Sony WH-XB900N review
More bass, less taste
The Sony WH-XB900N are meathead genius headphones.
They are the gym obsessive who drones on about protein and squats as soon they sniff the acrid tang of a nearby changing room, but unexpectedly also has great taste in literature and music.
Why? These headphones sound good but have annoyingly dominant bass. Just like the box says, the WH-XB900N bring “extra bass”. Too much of it.
But there is more to them than just bass. Their mids are detailed and well textured, the sound is expansive and wide. The Sony WH-XB900N are extremely comfy and have all the tech you could ask for.
The £229 Sony WH-XB900N are not as good as the £270-ish Sony WH-1000XM3. Their noise cancellation, sound and build are worse.
We want to dislike them. But we can’t, because they are undeniably solid despite it all. Several Extra Bass series headphones we tried in the past were rubbish. These are not.
Sony’s WH-XB900N design is smart.
These headphones look almost exactly like the pricier WH-1000MX3. They instantly seem a good deal, but don’t feel quite the same when you get your hands on them.
The Sony WH-XB900N are almost entirely made of plastic. So are the pricier WH-1000XM3, but with that pair you get a higher-end, smoother finish designed to convince you the extra spend was worth it. Does it really matter? Not much.
The Sony WH-XB900N are not squeaky, wobbly or genuinely cheap-feeling. And they are as comfortable as one of those Japanese toilets that warms the seat before you sit down.
Their pads are ultra-soft and squishy, there’s enough room for your ears and Sony has discovered the magic ratio for headband tension.
The Sony WH-XB900N’s grip on your head feels light and breezy, spingy not squeezy, but you can still wear the pair for a run. They stay in place just fine. We’ve worn these headphones for five hours at a time, and more, with no complaints.
This is Sony doing what it has done for the last couple of years: nicking the best bits of Bose headphones. First it came for the comfort, then it went and stole Bose’s active noise cancellation crown with the WH-1000XM3. Those headphones can blast just about any ambient noise. They are the ultimate solution for trains, roadwork crews and annoying co-workers.
The Sony WH-XB900N? Not so much. They still hold up pretty well on public transport thanks to very solid passive isolation, the effect of pads and cups physically blocking out sound. But switch active noise cancellation on by pressing a button on the side and there’s only a slight improvement to noise reduction. This is quite a disappointment.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 have the best ANC you can get right now, but the Sony WH-XB900N are beaten by the cheaper Skullcandy Venue. But at least the noise cancellation here doesn’t create an extra noise bed like the Skullcandys.
The way you operate the Sony WH-XB900N is much like Sony’s fancier pair. There are two buttons on the side, and a quick tap of the power button tells you the battery level. Very handy. They use a touch panel on the right cup instead of playback buttons. A double tap pauses your music. Left and right swipes change tracks and uppy-downy ones alter volume. Touch controls like these can often be a nightmare, but the Sony WH-XB900N’s seem to work like a dream. Even if you’re not a millennial or Gen Z’er born with memes in your blood stream.
Battery life is great too. Sony rates them at 30 hours, and they tend to last a week of pretty solid use. Charging could be quicker, though. Lots of headphones have fast charging these days. The Sony WH-XB900N absolutely do not. Sony says a full charge takes seven hours. However, we did find 30 minutes plugged into a MacBook, from flat, is normally enough to keep you going for the rest of the day.
These headphones use a USB-C socket to charge, so can share cables with your phone unless you own an iPhone or an older Android. And if you do run out of juice, you can plug in the included cable instead. Sony left this out of the older, much crappier, Sony MDR-XB650BT. We’re glad the plug is back
The Sony WH-XB900N also sound much better than most of the Extra Bass series headphones we’ve tried over the years.
There are real touches of Sony’s flagship sound here. Stereo imaging is great. You get a real sense of where instruments sit in a mix, and separation is good enough to let you mentally stroll around them. Well, when your music is not also competing with the sound of bus engines on your way to work.
Mid-range texture and detail is also easily the best we’ve heard from the Extra Bass range. This lets the Sony WH-XB900N recreate whispered and throaty close-miked vocals much more convincingly than you’d expect from a pair of headphones with aims as subtle as an album of Ibiza club remixes.
Sadly though, the “Extra Bass”, does its best to degrade the sound. We are not miserable bass haters. But there are several tricks to making a basshead pair that won’t instantly turn off the sound snobs and Sony has ignored many of them in the WH-XB900N.
Today’s top strategy with higher-class bass headphones is to focus on sub-bass. These are the room-shaking ultra-low frequencies that get walls shaking and floors rumbling. But the WH-XB900N have a very generalised, massive bass boost. The sub-bass is big. The “normal” bass is big. The upper bass is big. And this gives the low-end a marshmallowy character that sounds poorly controlled. It makes the tonal character of bass guitars and kick drums vague and means the bass bleeds into the mids. That the Sony WH-XB900N still retain that mid-range texture and expansiveness we were talking about before it all went wrong is a bit of a miracle.
It is like someone injected your favourite food with nacho cheese and gummy bears, but the thing somehow still tastes OK. You can tweak some of the bass away in the Sony Headphones app. Fiddle with the EQ, tweak the “Clear Bass” to “-10” and much of the boom is removed. But it doesn’t totally return the WH-XB900N to tasteful territory, and means you have to use the basic SBC codec rather than the much more advanced LDAC.
Sony WH-XB900N verdict
People love bassy headphones. Sony’s Extra Bass range takes that to its logical conclusion, with so much of the stuff it dribbles out like sticky aloe vera gel.
These headphones have categorically too much bass by any sane metric, and their active noise cancellation is not a patch on that of the Sony WH-1000XM3. But they somehow manage to cling onto some great sound characteristics including great spatial imaging and the ability to render wide, involving scapes.
We recommend upgrading to the pricier XM3 if you can, though, as this is real artery-clogging stuff.
More bass and less taste than their WH-1000XM3 brothers, but these headphones are still engaging and very comfortable
Very good battery life
Good sound width and imaging
Active noise cancellation isn’t very effective
Flabby, inflated bass