Sony MDR-XB900 Headphones REVIEW

$199

2 or 4 Stars (see the conclusion)

Ashley Kramer discovers how to pump up the volume and rattle his rib cage without driving the neighbours to bass distraction.

ONE SATURDAY, NOT that long ago, I was wandering the halls of Sylvia Park, my local mega-mall, when I strolled into the Sony Style store. Aimlessly taking in the products, I noticed what had to be the strangest set of headphones I’d ever seen – they looked like scaled down monster truck tyres complete with tread and hubcaps. You have to actually see these things in the flesh, or even better, wear them for a while to appreciate just how big they are, not only in terms of the diameter but also the depth of the earcups. With a pair of 70mm drivers lurking beneath all that padding, the mighty MDRXB1000 were the flagship model of Sony’s Extra Bass range of headphones.

Not entirely convinced that I’d want all that padding on my head on a sunny day, I figured that these fat Sony’s, which looked like the biggest, baddest ‘phones ever, could maybe truly do justice to the intro drums on Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Stand Inside Your Love’. Then and there, I resolved to get in a set for review. The next Monday, I got in touch with Sony NZ, only to be told that a replacement for the MDRXB1000 was on its way, so there was no point in reviewing the outgoing model.

I tempered my dismay with fevered imaginings of the new version. I had no doubt that there would be even bigger earpads, more immense drivers, and EXTRA bass. Even better, they’d be engineered by Sony, so the bass should theoretically still be tight and in balance: I was thinking big, firm and bountiful not loose and wobbly.

A month or so later and the replacement model – the MDR-XB900, finally arrived. I got hold of a set and was immediately uneasy because the box was moderately sized and there was no way that ‘phones with 70mm (or bigger) drivers were packed in there unless they folded up using quantum mechanics. Reading the back of the box told me that these ‘phones had 50mm drivers. Consider me disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong, 50mm is still a big driver, but I’d been expecting huge. However, the MDR-XB900’s do have an “Advanced Direct Vibe Structure” to aid the bass, not to mention that “Engineered by Sony” tag, so there would no doubt be bass aplenty, albeit without the visual impact of the previous model.

Features and Construction

The MDR-XB900’s are lovely to look at – the dark metal side plates on the earcups contrast very nicely with the brushed silver and black finish on the headband. They’re well built, too. Besides the aforementioned plates, there’s not a great deal of metal in the design but they’re pretty solid nonetheless – the big hinge initially feels a bit fragile but it’s more substantial than it seems and it’s not likely to disintegrate in a hurry.

The massive old model (complete with massive hair)

These ‘phones are a folding design and they’ll compress down to a reasonably compact package. I’d like to see at least a soft carry bag supplied with them but at the price, I’m not going to get too stressed about its absence. The cable is a non-detachable type and is missing the Apple remote I’m so fond of but again at the price, I’m not too fussed. The cable is however one of Sony’s new flat tangle free types with a serrated surround that cuts friction, thereby reducing the tendency to tangle.

The MDR-XB900’s are an on-ear design, with soft, seamless ear pads, which makes them quite comfortable to wear, although this is very much dependent on personal preference – some people don’t like their ‘phones sitting on top of their ears. The headband provides a fair amount of spring loading, which translates into some pressure against the ears, particularly when you’ve got a big head like mine. That said, without some pressure, the ‘phones would shift and fall off at every opportunity; in any event, while the pressure was always noticeable, it was never a problem and these ‘phones remained a pleasure to wear over the long-term.

Sound Quality

So the MDR-XB900’s are unashamedly designed to generate bass. Do they succeed? Do they ever! Godzilla stamping angrily on the pedal of a skyscraper- sized kick drum couldn’t pump out this amount of bass. For sheer weight and power, I’ve never heard anything like it, and I’ve heard a lot of ‘phones in my time.

Some additional bass weight is something I’m happy with in a mobile headphone or earphone environment because there’s not much worse than thin sounding ‘phones – all sibilant treble and thick midrange. I’m not a bass-nut but that extra warmth and presence way down low is a good thing when you’re out on the street or enmeshed in a noisy transit system of some sort.

Then again, as anyone who’s heard a badly set up home theatre system can testify, too much bass is not a good thing. The fat, room-shaking “woompa woompa” of a big subwoofer with its volume knob turned to maximum level is a sonic disaster, all the more so if you’re unfortunate enough to be wearing a pair of them around your head.

Forget about having subs around your head, that’s nowhere near extreme enough to describe the first time I tried the MDR-XB900’s. It was more like having my head trapped inside a really large, badly tuned, loud subwoofer. In a word – awful! The bass was so big that it dwarfed everything else, crushing it with overemphasized low octaves. At best, with relatively bass-light music, it was like listening to a three-way loudspeaker with a faulty midrange driver and a dead tweeter. At worst, with bass torture tracks, these ‘phones were pretty much intolerable.

They did the spoken word absolutely no favours either – I was watching Season 2 of the excellent Breaking Bad on my MacBook Pro while I had the MDR-XB900’s on hand. They made Walter White sound like Darth Vader; heaven only knows what they would have done with Vader’s vocals.

Was I looking at my first ever zero star review here? It certainly sounded that way. I was baffled to think that this product originated from a Sony factory and not a two-dollar store. Perhaps this was a faulty set? Actually, there seemed to be no other explanation unless every engineer and quality control specialist in the headphone division had been suddenly rendered deaf or transformed into head-banging zombies.

Then I got to thinking – I’d been less than impressed with a set of brand-new Sennheiser HD650’s back in 2006. After a few hours of heavy running in, however, I liked them so much I bought them. Could the MDR-XB900’s just need a workout? If so, they needed a beating! I hooked them up to my iPod Classic, set the volume to about 90%, cued up my training playlist and walked away.

Two hours later, I had another listen and hey presto – we had some progress. The bass had tightened up a bit but more importantly, the recessed midrange and shy treble had made a strong appearance, which made for a much more balanced character. Two hours later and the MDR-XB900’s actually sounded like a pair of headphones, not an empty 50 gallon drum rolling down a rocky mountainside. They never morphed into a set of audiophile ‘phones but they did get noticeably better with time.

As expected, the ‘Extra Bass’ was still there, but it was much tighter and far less dominant than it was before the hard run-in period. No one will ever accuse these ‘phones of being lean, cool, or even close to neutral but for bass freaks, head bangers and dub lovers, they offer bass grunt that’s just not found on more accurate models.

When I first heard them, I’d no more have wanted to listen to Massive Attack’s ‘Inertia Creeps’ from Mezzanine than I’d have wanted to breathe water. After the run in on the other hand, I not only braved this track but also thoroughly enjoyed it. The suitably massive drums that kick in at the 48-second mark were rendered with colossal weight and a sense of impact that must be very close to the way this track was meant to be heard in a club setting. The big low end was still tight and reasonably fast; not as well controlled as the SkullCandy Aviator 2.0’s I reviewed recently, but dramatically deeper.

On other bass-heavy tracks, the MDR-XB900’s continued to excel. They’re by no means the kind of truthful ‘phones that audiophiles would use to immerse themselves in the decay of a Nils Lofgren guitar riff, but crank up ‘Bullet In The Head’ from RATM’s epic eponymous CD and feel Commerford’s bass pressurising your ears and you’ll understand the attraction. Cue up Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Stand Inside Your Love’ or ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ off Rotten Apples and give the volume control a whopping nudge and prepare for a pounding, rolling bass experience that fills the skull – thin this sound isn’t, powerful it most certainly is.

The rest of the frequency range is handled reasonably well – they’re not the most revealing ‘phones in the world but they’re just about spot on at the two hundred clams price point. Concerns along the lines of soundstage space or treble extension take a back seat to that bass, but there’s no deep and abiding sense that these ‘phones are a one trick pony. They’re absolutely at their best with the levels up and the music heavy but I found that I was able to listen to mellow stuff too, although I always wanted to go back to the bass tracks after a while.

Conclusion

Lest you think I’m being overly forgiving of the Sony’s bass-heavy leaning, remember that they’re aimed at a very specific demographic – sometimes featuring big hair and saggy jeans, but always young, the target market is going to love these ‘phones. Some will say that the fact that I enjoyed the MDR-XB900’s as much as I did speaks volumes for my mental age.

Yes, of course there’s too much bass but that’s the entire, unapologetic point. The box says ‘Extra Bass’ so what did you expect? If you want response curves that have been carefully engineered to be as neutral as possible, then there are other options, although you may need to spend more money to get there. If you want to listen to a steady diet of Alison Krauss or Bob Dylan, then look elsewhere. If on the other hand, you like loud heavy music and want bass, bass and more bass that’s omnipresent but not overbearing, then these are worth a try.

Much like one of those chain store “mini systems” with the flashing lights and the stickers proclaiming ‘2,000 Watts’ and ‘MEGA BASS’, these ‘phones will put a smile on the face of any bass-head as surely as they’ll put a frown on an audiophile’s dial. Just do yourself a favour and give them some time to loosen up before you make a judgment call. Four stars then for bass lovers, two stars for people who want neutral ‘phones. ASHLEY KRAMER

www.sony.co.nz

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Sony MDR-1R Headphones REVIEW

  2. Pingback: Sony MDR-XB920 Earphones Review

  3. Oh man – as a proud XB1000 owner I gotta say you are missing out! Not worth reviewing??? Oh my god – it’s worth reviewing just to tell people they are better than the subsequent generation! Sony came out with the “on ear” designs, but I think these are less comfortable, personally (but that could be a matter of taste). Also, you’ll notice the body design is similar to the XB600’s (which is far heavier than the XB500 design). Chances are, however, that they are less heavy than the hefty 13oz of the 1000’s (worth it). 70mm>50mm, ’nuff said. Sorry they talked you out of it

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