Brief: The huge, pillow-like pads of the XB500, the middle headphone in Sony’s ‘Extra Bass’ line, seem like fitting vessels for the smooth and bassy sound signature imparted on the listener by these gentle giants.
MSRP: $79.99 (discontinued)
Current Price: $60 from amazon.com
Build Quality (7.5/10): The design of the XB500 is clearly dominated by the humongous pads but the headphones themselves look quite tame and stylish. The headband and silver cups are plastic but the forks are made of anodized aluminum and feel very solid. There are no creaks or rattles in the structure after months of use. The pads are extremely soft and covered in very pleasant pleather that has a bit of a hand-sewn look to it. The XB500 is also notable for the ribbon-like flat cables, which feel rather sturdy and don’t tangle. Indeed, flat cables make much sense to me on a headphone than on an in-ear monitor. The strain reliefs on housing entry seem poorly integrated but are far from weak and the 3.5mm L-plug is compact and well-relieved.
Comfort (9/10): By virtue of the huge and impossibly soft pads, the XB500 is one of the most comfortable circumaurals around. Though the inner diameter of the pads is smaller than with larger phones like the Creative Aurvana Live, the pads encapsulate average-sized ears fully. The underside of the plastic headband is also well-padded with a cloth-like mesh cushion. Clamping force is moderate and makes the XB500 very secure in fit but is distributed exceptionally well by the gigantic pads and causes no discomfort. The only downside of the fit of the XB500 is that the pads do get squished down and swathe quite a large area of skin in sweat-invoking pleather.
Isolation (6.5/10): The XB500 isn’t particularly well-isolating for a headphone of its size but fares better than average due to the huge and well-sealing pads. Leakage is minimal at reasonable volumes but blasting these in a library is not a great idea – despite being marketed as closed headphones, there are vents on the back that leak consistently at high volumes.
Sound (6.25/10): As if the fact that they come from Sony’s “Extra Bass” audio line is not enough of an indicator, the ridiculous 4 Hz figure at the lower end of the XB500’s Frequency Response spec betrays the bass-focused nature of these headphones. The sound of the XB500 is indeed bass-driven, with a low end that (realistically) extends below 30 Hz and carries plenty of power. The bass is incredibly smooth and very forward. It can be distracting on some tracks but never sounds downright muddy or washed-out. Impact is soft and slightly dull but there’s plenty of it – bass lovers will be impressed. Unlike heavily-textured bass-heavy phones with sharper impact (e.g. the M-Audio Q40), the XB500s don’t give me bass headaches. They do, however, suffer from minimal bass bleed and have a moderately recessed midrange. The mids are slightly warm but sound quite full and rich when not overshadowed by the low end. Clarity is about on par with the Sennheiser PX100 and Koss PortaPros but not quite as good as the Beyer DT235 or Sony’s own MDR-Q68 clip-ons. The treble transition is rather smooth but the high end seems even more recessed than the midrange in comparison to the low end and rolls off earlier than expected. The treble does have some bite but lacks any real sparkle. On the upside, harshness and sibilance are completely absent. In terms of presentation, the Sonys sound fairly spacious and three-dimensional but lack real air and width. Their soundstage has fairly clear outer limits, at least when compared to something like the Senn HD238, which can throw positional cues at great distances. Overall I found the Sonys quite enjoyable in a warm and mushy sort of way. They are a fun listen but I never managed to forget that I was wearing moderately-priced headphones. It should be noted that the 40 Ω impedance of the XB500 helps them cut down on hiss very well with noisy portable players and even full-size headphone amps. On a related note, the headphones do sound extremely dull at the lowest volumes due to the forward bass. To get any sort of fine detail and texture out of them, higher volume levels are definitely recommended.
Value (7.5/10): The Sony MDR-XB500 is a solid, albeit not truly hi-fi, performer in the $50 range. The bass is strong and smooth and generally remains quite competent despite being slightly dull in nature. The recessed midrange and treble can occasionally be overwhelmed but an equalizer can be used to compensate for the lack of balance. At the very least the Sonys are never harsh or grating. The headphones are also well built and extremely comfortable aside from the fact that they heat up quicker than many earmuffs. Those in search of reasonably competent closed basshead cans that can be worn for hours on end (ideally in cold climates) and don’t cost a fortune are likely to find their dream set in the XB500.
Frequency Response: 4 – 24,000 Hz
Impedance: 40 Ω
Sensitivity: 104 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.9ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A