Saturday, 20 October 2012

Old Pickup: Sony XB700

It wasn't until I started writing my review of the Sony MDR-V6 that I realised I hadn't reviewed my Sony XB700, so I thought to give some background (as I reference them in "future" reviews) I would go back and review them.

The Sony XB700 are part of Sony's extra bass style headphones, and come in various tiers of shapes, sizes and cost.  Starting off at the low end there are the XB300 right through to XB500, XB700 and XB1000 (XB700 were the old "flagship" XB series, now replaced with the XB1000).  The XB500 seem a little redundant since the XB300 takes care of the low end/low cost/portable market, the XB700 works nicely as home headphones and the XB1000 notable for their 70mm drivers.  The XB500 are just too close in price, size and style to the XB700 for me to understand why anyone would go with the XB500.

As you will have no doubt figured out already, these are coloured headphones (meaning not neutral).  That is they won't present music as it was recorded or intended to sound, but will boost certain frequencies, changing the tone of the music.  What this means is that they will most likely suit certain styles of music better than others, which makes them a bit specialist, unlike a neutral pair of headphones which should sound good with anything.

But that's fine if you already have a decent pair of neutral headphones.  I bought the Sony XB700 because I thought they would compliment the K701 - have one pair of neutral, open back headphones, and have some cheaper bass tuned headphones to compensate for the tracks where the bass on the K701 isn't as strong as I'd like.

Specs wise, Sony claim they cover 3-28,000 Hz, handle up to 3W (yes, that's 3000mw...) and are rated at 24ohms impendance which is good news for portable players as they are easy to drive.

Build Quality
The build quality is really nice.  They feel stable and have some very soft, premium feeling leather pads - you really need to feel these if you ever get the chance.  The headband is a mix of plastic/leather for the upper part, and brushed aluminium for the parts near the ear cups.  The ear cups continue the metal theme, but are unfortunately just silver coloured plastic.  The headphone cable is fair quality, but on my external amp I can hear some interference which is the same level no matter the volume.  If I use the built in amp of my DAC, it goes away, so I would guess that where Sony decided to go with a flat cable design, it means they had to skimp on shielding, and this is why it's picking up the interference.  It's odd, because I don't get this issue on any of my other headphones, or even sensitive IEMs.

The design is a cross between sleek and over the top.  The headband is clean and smooth, with some brushed aluminium detail at the bottom, and the earpads are incredibly soft and equally large.  The ear pads are large enough to completely cover your ears and they don't seem to get quite as hot or uncomfortable as they do with most leather ear pieces.  The headband has a small amount of padding, but it's very soft and does the job perfectly.  The headband has click stops, so they don't go anywhere once you've set them to a comfortable size.  The inside of the cups are just covered with cloth and aren't padded, which doesn't seem to present a problem for me, but if you resemble Gary Lineker it might irritate you.

The headphone cable is dual entry, which gets annoying at times, and there is only 1.2M of it, which is fine for portable use, but can be a bit short when using at home when you are tied to your desk amp, computer or whatever.

They do a good job of boosting the bass, but the width of bass frequencies they boost is a little too wide for my liking.  Ideally, I would like most bass enhancements to taper off at around 80-100Hz which is around the same kind of setting you would have for a subwoofer.  At these frequencies, you can boost bass without having much effect on the tone of the rest of the music (a classic example is listening to a radio with male voices coming through the subwoofer occasionally - horrible).  Unfortunately, cutting the bass at around 200-250Hz gives a bit of a muddy sound.

At the other end of the scale, the treble seems a little lacking in places which is weird because it's not an overall dull sound, it's what I can only describe as "peaky", as if someone took an EQ and put say 6Khz in positive boost, then the next band in negative, then the next in positive etc.  This slight dullness to the treble may even be intentional on Sony's part, as it means you can ramp up the volume and let the bass rumble without going treble deaf.

Compared to:
AKG K701
It's hard to compare the XB700 to anything I own currently, as I tend to go for neutral sounding headphones, but for the sake of completeness, I will draw some comparisons.

Unsurprisingly, you can hear the difference in the price of these headphones, as the K701 cost three or four times as much.  The K701 has a much wider soundstage, even though I wouldn't say that the XB700 was unusually narrow - it's just the case that the K701 have a wide soundstage and many people comment on this and sometimes say it sounds a little artificial.

The different instruments and frequencies are all clearly distinguishable with the K701, whereas the XB700 sounds rather busy, crowded and muddy in the low end, no doubt due to the range of boost they applied.  I still say if they had boosted the bass only up to ~80Hz, it would have greatly improved the overall clarity.  The K701 and XB700 are pretty much opposites at the high frequency end with the XB700 sounding a little dull and peaky, and the K701 sounding bright and pinpoint.  The difference is that you will be able to listen to the XB700 at much higher volumes without piercing your ear drums than the K701.

The top and bottom of this treble thing, is that the K701 has a clarity and tone to it that makes me want to get my air guitar out, and the XB700 makes me want to get my equalizer out.

The XB700 sound pretty much the same they do on low powered devices as they do a dedicated desktop amp, and they are easy enough to drive for you not to require an amp to reach high volume levels.

The K701 wins out on comfort, but that said it's hard to beat the combination of cloth, full size ear pads and open back design.  Closed back, leather pads can't really compete.  I can wear both for any number of hours, but the K701 are at a level where you can't really feel anything, but with the XB700 you are always aware that you are wearing them.
Sony MDR-V700
A bit of a fairer comparison, but even so, at release the V700 cost almost twice as much as the XB700, and sound pretty similar to the K701 and V6 so much of the same comments apply here.

The V700 has a wider soundstage than the XB700, but not as wide as the K701.  The general feeling when going from XB700 to V700 is that it sounds clearer and more detailed.

As expected, the XB700 beats the so called DJ headphones on bass, as the V700 are on a similar level in terms of bass to the K701 (frequency response grahps suggest maybe a bit less).
Although the V6 are designed to be neutral, and the XB700 are designed to enhance bass, I thought it would be interesting to make the comparison anyway since they are in the same price bracket.

In terms of design and build quality, the XB700 are better as they don't suffer from those crappy swivel joints that always used to break, and the plastics don't feel quite as cheap.  The XB700 also beat out the V700 in terms of comfort by a long shot as the ear pads on the V700 are only thin, so it means your ears are pressing against the driver housing which is poor design in my books.

To be blunt, I was a dissapointed with the sound quality.  I was expecing a pair of good headphones with a smiley face style EQ - that is increased bass and increased treble, but in the end what I ended up with were some headphones that have good bass but weird dull/peaky treble.  I'm not sure where it went wrong.  I mean I don't think it's asking much for Sony to take the MDR-V6, put some fat ear cusions on them, update the style a bit and give them a nice big bass boost and taper it off at 100Hz.  Maybe it's a driver issue, or maybe it's a housing design issue, who knows.

Reasonable headphones if you can get them for £50 or less and certainly not the worst I've heard.  Some criticism of the tone, but be warned that the headphones I was comparing them too were all high end or noteworthy for a reason.

A good alternative to Beats Solo.  I tried these on in HMV some time ago, and while I wasn't able to draw direct comparisons at the time, I was surprised at how similar the tone was, yet the Sony were 1/3 of the price.

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