SBH80s Review | aptX® Saves The Day

I recently received the SBH80s from Sony, an SGD$158 pair of sleek and beautiful Bluetooth wireless earphones. I tested it out for about a week plus, and came away highly impressed with its form, but disappointed by its function, not entirely, but slightly, because of software quirks. Is it worth the money? Read on to find out what I think.


Introduction

The SBH80s are a stylish pair of Bluetooth earphones which are meant to be worn around the neck. It’s really pretty difficult to explain it, so I’m just gonna show you pictures of how it is used.

The wastefully large packaging
The wastefully large packaging
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The big thing with the word SONY on it, rests on the back of your neck.
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Look Ma, no wires!

It weighs 15.8 grams, most of which is resting on your neck, not your ears, and it looks good and feels good, but more on that later. It uses Bluetooth 3.0, which means you lose out on the low-energy feature of Bluetooth 4.0, and allows for quick NFC pairing. It also has aptX® audio enhancement which is touted as “a high-quality audio codec designed to deliver a flawless wireless experience”, but if your device does not support it, it reverts to the standard SBC codec.

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Control your music through these in-line controls… handy

Oh, and see the guy holding the cylindrical thing (in-line controls), looking really classy, in the above picture? There are two of those, on each side, and they have buttons on them: answer/end call button, play/pause music key, next/previous track keys, and volume adjustment buttons.

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Close up of one of the in-line controls

Enough of the basics, let’s dive into the meaty stuff, shall we?

Pairing Process

I’ll start with the first thing you’ll want to do with the SBH80s – pair it to your device. When trying to pair with a new device for the first time over Bluetooth, you have to switch off the headset, then press the power button for about 4 seconds to make the LED light blink blue. The power button is hard to press and holding it for that long is not pleasant, but after pairing once, and you’ve got the headset saved in your device, it’s not so bad, because just pressing it for 2-3 seconds will connect it to your device. Still, when compared to the Jabra Rox Wireless earphones which I reviewed, this is not good, because the Jabras just required you to separate the two earphone pieces from each other to instantly reconnect, buttons-free (they stuck to each other by magnets, enabling a powersaving mode that disables Bluetooth, but which enabled quick repairing when separated).

There is a saving grace though – NFC-based pairing. This (obviously) still uses Bluetooth for the connection, but it allows you to bypass Bluetooth-based pairing entirely. After finding out where your NFC detection area on your phone (or device — I’ve heard of fancy computers like the Dell XPS 15 which have NFC detection in the computers) is, you just have to hold it against the NFC symbol on the earphones, and bam! You’re connected. The earphones don’t even have to be turned on to do so, and neither does your phone’s Bluetooth. Everything automatically connects. It’s so simple to do so, and so, so fast.

But if you’re on an iPhone or trying to use this with most computers… Go back to the land of manual pairing, which sucks.

Build Quality, Design and Ergonomics

The build quality is without a doubt amazing. I have almost nothing bad to say about it – it is just that fantastic. The materials (plastic, I think) have a nice, matte finish, which isn’t just good-looking. When resting on your neck’s bare skin, it does not feel cold against the skin, like most plastics do, but feels like it is not there, which is what earphones should achieve, to get out of the way as much as possible. As I’m typing this review out, I’m using these, and half the time I really do not notice it’s even there. It’s thin, sleek and light as well (15.8 grams), which contributes to this feeling of it not really being there. And when I wear a collared shirt, I can tuck them in neatly inside my collar, without it causing the collar to bulge out or look conspicuous or weird.

FEELS LIKE IT IS NOT THERE, WHICH IS WHAT EARPHONES SHOULD ACHIEVE, TO GET OUT OF THE WAY AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

Furthermore, because most of the processing is done within the thing on the back of your neck (I really do not have any names for these things, I’m sorry), the earphones themselves are exceedingly light, and give zero issues when wearing them. They actually feel better than regular wired earphones, because of how light the earpieces are and how comfortably they sit in the ears. I remember that the Jabra Rox Wireless was around 30 grams, and the weight was concentrated in the earphones, which made them uncomfortable to use after about an hour, and they required the usage of EarWings to keep the earpieces in place, which I did not personally like.

The buttons on the sides are also useful, allowing you to simply pause and play music, answer calls, control the volume and skip or go to the previous track. However, they do not feel very nice to use, because the buttons are really thin and long — I’d prefer them to be a little fatter because I’m not looking at the button and need more obvious tactile feedback to reach the right button. Also, there is a design flaw in them, at least in my perspective. The next and previous buttons.

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Let me attempt to explain what I mean. As you wear them, the earphones face in the direction shown in the above picture — the previous button faces the front, and the next button faces the back. This is slightly counter-intuitive, as one would expect the previous button to face the back. It is, after all, going back in your playlist. Similarly, the next button is going forward. Hence, the previous button should face the back and the next button face the front.

THEY ACTUALLY FEEL BETTER THAN REGULAR WIRED EARPHONES, BECAUSE OF HOW LIGHT THE EARPIECES ARE AND HOW COMFORTABLY THEY SIT IN THE EARS

I don’t really have any qualms about the placement of the volume-decreasing button in the front though, and think they placed it rightly there. This is because the urgency of increasing the volume is less than that of decreasing the volume and you want the volume-decreasing button to be the button most accessible to you, which is the one in the front (what if you suddenly encounter a really loud song and need to decrease the volume quickly?).

Of course, this is a minor quirk and you might get used to it. I haven’t yet though, and still forget which is the previous and next button (and the icons printed on the buttons are useless too, they’re the same thing but reversed).

All in all, the build quality and the lariat-style design (the rest-on-neck-design) is the best thing about the headset, because it’s so damn comfortable to wear, and the earphones feel really good and light and don’t add undue pressure on my ears, making them comfortable and wearable for extended periods of time.

Sound Quality

The sound quality was pretty decent in general, but it depends on what device you are using. If you are using a device which supports Bluetooth aptX® technology, you’re golden, and your sound quality will be good. But if you are using a device which supports only the older SBC codec, then you’re gonna have a bad time. I tested out both because really, whether or not your device supports aptX® can be a dealbreaker.

For reference, I was using my iPhone when testing out the SBC codec, then continued using SBC when I switched over to the LG G2 when I got a trial set (for those interested, I’m currently loving the G2 and might just ditch my iPhone when I have to return the trial set, but we’ll see) because the G2 does not have aptX® (the G3 does though). I thought I wasn’t going to be able to test out aptX®, but then I realised my MacBook supports aptX®, so I tested out the songs and compared them to see the differences.

I do confess though, that the iPhone, being a 16 gig version, had the music downsampled to 192KBps, but I did re-listen to everything on the G2 with the music in the highest quality I had available. For the songs I mention below, they are all in 320KBps quality, both on the G2 and on my computer.

With SBC:

For songs that are loud and feature many instruments or different sounds playing at the same time, the sound becomes tinny, as if everything was coming from a tiny hole. Basically, the clarity of the individual distinct sounds becomes compromised and muffled and everything becomes messy and loud. It becomes a barrage of sounds that do not sound good together on this pair of earphones, conflicting and mixing badly where normally the sounds fit together like pieces of a puzzle. I listened to Linkin Park’s new hit, Final Masquerade, and didn’t enjoy it at all. When the electric guitar solo begins, it becomes unbearable, and this is one of Linkin Park’s tamer songs.

Yet for some reason, they can sound amazing when there isn’t much going on. The opening of Pia Toscano’s This Time, for example, dominated by vocals and light, acoustic tones, sounded incredible. Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know plays marvellously here, being very light on background music instruments, and heavily focussing on the vocals. Movie soundtracks such as Time by Hans Zimmer from Inception, usually play nicely on the SBC codec as well. On songs which are similarly composed with emphasis on vocals, and acoustic songs, such as the style of He Is We, or certain kinds of classical/instrumental music, the SBC codec performs quite well, with the sounds being clear and distinct and generally really pleasant to hear.

So it depends on what you like to listen to. If you listen to rock or mainstream pop and really have to use the SBC codec, this might not be the best for you. But if you listen to instrumentals, classical music, acoustic music or music dominated by vocals with not so much background music, this would perform decently well. Personally, I listen to music that falls more into the latter category, but even then my music does have moments where there is a lot going on in the song, and then it descends into chaos again during those moments.

With aptX®:

The problem of the tinny music is almost eliminated with aptX®, but that does not mean it does not persist; it does, albeit much, much less than with SBC. Linkin Park’s Final Masquerade is noticeably better with aptX® streaming technology, and although I’ve heard it played better on a pair of Bose headphones, well, who am I kidding, those are Bose. Headphones. Basically, it played well, and I was satisfied. The music is really clear and the sounds distinct, and it  impresses me that a simple switch in codec did all that.

Bass is really clear and, well, bassy. I hate Boom Boom Pow by the Black Eyed Peas, but it’s pretty great for testing bass, so I forced myself to endure the torture of listening to it. When on SBC, the bass felt muffled, and it wasn’t very “thumpy” and powerful. On this, however, it’s really different, and the bass feels powerful, strong and clear, standing out clear from the rest of the song. The drumbeats are also very distinct; bass-ically, everything sounds great. I mean, I still hate the song, but on a technical level, it sounds good.

THE MUSIC IS REALLY CLEAR AND THE SOUNDS DISTINCT, AND IT IMPRESSES ME THAT A SIMPLE SWITCH IN CODEC DID ALL THAT

For all songs, everything sounds clearer, less muffled, and just so, so much better. And it objectively sounds great, not just compared to when it is using SBC codec, but as a pair of earphones.

Conclusion? Don’t underestimate aptX®. When I got these, I thought, “pfff, what’s a codec gonna do for me?” As it turns out, quite a lot. It made me question the basis of my intense dislike for the earphones’ sound quality, which was that the SBC codec is really just crap.

Frankly, if I were looking to buy a pair of these, I’d make sure that my devices all support aptX®, because it sucks without aptX®. With aptX®, it’s really good.

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE APTX®

I’d say don’t even bother buying it if you are set on using a device with SBC, but I’m sure that whatever Bluetooth earphones you use with that SBC-only device, you will run into the sound quality bottleneck that is caused by our good friend SBC, so you should just use wired earphones instead in that case.

You can read more on aptX® at http://www.aptx.com. And go to http://www.aptx.com/howitworks2 to see a visual animation of how it works.

Battery Life

The battery specs are as follows:

  • Standby time: (up to) 650 hours
  • Talk time: (up to) 9 hours
  • Stream time: 6 hours
  • Battery: 125 mAh

I certainly didn’t test the standby time, and I didn’t even bother with talk time because I hardly ever make calls. Really, out of 100 outgoing call minutes per month, I use about 5 at max.

I didn’t record the stream time as well. But I did use it regularly, and found that they do last around 5 to 6 hours. On a single charge, it lasted about 3 to 4 days, with about 1.5 hours of usage per day, which roughly gives around 4.5 to 6 hours of playback time. It’s enough, and if you use an Android phone and have a battery pack, it’s literally zero extra inconvenience to charge these on the go because they use MicroUSB for charging. (When I used an iPhone, I needed a separate cable just to charge these on the go.)

Sadly, these use Bluetooth 3.0, not 4.0, which means that battery life is hampered as a result. If they were using 4.0, then the battery life would likely be a bit higher, but alas, they are not.

Generally though, it’s got good enough battery life for moderate to heavy usage.

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Miscellaneous

The SBH80s also have two microphones on either side of your neck (located on the in-line controls). These are meant to make your voice clear to the other person when in a call. I briefly tested these out, and it seems to work decently well, but I didn’t go in depth into it because I don’t make calls.

Here’s some information on how it works, from Sony’s site (hence the embellishments):

Stereo Bluetooth® Headset SBH80 is HD Voice ready. HD Voice, also known as wideband audio, lets the person you’re talking to experience your voice as it really sounds – natural. HD Voice fades or cuts out background noises and makes it easy to recognise voices. The SBH80 has double microphones. Whichever way your head is turned you’re always close to the microphone, so your caller gets a clear and even calling experience. A vibrating alert in the main unit discreetly lets you know when a call comes in. These premium headphones make calling more comfortable and more enjoyable.

Also, the main unit and headphone exterior are splash-proof, which supposedly means they’ll survive the rain. There’s no IP certification though, so don’t go dumping them in the water or being too happy wearing these in a downpour. I’d probably hazard a guess that it’s gonna be fine in light drizzles and showers, and probably not storms, but really, exercise your own discretion and be careful nonetheless.

There are also some geeky specs I do not understand, listed on the Sony site, which I have included here for the more hardcore audiophiles among us (which does not include me.)

Supported Bluetooth profiles

  • Handsfree profile (HFP) v1.6 (HD ready)
  • Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) v1.2
  • Audio Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP) v1.4 – Control and Target role

Acoustic

  • Speaker type: 5.8 mm dynamic

  • Ear coupling: In-ear canal

  • Nominal Impedance: 15 Ohm

  • Frequency response: 10Hz … 20000Hz, (diffuse field oriented mid-high range).

  • Max SPL: 100dBA (EN 50332-1)

  • Total harmonic distortion: <0.5% (100Hz .. 10000Hz @ 100dBSPL)

  • Microphone: Dual MEMS

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Wrap-Up

The SBH80s are a good-sounding pair of earphones even when compared to wired earphones. For SGD$158, you get good, clear sound (if you use aptX®) which performs well for many kinds of music except loud songs which use a lot of instruments (by this, I mean hard rock), something that looks good, feels good and is really comfortable and discreet, and which has decent battery life. And, if you use aptX®, it does not compromise on sound quality despite the fact that it uses Bluetooth. Unlike the Jabra Rox Wireless, these aren’t the best for sports (I’m not sure how the sweat will affect it; Sony is targeting it at professionals, not people who exercise). They are great for daily life in general, just not designed with sports in mind.

If the device you are using to play your music has aptX® and NFC, life could not be sweeter, because such a device paired with the SBH80s (pun intended) is really good, and you get all the benefits of the SBH80s.

THEY ARE GREAT FOR DAILY LIFE IN GENERAL, JUST NOT DESIGNED WITH SPORTS IN MIND

However, if you are using an iPhone or something without aptX® and NFC, I’d recommend you not to get it. The NFC support is a luxury you do not need to have; manual Bluetooth pairing still works and it only wastes a few seconds of your time. However, aptX® is necessary to really get the most out of the SBH80s. SBC, which I presume stands for “Super Bad Codec”, sucks, wholly and utterly. Do the necessary research first, because the SGD$158 is well spent only if you have aptX®.

Oh, and if you want to, you can read my impressions of the Jabra Rox Wireless here.

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