The Sony EX1000 was at my time of purchase the best thing I had ever heard and even when a lot more stuff started flowing in it still remained as one of the better sounding earphones I had. A follow up was a product I really wanted but seemingly felt less and less likely when Sony moved over to the XBA range of balanced armature designs, which looked like they were waving good bye to dynamic drivers. Then hybrids become the fad, everyone wants to make one, they are for some reason the things to do right now and too my surprise Sony jumped on the bandwagon with 3 models. The flagship was the product that really put a smile on my face because not only was the design very nostalgic due to the similar appearance too the EX1000 but it also used a 16mm dynamic driver (the same as what the EX1000 had) but added in two of their in house, 100 percent Sony balanced armature drivers. It seems that the dynamic driver and one of the balanced armature driver is full range and then you have another armature driver as a dedicated tweeter to get a good extension on these. It is the flagship, the XBA-H3 that we will be reviewing today. Having a quick search online and it seems that the best price for these is £200 (retail is £300) and that does start too put doubt into my mind whether this is truly a successor in Sony’s mind (not in my mind as price is often not a huge factor) as the discontinued EX1000 was always much more expensive and still is if you can find an elusive brand new pair.
These IEMs have certainly tried too make an approach too consumers as the cables are both flat and have one side that is bright red. Flat cables that are red are just trying to be one thing in my mind and that is an approach I am not a huge fan of. The housings look similar to the EX1000 but don’t look as premium with plastic in comparison too magnesium and they are also fatter, like an EX1000 that has not stopped with the pies since they cut them from the line up. The cables are removable, which is a must have for higher end IEMs and they have swapped from the proprietary connection method they used last time too an MMCX connection like everyone else is. That being said they have implemented the connection much better than anyone else having it recessed so the cable locks in. This stops the connection twisting round which just degrades it and causes the start of the dodgy connections I have come across with them. They are also a lot easier to insert and remove. You can still use aftermarket cables but unless they used Sony’s connectors they would of course not lock in. The cable is a bright and tangled mess. This flat cable does not seem to be very immune to tangling but does feel pretty strong. It has a very chunky memory wire that actually works well and the right-angled jack is low profile with a great strain relief. The housings do honestly feel sturdy enough but that does not stop me want them to be made of magnesium once again.
This is a pair of earphones by consumer gods Sony and as you may expect they throw in everything you could possibly need to get you started and stop you complaining. You get a really nice case that is well lined, has two pouches inside, a Velcro cable management inside and is held together with a zip. You also get a few pairs of the classic and amazing Sony Hybrid tips and some of their revamped tips that have the foam inside for extra isolation. Something I am now seeing more and more is companies giving you two cables along with earphones, with and without a mic (and three buttons) and Sony also do this. I am not one too use a mic so I use audio only but I know a lot of you wont get a pair of IEMs without the feature so top marks for that. You also get the usual like a shirt clip and cable winder.
Now two things I always wished could be improved on with the EX1000 where isolation and ergonomics. The isolation always left me hearing the outside world when using them on the go and the ergonomics had them sticking out of your ears and getting a load of wind noise even though they were comfy. Isolation does seem to be ever so slightly improved although they do still leak ambient noise in the shallow insertion does not help. If your looking for something to travel with or too really block out a loud surrounding area then these are not going to cut it for you and I do not recommend just turning them up louder as a solution. As for the ergonomics, well these are an ergonomic disaster. When I had just got them I took them for a spin in the gym and could see people looking at me oddly. These things are huge and stick out of your ear worse than the infamous Frankenstein like Ultimate Ears TF10. They do not sit flush and they also hang at a weird angle. What is even worse is that now these are bulkier and perhaps even a little heavier they have begun to rub on my ears (even when not moving and just sitting) leading to me getting slightly uncomfortable wearing them for longer listening periods. The other thing about them is that you know your wearing them; these are not disappearing in your ears any time soon.
The sound of these does seem to try and take a bit of a more consumer approach but with some of the sound qualities we had with the EX1000. Now they are not similar in tonal balance but just a few technicalities will give you some de ja vu. You can definitely reminisce at the quality of the bass and the size of the soundstage but in other area things are a little different without a doubt. This is a warm, smooth and bassy earphone. The bass is pretty balanced but it does have the most boost at around 100hz but I doubt that it drops any more than a decibel down to 20hz. What does that mean in how we actually hear the sound. Well a warm, full bodied bass that gets all the way down to the frequencies that we feel in our gut. The EX1000 bass is still one of the most amazing I have ever heard on an IEM and this is clearly from the same family but Sony have decided that they will add a bit in quantity by loosening it a bit and adding some note decay. It is no longer almost like an armature in terms of speed but a bit more care free and concentrates on really pushing the air even if it is taking its time about it with quick notes almost becoming a blur. The bass is huge and if your not someone who is into a MASSIVE bass then you can move on now because these are like subwoofers in your ears, the bass is always present and is not smart enough to sometimes pipe down when not needed. The midrange its behind the bass and the lower mids are the only area that feel in the slightest effected because by the time we get too around 4khz and the higher midrange we are back in line with the bass. This gives the midrange a great sense of clarity without it pushing over to the nasaly vocals sound. That being said some female vocals do come across as bit over done, listening to Lana Del Ray it is almost like she is singing into an over amplified megaphone. The midrange is smooth with a rich timbre and absolutely no grain what so ever. I guess things are just a bit distant sometimes just after the transition from the bass and they are not going to satisfy those detail freaks out there but they are easy to listen to and don’t really put a finger out of place. The treble is a very welcome change to the EX1000. Anyone who has been hands on with the EX1000 will know it had a fairly spiky treble (although I never found it that offensive) that some people just could not bare. As well as extending too a solid 14khz these earphones are fairly smooth in the highs other than a nice bit of shimmer at 10khz. The shimmer/sparkle is only subtle and not going to be really making an impact but you know it is there in the mix, which is nice. Coherency of the drivers is top notch as this is an easy problem with hybrid set ups and the sound is full and at one with the music. I guess they could have made the sound a bit faster as it does get a tad congested when there is a lot going such as in Bon Jovi’s “What About Now” and this also makes the soundstage not feel as open as it can do. The soundstage is still huge just like I remember the EX1000 to have been, open, great left to right imaging with a nice center stage. Depth exists and the instruments use the space well but not in the most accurate way.
Now I appreciate all this, the bass really does get both deep and slam in the mid-bass and at the same time you get a decent midrange experience. Treble is a bit subdued after 5khz and the sound is also not the airiest but the warm sound is musical and engaging and does get me toe tapping. However it does not meet the sound that I crave for, it is certainly more consumer with it having too much bass for me, not enough details or honesty and also lacking a tad of speed. The sound is also just a bit to busy for me, it is not clean cut and the imaging could do with better accuracy.
Sony has made an IEM that is both a bass cannon and a good sounding earphone that does justify its price tag. Ergonomics and its design are certainly its biggest problem as while I am not having many problems enjoying these now I am sitting down in front of my computer listening to them, movement can lead these to rub a bit causing discomfort, they are far from smart looking as well and will not keep you separated that well from the outside world. These are more like Tralucent 1plus2 when it comes too use and keeping them in the house is probably a better idea. If these problems do not effect you and you want something that delivers a very powerful bass but still has other frequencies, then these may well be just what your after and I think that Sony certainly have done a good job with these, if only they could have got the ergonomics a bit better.