Sony XBA-40 Earphone IRL Review- The XBA40 (XBA being eXperience Balanced Armature) earphone was Sony’s flagship earphone before being succeeded by the XBA-H3 Hybrid earphone, and eventually the XBA-Z5. It succeeded the XBA-4, which itself had succeeded the MDR-EX1000. What’s the history here? Sony initially started with single dynamic driver earphones. Most companies use this- one single driver to cover all frequencies. Most speakers typically have a multi driver set up, to cover the low/mid/upper range. Very rarely, full size headphones have multi driver set ups (JVC has a pair), but they seldom exist. Earphones tend to be the exception. The idea is that each driver is able to dedicate itself to the frequency range, and in turn, better deliver the production. It is however, difficult to accomplish this- the drivers must be matched well. Sony uses balanced armature drivers, essentially the same sized drivers in hearing aids- this allows them to fit multiple drivers in one earphone. Some models like the Noble Kaiser have 10 (!) in each earphone. Eventually, companies started thinking that making hybrids with dyanmic drivers and balanced armatures could produce better sound. This includes the ridiculously expensive AKG k3003. Sony followed up with the XBA-H3. So how does the XBA-40 compare? I’ve had them for a good 5 months now- the following is my IRL Review.
Design- One of the things I quite enjoyed about this design was the simple earphone design, vs the earphone hangar design of the XBA-H3. While I at first loved the over the ear loop design, because it made the headphone look like acomplicated piece of kit, beyond a simple pair of earphones….it turned out to be a complicated piece of kit. It was a royal pain in the butt to put on, and it got in the way of listening. Fortunately, the sound was stellar enough that I didn’t let go of it, but I did want something with punchy sound that was simple to use. The XBA-40 keeps that simplicity down pat. Certainly, I would have loved to have removable cables, but I can live with that. I quite like the white and champagne gold color- it stands out amongst all the boring black audio equipment I have. Its quite a fat earphone- housing four separate drivers inside takes up a lot of space. However, that is one of the reasons I got the earphone- it packs a lot of audio power in a small package, that is very very portable. Generally, while there is not too much to say about an earphone’s design, I do like the xba-40 a lot. Its a fresh stand out color that doesn’t look like every other earphone, nor does it look overtly wild. The four blocks on the outside designate this as 4 balanced armatures inside (it counts down as you get to the XBA-10).
That is one thing I like about the xba-40- being an incredibly fat earphone, but tapering enough not be a brcik sticking out of your ear. I have read a few reviews that the earphone is difficult to insert because of its bulk, but I don’t have any issues. It also comes with a cable winder and shirt clip- I like these little accessories. The metal jack looks great.
Build Quality- its great but not perfect- IMHO I think it would have taken the earphone to a new level if Sony had used a magnesium housing instead of a plastic housing. Nothing feels cheap abotu the earphone specifically. No creaks, nada. The cable is great, the jack is a nice aluminum capped piece. I just don’t feel like it gives off the build of a classic. For example, the ex1000 still commands a premium in the used market, and it has a solid Made in Japan magnesium housing. The XBA-4 on the other hand, is super incredibly cheap on the used market, as is the xba-40. The xba-z5 seems to be holding its own ok right now. This is me just being nitpicky, but I do think Sony should have chosen a more premium build to match its flagship status. So far, no issues though. That includes cables as well, particularly important because they are non-replaceable.
Other- it comes with the same pleather hard case that the xba-3/4 came with. Its not a bad case, and everything just stuffs inside. I quite liked the custom ex1000 case though, and wish Sony had made one for tht exba-40. It also comes with a rnage of ear tips, including hybrid tips that are silicone stuffed with foam. I love these tips- they seem to fit better/snuglier and also isolate better because of the dual sound dampening- this means better sound. If you don’t like these tips, it also comes with regular silicone tips. That’s nice.
Sound Quality- interesting- its not quite the fun sound that the xba-h3 has- the bass is more refined on the xba-40 IMHO. Its not quite as overwhelming, and is tamed in- Sony puts two of the four drivers for the low end- woofer and super woofer. Does it do a better job than the xba-h3 with its giant dyanmic driver? That’s hard to say if its necessarily better, but it doesn’t overwhelm the mids as much. Its less of a fun earphone. However, I do think it strikes a balance between the xba-h3’s fun but at times overwhelming bass, and the clinically flat xba-3. I’ve read that the xba-4 was noted for an overwhelming high, and that the xba-40 had brought this under control. I’m not totally sure, as I have never heard the xba-4 myself. However, I do like them a lot. Are they mind blowing flagships, that compete with Sennheisser’s IE800, or the AKG K3003? The reviews say no, but I don’t have any issues with the sound personally. I quite like them a lot, and I like the balance between the xba40/h3. The h3 is one that I like to listen to if I want to get down with the sound, while the xba40 is one I like to listen to if I want to experience a wide immersive sound stage. Keep in mind that I use these for portable listening- I tend to use my headphones at home. The H3 sounds more in line with the MDR-Z7’s house sound, while the XBA-40 sounds like…maybe the MDR-SA3000. I think its a great deal at its original MSRP around 300 CDN or so.
Conclusion- I like the XBA-40s a lot. The design is funky, particularly the champagne gold/white, but not so funky that they look like el cheapo bargain bin earphones. The build quality is solid, but I do wish they had incorporated a magnesium housing the deliver the flagship status it sits on. The sound quality is great, but its definitely a departure from fun sound, and more of a funnish clinical sound. I don’t find the uppers overwhelming, like a lot of reviews had complained about in the previous generation xba-4. Overall, I would say its a funner version of the XBA-3, but manages to balance the mids and highs with the lows, compared to the XBA-H3, which is a very fun but at times, bass overwhelming earphone.
Pros- great sound, pleasant design, good accessories – Cons- not sure.