Sony presents the new reference headphone MDR-Z1R, here we leave you the latest review by Steve Guttenberg of Sound&Vision.
AT A GLANCE
-Good quality handmade
-Very very comfortable
-Your new generation balanced cable may not be compatible with current headphone amplifiers or sources.
Sony has a long history of making flagship headphones, starting with the limited edition MDR-R10, in 1989 and at $2,500, the most expensive headphone in the world. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with an MDR-R10 and I have to say that it is the most beautiful sounding headphone I have ever heard. No wonder experts dubbed it the Stradivarius of headphones and tried to bring them all back a few years ago. An MDR-R10 rarely goes on sale, but when it does, it’s never for less than $6,000.
In 2004 the Qualia 010 arrived, priced at $2,400, and it was also amazing. However, Sony discontinued the model after a few years and the company decided not to commit its considerable share of the headphone design budget when the high-end market took off in early 2010. We had to wait until 2014 until the MDR-Z7 came out ($700), which got a good review in this magazine.
Now, with the MDR-Z1R headphones, the TA-ZH1ES headphone amplifier/DAC companion, and the NW-WM1Z walkman, Sony has launched its new Signature series and is getting serious about making great headphones again.
Headphones until the end of time
You might think that the MDR-Z1Rs are mass-produced by technologically advanced robots, but nothing could be further from the truth: they are manufactured by hand by a man in a Sony factory in Japan. Not only that, but all components come from the company’s own Japanese plants to maintain the strictest quality control of each design element. Sony makes a lot of headphones, but the MDRZ1R and MDR-Z7 are the only two consumer models made in Japan. That’s how important they are to the company. Take them in your hands and you will realize that the MDR-Z1R are perfect luxury headphones. Listen to them and you will know that they are an extraordinary design.
Its 70mm driver is unusual in that it is a two-part design, with a central magnesium dome surrounded by an aluminum-plated polymer “rimmed” diaphragm. This driver has been designed with high-resolution sound in mind, with a remarkably extensive high frequency response, up to 120 kHz. Of course, the human ear is not capable of reaching that far, but there are those who would say that headphones with such an extension have cleaner trebles in the range that we can hear.
Looking at the rounded stainless steel grilles on the earcups themselves, I assume the MDR-Z1R is an open model, but it’s actually closed, so it provides healthy isolation from ambient noise. Or rather, it is an almost closed design: its helmets are made up of three layers, with a ventilated surrounding ring supported by an acoustic filter made of a felted material and, then, the grilles. The filter controls the air resistance behind the driver and is said to help dampen any reverberation inside the helmet. The deliciously soft sheepskin-covered ear cushions are heavily padded for comfort, and the leather-wrapped titanium headband is ultra-light but incredibly durable. The MDR-Z1R comes in a nice box for storage.
Two silver-plated oxygen-free copper (OFC) cables come with the MDR-Z1R. You will receive a 10-foot RCA cable with 3.5mm jack and 6.3mm adapter and a 4-foot balanced cable with a new 4.4mm jack that has been established as the standard in the JEITA industry. The two Y cables connect to the MDR-Z1R earcups with screw-on locking rings. Please note that the balanced cable will not fit most headphone amplifiers with current balanced outputs. Sony offers a 2m Kimber Kable balanced cable option with the same 4.4mm connector (MUC-B20SB1, $249), but none that work with current connectors, nor adapters. We can assume that other manufacturers will be able to supply them at some point, but it does not seem like they will be available at the moment.
The pleasure of listening
It was obvious that Sony was chasing the upper echelons of the headphone market, so I began my testing by comparing the MDR-Z1R to a pair of my best-known reference headphones, attacking them directly with my Oppo BDP-105 universal player. One of my current favorites is the MrSpeakers Ether Flow ($1,800). With a pair of Henry Mancini soundtracks on CD, The Pink Panther and Peter Gunn, the MDR-Z1R immediately felt brighter and more palpable. The Ether Flow was no less resolving, but had a sweeter top end. When I continued with Leonard Cohen’s latest release, You Want it Darker, the MDR-Z1R gave more gravity to the low wail of Cohen’s voice and the authoritative bassline of the album’s title track than I’ve ever heard. with Ether Flow. The Sony did more than just hold its own against the best new headphones on the market.
I then played the MDR-Z1R with Audeze’s LCD-XC closed-back headphones ($1,800, reviewed here in 2014), listening to Amon Tobin’s acid-jazz Bricolage. The rhythm had tremendous weight on the Audeze, but when switching to the Sony the sound opened up with greater depth, air and texture. I continued with Live Live Juju by King Sunny Adé; The percussion and singing of his 20-member band brought both models to their feet, whose ability to reproduce the feel of hand percussion and transient details was truly spectacular. When a musician hits the drum, the MDR-Z1R makes it sound more realistic. The Sony’s high sensitivity may be largely responsible for its impressive dynamics.
Introducing a Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifier and the Arcam irDAC-II DAC into the equation, I spent some time with some high-resolution 96kHz/24-bit files from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s debut album. The original recording was made in 1969 on analogue media and its analogue quality was especially obvious on the MDR-Z1R – and I mean that as a compliment. The studio quality of the minimally produced sessions was so clear that I could even hear the hiss of the analog tape right after “Guinnevere.” The Audeze headphones sounded great, but they masked that analog flavor of the recording. Oh… the irony of hearing the analog character through the digital in high resolution made me smile.
I changed the recordings vintage to new hi-res files released by one of my favorite audiophile labels, MA Recordings, and the MDR-Z1R seemed to melt away and transport me directly to the sessions. The rarefied sounds of the albums La Segunda and Sera una Noche were exquisite, with a more precise and perfectly focused stereo image. I hope that in the future there will be more general recordings that sound like this. Still, from time to time I find exceptional recordings from generalist labels; the Swiss Army Man soundtrack is to die for.
I also watched some movies. With one of the most natural-sounding, the Civil War-set epic “Jones’ Freemen,” the MDR-Z1R sounded more open and less inside my head than the LCD-XC. In the swamp scenes, birds and insects seemed to come from everywhere. The MDR-Z1R seemed roomier than the LCD-XC, which wasn’t even close. The Sony was also more comfortable than the Audeze, and when you’re watching a movie with headphones on, comfort is just as important as sound quality.
Simply put, the MDR-Z1R is a spectacular headphone. It meets or exceeds the performance standards of the top-tier magnetic headphones I’ve heard…and I’ve heard them all. !! Congratulations!!