The kind of headphones that come boxed up with iPods and other devices are, in general, awful. They don’t do their respective devices justice, leak audio, but more importantly they don’t do your listening experience - or your eardrums - justice either.
Sony’s XBA-1iP in-ear ‘phones, priced at £89, are a prime example of an “upgrade” pair of headphones. But with a price tag edging towards the £100 mark, are they really worth the cash?
If there’s one thing that the XBA-1 in-ears do then it’s isolate the listening experience. Three sizes of noise isolation earbuds (small, medium, large) not only help keep sound from the outside world blocked out, but they also keep your music wired to your ears - no more sieve-like leakage as per the iPod’s standard headphones.
However it’s important to get the earbud size right for a sealed fit: there’s no point in wearing one too big or too small as the in-ears will no longer be in-ear - they’ll be falling out all the time.
To the treadmill
We tested the XBA-1s out on the road, plugging them in while on the treadmill, on a commute to a meeting and all manner of other locations. The problem we found was that a true sealed connection - essential for best listening quality - may not always last, as slight tugging of wires can easily loosen the positioning. And this is most likely when on the move - ie, when these headphones are going to be used. Some competitor headphones - such as the Bose MEI2 - include an ear-latch-like design to ensure positioning remains more rigid.
The XBA-1iP include a volume control remote that’s handy for adjustments, while the cables rarely tangled - a quick outward tug would easily set them right again. Also in the box is a carry pouch and clothing-clip.
The XBA-1iPs boast a balanced armature design, but as this design so often entails the bass response is therefore weak. We found kick drums to cut through the mix with some impact, but lower-frequency basslines dwindle in the listening experience.
This lack of bass makes the XBA-1iP sound rather mid-heavy, which can produce a tinny or crunchy kind of sound for some music. Our playlist ranged from rock to pop through to some underground leftfield - the kind of tempoed stuff that keeps pace on the cross trainer. But even a capella pieces lacked richness.
The sound also feels like an all-in-one injection to the brain; there’s a lack of separation - bar for the obvious LR stereo - to the overall sound.
But then we’re probably being hypercritical. These aren’t high-end earphones, although some readers may find the price suggests otherwise. And that’s just the thing: the £89 RRP is just too high for what these are. The XBA-1iP in-ears do the job, but their lack of low-end and not-best-in-class response are downsides.
The XBA-1iP balanced armature headphones may look the part and talk the talk on the packaging, but when it comes to the overall listening experience they’re quite average.
A lack of low-end response leaves the mid-levels to dominate. Although the sound isn’t bad by any means, it just doesn’t feel like the sort of refined, next-level purchase that the £89 RRP suggests. A little shop around will reveal they can be bagged for closer to the £60 mark, and it's only this that saves these in-ears from a lower score.
They’ll do the job on the treadmill, but aren’t going to produce the most rounded or pleasurable listening experience for true music fanatics.
However, the sound isolation is up there with the best in class, so if you want to keep outside noise out and your music tapped to your ears only then these Sonys certainly deliver on that front, bettered thanks to the multiple earbud sizes included in the box.