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: 8Ω | 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