Gramophone Dreams #16: Sony & AudioQuest headphones

As much as I delight in pagan dreams of sweetly perfumed garden nymphs, I'm embarrassed to admit that my mind also drifts in pleasant reveries whenever I hear the words research and development in the same sentence. I am by nature a greasy gearhead. The idea of taking well-considered steps of engineering to analyze and possibly improve the operation of any electrical or mechanical system never fails to get my imaginative juices flowing. This is why I've spent decades fascinated by perfectionist audio: I like watching and participating in its edgy, eccentric evolution.

So it's perfectly natural that I'm attracted to what some call personal audio. I'm drawn to the latest headphones because they're a part of a new, intelligent, fast-paced audio trend that is all about research and development. The leading edge of what's technologically possible in headphones is advancing so quickly that companies like Abyss, Audeze, AudioQuest, Focal, HiFiMan, and Sony have zero time to bask in last year's achievements.

One school of contemporary headphone engineering leans toward creating the type of sound I've heard in professional recording and mastering studios. This studio sound (bear with me) is typically strong, very clean, and finely resolved: purely Apollonian. It is neither bright nor dull, and energy-wise, it's evenly balanced across the audioband. At its best, studio sound produces little to no listening fatigue, and has a "listen-into" quality that lets me hear how a recording was assembled and how I imagine the music was composed. I am predisposed to like this type of low-distortion sound.

Sony MDR-Z1R headphones
Of all the contemporary audiophile headphones I've studied, only five models have achieved the type of pro-studio sound described above: AKG's K812 ($1499); Audeze's LCD-4 ($3999); Focal's Utopia ($3999); Sony's MDR-7520, a pair of which I own ($499); and now, Sony's new MDR-Z1R ($2299.99, footnote 1).

I never experienced Sony's legendary, now unobtainable, ne plus ultra headphones, the MDR-R10s, designed by their Chief Sound Architect, Koji Nageno. They cost $2500 in 1989. Friends who've heard them describe them to me as sounding beyond studio-quality pure (as in uncolored), natural (as in relaxed and nonmechanical), and beautiful (as in transparent and nonfatiguing). Even today, the MDR-R10s are widely regarded as the best headphones ever.

Sony made another cutting-edge headspeaker that I've also never heard: the Qualia 010, a soon-to-be-legendary classic designed by Naotaka Tsunoda; it came out in 2004, cost $2400, and is now discontinued, replaced by the MDR-Z1Rs—which I have spent months using. Will the MDR-Z1Rs become a legend, like the MDR-R10s?

I've been comparing the Sony MDR-Z1Rs with my Audeze LCD-Xes, the HiFiMan HE-1000 V2s, and my memories of the sounds of the Focal Utopias and Audeze LCD-4s. They all sound so damn different from each other that I'm dumbfounded. Likewise with Sony's new TA-ZH1ES DAC–headphone amplifier ($2199.99), which I've been comparing with Mytek HiFi's similarly priced Brooklyn DAC–amp ($1995), as well as Linear Tube Audio's microZOTL2.0 ($1100) and Pass Labs' HPA-1 ($3500) headphone amps. They, too, all sound different from each other.

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Description: The MDR-Z1Rs are part of Sony's new Signature series, which includes the NW-WM1Z Walkman™ portable player and the heavy, not-at-all-portable TA-ZH1ES DAC–headphone amp (see later). Master engineer Naotaka Tsunoda designed the Qualia 010s all by himself; now, with the help of Sony's new young-gun acoustic engineer, Shunsuke Shiomi, he's created the MDR-Z1Rs, every part of which is manufactured at Sony's Taiyo factory (no OEMs) and hand-assembled by a single craftsperson. If I add R10 designer Koji Nageno to this picture, I'm looking at two or three generations of master builders and designers, all in one place, all working to continue and enhance Sony's legacy of headphones. That's the kind of research and development I get excited about.

I unboxed the MDR-Z1Rs, held them in my hands, and smiled: They weigh 13.6oz (385gm), and look and feel better constructed than any other headphones of my experience. They look high-tech handsome and unbreakable. The MDR-Z1Rs include Sony's latest 70mm drive-unit, which features a 30µm-thick magnesium dome surrounded by an edge ring of aluminum-coated, liquid-crystal polymer that Sony claims reproduces frequencies out to 120kHz. This two-part driver uses powerful neodymium magnets to generate a sensitivity of 100dB/mW and has an easy-to-drive impedance of 64 ohms.

The MDR-Z1R's appearance is dominated by its outer earpieces: gently curved, matte-black domes of chromium-plated, stainless-steel mesh. Inside each dome is hidden a similarly shaped inner dome of "breathable" Japanese paper that works as an acoustic filter to damp the diaphragm's backwave to minimize resonances and alleviate the dull ghost-echo that colors the sound of many closed-back headphones. The outer wire-mesh dome and the inner paper dome are precisely fitted to a third, innermost dome of wide mesh whose rim becomes the vented surround ring that secures the 70mm driver and its Fibonacci-patterned front plate and is attached to the headset yoke.

The MDR-Z1Rs' leather-covered titanium headband and sheepskin-covered earpads were just the right size and pressure for my head, and have solidly calibrated detents for precisely repeatable adjustments of length.

The MDR-Z1Rs come with two Y-cables—one balanced, one single-ended—with conductors of silver-coated, oxygen-free copper. The single-ended cable is 3m long and fitted with a 3.5mm plug; the balanced cable is 1m long and equipped with the new JEITA (Japan Electronics Industry Technology Association) standard 4.4mm plug that also works with Sony's own TA-ZH1ES DAC-amplifier.

I enjoyed using both cables; each was strong and supple enough never to knot up or get in my way. Best of all, they had excellent, 3.5mm plugs with screw-on collars that never popped out of the earcup jacks.

Use & Listening: I listen with headphones at least three hours every day, and Sony's Signature MDR-Z1Rs were the most natural-fitting, fatigue-free 'phones I've ever used. They were also, by far, the most naturally transparent and open-sounding of any closed-back headphones I know.

These two simple excellences defined the basic character of the MDR-Z1Rs, and allowed them to be examined in comparison to the best open-backed headphones available today: the Audeze LCD-4s, Focal Utopias, and HiFiMan HE-1000 V2s.

I began listening to the MDR-Z1Rs with Pass Labs' HPA-1 headphone amplifier fed mostly high-resolution recordings from HDtracks and Tidal Master/MQA files via Mytek's Brooklyn DAC. The sound of this setup was so impressively lucid that I could have stopped and written this report in two days. John McEuen singing the Dillard & Clark classic "She Darked the Sun," from his Made in Brooklyn (24/192 download, Chesky/HDtracks), possessed so much of the ease and detail I heard through Audeze LCD-Xes at this album's recording session that I was taken aback. The apparent height and weight of each instrument and voice was surprisingly close to what I remembered of the Chesky mike feed. Even more remarkably, the MDR-Z1Rs' spectral balance very closely matched that of the live sound I experienced when I sat just behind the Kunstkopf: the dummy head into whose ear canals were inserted the binaural microphones.

I could have written this Sony MDR-Z1R report in two days because all I needed to know was right there with John McEuen: What I heard at home accurately reflected the spectral balance of the live acoustic and the natural, easy-flowing detail of the studio mike feed. And that's what I mean by studio sound.

Rush Hour: Sometimes, Tidal streaming reminds me of cable TV: 40 million tracks and nothing to listen to. While I was surfin' for somethin' to match my weird mood, my buddy Sphere called. Immediately, I started bitchin': "I feel like a tweaker, I'm surfin' like crazy—but I can't find anything to bip on Tidal!"

"Calm down," he says. "Just type 'The Velvet Underground: The Complete Matrix Tapes' into Tidal search and call me after you listen to it. You'll love these live performances—Lou is actually in a good mood" (16-bit/44.1kHz, Tidal HiFi).



Footnote 1: Sony Electronics Inc., 16530 Via Esprillo, San Diego, CA 92127-1708. Tel: (858) 942-2400. Web: www.sony.com

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COMMENTS
dalethorn's picture

I had the NightHawk - loved it, but had to boost the lower treble a few db. I bought nearly every high-tech portable (personal) Sony product from the Walkmans in the early 80's up through the little Vaio computer circa 2002-2003. I lived and worked in Irvine Calif. - the center of high-tech in Southern Cal., yet when the Vaio quit working, the *only* service center was in Florida. So I sent it, they fixed it (added the wrong O/S), and after two weeks it quit again. I destroyed it and vowed to never get another Sony until they could guarantee me fast, quality service and a reliable product. And lest I forget to mention, my previous six Sony purchases prior to the Vaio also failed. Over the past six years, I've purchased several hundred electronic audio devices, and the failure rate has been about one percent.

Anon2's picture

Someone asked in a Stereophile comment recently why an Inner Fidelity reviewer was not reviewing a new headphone product.

This statement led me to think. Are headphones becoming more and more the go-to piece of equipment? And are headphones becoming more the go-to piece of gear for people who might have gone to their main hi-fi rig for some weekday listening?

Upon thought, I have found that headphone listening has begun to comprise the majority of my listening. Computer audio--for me the free sort--offers more tracks on live or on-demand than one could possibly listen to in a 24-hour day. Headphones have become the perfect companion for long hours at work.

More painfully--for those in the audio biz--headphones (even a good pair) offer a pennies-on-the-dollar experience of high fidelity without spending thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, on an upgraded hi-fi system. My hi-fi systems sit covered with old shirts, and turned off, from Sunday night through Friday after work. Headphones, a computer, my favorite site (http://www.rtve.es/radio/radio3/), take up Monday morning through Friday afternoon.

Computers, work schedules, portable DACs: they all have put headphones at the top of the list of what I reach for on a daily basis. I am hardly a millennial. However, I find that the nature of life, and the ubiquity of computing power and bandwidth, are putting the headphone at the top of my list. I don't use a smart phone; I don't have one. However, I am accessing the same platforms at work and, more frequently, at home on my PC.

Perhaps we will soon see more headphone reviews in Stereophile. If we see these more frequent reviews, with no slowdown in "Inner Fidelity," then perhaps we can confirm a gravitation towards the headphone as the most apt component that meets the time constraints, money constraints, and ever-present technology which surrounds the audio enthusiast.

commsysman's picture

I refuse to be tethered to a cable.

I have Sennheiser RS 180 headphones and they are quite good, but I would be willing to pay more for some really excellent ones; BUT they must be wireless.

Does anyone know of excellent wireless headphones?

P.S.- I am NOT talking about Bluetooth....

dalethorn's picture
Staxguy's picture

I'm suprised HR chose the new Audioquest over Sony's latest magnum opus. I'd go for an 009, LCD 3 pre fazor, or 800, myself, if I could only choose one, depending on if I was in a mood for music listening, 009, 3pF if I was in an electronica mood, or 800, if I was a bit clumsy, or on a binaural recording phase. I haven't bought this Sony yet, but I'm considering it.

Actually, it's rather funny. While headphone enthusiasts talk about budget or value ratios, they could often purchase a speaker like a Magico Q5 for what they end up spending continually on their headphone collections.

By avoiding being audiophiles, and sticking to to cheap, it's almost like they out audiophile the audiophile when it comes to tweaks and collecting.

And while their headphone amp and dac collections might not add up to a Solution or Goldmund component it's more often than not more than Emotiva or Rotel dosh.

Certainly headphone cables today can be priced at yesterday's Cardas Golden Cross interconnect or speaker cable levels.

Oy vey.

Herb Reichert's picture

I said it wrong. I meant if I could only have one headphone I would want one (like the AudioQuest) that I could use on my bike and talk on the phone with. Of course, I could live HAPPILY with the Sony forever. The MDR Z1R is even better than I said it was.

bluetoothheadset's picture

If this is made by Chinese, how much cost will be.

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