CES 2012: Sony Gets Serious About IEMs

CES 2012 was the coming-out party for Sony’s in-ear headphones. Nearly buried in the talk of cell phones, media managers, and 3DTV was the announcement Monday night of Sony’s first line of balanced-armature in-ear monitors (IEMs). This step up to a higher class of product shocked me for two reasons.

First, Sony introduced not one or two models, but 11 — including the first Bluetooth, noise-cancelling, and sports IEMs I’ve seen with balanced armatures. Second, at a time when pundits are starting to ridicule Sony as a company that — despite its “make.believe” tagline — doesn’t actually make anything anymore, the company is manufacturing its own balanced-armature drivers. “We’re not sourcing them from that one manufacturer everyone else sources them from,” quipped Sony product manager Claude Schmidt.

OK, let’s backtrack with a little tech talk. Almost all in-ear headphones use dynamic drivers, which are essentially tiny versions of the drivers in a conventional set of speakers, with diaphragms propelled by little voice coils. Balanced armature drivers move a speaker diaphragm through a device that resembles a tiny, motor-driven teeter-totter. Because balanced armatures can be small, they can fit deeper into your ear for a better seal, and they’re also revered for clearer, more detailed treble. Balanced armatures are found mostly in IEMs prices priced about $200 or higher.

Basic models in the new Sony line include the $79 XBA-1, the $199 XBA-2, the $279 XBA-3, and the $349 XBA-4. The number at the end of the model designation indicates the number of balanced armatures used. So you can think of the XBA-2 as a two-way model with separate woofer and tweeter; the XBA-3 as a three-way model, adding a midrange driver; and the XBA-4 as a dual-woofer three-way. Each is also available with an inline mic/control for smartphones, an option that adds the designation “-iP” to the model number and $20 to the price.

Auditioning each model in the line was a fascinating experience. The XBA-1 sounded like a really good inexpensive IEM, but the sound got better and better until I tried the XBA-4, which sounded more like a really good pair of speakers than like a headphone. But with four drivers, the XBA-4 gets pretty bulky; S+V web editor Michael Berk told me he couldn’t fit them in his ears.

The $89 XBA-S65 is basically a sport version of the XBA-1 with a really cool loop that you can tighten to fit snugly around your ear so the IEMs would probably stay in place even during your next Greco-Roman wrestling match.

The XBA-BT65 is a $299 model that’s basically the XBA-1 with Bluetooth added. Its carrying case actually has its own internal rechargeable battery, which recharges the XBA-BT65 whenever the headphone is stored.

The $399 XBA-NC85 is the first noise-cancelling IEM I’ve seen that doesn’t have a clumsy “lump in the line” for the electronics. It, too, uses the same driver as the XBA-1.

Schmidt summed it up well when he said, “This is a big step for us.” But he also added, “It’s just the beginning.” Personally, I’m eager to give these new models a spin when they ship in late February or early March.