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Sony SBH80

Sony SBH80 Review: MH1C goes wireless

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

 

Sony SBH80
Sony SBH80 earphones

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.

Wireless technology

 

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.

Sony SBH80
SBH80 earphones showing NFC area

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.

General use

 

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.

Sony SBH80
Sony SBH80

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.

Sound

 

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.

Wrap-up

 

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.

Features

  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • NFC
  • Multipoint connectivity
  • HD Voice
  • aptX® audio enhancement

Acoustic

  • 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

Weight: 15.8g

Battery

  • Standby time: (up to) 650 hours
  • Talk time: (up to) 9 hours
  • Stream time: 6 hours
  • Battery: 125 mAh

 

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ABOUT AUTHOR

ljokerl

ljokerl

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.

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75 Responses

  1. You’ve probably already tried this, but deleting the SBH70 from the iPod’s bluetooth menu and then creating a whole new pairing between them is a good troubleshooting step.

  2. i used till yesterday sbh70 and ipod nano 7gen, but now ipod don’t find the sbh70, i reset the ipod too to try, and nothing change.
    someone haved this problem and solved it ?

  3. I can see the bass since it’s a bassier earphone than the SE215, but I’ve never heard sibilance out of the SBH80 or MH1C. The MA750 is not going to be more neutral than the SE215 either – you’d probably need to at least go with something like a VSonic GR07 or Philips Fidelio S2 for that.

  4. I have decided to get the SBH80. I found a refurbished one at a significantly lower cost and I have a 14-day return period. I received it yesterday.

    First impressions (after 3 or 4 hours) are not entirely positive. I can hear some slight sibilance on falsetto vocals and even more on the cymbals. The bass frequencies can also be a bit intrusive in certain music. Acoustic music and softer melodies are absolutely fine and leave me pretty impressed, but I think that I prefer my SE215 for things like driving rock music.

    I think this has led me to rethink my buying strategy: I should probably be looking for a more neutral/flat sounding IEM for my tastes. I might give the MA750 a try soon or look towards the RE400 or something with similar balance.

    Thank you again for your advice!

  5. Does the 6P support aptX? Might be something to look into before pulling the trigger on an SBH80. It’s not a deal-breaker but it raises the ceiling a bit of the best audio quality you can get out of a Bluetooth set.

    Overall, the MA750 will give you the best sound quality, especially the balance and treble energy. The SBH80 and SE215 are comparable in my opinion, even though one is wireless – in fact, I’d pick the SBH80 if I had to choose between those two thanks to its more linear and extended treble.

    Isolation is best on the SE215, and pretty good on the SBH80 and MA750 both.

  6. Thanks for your extensive reviews on IEM’s and wireless sets!

    My Shure SE215 is starting to develop some signs of breaking down, so I’m on the hunt for something new. My Nexus 6P is going to be my only source for music, and I’ve sort of settled on the RHA MA750, but am also intrigued by the SBH80, primarily because I can see the advantages over a wired set of IEM’s.

    How would you rate the sound quality and isolation of the SBH80 compared to the MA750 or my SE215?

    Thanks again!

    Marten

  7. You mean you want to have the iPad and some other device connected to the SBH80 at the same time (via Multipoint)? I had trouble doing this the first time as well, until I got the manual out. Have only done it a few times since.

  8. Hello, thanks for the review. Bought my SBH80 the other day but i can’t get them to connect to my ipad mini as a second device. Any suggestions?

  9. I only have two – the SBH80 and SBH60. They don’t really share a family sound signature – the SBH80 is warm and smooth, with deep and impactful bass. The SBH60 is more neutral, and somewhat rolled off at either end. I don’t know how the SBH20/SBH50 compare but the SBH80 is the only one that’s based on the highly acclaimed MH1C and is the flagship of the series. I probably wouldn’t want to jog in them, though – there’s nothing holding the battery pod in place except gravity. A Bluetooth headset where all of the heavy bits are in the earpieces and some kind of in-ear retention system (e.g. Jaybird Bluebuds) would be a better design for jogging.

  10. Unfortunately I don’t know what the HTC earphones sound like so I can’t tell you if the SBH80 will provide a similar sound, but I think its bass is very well-measured and has good depth, and its sound is clear. It helps to use an aptX-enabled device with it though – otherwise there’s some additional variables that go into the sound quality.

  11. Thomas, did you get the sbh80? I own the sbh20 too and I am very happy with the sound. How would you compare the sound of both, is there even a difference? I really like the bass of the sbh20, is it different from the sbh80? Or would you still recommend the sbh20 instead of the sbh80?
    Joker, do you know the sound difference of the whole sbh family? Many of the actual speakers, without the bluetooth system, look pretty much the same, are they even the same? For example the ones of sbh20 and sbh50 look the same, but the sbh80 ones look diffrent.
    Another question: would it be possible to go jogging with these, or would they “jump” to much on the neck while running? is the backpiece maybe so heavy it would pull out the plugs of my ears when jogging?
    I also owned a pair of sennheiser cx300 and was pretty happy with them. Many complain for their bass or clarity, but somehow i really liked their sound. And i like the sound of the sbh20 somehow even more (with just a verry little tick more sub bass it would be perfekt. But i think this would be hard without loosing mid-bass, wouldnt it?), maybe because the base “punches” a little bit more, feels more clear. I’m no expert in all of this, but read quite a lot of your descriptions and came to conclusion, that i may be more kind of a the “mid-basshead”, than a “sub-basshead”. I like a punching, but not too agressiv bass (just like my sbh20) does. And how you would you compare the sound to the cx300?
    I’m sorry for so many questions 😀

    maybe you should also try the sbh20. I really like their sound, they are comfortable and really cheap. I just wonder, if the sbh80 really would be an upgrade and worth the money.

  12. Hi, Ijoker
    Deeply impressed on your views on earphones. I have an issue which I want to share with you. I am a music lover. My mobile htc one me dual sim has boomsound option which is a real high quality audio sound effect, I didn’t find in many other mobiles and I specially love htc for their well known sound quality. However the same htc earphone doesn’t produce similar effects when I use it with my sony vaio ultrabook (sony vaio pro 13) and the sound is bit smaller and relatively lower quality. Should I use sony sbh80 for only use in laptop to get a deep & clear sound similar to my htc earphone with mobile. Pl suggest…regards

  13. Yes, that means the seal between the eartips and your ears isn’t airtight. This can usually be fixed by making sure you’re using the right eartip size for your ears and are inserting the eartips fully into your ear canal. But in some cases (if your ears are between sizes for the included tips, for example) it may be beneficial to pick up some aftermarket tips.

  14. I tried them briefly at a show and wasn’t too impressed. They’re probably equivalent to an entry-level single BAs from other manufacturers – the ones typically found in the $40-50 range wired.

  15. What a great review, stumbled onto it while researching bluetooth earbuds. Thank you for this. Just wondering if you’d tried Sony XBA BT75 bluetooth earbuds? I know they are discontinued but I was intrigued mainly because they incorporate balanced armature drivers. Thanks!

  16. Hi,

    Thank you for your reply, I am pretty much sorted now. Not to mention the earphones did prove the worth I spent on them. Only one question, thought sound quality being decent I am not able to get any bass in them. Could this be because I am using the smallest earbuds. Could you help ?

  17. I use a Nexus 5 as well and I’ve never had that happen with any BT earphone. I guess that leaves a few possibilities
    1) defect with your SBH80 unit causing this problem
    2) defect or software bug with your Nexus 5 causing the problem
    3) some kind of setting on the phone or that specific pairing causing the issue
    4) one of your apps somehow modifying or interfering with the correct Bluetooth functionality

    Most of these you can troubleshoot by trying your SBH80 with a different phone and trying a different Bluetooth headset with your phone

  18. Hey, just bought these. I think the product is pretty good. However, when ever i am getting a call using the earphones and happen to disconnect it, the earphone’s also disconnect from the phone. I am not sure what is wrong. I am using Nexus 5 right now.

    Any thoughts.

  19. The SBH80 isn’t noise canceling and as far as I know it’s not water resistance-rated. Might not be the best choice. For that kind of application you probably want passive noise blockers with very high isolation – either over-ear (like the Rock-It Sounds R-Shield) or in-ear (like the Etymotic MK5) – or active noise cancelers (especially if there is a lot of low frequency noise). The SBH80 won’t keep up with highly-isolating in-ears or a good noise-cancelling set in terms of how much noise it blocks out.

    Not sure if there’s anything suitable out there that’s also wireless – of the 10 or so sets I’ve tried there are none I would trust as much as the above-mentioned solutions.

  20. Hi, I’m looking at the sbh80 for use as ear protection on machinery. Bobcat, tractor, ride on mower etc. I’ve been using a sony wired ,noise cancelling set. Now looking to Bluetooth. (and water resistance ) What’s your thoughts . THNX

  21. Thank you again, you enlightened me. it is weird for me that manufacturers doesnt include all essential information on the web openly, for some reason i was thinking sbh70 has active NC.

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