Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sony MDR-XD200 Review

The chances of you being able to buy a low-cost closed phone from Sony which sounds anywhere near acceptable has been, in my view, marginally less likely than the Apocalypse.

Sony isn't a company which I associate with good low-end closed headphones. The MDR-V500DJ (actually not so low-end in terms of what most people are willing to pay) is one of the few headphones that I have actually dumped in the bin. The very popular (in terms of sales to the general public) MDR-V300DJ is if anything even more crappy, with absolutely awful 'badly closed phone' acoustics. Just generally, low-end Sony headphones seem to be pretty dire. The newer-generation (open backed) MDR-G74SL was however a nice surprise, being an acceptable phone and better than I expected for a very low cost, mass-market portable phone.

Recently, a friend of mine asked me what he should buy for office use on a budget of £20 ($35~$40). I didn't really have a definite idea what to recommend, except for say "spend more", but one of the alternatives he presented to me was the brand new Sony MDR-XD200 (for £20). The new XD range has just come out in Japan, and I was quite surprised to see that they are available in the UK already. I nominated him for guinea pig role, and said he should buy the XD. He's not really what I would call a critical listener, so I was assuming that even if they were only marginally crappier than the MDR-G74SL, he'd probably be happy. So, we got together the next day and he turned out to be very pleased with the choice. I also had to have a listen out of my laptop, and...

"What was that?"
"Did you just see four really underfed looking guys on horses go past?"
"What're you talking about?"
"Cloaked, one of them carrying a large farm implement?"
"Um... Never mind."

These sounded good. REALLY good. Of course, my expectations were low but still... there was undeniably a hi-fi patina about these phones without all the bad things that usually accompany low-end Sony closed headphones. Three hours later, I got one for myself.

The cups look oval in most views of the XD series, but they are actually circular.

The closed-back, circumaural XD200 has 40mm drivers claimed to be 'long stroke'. Efficiency is a decent 102db/mw and the impedance is 70 ohms @ 1khz. The phone ships terminated with a 3.5mm jack, with a 6.5mm converter plug. The MDR-XD200 has angled drivers.

It's actually got a very nice mild tone, which resolves more than sufficiently for a phone of this price yet doesn't display any traces of sibilance or nasty shrill highs. It's all quite a bit smoother than you expect for this budget. There is a tendency to gloss over some detail, but I can live with the tradeoff for this little money. Bass is very firmly planted with a good bloom without overextending into mush. Staging is less 2-D than some $200+ phones I've had. Although the staging is not large, environmental cues are certainly represented correctly. I can use words like 'instrument separation' without falling off my chair laughing. I have to say this is pretty disconcerting. I'm sitting here writing this post, listening directly out of my PC and I'm still looking out of the window, just in case the Seraphim start putting on an airshow.

One of the unique selling points of the XD200 is the Sound Mode Switch on the underside of both the cups, which allow you to trigger 'music' or 'movie' mode. The music mode leaves the signal unaltered, while the movie mode introduces a rather unsophisticated bass boost circuit. Unsophisticated it may be, but it really works. It's mostly mid-bass, to introduce extra extended 'boom' to whatever you're listening to. If your listening style is of the less refined variety, of course there's nothing stopping you using it for music of course.

Squeaks and creaks are expected on a £20 phone, and the XD200 does indeed squeak and creak a little. However, it is put together with a competent level of build quality for this budget. Structural parts are screwed on, and looked after this isn't liable to fall apart. Seen from a distance, the XD200 looks more expensive than it is. The 3m-ish single-sided cord is covered with an elastomer material, which is prone to certain amounts of snagging... but looks reasonably robust.

The XD200 is closed, but doesn't really isolate. Provided your head gets a seal against the cushions, leakage is next to none, so your coworkers will remain undisturbed.

While not quite at ATH-A900 bulk, the XD200 nevertheless sticks out quite a lot and is fairly large. Definitely home / office cans.

Pretty good for a closed phone with pleather earpads. The only flaw is that the lower rubber half of the headband doesn't have enough room to extend to provide a cushion before your head meets the hard plastic part of the band. The phone is lighter than most (220g quoted) and sits stably on the head. The asymmetrical earpads provide good placement and location around the ears.

The low-end closed headphone market has a worthy new entry in the form of the MDR-XD200. While it's not quite a Beyerdynamic DT231, it is a smoother, warmer and agreeable alternative, with a neat party trick for those rap tracks. It's pretty efficient for a full sized can (much more so than the DT231), fairly comfy and it doesn't leak. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go finish that angel-proof shelter... the Apocalypse is upon us.

UK residents can buy from Argos
Sony link (Japanese) : MDR-XD200

A wizard suggestion by a Hi-Fi designer lead to me opening up these phones. And some additional clarifications are in order.

First, the phones are semi-closed. There's a small gap around where the cushions sit, which is effectively open to the outside. This explains the lack of isolation, but because of the placing of the gap, it also explains the comparative lack of leakage to those situated beside the phone-wearer.

Secondly, the bass boost circuit is not electronic. There's a spring-loaded vent on the phone, situation within the inner earcup area which directly faces the ear.

The "Music" setting leaves this vent closed.

Sliding the switch to "Movie" lifts open the vent.

Fascinating, very simple and effective.


Anonymous said...

I've just been given a pair of these, having said goodbye to some old faithful Sony phones I had previously. Thanks for an excellent informative review which has decided me to keep hold, rather than go for something further up the hi-fi tree. I've got a pair of Grado 60s for the quality listening times when the family go out and quality can be enjoyed at volume!

Thanks again

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see a picture of the XD200 on someone's head...

bangraman said...

They're pretty big. The earcups are 97mm in diameter. If you've seen pictures of the ATH-A900 on people's heads, you've got the overall picture. The XD200 are about a centimeter and a bit smaller in diameter. (I seem to remember the A900 earcup diameter to be around 110mm)

Arash Keshmirian said...

I just got these a few days ago, and I totally cannot tell the difference between Movie and Music mode...!

bangraman said...

Put on something with lots of mid-bass (D&B, etc). You should hear the difference easily enough. The Movie mode bloats out the mid-bass more, so that things such as explosions are "enhanced".

underdogg said...

great analysis. i'm about to drop my [2-way design] panasonics for these (i have been thinking about this for a few weeks). i just want to know how loud they are because i had the xd100s and they were so quiet (i use a creative zen xtra).

plz answer fast thx

underdogg said...

how loud are these headphones? i use a creative zen xtra and the xd100s (model lower) were too quiet for me. is turning up your audio source too loud, if so these are perfect.

plz answer fast thx

Glog said...

They are quite loud when connected to my soundcard. The isolation is below average since the fitting isn't quite right on my ears. However they are still very light and comfortable

Anonymous said...

Where did you purchase your headphone stand(s) ??? Preferably the Sony one.

If you could please let me know,

Anonymous said...

Pretty ok headphones, I'd give 'em 3,5/5 considering the low price. I use amp with 'em but I still have to EQ when listening to music(cut the bass down and enhance the treble a little bit). With EQ-setting, listening to music is pretty enjoyable but depends on what u're listening. So far, Coldplay sounds not so good, but easy pop, rap and others sound great.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I am wearing my 200s right now - superior headphones for the $30.

Anonymous said...

"Coldplay sounds not so good, but easy pop, rap and others sound great."

Does coldplay EVER sound good?

Anyhow, I'd definately rate these way up there on the value scale. Very good phones for the money.

teamgeist said...

Thanks for a great review...and now that ive just bought mine yesterday, id have to agree with everything u wrote :)

Joshua said...

I just bought these today for listening to music on my laptop. I was pleasantly surprised at the overall sound of these.

I enjoyed your review - it answered a few questions I was actually wondering about.


MegaMo said...

Here's a funny question, please try not to laugh.
Since the MDR-XD200 are called "Studio Monitor Series Headphones" how would you compare them to the MDR-V6 ? (for recording purposes mostly)
Should I go for the 200 or save my money for the V6 ?


r3 said...

Dear Sir, after so many many many ... and I mean it .. MANY .. hours . .trying to find cheap, yet great sounding cups ... you just made my day :) you know why ? coz all the freakin time I've been looking for a replacement for my broken xd200 .. i guess i'll just have to stick up with re-order then :)