Sony XBA-4SL / XBA-4iP Review

7


Reviewed Mar 2012

Details: Quad-driver flagship of Sony’s BA line
MSRP: $349.99 (manufacturer’s page); $369.99 for XBA-4iP with mic & 3-button remote (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $350 from amazon.com for XBA-4; $370 for XBA-4iP; Note: an updated XBA-40 model has since been released
Specs: Driver: Quad BA | Imp:  | Sens: 108 dB | Freq: 3-28k Hz | Cable: 2′ I-plug j-cord + 3’ L-plug extension
Nozzle Size: 4mm | Preferred tips: Sony Hybrid (stock), Monster Supertips
Wear Style: Straight down or over-the-ear

Accessories (4/5) – Sony Hybrid silicone tips (4 sizes), Hybrid silicone+foam tips (3 sizes), 3’ extension cable, cable winder, and magnetic clasp carrying case
Build Quality (4.5/5) – The housings are made out of plastic but feel well put-together. The cables are slightly flattened in cross section and have very flexible strain reliefs all around.
Isolation (3/5) – Quite decent with the ergonomic but shallow-fitting shells Microphonics (4.5/5) – Very low when worn cable-down; nonexistent with over-the-ear wear
Comfort (4/5) – The housings are rather large but nicely designed for a vertical fit a-la JVC FXT90 or Fischer Audio Tandem. The ergonomic nozzle angle helps, as do the smooth surface and rounded edges of the housings. Over-the-ear wear is possible but may require longer eartips than those provided

Sound (8.9/10) – While Sony’s EX-series dynamic earphones are marketed partly for professional use, the armature sets are clearly oriented towards consumers. This shows through not only in the simplicity of the design – no detachable cables or over-the-ear fitment with any of the XBA models – but also the colored sound of the quad-driver flagship. It is an unlikely role reversal, made all the more interesting by the design of the XBA-4. With an 8-ohm impedance, it is a picky earphone when it comes to source matching – more so even than the 8-ohm Clarity One from Puresound – and sounds downright poor with some audio players, such as an iPod Touch 4G. It sounds much better from a source with low output impedance – such as a Sansa Clip – and better yet from a dedicated source such as my iBasso D10. Surprisingly, despite the relatively high rated sensitivity, the XBA-4 isn’t overly revealing of hiss and other background noises.

When finally matched to a proper source, the bass of the XBA-4 is powerful and full-bodied – far ahead of most armature-based sets in quantity. It is extended and effortless, with no major mid-bass lift and a note presentation leaning towards ‘soft’, rather than ‘crisp’. The bass doesn’t sound as precise as a TWFK-based earphone, and personally I really would prefer cleaner bass from an armature-based earphone, but again I don’t think Sony had accuracy in mind when tuning these. Even next to the dynamic-driver VSonic GR07, the XBA-4 sounds a little warmer and bassier. The armature-based j-Phonic K2 SP, on the other hand, is quicker, tighter, cleaner, and more detailed, with slightly less mid-bass emphasis and fullness but similar depth and punch.

The midrange of the XBA-4 is slightly recessed compared to the bass but there is no bleed and it doesn’t sound overly distant next to other earphones with laid-back presentations, such as the GR07. Despite the lack of bass bleed, the mids of the XBA-4 sound just a touch dark and appear muffled – even veiled- next to clarity-focused earphones such as the K2 SP, the similarly-priced custom ClearTune CTM-200, and – to a more limited extent – the GR07. Even vocals noticeably lack intelligibility next to the K2 SP, CTM-200, and all TWFK-based earphones. Detail and texture levels are quite good, however – on-par with the GR07 but more impressive coupled with the smoother sound of the Sonys.

At the top end the XBA-4 has some of that characteristic Sony unevenness, exaggerating the lower treble slightly as the EX-series monitors tend to do. The XBA-4 does not sound nearly as bright, however, and avoids the mild tendency to exaggerate sibilance that can be present in both the EX600 and the GR07. Unfortunately the top end of the XBA-4 does have a metallic tinge to it that is not present in the dynamic monitors. It wasn’t too noticeable in general listening but those hoping for EX1000-like timbre will be disappointed. Treble extension is moderate and the XBA-4 doesn’t have great air despite a sizeable soundstage.

The presentation of the XBA-4 is wide and spacious without losing versatility of positioning. Width is similar to the VSonic GR07 but the XBA-4 has better layering for a more 3-D feel. It is adept at conveying both distance and intimacy and ranks above average in headstage size among armature-based IEMs. It’s still not nearly as spacious as the CTM-200 or a Sennheiser IE8 but matches the ATH-CK10 and j-Phonic K2 SP, which is more than I can say for high-end sets from Shure or Westone. It has good separation, too, but there are issues with how it is achieved. With many tracks the XBA-4 very obviously lacks coherence, especially at higher volumes, and sounds downright disjointed compared to single-driver sets such as the GR07. Many are of the opinion that all multi-BA setups sound incoherent but compared to the XBA-4 all of my TWFK-based sets as well as the K2 SP and CTM-200 sound extremely well-integrated. The individualized outputs of the four drivers do enhance the sense of separation, but I can’t help but feel that the single-driver XBA-1 may sound more natural than the quad.

Value (6.5/10) – Sony’s entire new series of BA-based monitors is interesting for several reasons, including the in-house development of the drivers and the consumer-oriented tuning of the earphones. The flagship Sony XBA-4 uses a quad-driver setup with dual dedicated woofers and impresses with its spacious presentation as well as the depth and effortlessness of its low end. Unfortunately, Sony seems to have used extra drivers more as an equalizer than a way of creating a true multi-way system. The differences in voicing between the drivers color the sound and seem to decrease the overall coherence. Still, even if the performance does not stand up to close scrutiny as well as that of the dynamic-driver EX1000, the smooth and powerful sound of the XBA-4 will find fans among those who frown on the more analytical tendencies of so many other BAs.

Pros: User-friendly BA-based set with good bass
Cons: Not a great performer compared to Sony’s dynamic monitors


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About Author

Living in the fast-paced city of Los Angeles, ljokerl has been using portable audio gear to deal with lengthy commutes for the better part of a decade. He spends much of his time listening to music and occasionally writes portable audio reviews across several enthusiast sites, focusing mostly on in-ear earphones.

7 Comments

  1. senzen on

    I think the xba-4 are particularly picky of the source, so they can sound merely ok or even bland; with an old nwz-a844 walkman they sound great, with a more recent nwz-z1060 they sound amazing.

  2. Dario on

    Hi! Just wanted to know if it’s a good deal to buy the XBA 1 for 16$ (Im from México, so that would be i think 200$MXP) They’re on sale at my local Office Depot, so thanks! And one more question, Why has Meelec been constantly decreasing it’s quality? Some of their best in my opinion (CW31, A161p) are nos discontinued, and their new products just don’t have that old bang for the buck that use to be the main thing that put them on the spotlight (and their customer service) Thanks lJoker!l

    • ljokerl on

      Yes, the XBA-1 for $16 sounds like a good deal to me if you like balanced-earphones. It’s far from the best single-armature on the market but it’s better than any of other sub-$50 ones that I’ve tried.

      I haven’t tried any new MEElec earphones since the A161P – like you say, they haven’t released anything that looks particularly promising. I was a fan of the CW31 and it is a shame that it’s gone. The only ones I still recommend are the A151 and the M6 as a cheap sports set.

      Their current headphones are pretty good, though – the Atlas on-ear is nice for a v-shaped sounding headphone (only tried it briefly) and the wireless Matrix2 is pretty good – clearer and more balanced than any other Bluetooth set I’ve tried.

      • Markus Arike on

        Have you tried the MEElectronics M-Duo, dual dynamic? It’s gotten good reviews from what I’ve seen and it’s selling I’ve seen it for $36-47 on Amazon, so it’s priced quite aggressively considering the build, and the usual high number of included tips and accessories. They have also updated the M9 with smaller housings and flat cables. I was able to find the CC51 for $19.95, but yes, it has been discontinued along with the A161P. I’m guessing that they will release updates on their BA line, but who knows.

        • ljokerl on

          No, I haven’t. They didn’t have one available for demo. The CC51 is a little outdated at this point but for $19.95 still pretty decent. I did see the new M9 released and if it sounds like my original unit from 2009 (which died a while ago) it should be a good value at 10 bucks flat. Probably not going to check it out any time soon, though.

  3. touji666 on

    Hi joker.
    Thank u for helping me out with the sony xba 30 back at the dunu dn1000 review section.

    After dropping by 8 malls and 4 sony centers, i have finally tested the XBA C10 and XBA 10 to 40.

    To me, the XBA C10 has great detail on the mids and the treble area together with great resolution at high volume and is surprisingly (despite its shape and that loop thing sticking off its body) verrrrry comfortable. I can imagine wearing it for hours or even to sleep and not have soar ears when i wake up.

    The things that i didn’t like about it was its piercing highs, almost none existence of weight on the sub bass, and the cheap look of its shell, cable, and design on the jack strain relief. Oh.. And on busy parts of the track, it sounded like the singer is gurgling the sound that was coming from other instruments while desperately trying to sing.

    The XBA 10 sounded really great in my opinion. It was able to maintain a warm overall tone yet still remain clean sounding which i didn’t know was possible on a single driver IEM. The only thing i didn’t like about it was that it sounded grainy on high volume and incoherent on busy parts of the track. I’m also sceptic about the plastic body (which i initially thought was metal) with glossy silver finish. I guess i fear that the paint will chip or fade in time.

    The XBA 20 kept the XBA 10s’ sound signature with just a minor boost on the sub bass weight, a bit more warmer mids, and a less detailed and artificial sounding highs which i think was weird because it’s suppose to have a dedicated tweeter. The beefier strain relief was a welcome addition though (coming from the xba 10)

    The XBA 30 (which was what i wanted to buy since a triple BA IEM sounds great on the specs sheet) had an overall warm and blendy sound to it. It was detailed on some songs though and the highs where more like the ones on the XBA 10. This is also the 1st on the XBA line up that i have listened too that gave me a sense of soundstage and maybe it was because of the warmth. It was still a narrow soundstage but it was present. The shape and comfort was also better than that of the XBA 10 and 20 and allowed for some sleeping with an IEM on action (but this time, waking up with just a minor ear soar).

    The XBA 40 disappointed me.. A lot. It sounded a tad cleaner than the XBA 30 but the highs wear back to sounding artificial. I believe that a company should throw the sun, stars, and moon (in terms of sound or atleast build quality) at you when you are paying so much for such a small device. Just my opinion. A removable cable would have also been nice at that price range.

    Bottom line, i think i wanna go for the XBA 10 🙂 i’ll buy it next month once i have purchased the Ultimate Ear 700 which i have a question for u on the Ultimate Ears 600 Review section.

    • ljokerl on

      Awesome, thanks for your impressions of the entire line!

      Upon the release of the original XBA series (XBA-1 through XBA-4) Sony made quite a big deal out of them and I got to try the XBA-1, XBA-3, and XBA-4 at a show. Like you, I was actually most impressed with the tuning of the XBA-1 – it was smooth and balanced and pretty neutral, with tight bass. The benchmark I was using was the MEElectronics A161P, which is one of the better sub-$100 single BA earphones, and the XBA-1 wasn’t too far behind – just a touch less crisp and resolving.

      I’ve always wanted to check it out again but haven’t had time. Nonetheless I’m confident that it’s an excellent value at the current sub-$50 prices, and that it’s the one I’d go for if it was my money.

      The XBA-40 doesn’t sound like it improves on the XBA-4 from your impressions. Too bad, that.

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