Pre-review thought: To be completely honest, I don’t have high hopes for Sony’s just-released MDR-XB950N1 headphones. I have several corded headphones, & two stereo Bluetooth headsets. My current “go to” for music-listening is a v-moda Crossfade M-100 with an Onkyo DAC-HA200 external DAC/Amp. The Sony headphones can’t compare/compete…right? Read the ENTIRE review, and we shall see. For the review, I focused on the Sony headphones, making minor comparisons to the v-moda M-100. I am not an “audiophile”, & I don’t have a “trained ear”…but, as a musician, I can discern audio quality differences.
UNBOXING, AND INITIAL IMPRESSIONS:
The outer box is on-par with others, although a better job than Sony’s usual packaging. The inner box is your basic black cardboard box, except that the lid’s inside is nicely-lined with a soft, black, flannel-like material. The plastic “cradle” that the headphones are in is thicker (more sturdy) than usual, & the top has a flat black leather-like texture, giving the internal packaging somewhat of a “premium feel”. Included with the usual ‘papers’ are a USB/microUSB cable for charging (and possible firmware upgrades…more on this later), a double-ended 3.5mm cord, and a carrying pouch. NOTE: 3.5mm-to-1/4” adapter is NOT included.
There are two ways to connect the headphones: wireless (standard Bluetooth, or NFC), & wired (for greater frequency range). If your device has NFC, you pair by tapping the headphone’s left cup to the device’s NFC contact point.
COMFORT & EASE OF OPERATION:
Controls are well placed, simplifying operation: power, BassBoost, & Noise Cancelation buttons, plus USB & 3.5mm ports, are on the left side; the volume, play/pause, next/fast-forward, & back/rewind controls on the right. Earpads are a soft memory foam, covered in a soft vinyl-like material (great for comfortable extended listening). The headband is solid, being made of metal & hard plastic, with plush padding along the top. The cups rotate 90 degrees to the rear, and fold inward, compact enough to store almost anywhere.
First, I tested noise-cancelation capabilities…and where better than inside a car, with the car stereo blasting music different than what’s playing through the headphones (not a “sound booth”, but works equally well). When I listen to the radio, the volume is typically at 5 (usual 3-5 range, rarely exceeding 7), so ‘5’ was my start-point. NOTE: the MDR-XB950N1’s volume is lower when BassBoost is ‘on’. With headphones at a typical listening volume, & car stereo on, I first tested with BassBoost turned on, playing several different songs. The car stereo reached 22-24 before I could hear it. Turning BassBoost off (same songs), the volume reached 33-34 before I noticed. In both tests, the car stereo’s music was barely a whisper above the headphone’s, thus no interfere. Car volume had to be 5-7 higher before I truly noticed, & the car stereo music began to clash. Conclusion: MDR-XB950N1 Noise Cancelation works extremely well.
For corded music tests & comparison, I used Sony’s own cord with the MDR-XB950N1 (so as to not “alter” its original sound), as opposed to using the v-moda’s higher-quality cord. With CDs first, I listened to Sheila E’s “Butterfly”, Casting Crown’s “Voice of Truth”, and Earth Wind & Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”. On “Butterfly”, the sound quality was slightly flat, timbales sounded slightly muffled, & cymbals were discernable, but lacked their usual crispness. For all songs, vocals were fairly accurately, but slightly muffled, percussion was somewhat flat, & guitars sounded soft. So far, things weren’t looking good for the MDR-XB950N1.
For the remaining tests, I switched to MP3s, playing Tim Capello’s “I Still Believe” (‘The Lost Boys’ soundtrack), Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill”, Kitaro’s “The Light of the Spirit”, Matthew West’s “Forgivness”, & Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, with tests in this order: corded into phone, corded via DAC, then wireless. The corded into phone results were similar to the CD results, except more accurate & closer to the sound of the v-moda headphones…but still far from perfect. The corded via DAC were much better. To be honest, the results are hard for me to believe…the difference between headphones was barely noticeable. Holding one cup from each to my ears at the same time, I thought I was listening to a single headset. Last up was Bluetooth (M-100s still wired)…and this is where the Sony MDR-XB950N1 shined. I might go so far as to say they outperformed my M-100s. The sound was crisp, clean, & clear. I actually had to turn the volume DOWN on my GS7 Edge, so as to not blast my ears.
SONY “HEADPHONES CONNECT” APP:
In short, the app is not a good thing…it’s somewhat of a bad thing: ‘Surround (VPT)’ effects are all but useless. There’s little difference between them. A couple of them stood out…barely…but never enough to make a real difference. I recommend keeping this setting “Off”. At the same time, I still recommend installing the app, as it has other useful features, most importantly the remaining battery time.
THE GOOD: When used for what these are designed for…mobile devices playing compressed-format music (MP3, AAC, FLAC, etc), they’re outstanding, producing clean, bright (but not overly/unrealistically), accurate, crisp sound.
THE BAD: The included 3.5mm cord isn’t very good. If using a cord, replace the included cord with one of higher quality. The Headphones Connect app’s ‘Surround (VPT)’ settings produce no discernable difference, & lowers the volume.
THE UGLY: Do NOT use these for listening to CDs, as they ruin the audio quality.
These are not headphones to use when listening to CDs. Overall sound is good, but no better than $25-50 over/on-the-headphones (you’d be better off with $50 in-ear headphones). If your intent is listening to music on mobile devices, that’s what these are for…and they’re great at it. For corded listening, the included cord is ‘good’, but replacing it with a high-quality cord will produce better sound. For listening via Bluetooth, this is where these are the best. Sony did an incredible job designing these, outperforming almost all other Bluetooth headphones I’ve listened to.
Having viewed Sony’s webpage for the MDR-XB950N1 headphones, there’s the possibility that the firmware installed can be updated. Sony hasn’t posted anything on the product page…yet…as these were just released. However, that being said, if you go to Sony’s product page, and scroll down to the ‘Support’ section, you will find a tab labeled “Drivers & Software”. I am not claiming to know there will be firmware updates, nor am I stating that there won’t be…all I’m saying is, considering they’ve added that tab to the product’s support section, there’s a high possibility/probability that firmware updated could be forthcoming.
If you’re in the market for stereo Bluetooth headphones, you will be hard-pressed to find anything better…at this price-point, or any other. The Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones are equally good, but you’ll pay $100 more. The Beats Solo3 cost $30 less, but they don’t sound as good, plus you lose Noise Cancelation. The Beats Studio Wireless has Noise Cancelation, and costs $20 less, but, again, they don’t sound as good. If you truly want the best, you can get the Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H8, or Senheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless, but they’ll each cost you $500+. Finally, you could get Sony’s MDR-1000X which will sound slightly better, and includes Noise Cancelation…but you’ll pay $150 more for them.
For corded listening w/ DAC, the v-moda M-100s will remain my “go to”. For corded listening w/o DAC, the MDR-XB950N1s can almost rival the M-100s. If you only want to listen to music on-the-go via Bluetooth, GET THESE HEADPHONES…it’s that simple. These are now my “go to” for Bluetooth listening.
At the beginning of my review, I asked a question about the ability of the MDR-XB950N1s being able to compete/compare against the M-100s. I’m here to say that my internal assumption…although I never stated it…was wrong. I had assumed that the M-100 would outperform the MDR-XB950N1. The truth is, they are just as good…and, in some ways, better. The M-100 headphones are corded-only, whereas the MDR-XB950N1 headphones are Bluetooth, plus they work when corded. Added to that is Active Noise Cancelation, which the M-100s don’t have. If you want the BEST sounding Bluetooth headphones, with Active Noise Cancelation, for the lowest price, there’s only one choice: Sony’s MDR-XB950N1 headphones.
Disclaimer: This product was provided free, or at reduced cost, for the purpose of reviewing the product. Nevertheless, the above review, be it positive, negative, or anywhere in-between, is a 100% honest review, and the price paid played absolutely no part in my review.