Balanced-armature (BA) designs produce lower distortion and cleaner sound than conventional headphone driver types, which are essentially miniature speaker drivers. Sony currently makes 11 balanced-armature models, with the $499.99 XBA-NC85D noise-canceling in-ear headphones topping the line. Sony claims it's the world's smallest and lightest set of noise-canceling in-ear headphones, which sounds good on paper, but they fail to meet those expectations. I doubted the logic of Sony's design strategy as soon as I started to use the XBA-NC85D, and their sound quality falls well short of what I expect from a $499.99 headphone. With noise-canceling effectiveness marginal at best, I recommend staying away from the XBA-NC85D and spending your money elsewhere.
Design and features
The Sony XBA-NC85D is a noise-canceling in-ear model of headphones, and considering its $499.99 retail price, you might have expected that it would look great. No such luck -- the matte-and-glossy black plastic earpieces are big and chunky, but one boon is that they omit the bulky battery case that come along with most noise-canceling headsets. That's great, but since the Sony's earpieces contain the noise-canceling electronics and the rechargeable nickel-metal hydride batteries, the earpieces are unusually bulky. I found myself constantly aware of its size, and the fit didn't feel as secure in my ears as other XBA in-ear headphones.
The XBA-NC85D comes with a proprietary USB battery charger (you plug the headphones into the charger's 3.5mm jack), but you can't play the XBA-NC85D after its batteries have drained, a misstep shared with Bose's noise-canceling headphones. The saving grace with Bose headphones is you can always put in a fresh AAA battery. The XBA-NC85D's batteries, on the other hand, are not user replaceable, and can only be juiced with the included charger. If you forget to bring the charger on a trip, the XBA-NC85D will become unplayable after the batteries drain. This sort of proprietary approach is a deplorable design choice, and Sony should at least supply two chargers with a $499.99 headphone.
Of course, one key advantage of the USB charger is that you can refresh the XBA-NC85D's batteries from your laptop, and they provide up to 20 hours of playing time on a single charge. I requested a service estimate for a replacement cost for the XBA-NC85D's batteries, but Sony never got back to me. You might be on your own when the batteries no longer hold a charge (which might take a few years), and that might be reason enough not to buy these.
Sony's Artificial Intelligence Noise-Canceling circuitry has three modes: NC Mode A for planes, NC Mode B optimized for buses and trains, and NC Mode C for office noise. NC Mode selection occurs automatically and Sony claims Artificial Intelligence Noise-Canceling "reduces up to 97.5 percent of ambient noise." Sony also tells me that the XBA-NC85D's nonadjustable digital equalizer produces an "ideal frequency response" for great sound with all types of music.
I'm surprised that the XBA-NC85D only includes three sets of silicone eartips. That reduces the chances of achieving the best possible fit compared with the least expensive XBA headphones, the XBA-1 ($79.99), that comes with four sizes of silicone eartips and three sets of "noise-isolating" tips. Most luxury in-ear headphones come with an even wider assortment of tips. Worse yet, the tips don't secure a tight fit to the earpieces, so they slipped off a number of times during my review period. That's not an uncommon fault with in-ear designs, but the XBA-NC85D's looser fit was worse than average.