Sony knows a thing or two about audio. While many audiophiles will discount mainstream brands as inferior, you should do so at your own risk, especially in the case of Sony. Let’s not forget that Sony pretty much invented the concept of personal audio when it launched the first Walkman back in 1979.
It’s also not a given that a high-end audio manufacturer can excel in every area, as exhibited by the Focal Spirit One headphones (opens in new tab) I reviewed recently. While Focal builds some of the best loudspeakers that money can buy, I wasn’t overly impressed with the Spirit Ones.
The Sony MDR-1Rs sit in a similar price bracket to the Focal Spirit Ones, so I was keen to see how they compare, and after spending a couple of weeks with them, I can confirm that they compare very favourably indeed.
First and foremost I should point out that the MDR-1Rs are the most comfortable closed back headphones I have ever worn. The ear cups are large enough to ensure a proper circumaural fit, no matter what size ears you may have. The cushioning on the ear cups is also incredibly soft, as is the cushioning on the headband. The result is a pair of headphones that sit on your head with a gossamer-light touch, meaning that even extended listening sessions aren’t a problem.
The MDR-1Rs look great too. Sony sent me the brown and silver version to review, and while they look good, it’s the black and grey option that really stands out, especially with the red highlighting around the cups. I know that sound quality should always be paramount, but in today’s fashion victim Beats Audio-driven market, the fact that these Sonys look good is no bad thing.
You get two 1.2m cables in the box, one of which has an iPhone/iPod/iPad compatible in-line remote control. The remote has controls for play/pause as well as volume. Of course it also has a built-in microphone, with the play/pause button doubling as an accept/end call button. Call quality is pretty good at both ends.
When it comes to sound quality the Sony MDR-1Rs really surprised me. I was expecting a bass heavy performance that lacked the high-end clarity that I look for from headphones, but my preconception proved very wide of the mark. I’m not saying that the MDR-1Rs are completely flat and free of colouration, but they’re far more neutral and well balanced than I imagined they would be.
It is worth noting, however, that these Sonys require slightly more driving than I thought they would. That’s not to say that they don’t sound good when plugged straight into an iPhone or MP3 player, but when I hooked them up to the Arcam rPAC that lives on my desk, they really came to life. So, if you like your music loud and thumping when you’re out and about, it’s worth investing in a portable headphone amp to go with the MDR-1Rs, I can promise you’ll be happy with the result.
According to Sony, Katy B helped to evaluate the MDR-1Rs, as evidenced by her appearance in many of the adverts all over the London Underground. I’m not Katy’s biggest fan, but it only seemed proper to fire up On a Mission and see how it sounded through the MDR-1Rs. The result was very impressive, especially when listening to Broken Record where the heavy beats thumped away in my head, while the snare cut through the electronic cacophony. Katy’s vocals and harmonies come through strong and clear, with a real sense of urgency – if you’re a fan, you’ll definitely enjoy Katy B through these headphones.
Turning the clock back I threw some David Bowie at the MDR-1Rs. The infinitely intricate Golden Years can trip up unsuspecting headphones, but MDR-1Rs handled the challenge admirably. The liberal use of stereo imaging wasn’t a problem with the signature overdriven guitar in the right ear, percussion in the left and the vocals in the centre. The overall effect is convincingly enveloping and cohesive in a way that many headphones can’t manage.
Hitting the mellow button, I cued up Stanley Jordan’s State of Nature and the MDR-1Rs still turned in a fine performance, conveying the kind of intimate experience that you’d get listening to Stanley in Ronnie Scott’s or Blue Note. The MDR-1Rs capture the laid back, chilled out vibe of All Blues with aplomb – whether it’s the subtle bass sitting way back in the mix, the spiralling piano solo or Stanley’s magical guitar licks.
U2’s The Unforgettable Fire sounded great, but not quite as accomplished as other source material. While the guitars came through with all of The Edge’s complexities, they bordered on sounding harsh, while the soundstage as a whole felt slightly compressed. That said, the harsh edge only creeps in when you really pump up the volume, and listening at levels that won’t cause your ears to bleed keeps things in check.
It’s safe to say that the MDR-1Rs are incredibly versatile and manage to sound good no matter what your musical preference may be. Couple that with the attractive design and the fact that these headphones are supremely comfortable, and the MDR-1Rs should be on anyone’s shortlist.
Sony has created something very special with the MDR-1Rs. These are possibly the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn, while the large, incredibly soft ear cups completely surround your ears ensuring a decent degree of sound isolation.
The soundstage is surprisingly expansive for closed back headphones, and it’s only when you fire up certain genres of rock that things begin to compress. On the whole though, the sound quality is unreservedly impressive, although you may need to invest in a headphone amp to get the very best out of the MDR-1Rs.
Although Sony charges £299 for the MDR-1Rs on its own web shop, they are available for around £200 elsewhere, making them a real bargain. If you’re in the market for a set of circumaural, closed back headphones, don’t part with you cash before auditioning the Sony MDR-1Rs.