Exceptionally powerful bass that can be adjusted using app. Good overall audio performance. Solid noise cancellation. Includes cable for wired listening.
Dialed-up bass isn't for people seeking an accurate mix. No remote/inline mic on audio cable.
- Bottom Line
For the price, Sony's wireless MDR-XB950N1 headphones deliver laudable noise cancellation and strong wireless audio with adjustable bass response.
By Tim Gideon
As the field of wireless noise-canceling headphones finally seems to be opening up, products like the Sony MDR-XB950N1 are entering the ring. At $249.99, these headphones are a full $100 less than our current top pick, Bose's QuietComfort 35. They deliver some truly head-rattling bass that can be tuned to your liking with an app. And noise cancellation is above average, but not quite up to par with more expensive competitors.
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Available in black or green models with a semi-matte finish and a subtle gritty sparkle, the circumaural (over-the-ear) MDR-XB950N1 headphones features circular earcups with huge, well-cushioned memory foam-style earpads. The underside of the headband is also comfortably cushioned and covered in black leather. The cloth grilles covering the drivers are well recessed (by more than half an inch) inside the earpads. Overall, the design has a sharp, minimalist feel despite the rather bulky build.
Along the outer panel of the left earcup, there's a power button, a Bass Effect button, and a Noise Cancellation button. Each of these has a status LED next to it so it's easy to tell when one feature is enabled or not at a quick glance. The right earcup houses the dedicated volume control (which works in conjunction with your mobile device's master volume levels), as well as a multifunction rocker-style button that controls playback, call management, and track navigation. It's a simple, uncluttered design that's thoughtfully laid out to minimize the need for memorizing multiple taps for certain functions, and the chances of accidentally skipping a track when you mean to adjust the volume are minimized.
Sony includes a detachable audio cable for wired listening—the headphones immediately un-pair when the cable is connected, but they don't power down, as you need the battery to use the bass and noise cancellation effects. Surprisingly, the cable doesn't include an inline remote control. There's also a long micro USB charging cable, and a black drawstring carrying tote. Both cables connect to ports on the left earcup.
A free app called Sony Headphones Connect is available, and it allows you to switch the Noise Cancellation on or off without touching the headphones, as well as apply various (ill-advised) filters to the audio—presets like Arena and Outdoor Stage that use EQ and reverb to approximate various settings. You can also adjust the levels for the bass effect, which is almost essential (more on this in the next section). Pressing the Bass Effect button on the headphones pushes it to the levels you set in the app.
The mic offers reasonably good intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 6s, we could understand every word we recorded, however, we occasionally heard artifacts that are pretty common when using wireless mics (as opposed to inline mics on audio cables). But as mentioned earlier, the included audio cable doesn't have an inline mic or remote, which is disappointing.
Sony estimates the battery life to be roughly 22 hours, but your results will vary with your volume levels, as well as your usage of the Bass Effect button and the noise-canceling circuitry.
The noise cancellation here is quite good, but adds a little too much high frequency hiss to the equation (not unpleasant, more like a subtle tape hiss) to unseat Bose. The circuitry did a solid job tamping down ambient room noise in testing, like the hum from a loud AC unit, so it should do well on planes and trains. But there's no way to adjust the level of noise cancellation, and there's no sound-through mode that allows you to hear the outside world through the noise-canceling mics. These are features that the Bose lineup, as well as other competitors, have started to add. Still, these headphones get the job done reasonably well for a more affordable price.
The "XB" in MDR-XB950N1 stands for extra bass, and on tracks with intense sub-bass content, like The Knife's "Silent Shout," the drivers sound powerful enough with the Bass Effect off—the sound is already rich and robust. Pushing the bass to its maximum level sounds absolutely awful on this track, but that's because it already offers sub-bass in massive amounts. Dialing it down by half is a way for booming bass lovers to get a little bit more low-end out of the headphone's already strong response without going overboard.
Bill Callahan's "Drover," a track with very little deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the sound signature. Even with the bass effect off, the lows are pumped up on this track—Callahan's baritone vocals sound richer than perhaps necessary, and the drums already sound fairly thunderous. Pushing the bass to top levels again sounds bad—the drums overtake the entire mix like construction noise, blocking out the guitars and vocals. Dialing the bass back halfway, things still sound far too bass-heavy for my tastes, but this is where serious bass fiends will likely be pleased. But remember: You can dial the bass back further. When this is done, it's possible to get a balanced mix that still offers robust lows without going overboard.
On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the kick drum loop gets just enough high-mid presence to accentuate its sharp attack—provided you have the Bass Effect turned off. At full levels, the track, like the others, doesn't sound good. At about halfway, however, the drum loop is given more low frequency muscle and the sub-bass synth hits are delivered with even more gusto. Thankfully, the vocals are still relatively crisp and clear and don't seem to do too much battle with the lows for your attention.
Orchestral tracks, like the opening scene in John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary, sound pleasantly bass-forward when the Bass Effect is off, and a little ridiculously boosted in the lows when the effect is on and not even raised to the halfway point. At maximum levels, the effect turns this track into a sonic experiment that is no longer classical music or even pleasant, with the lower register instrumentation overpowering every other component in the mix when it comes into play.
Sony's MDR-XB950N1 headphones deliver a sound signature that's less crisp and bright than many we test, but avoid sounding muddy when the bass is tamped down. When the effect is engaged, all bets are off. The noise cancellation is quite good for this price range, especially given that the headphones are also wireless. So, bass lovers looking for noise cancelling wireless headphones, look no further.
But if the booming lows sound like a bit much for you, consider the aforementioned (but more expensive) Bose QuietComfort 35, or the slightly less expensive Libratone Q Adapt On-Ear. If noise cancellation—and not Bluetooth—is your priority, the Libratone Q Adapt Lightning is a solid wired pair for iPhone users.
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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