Sony MDR-XB950N1 Extra Bass Headphones

It's all about that bass, right? So we've heard, and so has many a headphone manufacturer. From Beats to Skullcandy, the designers of the cans we put over our ears have become obsessed with finding that perfect bass-heavy sound. And, at least  with its MDR-XB950N1 pair, Sony is no different.

Sony tends to please two camps with its headphone range – the true audiophile, and the beat-hunting bass fiend. The Sony MDR-XB950N1 is certainly aiming to tempt that latter group, and if you run through the spec sheet the cans look like a winner: For $250 (£230, about AU$335) you get active noise cancellation, 22 hour battery life and a comfortable over-ear design.

However, after having had the headphones booming into our ears for a few weeks, we were left conflicted. While the bass tuning is an interesting effort, the headphones are a one trick pony that only really make a few specific genres shine.

Design

The Sony MDR-XB950N1 are large headphones with an over-ear design that helps isolate listeners from outside noise. The earcups and headband are padded in plush leather which make them extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods. Styling is subtle but the headphones do look large and bulky.

In terms of durability, the headphone is made mostly of black plastic but have black metal adjustment sliders that make them feel sturdier. Travelers will be happy to know that the MDR-XB950N1 can fold flat or up for transport and come with a simple cloth pouch.

While some headphone companies try to minimize the number of buttons on their headphones, Sony crammed as many buttons and controls onto the headphone as possible. 

On the left earcup you’ll find buttons for power, toggling the Bass Effect equalizer, a microUSB charging port, 3.5mm jack for wired use and a button to toggle active noise cancellation. On the right earcup you have a slider and button combo for controlling music playback and a dedicated volume up and down rocker. Having so many buttons has a downside, however: you’ll need to spend the first couple of days learning where each button is by touch.  

Performance

If what you’re seeking is skull-rattling bass, the Sony MDR-XB950N1 have you covered. Even without the bass effect EQ turned on, the Sonys have a bass-heavy sound that makes listening to rap, electronic and trap music fun. 

You’ll want to download Sony’s companion Android and iOS app when you get these headphones as that’s the only way to adjust the bass effect EQ and virtual soundstage options. If you don’t have an Android or iOS phone, you’re out of luck – sorry, Windows, Blackberry or Linux phone users. 

Sony made the bass effect EQ super simple to use with its slider that goes from -10 to +10. Those who don’t want overbearing bass can turn it down while those who want more can crank it way up. There are also options for virtual soundstage to make music sound like it’s being played in a concert hall or stadium arena but none of them sound particularly good. 

Listening to the Sony MDR-XB950N1 with the bass effect turned off, we could immediately hear the mid-bass emphasis that has the unfortunate effect of drowning out some of the mids. Highs are rolled off and instruments like the violin lose their sparkle and resolution. Turning down the bass helped with revealing a bit more of the mids but the rolled off highs stayed.

With the bass effect cranked all the way up, we felt bass in a visceral way but was fatigued by the sound after several minutes. When the bass effect is set to max, bass sounds energetic but uncontrolled and flabby, like a stereo you’d hear at your local late night car meet that rattles everything within the vicinity. 

Active noise cancellation from the MDR-XB950N1 performs well but still lags behind the class-leading . The headphones did a good job drowning out the sound of the train but it couldn’t block out as much as Bose. There’s also a persistent hiss when noise cancellation is active but you won’t notice it as soon as music plays.

After spending a couple of weeks with the MDR-XB950N1, we were left conflicted. The headphones are great with specific genres of music but we couldn’t get over the fact that the headphone was a one trick pony. Jazz, classical and rock sounded dull thanks to its rolled off highs and overly emphasized bass. 

It didn't help that the Sonys also lacked multipoint Bluetooth pairing which seems like a glaring omission at a time where we have more devices than ever that can use wireless audio. The headphones also lack auto play/pause when taking off the headphones, a feature the cheaper has. For the money, the Plantronics are a better value as it comes with more features, longer battery life (24 hours vs Sony’s 22 hours), good noise cancellation and a sound signature that works with all types of music. 

Final verdict

If you really love bass, you’ll love the Sony MDR-XB950N1. The adjustable bass means you can dial in the headphone’s bass response just the way you like. We would have liked to see a multi-band EQ but Sony kept it simple with just a bass slider. 

For the money, Sony's MDR-XB950N1 disappoints by omitting multipoint Bluetooth pairing and auto play/pause when taking off the headphones. The Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 offer more features and balanced sound for $50 less. 

If Sony makes a second bass-heavy headphone, we’d like additional features as well as a solution to the issue of bass bleeding into the mids and rolling off the highs. For right now, however, the Sony MDR-XB950N1 are a one trick pony that only ardent bass enthusiasts can love. 

Lewis Leong
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