The moment I saw these released, I emailed my Sony representative. I have been waiting al long time for a truly solid entry into the "fully wireless" IEM market. There have been many, too many, erroneous products in this market for years, without one that really works, until Apple's AirPods. But still, those remain earbuds, and have many of the flaws inherent to the form factor (see: boomy bass, spiky treble, some general unrefined-ness). But, after my review of the MDR-1000X, and general exposure to Sony's philosophy towards headphones, I had some level of faith that these would be executed well. After a couple months of waiting for the US office to get some in stock for review, I got my pair. Although they are by no means perfect, they are much more than good enough for this form factor, and I'll break down exactly what I mean below.
Fit and Form
I'll try to start at the beginning of the experience of these headphones, and walk through everything that I can about them, to inform the fullest picture of them that I can. Knowing that, starting at the box, it's surprisingly small. It easily fits into the palm of one of my hands, but contains everything needed to use the headphones, expectedly. The outer shell slides off, a plastic cover is lifted, and there are the headphones, nestled in some dense foam, the charging case, and a selection of eartips. Once that foam is lifted out, you're greeted by an extra pack of other eartips, an extra set of "wings" (which nestle into the user's antihelix), and the documentation for the headphones. In that documentation is a nice visual guide, that walks you through exactly how to set up and use all the necessary functions of the headphones in pictures, just like with the MDR-1000X.
I'll admit that I prefer written documentation to picture guides, but that is a tiny nitpick, and their representation is certainly easy enough to use. I ended up using the smallest eartips and the smaller set of wings, as I expected. It's a hard life having incredibly small ears, but until I make the investment into CIEMs, I'll struggle through. With this set up, they fit into my ears reasonably well, and stay put; they still look a little outlandish, since they stick out of my ears a little bit comically, but that's come to be the norm for me and larger IEMs - no fault to Sony here.
In terms of pairing and use, it's very simple. Unlike some past market entries, the left earbud is paired to the device alone, and then the right earbud is paired to the left. None of this, "simultaneously pairing both and hoping it somehow works out" (which it rarely has). The headphones are also very good at pairing to the last device used when taken out of their case, as they are almost instantly connected if I've left my phone's Bluetooth on. There is the occasional, momentary communication issue between the headphones, will sound will bounce back between the two headphones for less than a second before re-centering, but that is, to some degree, unavoidable with where Bluetooth is as a technology. This was very uncommon and in no way detracted from my experience with the headphones. Marks to Sony for making these headphones work, just like I referenced in the intro section. Sony has made it simple, easy, and effective to use wireless IEMs.
On to the charging case. This small, gold box flips open with an interestingly complicated mechanism, that moves up and then flips back to reveal the headphones, nestled into their charging cradles. This mechanism might be a durability worry for me, but I haven't experienced any issues with it in my time thus far, and I've used it fairly extensively. The headphones click into those cradles at two points, making sure the user knows when they're in and charging by showing a red light at the ends of the exterior of the IEMs. This case can charge the headphones fully 3 times, something that I found consistently in my usage. The headphones last about 3 hours on a charge, which was convenient for me. In my month-or-so of usage, there was only one instance where the headphones died on me inconveniently, although that instance happened to inconveniently overlap with an instance of the case itself no longer having charge - that's the way it goes sometimes. With a little bit of foresight and care, I'm confident that I could easily never be without charge for these headphones.
Having covered (I think fully) the physical aspects of these headphones, and knowing that I don't have to worry about cable strength or microphonics, like I normally would, I'll move to discuss the outstanding features of these headphones, as there are at least a couple that are notable.
The first is the noise cancelling. Yes, these fully wireless IEMs also have active noise cancelling. Crazy, right? But, it works very well, and it works consistently. I had an air trip while using these, so I was able to put them through their paces. The isolation an IEM inherently offers, when combined with their noise cancelling yields a great experience. The noise cancelling surely isn't as competent as, say, the MDR-1000X on its own, but combined with the isolation, they work just about as well.
Next, the Ambient Sound feature, also pulled from the MDR-1000X. This was a weak point for me, as in my usage, I genuinely feel that the ambient enhancement (both in normal and in "voice" mode) added about nothing to what I was hearing. Maybe this was just me, but I feel that this feature fell flat for these headphones. But, that was only an extra, and with the noise cancelling working as well as it does, I can't complain.
Now, the app. The app is absolutely not necessary to use these headphones, but it does add some cool functionality to them if you choose to spend ~$200 on these. The movement detection feature was somewhat hit-or-miss for me. When walking, it kicked up the noise cancelling, which was interesting, but I don't know if particularly valuable, since that is so easily done by hand and at the user's discretion. Your mileage may vary, and this may be a favorite feature for you, but it wasn't something that stood out to me as being particularly useful. What was nice, however, was the option to equalize these headphones. There are a number of presets available, and they worked well for me, but I spent most of my time with these headphones in their un-equalized setting. Certainly nice to have for any users that choose to use it, and it works responsively and well.
Last in this section, I'd just like to briefly clarify the controls on these headphones. The button on each IEM can be used to power off that IEM, although putting them into their case does just the same. The button on the left IEM also controls pairing mode, while the one on the right controls music playback - one push to pause/play, two the skip forward a track, three to skip back. One thing I would have liked to see is some way to control volume, but that was a limitation of form factor that I understand. In general, this system worked well for me, aside from the prior missing volume control.
Wow, I think that's all I got. Apologies for this section being so long and informationally dense, but there's a lot of meat to the form factor and function of these headphones, and I would be remiss to not cover as much of it as I can think to. Although this next section won't be as formidable by word count, the sound is what matters most, so I'll get to that next.
These headphones have a sound signature that I've seen a lot of recently. A little bit of bass boost, with relatively neutral (if slightly lush) mids, and extensive treble. This has become so pervasively common among commonly consumer-branded headphones, but this isn't a bad thing. There's a reason it's so common, and that's because it is adaptable and enjoyable for most every genre I could think to throw at it.
They handle pretty much every genre well, but they are a bit on the slow side overall. While extremely fast-paced genres, like modern instrumental metal and djent are still enjoyable, they lack some refinement that I'd prefer. However, these headphones avoid getting generally shouty and despondent in the face of this type of music, which is appreciable. Still, when I'm in the mood for Animals as Leaders, these are not to what I'd turn.
However, for more commonly palatable genres (see: hip-hop, acoustic rock, bossa nova, pop), they do a wonderful job. Enjoyable, detailed when necessary, and fluid when not - these headphones do a good job. There are a few little nitpicks and annoyances that I'll get to in the detailed breakdown sections, but they are generally minor and few.
In terms of more technical skills of these headphones, imaging is very good, but separation lacks a little bit. Positional accuracy and panning are portrayed very competently, but separation accuracy isn't the best. But, for ~$200 and in the form factor that they are, they do better than I'd expect.
Songs used: Cereal Killa by Blue Wednesday, When You Say That by Brasstracks, and Three Ralphs by DJ Shadow
This seems odd to type, but there really isn't anything particularly special about the bass. This isn't a bad thing, by any means, since I'd certainly consider bad things to be special. The bass is impactful, punchy, and resonant, without being muddy, overpowering, or bleeding into the other ranges. It hits hard when called for, but not especially so, and isn't overly present when not needed. In general, it adds a good thump and a nice warmth to the sound signature without taking anything away from it. Sub-bass extension, in general, is pretty average - they don't rumble particularly hard, but the lowest notes are definitively audible and tangible.
Key descriptors: average, impactful, and controlled
Songs used: Sweet by BROCKHAMPTON, Was It 26 by Chris Stapleton, and Carry On by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
The mids are the highlight for me. They lean slightly towards lush, in contrast to lean, but retain enough detail to remain appreciable, in my opinion. Male and female vocals are portrayed accurately, without any odd distortions. The positional accuracy plays into my appreciation of this range, as its faith to source combined with the imaging make for a very enjoyable experience. Additionally and aside, the balance of this range is very good - there hasn't been a time where I've felt that the wrong parts were sitting on top of the right ones, and that, while expected, is a plus.
Key descriptors: accurate, lush, and engaging
Songs used: Ageispolis by Aphex Twin, K.K.P.D. by Christian Scott, and Magalenha by Sérgio Mendes
The treble mostly stays out of the way. This isn't to say that it's restrained or dampened, but just that it serves to accent the other ranges exactly appropriately. The treble extends very well without much noticeable peakiness. There were one or two occasions where, in more instrumentally dense and intense music, the treble got a little bit screechy, but it wasn't all too bad, and was very rare. I noticed almost no sibilance, except in a couple songs that I always put through any pair of headphones, since they almost always have that effect. In general, though, since this section has been a little scattered, the treble extends well, accents all instruments that it should appropriately, and is mostly inoffensive.
Key descriptors: inoffensive, extensive, and airy
In general, I'm very happy with these headphones. They have a few small problems, and I'll list them here for completeness. There is, every once in a while, a moment where the headphones phase between the left and right, then reconnect to each other. It's very rare, but it happens. The treble is, every once in a blue moon, a bit screechy. If you exclusively listen to heavier, denser metal, these may not be for you. The Ambient Sound feature doesn't work anywhere near as well as it does on Sony's over-ear offerings, but that was always closer to a gimmick than a critical, core feature for me, and I wasn't to bothered by it not working. I wish there were some way to control volume from the headphone, but I understand that the form factor makes this a regrettable reality.
That's the bad. The good is more formidable - these are a very good example of common consumer-oriented sound. They can tackle almost any genre, and portray well. They connect easily, and work almost all of the time, without the fuss and hassle that has been associated with this form factor of headphones in the past. They are extremely convenient, with no wires to worry about, and nothing added back in response to the wires being taken away. They have relatively convenient, intuitive controls. And, they aren't cheap, but they won't break the bank. At a high-level, I think these headphones are worthwhile.
I try not to bring up new points in the "Wrap-Up" generally, but I think there's something worth saying that fits here: headphones can be kind of inconvenient. I, of all people, know this. I have a Pelican case in my backpack constantly that has a pair of ~$1900 headphones in it. Lugging it around, properly wrapping and storing those headphones is a little chore. It's miles more than worth for me, and I have no problem with it, but it is a little bit of a chore. Same thing with having a dedicated amp/DAC chain on my desk, and navigating that when using more power-hungry, power-sensitive headphones. These are the most convenient headphones I've used, and understandably so. I pop them out of their case, into my ears, and I'm set. That's it - I can click the right button, and music starts. It's the simplest process I've had when using headphones, and that's a plus. Big marks to Sony for not only making them good, but for making them easy.
These headphones were provided to me by Sony. I am not being paid by anyone to write this review, to endorse the product reviewed, or for the content that I put in the review.
These headphones were provided signal by an Astell&Kern AK Junior, a Google Pixel, and by whatever soundcard is in the motherboard of my computer.
I have had these headphones for about a month, and I have put about 50 hours of analytical listening through them during that period.