Editor’s Note: This thing was supposed to come out months and months ago; it somehow slipped through the cracks. Better late than never, though.
Sony has been making a big push with its hybrid earphone models.
Last year, they released the first generation of their hybrid series in the XBA-H1, XBA-H2, and XBA-H3.
I didn’t care for the XBA-H3 when it first released; while it provided thumpy fun, it didn’t seem to make audio quality the priority, as the MDR-EX600, MDR-EX800ST (known as the MDR-7550 outside of Japan) and MDR-EX1000 had in years past. Many others’ thoughts on the XBA-H series of IEMs coincided with mine.
This year (well, it really should be ‘this past fall’, as Sony tends to announce their new audio products around late-October/early-November), however, they realigned their IEM marketing with their digital audio marketing and pushed full-force into the “high-resolution audio” era, simultaneously releasing the XBA-A1, XBA-A2, XBA-A3, and a flagship-level XBA-Z5.
The new models are supposed to have revised tweeter designs that promise better treble extension and lower distortion. After having listened to the XBA-H3, the XBA-A3, and XBA-Z5 in quick succession, the one thing that is clear is that both the A3 and the Z5 are a substantial step up over the H3.
In direct comparison, the XBA-H3’s bass response manages to sound loose and even a bit muddy compared to the taut response of both the XBA-A3 and the XBA-Z5. Bass wasn’t the only improvement — the treble is noticeably less splashy, and if one listens carefully, he’d notice that the distortion in the upper registers is noticeably reduced. For both the A3 and the Z5, there’s far less of that indistinct warble that muddles the transparency of the H3.
In terms of sheer quantity, the XBA-A3’s bass might actually be stronger in comparison to that of the XBA-H3. It hits just that little bit harder. However, because the low-end resolution is much improved, the additionally perceived texture and speed allows the A3’s bass to sound far more complete.
Additionally, whereas the H3 seemed to exhibit some audible distortion in the central midrange, the A3 has cleaned up this portion and sounds way better. There is no more warbly material that mucks up perception.
As for the Z5, it is a little less treble forward than the A3 (mostly the lower treble), and oriented toward more wooly pleasantry. Bass is more perceptually apparent, but only because the midrange is a little less prominent. Upper treble peaks seem a little better composed Z5 than on the excitable A3, and the bass quality is itself more nuanced, showing off decidedly more layering and sophistication. The differences between the two are relatively minor, however, and listeners on a budget should definitely opt for the A3, while listeners looking for a sumptuous experience will look to the Z5 for some added, intangible benefit. The Z5 is the most stoic of the bunch, conveying a more mature-sounding tilt to the same type of overall feel for all three triple-driver hybrids.
Both models (the A3 and Z5) are pleasant to listen to, despite being greatly raised in the bass region over my personal preferences. They’re both made for toe-tapping fun, and Sony is going to win over a large variety of fans with this type of signature. At the same time, I still prefer my EX1000. To each his own.