Sony XBA-NC85D review: Sony XBA-NC85D

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The Good The Sony XBA-NC85D noise-canceling in-ear headphones feature batteries conveniently built in to the earpieces that recharge with the included USB stick.

The Bad The build quality doesn't justify its ambitious price, and they fall short in sound quality and noise-canceling performance. Your music also dies when the battery runs out, and the tangle-prone wire lacks inline controls as well as a microphone.

The Bottom Line The Sony XBA-NC85D is marginally effective at canceling noise and its disappointing sound quality does nothing to offset the exorbitant price.

5.3 Overall
  • Design 5
  • Features 6
  • Performance 5

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.

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