The Sony XBAH3 is proof that Sony knows how to produce some really high quality in-ear headphones that the most enthusiastic listeners and audiophiles will appreciate. The only problem is that people that don’t have $349 to spend have to continue researching for a decent pair earphones. Earphones that are less than half the price of a studio-quality model have more compromises. Things like build quality, design and audio quality may have to be sacrificed but should still manage to feel more premium than the typical earphones that come with media players and smartphones. Fortunately, Sony has a couple of step-down models with the Sony XBAH1 being the cheapest of the series and it has a portion of the hybrid elements found in the XBAH3.
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Design and Comfort
The XBAH1 is a classy set of earphones right from the start as it makes a pretty good impression with its packaging. It is quite similar to the top tier XBAH3 model so you just take out the cover, open the black box with the Sony logo and you’ll instantly see the Sony XBAH1. Underneath is a nifty carrying pouch with a magnet to keep it closed. Inside the pouch is a few hybrid silicone eartips. Also in the package is some urethane foam earbuds of various sizes if noise isolation is your preference. Finally, there is a clip and cord adjuster that both work with the cable.
There are a few things that allow the XBAH1 to make a big impression for better or for worse. The first is the cable that is flat and has one side black and one side red. It certainly makes the Sony XBAH1 look premium especially considering the fact that the XBAH3 has this cable design as well. The 1.2-inch cable is very well made and the flat approach should prevent it from tangling. Unlike the XBAH3, the cable isn’t detachable. The other element that stands out is the earbuds themselves as they are a little bit bigger than standard earphones due to the presence of the 9mm dynamic driver units and balanced armature. To balance out the weight, Sony had to use a plastic housing to keep these sophisticated internal components together. As a result, the XBAH1 feels lighter than expected but due to the sheer size of the earphones, they will end up sticking out when inserted. That is fine if you don’t mind your looks but you may have to deal with ambient wind noise if you go out with them.
It might take a bit of experimentation to get the comfort levels right too. Putting the cable behind your ear can relieve some of the tension caused by the wire pulling the big earbuds down. You do have a selection of small, medium and large hybrid silicone earbuds and 4 sizes of foam earbuds so you should be bound to find something acceptable.
The Sony XBAH1 is direct successor of the Sony XBA1 and just by looking at the model names, it is easy to conclude that the added hybrid driver is the main feature. It is a hybrid 2-way driver unit that tackles a couple of the main shortcomings of the XBA1 – the lack of bass and mediocre vocals. By direct comparison, the XBA1 only has the balanced armature unit so what the dynamic driver is supposed to do is fill in that missing bass. The balanced armature portion of the XBAH1 remains unchanged though. The housing was also specifically designed to smoothen out the frequency response.
When going from a standard pair of earphones to the Sony XBAH1, the boost in audio quality is remarkable. There is a sense of increased clarity, better accuracy, improved soundstage and deeper bass. The dynamic driver and balanced armature design really helps out with the bass making dance, pop and hip-hop tracks a joy to listen to. It is understandably well below the qualities of a studio-class pair of earphones where audiophiles may notice a lack of high-frequency trebles. For those into geeky specs, the XBAH1 has a sensitivity of 105 dB and 40 ohm impedance. Most other earphones in this price range average at 103 dB so even on paper, the Sony XBAH1 outperforms some other $150 earphones.
If you were put off by the lack of bass quality in the XBA1 and other earphones priced in the $100 to $150 range, the Sony XBAH1 is a pretty good candidate and pretty much a must-buy if you can find it for under $149 which is the retail price. The overall design and comfort of the earphones is a mixed bag where build quality was concentrated a little bit more than the comfort side as they can feel a bit bulky. Still, packing these hybrid components is challenging and it looks like Sony did the best it can to minimize those compromises.