Sony XBA-H3 Hybrid Balanced Armature Earphone IRL (In Real Life) Review– The XBA-H3 (abbreviated to H3 from hereon) was the 2014 flagship earphone from Sony- it has since been replaced by the XBA-Z5 with minor changes in design. I first bought the XBA-H3 with the intention of having hi-fidelity music listening on the go without having to haul my bigger headphones out. I wanted a small scale earphone that could punch out sound with the calibre of my favorite headphones like the Sony 7520 or Beyerdynamic DT-1350. While these other headphones were relatively portable compared to my Sony MDR-SA3000 or Sony MDR-Z7, they were still a pain in the butt to pack in my commuter bag with all my other goodies jammed in there. I managed to snag them last fall in 2014 for a large discount off the MSRP at NCIX.com and have been using them fairly regularly ever since. The following is my IRL review of the Sony XBA-H3.
Design– This is what you get when you open the box- they look quite nice all snuggled up in there- the box is farily unremarkable for a really impressive specced earphone. While they are not on the calibre of a Sennheisser IE800 or Shure SE846, I do think they deserve a little bit more of a presentation. Aside from the box, I quite like the look- they look like little space machines or something. Not a typical looking earphone. The design is entirely plastic and rubber- no metal here. Unfortunately for me, that is a bit of a loss- the previous flagship, the MDR-Ex1000 was a magnesium masterpiece and I do wish they had used Mg in this design. The current flagship uses magnesium housings and I do envy that. When you put these on, people know you have them on- they do not disappear into your ears like the famed “NUDE” earphone marketing that Sony used when they first made their Fontopia earphones in the 80s/90s. I also like the black and red color scheme going on here- despite my meh attitude about Beats, I do love the red and black scheme they made rather prominent. These will never be mistaken for Beats, but they certainly have the high contrast impact color that I like. I have plenty of plain black earphones and this is a nice change from that. I think overall, these earphones do give a sense that they are special- but they are more of a delicate premium device rather than a hefty quality feel premium device. That’s not necessarily bad, but I do prefer the latter. Finally, these are fat- they house 1 dyanamic driver and 2 balanced armature drivers. The big dynamic driver takes up the big circle space and hence they sit outside your ears like a fat tire.
Build quality– The plastic is a shiny metallic coating and likely would scratch if not kept in its protective case. Given that, they have not shown any wear and tear. The wires are removable from the housing, which is nice for replacement. However, they are a plastic connector and I have seen some wearing of the edges- this makes me a little worried about longevity if I was constantly plugging and unplugging the wires. Fortunately for me, I don’t need to really do that, so its a non-issue for me. The wire hangar has a memory wire that you can mold to your ears- this is actually something I am worried about- I constantly adjust these everytime I put them on, and they do feel a bit worn after a year of use. I have a few other Sony headphones with this memory design and they don’t really hold too well in the long run. Its like they become too pliable later. Aside from that, everything seems fairly tip top. The earbuds do seem to wear off a bit because they are also stuffed with foam. Sometimes I have to stuff the foam back in the earbud tips and they also seem to be losing their pliability.Overall though, I am not concerned about build quality on these- they are a premium consumer offering for sure, and hit what they were marketed for. Just not the tank like build that a professional earphone would have, perhaps like the Beyerdynamic DT-1350.
Accessories– It comes with a wire wrapper to keep the cord shorter when needed. It also has a tie clip so the wire is not hanging out all over the place. This is actually very useful because the wire is a bit stiff and seems to jut out from my head and get in the way if it is not clipped down.
Probably one of my favorite accessories- the hybrid ear tips are stuffed with foam to better isolate noise. you can see the wires removed from the housings here.
I can’t say I really enjoy the case it comes with- while its nice to have a case, and one that’s not just a simple cloth bag, these earphones just deserve way better. The MDR-EX1000 had a really awesome custom molded hard leatherette case that offered better protection. While this case has lots of cushioning, I would have preferred something that was just hard to prevent crushing in my bag. Regardless, its a decent case that gets the job done.
Fit and Comfort- These are a royal pain in the ass to use. Lachlanlikesathing on YouTube said it best- its an experience to use these H3s. You don’t just use them. You wear them. Evyertime you want to use them, you have to use a procedure to put them on just the right way. You need to insert them in. You need to wrap the wire over your ear. You need to adjust the earphone to the right angle in your ear. You need to adjust the memory wire so it supports the earphones weight. Then you can press play. That’s a far cry from every other earphone I have used. The other higher end earphone I have, the Sony XBA-3, is a simple put in your ears and boom, youre done. Not this one. As such, I find it quite annoying. Especially when you need to pull it out your ear for a second. Because then you have to go through the procedure again. As such, I would not use these for mobile listening, like on the bus. I would use these when I am sitting down for a long time and don’t need to make any adjustments/move around. Its also annoying that these shift in your ears because of their weight. They are not heavy feeling, but they are heavy enough and stick out enough that they will slowly fall out and you need to constantly reinsert them. ANNOYING. Other than that, they are very comfy to wear and you can easily wear these for hours with no fatigue or ear pressure.
Sound Isolation- Its ok, nothing to write home about- the isolation will be enough to block coffee house chatter while you study, but its not going to block out a loud conversation beside you, or traffic noise if you are out and about walking. These really were meant to be sit down and listen headphones IMHO and not mobile headphones. There is a small duct that lets airflow in and this is likely the reason why you don’t have amazing sound isolation.
Sound Quality– the H3 sound fun. That’s probably the best way I can describe them. They are nearly identical in my ears to the Sony MDR-Z7- a refined musical sound that is fun. This is pretty opposite of what most high end flagship earphone and headphones are like. Most of them tend to err more to a flat response across, leaving an even response. These clearly bust out in the low and high end. This is perhaps one of the best scenarios of the audiophile dilemma- do you aim to get the most accurate sound “as the artist intended” or do you tune the music to what you prefer as a listener. Personally, I don’t care what the artist intended, as much as I care that I enjoy my musical experience. This means that I tend to find reference headphones to be rather boring- i.e. I prefer my MDR-Z7 to my MDR-7520 because the 7520 is a flatter more clinical response. So looking at the H3, it definitely busts out on the low end in a very enjoyable way. I do find it a bit flabby, but never muddy. muddy would be like the bass on my Skullcandy MixMaster, or even more so, my Sony X10 extra bass cans. These headphones are also fun sounding, but they are held back by dirty dirty sound that overwhelms you – its like ordering a Starbucks Frappuccino but they doubled the syrup. It was fun and then immediately gross. The H3 has a good bass response but it is not dirty sounding. The highs are great- I like them for never being fatiguing for me. The mids are another question- they are a bit recessed and not really a highlight of this earphone. I definitely prefer the sound of the H3 compared to my XBA-3 because of the enhanced bass response. This is most likely because of the use of the dynamic driver in the hybrid BA setup vs the triple BA set up in the XBA-3. However, I do find the details to be lacking a little- they sound good to me, buts its not a mind blowing experience by any means. I suppose that I’m really not sure what to think of the soundstage- its good but not expansive- expansive to me would be the MDR-SA3000.
Amplifier or not?– Honestly I’m not totally convinced these need an amplifier, but I use an amplifier anyways. They are easily driven by the amp in my Sony Xperia Z3. I remember wishing to hear impressions from an amp vs. non amp on certain headphones to decide if its worth it to buy an amp. For the H3, I would say no. They are fine without an amp, and I don’t think they improve much from an amp. I would be seriously curious how these would perform with the Kimber Kable wires that the XBA-Z5 have as an accessory. I don’t necessarily believe in the difference in sound between wires (maybe a little bit), but it would be interesting to know if they would make a difference or not. Snakeoil warning in me says no.
Some other thoughts- You can’t really see the H3s here in the picture thanks to the underexposure, but they really have made a difference for my on the go setup. I can cram the full amplifer, DAP (usually a Walkman) and the H3 and have plenty of room to spare for other things like my VAIO Z1. This means I can get a very very portable on to go setup that rivals my at home listening experience. Very very happy with this. The H3 definitely does its job as intended when I went on the hunt for them. Are they worth the original 349 CDN when released? Yes. I absolutely would say yes. Even more so at the price I got it for at NCIX. Compared to what is out there in universal IEMs, I think they are a great bang for your buck buy. Especially looking at how much the current flagship sits at- twice the price at 699 CDN! There really isn’t anything that I think are severely missing from the H3s that would make me want to upgrade.
Conclusion- Get these if you like fun music with generally a clean sound. That’s all I can really say sound wise. Get these if you want a portable setup for great sound at your out of home office. Don’t get these for mobile use- they isolate fairly unimpressively, and they require constant adjustment to maintain fit for optimal sound quality. Get these if you don’t mind looking like you have a super special hearing aid sticking 90 degrees out the side of your head. Definitely get these and put on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. The bassline is INSANE on these with this album. That is all. I’m happy with these and would buy them again in a hearbeat, even at MSRP.
Jan 9 2016 edit- I LOVE THESE. Sometimes I feel like I am too harsh in reviews because I don’t want to come off as a fanatic and make the entire thing seem biased, rather than objective. I seriously LOVE the bass on these. Its ridiculously creamy smooth and I don’t think its as muddy as I might have made it out to be in this review. Seriously, if these broke, I would buy these again right away.
TLDR- Pros-These are clean and fun sounding; Cons- these are annoying to put on, require constant adjustment, and are not “audiophile” grade with a flat response