Sony MDR-1R review

Pros

  • Solid audio performance with strong bass
  • No distortion at top volume
  • Extremely comfortable
  • Comes with two detachable cables

Cons

  • No included headphone jack adapters

Lately, Sony's forays into headphones have often been focused on boosted bass, or even co-branding with television shows (like The X Factor), so it's refreshing to see a no-nonsense, high quality pair like the MDR-1R.

At the £200 mark, it's priced for serious music lovers, and its sound signature, with a powerful yet refined bass response and crisp highs, does not disappoint. The design is visually pleasing, well-constructed, and comfortable, and includes thoughtful features like detachable cables. There are no ugly surprises here – the MDR-1R doesn't distort at top volumes, nor does it lean too heavily in favour of deep bass.

Design

The design of the MDR-1R is graceful, with simple black matte, shiny metallic coloured surfaces, and luxurious looking padded leather all combining to create a classic backdrop for the familiar Sony logo. A touch of bright red is used on the ear cups, and it elevates the look from stately to cool. If there's a complaint here, it's that some of the materials feel a little cheap for a model of this price – but they don't look cheap, and they function perfectly.

The headband, for instance, is not only well-padded and extremely comfortable, but adjusting it is an unusually smooth and graceful process – it's easy, using the stop-clicks, to get the proper fitting size and keep it. Equally comfortable are the circumaural (around-the-ear) earpads, which feel almost like pillows. Swivel joints above the ears allow for the headphones to fit even more seamlessly, pivoting to the shape of your head. The headphones also fold down flat for easier packing and carrying.

That the cable, which connects to the left ear, is detachable adds value to the MDR-1R – but the inclusion of two cables, one with an inline microphone and remote – even further solidifies the headphones as a solid investment. Since cables are often the first part of the headphone equation to malfunction over time, being able to swap them out, rather than replace the whole unit or send it in for repair, is a money saver.

Call clarity is solid enough – the mic picks up voices well, and the headphones block out a bit of ambient room sound (passively), allowing for clearer conversations. But this is cellular audio quality we're talking about, so don't expect it to sound stellar.

Along with the two cables, the MDR-1R ships with a protective drawstring carrying pouch. Surprisingly, there's no 1/4in headphone jack adapter for stereos and pro-gear, nor is there an airline jack adapter. On a set of headphones this pricey, these exclusions are annoying, but if you need these adapters, they’re not exactly expensive to buy separately.

Performance

At top (and unsafe) listening volumes, the MDR-1R reproduces deep bass effectively and cleanly – there's no distortion on The Knife's sub-bass-laden "Silent Shout," and at this price, there shouldn't be. The manual claims that the frequency range of the MDR-1R is 4Hz to 80kHz, which is bound to make some audiophiles snicker – typical adult human ears top out at the high-end of the frequency spectrum anywhere from 15-20kHz, depending on the listener, so we'll just have to take Sony's word for it that these headphones extend a full 60,000 Hertz beyond the limits of human hearing.

Even the low end of the MDR-1R's range is unusually low – it's not terribly common to see a pair dip below 10Hz in the realm of subwoofer bass response, but these headphones apparently reproduce sub-bass frequencies all the way down to 4Hz. (You have a much better chance of hearing those frequencies than ones hovering around 80kHz).

These potentially dubious claims shouldn't scare the serious listener off, however – the MDR-1R packs a robust, yet refined, bass response. If it does indeed go all the way down to 4Hz, it does so without needlessly boosting the bass beyond sensible limits. There's perhaps more bass than someone seeking a flat response might want, but this is not an outrageously bass-boosted pair by any means.

On Bill Callahan's "Drover," the MDR-1R strikes an ideal balance between the low frequencies, high-mids, and treble. Callahan's vocals on this track can sound muffled on a bass-heavy pair that lacks enough treble edge, or overly sibilant on a pair that tweaks the high-mids and highs too much. Here, his unique baritone vocals have a smoothness and edge all at once, while the drumming receives a nice bit of low-end boost without threatening to take the spotlight.

On Jay-Z and Kanye West's "No Church in the Wild," the kick drum loop's attack has enough high-mid presence to sound punchy, while its sustain is rounded out by the MDR-1R's smooth low frequency response. The sub-bass synth hits that lend this song an ominous feeling are conveyed accurately here – and not overly boosted so that the mix sounds off-balance, but there’s certainly some added oomph. If anything, both Callahan's and this track might have benefited from the slightest bit of boosting in the high-mids, to add an extra bit of crispness to the vocals and snap to the percussion – but this is nit-picking. The MDR-1R sounds pretty fantastic.

On classical tracks, like John Adams' "The Chairman Dances," the higher register strings already possess enough high-mid crispness to fend for themselves. The lower register strings are given a nice subtle boost, adding a sense of depth to the mix. The huge drum hits at the end, which can sound comically unnatural on heavily bass-boosted headphones, sound large and intense here, without venturing into a realm of fake mega-bass. The MDR-1R, in other words, suits classical music quite well.

If you're looking in this general price range, and you want the added bass depth that the MDR-1R's reigned-in sound signature lacks, there are other options. For example, the SMS Audio Street by 50 DJ packs a healthy boosted low frequency wallop.

If you just want to explore other similar options in the same sort of price bracket, the Yamaha PRO 400 doesn't boost things nearly as intensely, and shifts the focus to the midrange. Its styling isn't as classy as the MDR-1R's, but sonically, these headphones are comparable. If you have a local electronics store that can make it happen, it might be worth a head-to-head comparison to see which you favour most, as it's about personal taste and not overall quality at this point.

And finally, if all of these models are out of your price range, consider the excellent Sennheiser HD 558, a sonic marvel which you can grab for around the £130 mark.

Verdict

At just £200 the Sony MDR-1R delivers powerful audio with a focus on overall balance. It could use a bit more high-mid presence, and bass lovers will wish there was more low-end boosting, but the sound signature comes close to the audiophile ideal of a flat response without throwing bass presence out of the window. There's no question that these are high quality headphones – the question is merely whether their sound signature is what you're looking for.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Sony MDR-1R

Active Noise Cancellation

No

Connection

Stereo 3.5mm

Removable Cable

Yes

Phone Controls

Yes

Impedance

24 ohms

Type

Circumaural (over-ear)

Frequency Range

4Hz-80kHz