Insanely powerful bass response. Comfortable, attractive design. Can be used in passive, wired mode.
Added bass can sound comically heavy.
- Bottom Line
The wireless Sony MDR-XB950B1 headphones deliver as much bass thump as any pair we've tested, and because of that never sound quite balanced.
The XB in Sony's MDR-XB950B1 ($129.99) stands for "extra bass," and Sony isn't kidding around—these Bluetooth headphones offer some tremendous low frequency rumble. They have a Bass Effect button that boosts the lows dramatically, but the headphones deliver a notably bass-forward listening experience even without it turned on. They also happen to be quite comfortable and handsomely designed. If you're looking for balance and accuracy from your headphones, however, this is not the pair for you.
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Available in black, blue, or red models, the headphones feature an almost two-tone, brushed metallic sheen on the earcups and headband—it's a sharp, eye-catching look. The outer panels of the circumaural (over-the-ear) earcups are emblazoned with the Sony logo, and the cups swivel flat for compact storage. There is oddly no carrying case, but if the money saved on not providing one went toward the generous memory foam cushioning and leatherette-lined earpads and headband instead, that seems like a wise decision. The padding is quite comfortable, though some users might find the earcups, which are perfect circles, a little small for their ears. The headband adjustor has detents, allowing you to get a precise, ideal ear-to-ear fit.
On the left earcup's outer panel, there are buttons for Power and Bass Effect (more on that in the next section), as well as a micro USB connection for charging, a 3.5mm jack for the included audio cable, and a pinhole microphone. Along the right ear's outer panel, there are dedicated controls for volume up and down (that work in conjunction with your mobile device's master volume levels), and a multifunction button that controls playback and call management. This same button acts as a rocker-style switch—move it forward to skip a track, or back to navigate backward.
The mic offers better-than-average intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 6s, we could understand every word spoken and even noticed a little bit of bass depth in the recording, but there were still some of the typical Bluetooth headphone mic audio artifacts. Regardless, whoever you call should be able to understand you quite easily.
Two apps are available to use with the MDR-XB950B1: Sony Headphones and Music Center (a.k.a. SongPal). The Headphones app allows you to adjust the bass levels, as well as turn on a virtual surround sound effect with options like Arena and Outdoor Stage (that we recommend you leave off), and check your battery life status. The app is more or less unnecessary if you don't care about fine-tuning the bass levels, but plenty of users will enjoy this customizable parameter.
The Music Center/SongPal app is largely superfluous. Your own phone's music menu will undoubtedly offer you a better music management experience than the one Sony tries to build into this app, and most of the other useful settings already exist as easier-to-access features in the Headphones app.
Sony estimates battery life to be roughly 18 hours, but your results will vary depending on your volume levels; charge time from dead to full is roughly 4 hours. After a period of inactivity, even when paired, the headphones will automatically power down.
One note about listening with the included cable: It can be used in passive mode, with the headphones powered down, or in powered mode. This means the Bass Effect button isn't just for wireless listening. The same is not true of the app, which only works with the headphones over a Bluetooth connection. Audio performance with the cable doesn't vary dramatically from wireless audio performance, though the bass and overall volume are slightly less powerful in passive mode.
In wireless mode, on tracks like The Knife's "Silent Shout" with intense sub-bass content, the headphones deliver a palpable thump even with the bass boost turned off. With it on, things get downright thunderous. The lows become almost comically huge, overwhelming the mix, as if bass were the sole purpose of listening to music.
Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the sound signature. With the bass effect off, the drums on this track still pack a strong low frequency presence, as do Callahan's baritone vocals. What's missing here is high-mid presence—there's little in the way of crisp, bright highs or any real definition. Turn the bass effect on and things get crazy. Callahan's vocals sound unnatural and the drums sound otherworldly rather than musical. Drum hits sound like wrecking balls instead of percussion. It's hard to hear much of the rest of the music on this track over the boosted, overly resonant drumming.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the kick drum loop gets less high-mid presence than we typically hope to hear, but it doesn't sound as dull as we might've guessed given the generally dialed back presence of the high-mids. The sub-bass synth hits that punctuate the beat are quite powerful, but with the bass effect engaged, things get crazy once again. Now the drum loop has the same unnaturally heavy presence in the lows as the drums on the previously mentioned track, though they seem to overpower the mix less here. The sub-bass synth hits are actually not that loud, which teaches us something important about the bass effect: The boosting occurs in the lows and low-mids, and the sub-bass realm stays more or less the same. So if you have a track with powerful lows (the drum loop here) and some typically more powerful sub-bass (the synth hits), the bass effect will actually allow the lows to overpower the sub-bass. It's a strange sound, and while bass lovers might enjoy it, some might find that it throws them off a little, as any sense of balance is completely lost.
Normally we'd discuss classical tracks here, but suffice to say they sound completely surreal with the bass effect on, and still quite bass-forward with the effect off. Instead, we'll use this paragraph to discuss the headphone's saving grace: the bass effect control, which is only available in the app, and thus only accessible over Bluetooth. A slider allows you to boost the bass only slightly, and when you do this, the headphones sound pretty good. The Callahan track is full, rich, and powerfully bass-forward, but not like it is with the bass effect on full blast, which is the default of the button when used on its own.
From a sheer engineering perspective, I can appreciate the work that Sony put into making the headphones sound the way they way they do without distorting wildly. From a musical perspective, they offer an alternate twist on reality, padding each track with powerful bass whether it actually is in the mix or not. For me, the app is essential in that it tames the intensity of the bass-boosting.
So if you love massive, skull-rattling bass, Sony's MDR-XB950B1 headphones are not going to let you down. If you like boosted bass, but also want crisp highs and some sense of overall balance, you might want to consider the JBL E55BT, the Marshall Mid Bluetooth, or the bass-heavy but more affordable House of Marley Rebel BT. All of these models offer a bass-forward experience without going to the extremes of the MDR-XB950B1.
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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 »
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