Sony touts its XBA Series as the first to use its "microsized balanced armature drivers." The $80 XBA-1 and $100 XBA-1iP in-ear headphones are the least expensive models to feature these drivers, and they sound exceptionally pure and precise. The XBA-1iP is very much an audiophile-oriented design with a clearer sound than conventional headphone drivers, and I recommend it to music lovers who shy away from bass-blasting genres.
Design and features
The XBA-1iP uses one full-range balanced armature driver in each earpiece fitted to a liquid crystal polymer inner housing with an ABS outer housing that suppresses vibrations. The small gunmetal-gray-and-chrome earpieces are very light, which is one of the reasons the XBA-1iPs are so comfortable to wear for long periods of time. In fact, they're more comfortable than the larger and more expensive XBA models.
The cable is 48 inches long with an inline microphone and three buttons that control volume and track navigation on Apple devices -- if you don't have one, the plain XBA-1 headphones lack those features and sell for $20 less. The flexible cables are prone to tangles, however, and you'll likely spend several minutes with a jumbled cord if you simply jam them in your pocket in transit. Another hiccup in the design is the lack of reinforcement where the cable attaches to the earpieces, so I expect the XBA-1iPs to have lower than average reliability in the long term.
The headphone comes with four sizes of silicone eartips and three sizes of noise-isolating tips. That's a fairly generous selection, so you should have no trouble achieving a good fit. The "L" and "R" markings on the earpieces are fairly small, so they might be difficult to see in low light conditions. Accessories include a cord adjuster, a flat plastic spool to organize cable slack, a wire clip to secure the cable to your clothing, and a small travel pouch.
The XBA-1iP may be the least expensive XBA headphone, but its refined character and poise is quite impressive. The XBA-1iPs hit all the right notes on Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me" album; her vocals naturally amplify the full-bodied piano, acoustic guitars, bass, and drums. The music also exhibited a lively character with a strong dynamic attack and particularly spatial stereo imaging. So much so, in fact, that I noted the cymbals and percussion instruments sounded more airily realistic than they do with most $100 in-ear headphones.
The XBA-1iPs certainly sound more transparent than the original Monster Turbine in-ear headphones with more favorable clarity and definition, but the Turbine's bass hits with a harder thump. Buyers who live on a steady diet of rock, dance, or hip-hop may find the XBA-1iPs' low-end tones lacking fervor.
The $100 Sony XBA-1iPs are best-suited for buyers craving high-resolution headphones with a natural appeal that contrasts with modern, bass-focused buds.