Reviewed Dec 2010
Details: Mid-range in-ear from Sony’s Extra Bass line
Current Price: N/A (discontinued) (MSRP: $59.99)
Specs: Driver: Dynamic | Imp: 16Ω | Sens: 105 dB | Freq: 4-24k Hz | Cable: 4’ L-plug
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrids
Wear Style: Straight down
Accessories (3.5/5) – Single-flange (3 sizes) Sony Hybrid silicone tips and hard clamshell carrying case
Build Quality (3.5/5) – The housings are made of plastic with metal Sony badges running along the spine of the earphones. The flat cable has average strain relief at the stems and no cable cinch but is terminated with a flexible 3.5mm L-plug. Cable quality is quite good – soft, sturdy, and with no memory character
Isolation (2.5/5) – Average for a dynamic-driver canalphone
Microphonics (4/5) – Very low in the flat, tangle-free cable but it can be tricky to route over-the-ear to eliminate cord noise completely
Comfort (2.5/5) – The XB40EX has vertically-mounted drivers and is not meant to be inserted very deeply. However, the earphones are a bit too large and heavy for shallow-insertion canalphones and often stay in only by virtue of the eartip seal while still putting pressure on the outer ear. In addition, the extra-large metal Sony badge running along the height of the earphones can get in the way of wearing them over-the-ear
Sound (4.8/10) – Being part of Sony’s Extra Bass (XB) series, the XB40EX was bound to be a bass-heavy earphone; the question was – how bass-heavy? Answer: very. I’ve owned one of the full-size headphones from the XB line – the MDR-XB500 – until very recently and thought they were surprisingly decent with the exception of the frequency balance, which put bass up front and recessed the mids and treble quite severely. However, if the balance of the XB500 is (+2 bass, -1 mids, -1 treble), the XB40EX is more like (+3,-2,-2). It really is very biased in favor of the low end. The result is that the XB40EX warrants lower listening levels as equating the output levels of the midrange and treble of the XB40 with those of a more balanced earphone makes the bass nauseating. Unfortunately, the 13.5mm drivers really aren’t resolving enough to maintain reasonable levels of detail and texturing at lower volumes. Balance aside, the drivers put on a good show for an earphone tuned the way the XB40EX is. Bass impact is enormous in quantity but still slightly more controlled than something like the Sennheiser CX300. Most of the bass comes in fairly high but sub-bass is not missing altogether, though it can be hard to distinguish from the ever-present blanket of mid/upper-bass.
Expectedly, some of the bass bloat affects the midrange, which is generally warm and smooth. Truth be told, there’s simply not much to be said about the midrange until the bass hump is equalized away since it is recessed to the point of being irrelevant. Even with the bass dropped to what I consider near-flat level with a parametric EQ, the mids are nothing special – the clarity doesn’t quite match the Meelec M9 detail trails (distantly) the ViSang R01 and the Brainwavz models. Still, I’ve definitely heard worse – at least the XB40EX is not as tiring to listen to as the metallic-sounding Skullcandy Titans or as muddy as the Earsquake FISH at reasonable volumes.
The treble is competent but far from outstanding. It reminds me of the high end of the Sennheiser CX250, which I rather like. Trouble is – the CX250 doesn’t have bass that crowds out everything else and costs about 2x less than the Sonys. There is a bit of hard-edginess to the treble and a spot of vocal sibilance is present on some tracks but such nuances are usually swallowed up by the bass and therefore don’t detract from the overall experience. The presentation, too, is quite decent – especially compared to the similarly-priced and similarly consumer-friendly Skullcandy FMJ – but not quite competitive with earphones such as the Brainwavz M1 and Meelectronics M6. The soundstage has good depth and ok width but for the most part stays concentrated in the center. The omnipresent bass can once again detract greatly from the realism of the experience, especially with live recordings.
Value (5.5/10) – Head-Fi is quite clearly not the target audience of the Sony XB40EX – to say that these earphones are bass-heavy is a major understatement. In terms of overall frequency balance, the only earphones that even come close to offering the sort of bass dominance exemplified by the XB40EX are the TDK ‘Extra Bass’ EB900s. The EB900s are admittedly grainier and edgier but at the same time they are more manageable with a bit of equalization and have a more easy-going fit. Those interested in spending $40 on nothing but bass should concentrate on these two. For everyone else, better choices abound, though of course certain genre preferences may make the XB40EX a more appealing option. Personally I’d rather be listening to the MDR-EX082 (aka EX85), which comes as a stock earphone with many Sony players.
Pros: User-friendly cable, generally smooth sound, decent sense of space
Cons: Large; will be uncomfortable for some; bass dominates mids & treble