Powerful bass response doesn't distort at high volumes. Secure in-ear fit. Water-resistant design ideal for exercise.
Sound signature lacks high-mid defintion. Control panel could be laid out more usefully.
- Bottom Line
The wireless, exercise-friendly Sony MDR-XB80BS earphones deliver thunderous bass, but lack the high-mid definition that allows for balance.
The XB in Sony's MDR-XB80BS Bluetooth earphones stands for "extra bass," and Sony isn't kidding around. At $99.99, the wireless in-ears supply some seriously powerful bass response in an exceptionally secure-fitting design. The water resistant-earphones are not without flaws, though. The layout of the control panel is slightly annoying, and the drivers don't push out enough high-mid presence to match the intense bass response, so things often sound unbalanced as a result.
//Compare Similar Products
Available in black, blue, or red, the MDR-XB80BS is a neckband-style pair that uses ear hooks to help stabilize and secure the in-ear fit. An IPX5 water-resistance rating means you can wear the earphones when you're exercising or out in the rain. Just make sure the snap-shut cover for the micro USB charging port is closed.
The ear hooks are a soft, flexible material that extends over the top of the ear; the part that rests behind the ear is thicker and more rigid. From these sections, the neckband extends, and can be adjusted to eliminate slack using the included cable cinch. The fit is comfortable, and exceptionally secure—ideal for exercise. Inside each earpiece, a 0.5-inch neodymium driver delivers the audio.
The right earpiece houses all of the onboard controls and the status LED. There's a power button that doubles as play/pause depending on how long you hold it in, and also acts as the call management control when you have an incoming call (or one in progress that you want to end). The plus/minus buttons control volume levels (working in conjunction with your mobile device's master volume levels), and also act as track navigation buttons when held in for an extended period.
We're not fans of combining volume and track navigation on the same buttons—it's quite easy to accidentally skip a track this way. Come to think of it, combining the power button with the multifunction button also presents a scenario in which you could unintentionally power down. And when you have to operate these buttons without seeing them, it's a legitimate concern. A dedicated power button and a multifunction button that handles track navigation would be a more accident-proof layout. That said, the buttons are at least raised, making them easy to locate.
Unlike so many of the Sony products we test, the MDR-XB80BS doesn't utilize the Sony Headphones app. This isn't a travesty in the sense that we love the app, which is decent but not exactly packed with features, but it does offer EQ, and as you'll read in the next section, the earphones could use some EQ to bring out the high-mids and overall clarity.
The mic offers better-than-average intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 6s, we could understand every word we recorded. There was some added fuzziness, but audio artifacts are common in this context, and generally speaking, this is definitely on the clearer end of the intelligibility spectrum.
The earphones ship with four pairs of silicone eartips in various sizes, a long micro USB charging cable, a snap-shut protective pouch, and the aforementioned cable cinch.
Sony estimates battery life to be roughly seven hours, but your results will vary with your volume levels. Full charge time is approximately two hours. After a short period of inactivity, the earphones will turn off automatically to preserve battery life. Pairing the earphones is simple using your device's Bluetooth menu, but they also support NFC.
On tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife's "Silent Shout," the earphones deliver some powerful low frequency response. At top volumes, the drivers do not distort, and at more reasonable volume levels, the bass response is still quite strong. The high frequency response is notably dialed up as well, but on this track it almost sounds as if we're getting boosted highs and lows, with little in the way of midrange, particualrly high-mids.
Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the overall sound signature. The drums on this track can sound unnaturally thunderous on bass-forward earphones—through the MDR-XB80BS, we definitely get an extra helping of deep lows, but the drums still sound somewhat realistic, if heavily boosted. Callahan's baritone vocals also receive a healthy added dose of rich bass presence, and once again, the high-mids in particular seem lacking while the highs remain bright. The result is that the vocals have a dulled edge, as do the guitar strums. Anyone seeking a crisp sound signature will be disappointed.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the kick drum loop lacks the high-mid punch it normally has—its attack feels dulled and less able to slice through the layers of the mix. However, what the loop lacks in crisp attack, it makes up for in thumping, boosted sustain. Instead of a loop with a punchy attack, we have a loop with a heavy, round presence. When the sub-bass synth hits come in around the 11-second mark, they, too, seem powerful, but not quite as powerful as the loop's beefed-up sustain, which is a rarity. The vocals lack their typical crispness, but they don't sound muddy or unintelligible. And the vinyl crackle that's typically relegated to the background steps forward a bit—another example of how the highs are boosted, but not necessarily the high-mids, which would give the vocals and the kick drum loop more definition and edge.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, sound off-kilter. The lower register instrumentation is boosted quite a bit, and even though the higher register brass, strings, and vocals maintain their general bright presence, the lows step far enough forward in the mix that things sound unbalanced.
If big bass motivates you during your workouts, Sony's MDR-XB80BS earphones will provide it in spades and stay in place while doing so. However, many bass lovers don't necessarily realize that they also want a crisp high-mid punch to help add crunch and contour to mixes, whether they be pop or classical. If detailed vocals and punchy percussion matter just as much to you as deep lows, you might want to consider some other wireless in-ear options we've tested, like the Editors' Choice Jaybird X3 and the Bose SoundSport Wireless. For more affordable options, check out the Skullcandy Method Wireless and JBL Reflect Mini BT.
Other Sony Headphones
By Tim Gideon Contributing Editor, Audio
Contributing Editor Tim Gideon has been writing for PCMag since 2006. He specializes in reviewing audio products, and is obsessed with headphones, speakers, and recording gear. More »
More Stories by Tim
- Sony SRS-XB10
Sony's wireless, outdoor-friendly SRS-XB10 speaker delivers some surprising bass depth for its size … More »
- Kicker EB400
The exercise-focused, wireless Kicker EB400 earphones deliver some seriously powerful bass response … More »
- Sony MDR-XB950B1
The wireless Sony MDR-XB950B1 headphones deliver as much bass thump as any pair we've tested, and be… More »