Lately I’ve been spending quite a bit of time listening through a pair of full-size AKG 701 headphones ($539). Switching to the Sony XBA-3 in-ears after the AKG open-back over ear was less of a shock than you might imagine. Both share a similar harmonic balance and matter-of-fact presentation. The AKGs have more bass and lower midrange power, but the Sonys match them in image precision and overall spatial presentation.
Because it uses a true three-way driver array you would expect the Sony XBA-3 to be a full-range earphone, especially with the impressive published frequency response specification of 4 Hz to 28 kHz. But I found the XBA-3 to have a more truncated frequency response than the printed specs might suggest. The bass is clean and tight, but there’s not a lot of it. Dub, House, Trance and other urban music fans will want to move up to Sony’s XBA-4 earphones ($349)—a four-driver model that is equipped with an extra “super woofer.”
But if midrange clarity is what gets your juices flowing, the XBA-3s will be very much to your liking. While not quite as revealing of inner detail as the expensive Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors ($999), the XBA-3s get close without sacrificing midrange warmth. Perhaps some of this clarity is due to the new double housing design. I heard virtually no hangover resonances from the earphone housing even on highly dynamic and fast-transient material. Even at high volumes I never heard the housing try to sing along.
You would expect that with a dedicated treble driver the XBA-3 would handle upper frequencies with no issues. Here, the XBA-3 lives up to all expectations. Their top end is extended without sounding harsh or over emphasized. Especially on symphony orchestra recordings, where you need good upper frequency air to differentiate the upper harmonics, the XBA-3s sounds both relaxed and open.
Dynamic contrast through the XBA-3 earphones is good, but large diaphragm, full-size headphones, such as the AKG 701 or Grado RS-1s, deliver substantially more slam and sense of dynamic contrast. Both macro and micro dynamic contrast is slightly softened through the XBA-3s compared to the Ultimate Ears IN-Ear Reference Monitors or AKG 701s.
Imaging, as the term applies to headphones, is a more personal and idiosyncratic phenomenon that with loudspeakers, but good headphones do produce three-dimensional images of a sort. The XBA-3s image is larger and better defined than with many competing headphones and, especially, earphones. The XBA-3s easily beat the Shure SE 215s in terms of soundstage size and edge definition. The XBA-3s even rivaled the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors in this performance parameter.
A headphone’s overall fatigue factor is a function of not only its sound, but also its fit. Once I dressed the cable so the left side didn’t pull when I moved, I found the XBR-3s to be one of the more comfortable and low-fatigue earphones I’ve used. In fact, the XBR-3 is so comfortable that more than once I’ve forgotten I was wearing them and stood up while listening at my desktop. It’s a rude awakening getting “dry willied” by your earphones as they pop out of your ears…
Listening to dense and ethereal mixes, like what you’ll find on Gregory Alan Isakov’s album, This Empty Northern Hemisphere [Gregory Alan Isakov records], plays into the XBA-3’s biggest strengths. Even when the mix is at its murkiest, the XBA-3 will let you easily differentiate the different instrumental parts because of its excellent midrange clarity. Acoustic guitars and synthesizers remain distinct sonic entities regardless of the dynamics or density of the arrangement.
On Griffen Alexander’s The Sound & The Sea album [Griffin Alexander Music], his peaky, overdriven microphone, heavily EQ’d vocals sound hard and spitty, just as they should. The XBA-3 presents his voice, warts and all, without trying to make it sound better or worse. With more euphonic and full-range recordings such as Hamilton De Holanda’s Brasilianos album [Adventure Music], the XBA-3s demonstrate a marvelous ability to render the harmonically rich soundstage in an easy to decipher manner.
At some point in every listening session I put on my own recordings of the Boulder Philharmonic. Lately I’ve been listening to a recent recording I made the day I returned from the 2012 CES of Gershwin’s American in Paris. Through the XBA-3s the woodiness of the xylophone during the opening sections remains intact and distinct from the triangle that is duplicating its rhythmic lines. While the overall dynamic contrast is less than what I hear through Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors, micro dynamics come through with nearly the same fine levels of delineation.