Sony XB950N1 / XB950B1 Extra Bass Wireless Headphones Review: “A feature-packed update of an old favorite.”
The XB950BT is one of Sony’s best-selling headphones, and it’s not hard to see why. They come in a few different fun colors. They’re on sale constantly, and compete well even at full price. They’re wireless.
And they offer a stupidly hilarious and dramatic electronic bass boost feature.
Now, in March 2017, the XB line has grown-up a little bit, and it’s much better for it! Sony will continue to crush it with these new models, which are feature-packed updates of an old favorite.
Sony has just launched the brand new $199 XB950B1 and $249 XB950N1. I bought and I’m reviewing the N1. The base sound features are identical. The N1 adds noise-cancelling, a collapsing design, a carrying bag, and slightly better battery life. The biggest new perk above the old XB950BT model is that you can now customize the level of bass boost, and try out some surround sound modes as well. However, you should be aware of something important:
Do NOT buy either of these if you don’t have an Android or iOS device. You CANNOT use or control the full extent of their special bass and surround features without a mobile device.
There’s NO WAY to control these features on the headphones.
You can ONLY do it through the new Sony Headphones Connect app.
Sony’s banking on you owning a phone or tablet to fully use these. A safe bet probably, considering how big those markets are. On the plus side, once you’ve set everything up how you like it in the app, those presets are saved locally to the headphones, and you can enjoy your customized sound on any bluetooth or wired device.
I normally start with sound, but features are the name of the game here.
Both the B1 and N1 now have a fully controllable bass boost and virtual surround sound thanks to the new Headphones Connect app from Sony.
Here’s a screenshot of it:
The first option contains various surround modes. All of these are designed to mimic live concert environments. There’s Arena, Club, Outdoor Stage, and Concert Hall. They all sound…good? It would be nice to have some indication of which ones were better suited to different genres, as they all have their own EQ attached.
I like the Outdoor Stage option the best. The surround sound is fun and reasonably convincing, but it’s not going to magically upmix your stereo sound to 7.1 or anything. But I’ve had a lot of fun messing with it over the last couple of days. The Concert Hall option seems best suited to classical/jazz, and the rest are better for pop music.
If you’re the sort of person who likes the loudest possible volume, be aware that using the one of the surround modes lowers the output level of the headphones by a few decibels. They still get pretty loud though.
Next, you have the Electro Bass Boost/“Clear Bass” function from the old BT model, only now you can set the level of bass. In the center, it sounds no different from the default tuning of the headphones when they’re powered off. Cranked all the way up, it’s hilarious and punchy, without too much distortion in the mids.
I think the boost is a bit more natural and listenable than the boost in the previous model, but I don’t own those any more to compare, sadly.
If you turn the boost down into the negative area, you can EQ the bass to more neutral levels, and have something that sounds like other standard pairs of headphones. I love this extra layer of flexibility. You may not always want the bass slam these provide, and now, you have the option to just turn them into decent “normal” headphones. Great!
Bass Effect Button
Changes you make to the above settings are saved inside the headphones, and you can turn them on or off by pressing the new “Bass Effect” button. This works on any Bluetooth device and on wired connections as well.
It’s all-or-nothing here. Pressing the button turns on both the surround sound and bass boost options you’ve set in the app. The only way to pick just one or the other is to use the app and manually turn one off.
Noise-Cancelling (N1 Only)
Sony has included their proprietary AI-driven “Digital NC” active noise-cancelling system inside the N1 version of the headphones. This is not the new “Sense Engine” system from the more-expensive MDR-1000X headphones.
Instead, it’s based on the older system from their MDR-100ABN headphones.
Although it’s older tech, it still works exceptionally well! What’s this “AI” business you ask? The headphones are constantly scanning the noise in your environment, and will auto-select from three different profiles to provide the best-possible isolation.
Does it reach the silent heights of the Sony 1000X and the Bose QC35? Well no. But it’s about, I don’t know…90 percent as good? I’ve heard a lot of different ANC headphones, and I’ve got no complaints with the noise-cancelling here.
You’d only know what you were missing if you’ve used other ANC headphones and compared them directly. And you won’t be missing much.
You can toggle the noise-cancelling on and off with a button, which is handy! It allows you to quickly hear what’s being cancelled out, and it’ll save battery if you turn it off.
Bluetooth Codecs/Range/Controls/Phone Calls
The XB950N1 and B1 both support SBC, AAC, and AptX for Bluetooth transmission. In spite of several mentions online both in Sony press releases and in retailer listings that these also support LDAC…it seems that they don’t. You can follow that weird saga in the most recent replies at the bottom of this article.
I’ve used the N1 in AAC and AptX modes, and they sound great, with no obvious over-compression.
Bluetooth range seems pretty great. They’re rated for about 30 feet, and I cleared that easily in my apartment building which is filled with wireless noise from a million routers.
Here’s a photo of all the controls:
A pretty standard collection for a pair of Bluetooth headphones, really. The right ear cup has a pause/play and track skipping toggle thingy, and volume controls. The left cup has everything else, which can make it feel a touch crowded when you first get them, but I learned where everything was within an hour or so.
I tried a couple of phone calls, and the person on the other end said I sounded good. Calls only work in Bluetooth mode. You can’t use the mic with a wire, sadly. You’d need a third party cable with its own dedicated mic.
The B1 is rated at 18 hours and the N1 is rated at about 22, depending on how often you use the ANC and what volume you use. I haven’t ever fully drained the battery, but based on some simple math about my usage, this number seems right.
Sony includes the same voice prompts from the 1000X inside these headphones, with clear notifications that tell you when you’ve powered on the headphones, turned on the Bass Effect mode, etc. The female voice is clean and well-articulated, and it’s nice to have this included so you don’t have to look at the little lights to figure out what’s going on.
You get a decently-sturdy cloth carrying bag with the N1, and both have a standard 3.5 mm cable in the box as well. In wired mode, with the power turned off…these don’t sound at their best. So you’ll probably want to turn them on while you’re using them, even on the cable. Plus that’s the only way to get the fun bass boost stuff.
A USB cable is provided for charging, but you’ll need to power it with either a brick or a computer.
Oh man. We’re a million words in and finally at the sound.
These sound really really fun.
Bass is the star of the show, especially when you use the boost. It’s voluminous. It’s magical. It’s deep, well-extended, and largely free of distortion. Sony calls these “Extra Bass” headphones for a reason.
What impressed me was how nice the rest of the frequency range sounds.
The mids are surprisingly forward, and clean…without too much of the darkness than can often plague warm-sounding headphones. They’re darker than studio-style neutral headphones, certainly, but after a few minutes of brain adjustment, they’re quite listenable.
Highs are gently rolled-off and not at all prominent. If you like brightness and detail, these won’t be your favorites. The highs get a little better when you go into the app and turn the bass all the way down. They’re not muffled or poor, but this is a very bass-focused headphone. Of course, that’s the point!
I would probably never use these for mixing, but they’re great for some fun, non-fatiguing leisure listening. They’re very different to most of my other headphones.
I think the secret here is that the bass is achieved largely through electronic means. The actual acoustic tuning of the headphones is warm and musical, and pleasant, though they do sound better powered vs unpowered.
So overall, a firmly consumer-oriented sound signature that you’d have to be really cynical to hate. If you’ve liked XB headphones in the past, I think these sound a little bit better. If you like Beats, I think these sound more fun and a little more detailed too.
I was worried that they’d be a muddy thumpy mess, and was surprised at how controlled and fun they are to listen to!
At first blush, these will probably feel a touch clamp-y. The metal headband is pretty sturdy, and it’s curved at a different angle than many other headphones. The forks holding the ear cups stick out a little further than other consumer headphones as a result.
There’s a bit more space than I’d like between my head and the sides, but I imagine they’d be great if you’re trying to use a VR headset.
The clamp loosens up after a day or so of use, and these enter the top comfort tier. Sony has always paid close attention to comfort in their headphones, and I love them for that.
Both the ear cups and the headband use a plush padding that seems to be some type of memory foam. The headband pad doesn’t cover its whole length, but still distributes weight evenly across a good chunk of your head. The ear pads are hilariously thick, although the holes are just a touch smaller than other super comfy headphones. My slightly-larger-than-average ears fit inside just fine though.
If you’re someone who doesn’t like things touching your ears, you may find the intimate feel of the ear pads unpleasant.
Once I got through the initial adjustment period, I found their comfort to be great. Lovely for long listening sessions!
The thick, snug pads provide a robust amount of isolation on their own, and with the ANC on the N1 model, things get even better. These are one of the more isolating pairs of headphones on the market, and not as expensive as the class-leading 1000Xs.
The XB950N1’s design is largely recycled from the older model of the headphones. They have an all-metal headband, and the rest is made from a textured plastic. The B1 still uses the shiny plastic from the older 950BT model.
Feel in the hands is solid, though not quite on the same level as Sony’s more expensive headphones, but that’s to be expected. The materials are lightweight without feeling cheap, and I think that’s the right balance to strike for a portable pair of headphones.
Both the B1 and the N1 have ear cups that fold flat, and the N1 adds hinges so you can collapse them down further. The folding hinges don’t have any clicking action to them, and are a little bit too soft and squishy feeling. I don’t have any build concerns from the few days I’ve spent with this pair, but they’re not in the same league build-wise as pro-targeted headphones like the DT770.
They’re not quite as stylish as other modern headphones either, but they’ve still got a decent look that works well in public. I prefer the look of the MDR100 and 1000X, but these aren’t that much worse. I think the slight clunkiness here comes mostly from the circular cups, though that choice has been a part of the Extra Bass line since the very beginning, so I commend Sony for sticking with it, I guess.
Maybe something about circular ear cups makes it easier to make a bass-focused headphone?
The XB950N1 is a fun-sounding, feature-packed pair of headphones, and both it and the B1 are priced very reasonably for what they offer compared to other models on the market. They are highly worthy successors to the XB950BT, and thankfully the prices weren’t inflated to match their new features.
If you’ve got an Android or iOS device, these might even be a better buy than the MDR-1000X unless you really need the enhanced noise-cancelling options those offer. The N1 is more fun to listen to, and I like the customization the app offers. The 1000X has the benefit of not needing a separate app to use all of its features, and it does offer slightly better sound and ANC performance, and a more sleek design for the 100 extra bucks you’re paying.
But for the average consumer/music fan with a phone? The new XB950 models are both great buys that will serve you well as portable wireless headphones. Especially if you like bass. I think the N1 offers plenty of extras for the additional $50, so if those features appeal to you I’d say go ahead and make the extra jump.