are quite positive; I have no problem recommending them if you’re not the frugal type. Even if the sound quality doesn’t quite match the other headphones in its price range, it’s quite a cut above all those sub-$100 products on the rack at your local big-box electronics store. Sony earns bonus points for a comfortable fit, super-thin cord, and high style, which makes the high price tag a little easier to swallow.
This story, "Field Test: Sony XBA-3iP headphones" was originally published by TechHive.