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.
If you don't wind the XBA-NC85D's extra-long (74-inch) cable around the supplied "cord adjuster" (a flat, black plastic spool), the cable will be prone to tangle. The tiny box with the headphones' power button is on the cable, just 4 inches away from the left earbud, which you can't see when the 'phones are in your ears. You have to feel around, searching for the power button. The cable terminates with an L-shaped 3.5mm gold-plated plug.
On a more positive note: the large "L" and "R" markings on the earpieces are easy to see, and in low light situations you can feel a small dot on the left earpiece. One significant feature missing from the XBA-NC85D, however, is an inline mic with controls for Apple or Android devices.
You also get a wire clip to secure the cable to your shirt, an airline adapter, and a zippered faux-leather carrying case.
I was unimpressed with Sony's Artificial Intelligence Noise-Canceling abilities on the NYC subways and buses; it produced little noise-reduction effect. The passive (non-electronic) noise reduction of the silicone eartips rendered average results, and turning on the XBA-NC85D made only a small difference. I wasn't aware of the noise reduction system switching between MC Modes as I moved about the city. When I listened to the XBA-NC85D at home, I heard a small amount of background noise generated by the Artificial Intelligence Noise-Canceling processing, which always has to be turned on to use the headphones. The owner's manual acknowledges the presence of the XBA-NC85D's "operational noise," which they consider normal but I could even hear the distracting sound on the subway in heavy foot traffic. I've heard that noise with other noise-canceling headphones, so I should note that Sony isn't the only brand with the same issue.
The XBA-NC85D has just a single balanced armature driver in each earpiece, which I found odd because Sony's less expensive XBA-2, XBA-3, and XBA-4 headphones have two, three, and four balanced armature drivers per earpiece, respectively.
The XBA-NC85D's sound was far behind what I heard from Sony's XBA-4 in-ear headphones. The XBA-NC85D's single balanced armature couldn't generate anything like the XBA-4's bass punch or power. Its problems aren't limited to bass effort, either -- the XBA-NC85D's treble had a gritty harshness, and the sound would severely distort if I played the headphones really loud with bass-heavy music; it certainly didn't sound like an expensive headphone. The XBA-NC85D sounded a little more natural than Sony's $99 XBA-1iP in-ear headphone!
Sadly, the XBA-NC85D falls short on every count: noise canceling, features, and sound quality. Compounded by its high cost, the XBA-NC85D remove themselves from any serious audiophile's buying considerations. Try the $230 Sennheiser CXC 700 for a classier, more affordable in-ear noise-canceling alternative.