Sony’s Livesound MH1C in-ear earphone pretty much redefined price/performance when ClieOS first brought it to the attention of Head-Fi back in 2012. I was equally impressed with it in my review months later, finding little to dislike except for the rubbery flat cable.
Since then, the street price of the MH1C has come up and the competition has intensified, but it remains one of my favorite earphones in its price range, one again making it into the 2014 version of my in-ear earphone buyer’s guide earlier this month.
As noted above, the MH1C has one major drawback in my view – the cable. It is a j-style cord, meaning uneven cable lengths to the left and right earpieces with the longer cord meant to be worn around the back of the neck – a scheme that has never really caught on with headphone users in the US. It is also rubbery, which causes it to tangle more than a flat cable should, and moderately microphonic. The MH1C also boasts a 4-button remote designed for Sony Xperia devices, which provides only limited functionality with Apple and most Android devices.
I have always hoped Sony would re-release the MH1C with a different cable, but instead was contacted by Sead Smailagic of Sony Mobile with news of the SBH80 – a wireless evolution of the MH1C.
Design & Functionality
The SBH80 earphones utilize a “wearable” form factor, putting the battery and major circuitry in a single housing worn at the back of the neck. This is also where the micro USB charging port, power button, and NFC tag are located. From there, semi-rigid wires extend around both sides of the wearer’s neck, terminating in two small pods that rest on the shoulders and hold the microphones (two mics are used for high-quality voice transmission) and remote control buttons. On the left side we have the Play/Pause and Next/Previous Track buttons. On the right side are the volume controls and a button that controls headset functionality with phones. The SBH80 doesn’t seem to have a Siri/Google Now/Voice control feature, but that’s alright with me.
The earpieces are attached to the remote control “pods” by about 8 inches (20 cm) of cable on either side. The cords used here are light and thin in cross-section, the exact opposite of the MH1C cables. They don’t get in the way and the earpieces can even be worn over-the-ear if necessary, which eliminates excess cable slack.
The SBH80 utilizes a Bluetooth v3.0 chipset with support for the aptX codec as well as NFC and Multipoint. For an introduction to Bluetooth audio and a brief overview of Bluetooth audio profiles, codecs, and other technologies, see my recent article on Bluetooth audio.
aptX a proprietary audio codec designed to encode a CD-quality (16-bit / 44.1kHz) audio stream without loss of sound quality. It is capable of consistently good audio quality, with the caveat being that both the headphone and the source must be aptX-capable – if either one lacks aptX support, the default SBC codec will be used instead. My Nexus 5, for example, does not support apt-X, nor do Apple devices such as iPhones and iPods.
Like all Bluetooth headphones, the SBH80 will use the SBC codec with devices that do not support aptX. SBC is capable of audio streams with bitrates of approximately 330 kbps at its best, but is also capable of mid- and low-quality streams. If you’ve ever experienced compressed, unnatural audio from a Bluetooth headphone in the past, a low-quality SBC stream was most likely to blame. In the absence of aptX, high-quality SBC will deliver very decent audio quality. However, low- and even medium-quality SBC streaming is undesirable for music and should be avoided.
With headphones that support high-quality SBC streams, such as the SBH80, sound quality over SBC wil depend on implementation on the transmitter side. A USB Bluetooth transmitter I picked up for $2 from a Chinese deal site, for instance, sounded absolutely atrocious because it defaulted to the lowest SBC quality. Installing a better dongle in its place produced much better results.
NFC and Multipoint provide the SBH80 with additional functionality. NFC is a wireless standard used as a “handshaking” shortcut to establish connection. Bluetooth devices that support NFC can be paired and connected by simply bringing the NFC chips together, without ever opening a Bluetooth menu. The caveat is that that both devices have to support NFC for this to work.
NFC allows me to pair and connect the SBH80 with my Nexus 5 much more quickly and easily than with other devices by simply tapping the NFC area of the headset (located under the NFC logo) against the appropriate spot on the back of my phone. This doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, but it is surprisingly convenient in everyday use.
Multipoint, too, is very handy, allowing the SBH80 to maintain two Bluetooth connections simultaneously. With Multipoint, I can have my computer and phone, for example, both connected to the headset at the same time. If I am listening to music from my PC and a call comes in on my phone, the headset will allow me to take the call and then resume music playback from the computer automatically once the call is over.
I’ve had relatively limited experience with wireless headphones, but broke out my old Sennheiser MM400 and also borrowed a MEElectronics AF32 from a friend to compare Bluetooth functionality. Both of these on-ear sets displayed better signal stability at maximum range (past 20 feet) and longer battery life, but otherwise had no advantages over the much more compact (and better-sounding) SBH80.
I’ve also purchased and returned a generic aptX-enabled Bluetooth in-ear in the past. While the sound quality was decent, it went back due to unacceptable range and a constant buzz in one channel whenever the Bluetooth connection was active. The SBH80 a much better-designed device by miles.
In truth, I’ve been using this unit for close to a month and don’t really have any complaints pertaining to usability. It’s been coming pretty close to the advertised 6-hour battery life, which is great for a wireless in-ear. The wearable design is more convenient than I had expected and all of the small details make it more so. For example, the main housing vibrates when a call is coming in just in case you don’t have the earpieces in your ears.
One thing I noticed is that the range depends on the Bluetooth transmitter – the one in the Nexus 5, for example, does a better job of maintaining signal integrity through walls with the SBH80 than the Bluetooth USB dongle I use with my desktop PC, or the Bluetooth built into my Asus laptop.
On the conventional earphone side, the SBH80 retains all of the features that made the MH1C a great earphone – the passive noise isolation is very good and the earpieces are extremely small, lightweight, and comfortable. The latest iteration of Sony’s eartips works very well, too. Some wind noise can be heard when using them in high-wind conditions, but unless I’m using them on a bike, it’s not problematic.
Lastly, the microphone setup deserves a special mention – unlike any other stereo headset I’ve tried, wired or wireless, the SBH80 received nothing but compliments when it comes to voice quality. I even prefer using the SBH80 in my car over the built-in Bluetooth, again for the superior voice quality – I simply pop one earpiece in when the unit indicates an incoming call.
In testing the audio quality of the SBH80, the following equipment was used:
- CSR Bluetooth dongle with aptX support on Windows 7 x64
- LG Nexus 5 with high-quality SBC (source)
- Fiio E7 and HiFiMan HM-901 with IEM card were used as baseline sources for the Sony MH1C.
The first thing I did was compare the SBH80 to its corded predecessor, the MH1C. Anyone interested in my original MH1C review can find it here.
The MH1C and SBH80 sound extremely similar at their best. It makes sense that they should, as they are based on the same transducer. To my ears the SBH80 seems to have a touch more low end presence, especially in the subbass region, relative to the midrange. It is also a little smoother through the treble. Combined, these changes make it sound a little warmer and overall even more forgiving than the MH1C. I personally like the slightly more crisp and edgy treble of the MH1C as it’s still an extremely smooth earphone, but for some listeners the SBH80 will be clearly preferable. In any case, the newer model provides a warm, clear, and smooth sound on a performance level I have not previously experienced with a wireless set.
The bass is deep and full, with an emphasis on sub-bass rather than mid-bass, resulting in good overall bass quality. Considering the amount of the bass enhancement, control is rather good, although it’s still not as tight as the bass of Sony’s similarly-priced balanced armatures models, for example, or less bassy dynamic-driver sets such as the HiFiMan RE-400 and LG Quadbeat.
The mids of the SBH80 are not as prominent as the low end, but they are pleasantly warm and full-bodied. The treble is extremely smooth and inoffensive. The sound through the midrange and treble is quite natural, as with the MH1C. I did sometimes wish for better overall balance as the bass can be a hair intrusive at times, but clarity is not lacking. The enhanced low end should also be great for use outside, especially loud environments, as the bass of a headphone can easily end up losing authority in such situations.
The earphone also exhibits excellent high-volume performance, maintaining composure when played loud, and produces no distortion (assuming none is added by the Bluetooth section as in the case of a low-quality SBC stream, for example). The presentation is good as well, providing a surprisingly open sound despite the warm tone, partly due to the good treble reach.
I can’t say that the SBH80 bests it wired counterpart in audio quality, but there’s a clear winner when it comes to usability. Using the MH1C as a sound benchmark for the past year has only made me more annoyed with the cord and limited remote functionality. The SBH80 does away with all that, replacing the cables with a small battery pod that sits behind the neck. Aside from the need to be charged, it is a huge improvement in user-friendliness.
To experience the SBH80 at its best, an aptX-compatible transmitter is recommended but even with a device like the Nexus 5, which lacks aptX support but also doesn’t have the best audio quality through the headphone jack, these earphones provide an experience comparable to going wired – with no tangling, no cable noise, no problems with remote compatibility, and probably superior long-term durability due to reduced risk of cable stress breakage.
More generally, I’m convinced that wireless is the future of portable audio – maybe not the high end, but certainly mid-range and entry-level. Being un-tethered from your device, being able to move freely around the room and perform physical activity without worrying about cords getting in the way, is easy to get used to and hard to give up. With the FAA allowing Bluetooth headsets on flights and more and more devices supporting decent-quality wireless audio, it’s simply a matter of time before we see more wireless gear designed with audio quality in mind.
As for the SBH80, all I can say is this – I have never had any trouble recommending the MH1C, and now don’t have to tack on the caveat of “if you can deal with its cable…”
The SBH80 product page can be found on Sony’s website here. Select specifications follow.
- Bluetooth 3.0
- Multipoint connectivity
- HD Voice
- aptX® audio enhancement
- Speaker type: 5.8 mm dynamic
- Nominal Impedance: 15 Ohm
- Frequency response: 10Hz … 20000Hz, (diffuse field oriented mid-high range).
- Max SPL: 100dBA (EN 50332-1)
- Total harmonic distortion: <0.5% (100Hz .. 10000Hz @ 100dBSPL)
- Microphone: Dual MEMS
- Standby time: (up to) 650 hours
- Talk time: (up to) 9 hours
- Stream time: 6 hours
- Battery: 125 mAh