Sony WH-XB900N Review: The no-nonsense headphones for premium customers

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New Delhi | Updated: July 15, 2019 8:13:39 PM

Sony is upping its game in the premium audio segment and WH-XB900N is its fresh addition

Now that Sony has entirely quit India’s smartphone market, it makes sense for the Japanese company to expand its product line that has quite a niche audience. I am talking about the premium market that Sony is now focusing at, apart from launching hopes to become the top vendor in the segment. The premium personal audio category is nascent, largely because of the paucity of customers who would pay the kind of money that is usually spent on smartphones. Sony still wants to tap that segment and eventually conquer it with the help of a new soldier in its army – WH-XB900N.

Sony WH-XB900N is the second addition from the top after the company introduced the WH-1000XM3 headphones. The first thing that comes to mind after seeing the headphones is the premium finish they come with. Of course, at a price of Rs 16,999, the Sony WH-XB900N sits atop a slew of headphones that have more customers. Conventionally, the customers who don’t hesitate to spend over Rs 10,000, let alone Rs 15,000, go for Bose. That being said, Sony is taking baby steps to finally vie for the top spot.

I got the Blue colour model with a metallic gradient that looks exquisitely premium. Although I have seen better designs on headphones, I like the old-school minimalism in the Sony WH-XB900N. But that doesn’t mean the Sony WH-XB900N is too old to attract millennials. The headphones are not bulky and sit over your head without exerting any noticeable pressure. But when I leave the headphones hanging around my neck, I was bothered by the lack of extended cable length inside the panel.

The ear cups on the Sony WH-XB900N are made of good quality leather-effect foam material, which is really comfy. They are not hard on ears and fit nicely, blocking the surrounding noise. Prolonged use of the headphones begins to cause a little strain on ears, though. The cloth used over the grille inside is of good quality and does not obstruct the sound or produces any distortion, whatsoever. The ear cups are hinged to the band that is rotatable to about 270-degrees, give or take, making it quite flexible and compact when carrying.

Right below the broad clasp-like hinges on either side are the vents. Sony tells me that these vents dissipate bass overspill in certain songs. Although there is no toggle to make sure the vents do what they are being claimed to, I could feel the thumps on my ear flaps.

The ear cups also support gestures, which is also why there are only two buttons on the headphones. Sony has done a pretty neat job of implementing gestures on the headphones, but I was not quite convinced. First of all, there are a lot of gestures to perform since there is no button substitute. Secondly, it became too overwhelming for me sometimes that I chose to control the media playback, or the volume, on either my smartwatch or the phone. The idea of having gestures is to introduce simplicity to the process of interacting with the gadget. It was opposite on the Sony WH-XB900N for me, at least.

Now the actual talk. Performance. Sony has been a leader when it comes to audio products. It has been revered by customers for the audio quality it offers. But that comes with a price. At Rs 16,990, Sony WH-XB900N delivers a premium sound that audiophiles will admire, thanks to its 40mm driver unit. The frequency response on the headphones is 3Hz – 20KHz, which is impressive as they can pick even a light thump in the mid-lows.

There is Qualcomm aptX and aptX HD inbuilt on the Sony WH-XB900N, besides LDAC that Sony offers on a range of headphones and speakers. It essentially retains the Hi-Res quality of audio that is otherwise impacted over SBC Bluetooth transmission. I played 320Kbps songs using a set of online music streaming apps and found a negligible loss of quality in the music. Although, the real difference was felt when I listened to a standard 128Kbps sound file and a 320Kbps sound file, both stored on my phone. The latter was crisp, with an abundance of sound cues that are afloat in the background.

I played a range of music on the Sony WH-XB900N, including English pop, rock, alt rock, reggae, Indian classical, and Bollywood. The headphones, set to Bass Boost by default, amps up the bass effect on all music – it’s okay for pop and alt-rock songs but some genres do not need that. This is when I turned off Bass Boost by going into the Settings of the Sony Headphones app (you may require this app to configure the headphones to the maximum level).

But otherwise, the headphones produce a clear and distinct sound, especially when classical music is on. I could feel different instruments playing even if it’s just a hint. The lows on the headphones are impressive but it’s the mid-lows that actually impressed me. Using the headphones for listening to podcasts is good, as well. Sony Headphones app lets you set the sound output in a 360-degree premise, which is fun to experiment with but not something anyone would use regularly.

Sony WH-XB900N also support DSEE (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine), which is a proprietary technology to upscale compressed audio files by restoring their high-range sound that was removed during compression. This is usually for locally stored audio files with a less efficient file format. I could not find its application normally but people working at recording studios would appreciate it. A studio recorded sound file needs to be heavily compressed to be stored on a phone. This process ensues the loss of quality that can be reversed with DSEE. The headphones have Active Noise Control (ANC) too.

There is ambient sound control on the Sony WH-XB900N. Sony Headphones app has a nifty feature of detecting the motion of the headphones to automatically set the profile with the right amount of ambient sound. For example, if you are sitting, the headphones will detect your position and send the information to the app, after which the ambient sound is kept at a minimum. When commuting, the ambient sound is automatically increased to allow you to listen to announcements, etc.

I found this feature extremely useful as I did not have to manually change the settings as per my surroundings. But, sometimes, when there is a need, tapping the right ear cup and holding it with two fingers enables quick ambient mode, that is active as long as the fingers are on the cup.

Apart from Bluetooth, Sony WH-XB900N supports NFC pairing and the old 3.5mm headphone jack. NFC pairing is instant and does not require effort, as opposed to Bluetooth pairing. I am saying this because, during my time with the headphones, I switched to different handsets with the pain of pairing them with the headphones over Bluetooth (some handsets didn’t have NFC). While doing this, the headphones almost refuse to connect to a new phone. Initially, I gave up in frustration, only to resort to using the 3.5mm cable. But, fortunately, I found a workaround.

Enter the hardware buttons. Sony WH-XB900N has two hardware buttons. One is for power on/off and Bluetooth pairing and the other one is a general button that can be customised. By default, it is assigned to Google Assistant but you can change it to call Alexa and other functions.

So, as I was saying, when it was hard for me to connect the headphones using Bluetooth, I pressed the Google Assistant button. Pressing the button sends a nearby-device alert to your phone (for that to work, you need to give permission to Google app to scan nearby devices). Tapping on the notification takes you to the setup where the Google Assistant will recognise the device capabilities. This not only connects the headphones but open different options for voice-controlled use. But it’s not quite useful when it’s noisy around.

Sony claims that WH-XB900N gives 30 hours of battery life with ANC on. In my usage, I found it around 28 hours, which is decent. There is a USB-C port for charging the headphones, which takes about 7-8 hours. But, even if you charge it for one hour, you can get around 2 hours of music playback.

Calling via headphones is regular with ANC to cancel out noise. The microphone has a range of 50Hz – 8,000Hz, which is basic for these headphones. Despite that, I sometimes had to switch to receiver mode on my phone during calls. The range of the headphones is also average – 10 metres as per Sony.

Everything now boils down to whether you should buy the Sony WH-XB900N or prowl the market further. For Rs 16,999, the headphones come across as a good option, especially when there are a lot of frills to entice you. You can argue why Sony WH-XB900N is a better option over Bose but again, it comes down to brand preference. Both Sony and Bose are known to be experts in the premium audio segment and choosing one is a tough job. Let me make it easier now.

Should you buy these? For Rs 16,999, yes!

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