Revealing, accurate, or a touch too dry? Sony’s MDR-1R’s get a thorough audition and analysis.
THE MDR-1R’s ARE one example of Sony’s new range of high quality headphones aimed firmly at mobile users who want a premium product. The luxury portable ‘phone market was opened up by Beats, so it’s no surprise to see Sony and a number of other manufacturers getting in on the action.
At $449, they’re the most straightforward model in the range: you plug in a cable, and they play music. Pay a bit more and you’ll get the MDR-1BT with Bluetooth and NFC ($549), or the noise cancelling MDR-1NC ($599). Favouring sound over widgets, the MDR-1R’s were my top choice to review, but we will look at the NFC technology in the MDR-1BT model at a later stage.
Features and Construction
So what tells us that these ‘phones are targeted at the high-end mobile user? Well, there’s the stylish design with its brushed silver-grey and red highlights, the lightweight construction and the removable cable with its iPhone controller and microphone (a second cable without a remote is also supplied). Most telling however, is the fact that Sony roped in some of the Sony Music artists and engineers to tune the sound of the MDR-1R’s. Strangely enough, the company didn’t lock any of its really big names into an endorsement role to challenge the cachet given to Beats by that Dre fellow.
The MDR-1R’s look good but there’s an awful lot of plastic in there. This keeps them light and they’re cleverly put together, so they’re certainly quite rugged, while the drivers are 40mm units made of a liquid crystal polymer film.
At the price, I’d really like to have seen some more metal – Focal got it spot on with the Spirit One headphone for even less money.
The MDR-1R’s are exceedingly comfortable ‘phones – the earpads are made with a very soft foam but they’re just deep enough to keep the driver cover from touching my ears. The headband puts minimal pressure on the earpads, which boosts the comfort factor, but the design of the ‘phones means that they’re still very stable in use.
The cables have the same serrated finish found on Sony’s MDR-XB900 ‘phone (reviewed here), so they’re a tangle free proposition. The iPhone remote is a tad difficult to operate as the controls are quite close to each other, so my thumb tended to mash the middle button when I wanted the adjust the volume. This isn’t a huge issue because you’ll quickly adapt to the layout. A soft carry case is supplied with the non-folding MDR-1R’s, but there are no 3.5mm to 6.35mm or flight adapters, which is a bit of a shame at the price.
As soon as I heard the MDR-1R’s I knew that I’d heard them before: they sound a lot like the Sony XBA-4 multi-driver in-ear ‘phones I reviewed recently (reviewed here). These two units display remarkably consistent sonic characters – from the crisp and highly resolved treble to the oodles of overall detail down to the deep and tight bass, and they’re obviously from the same family despite being as dramatically different in terms of construction and design as a VW Beetle is from a Bugatti Veyron.
According to Sony, the artists and engineers that collaborated with the design team identified the 30-40Hz range as being critical to properly reproducing today’s music. So Sony’s engineers implemented a ‘Beat Response Control’ design, which uses air vents in the housings to improve both low frequency response and transient characteristics. The bass on the MDR-1R’s is undoubtedly quick and controlled and has plenty of weight but it’s by no means embellished. In fact, the bass falls neatly into line with the ruler flat frequency response I identified on the XBA-4 models – it may not actually be anything close to flat – headphones seldom are – but these models surely sound that way. Nothing is exaggerated, and everything just seems to complement everything else.
Some listeners will love this accuracy, while others might find it a touch unexciting compared to something like Skullcandy’s Aviator 2.0’s (reviewed here) which are all about the excitement. This isn’t to say that the Sony’s are flat or boring to listen to, just that they faithfully reproduce what’s on the recording. Play ‘Sail’ from AwolNation’s Megalithic Symphony CD and the bass punches hard, but I found that I needed to turn up the volume to really get the impact I wanted and ended up listening at higher levels than usual. The same applied to ‘Know Your Enemy’ from RATM’s self titled album and my seminal bass test track ‘Stand Inside Your Love” by Smashing Pumpkins. At normal levels, the MDR-1R’s are good but not great, but crank it and they come alive (again just like the XBA-4’s). I’m not sure that’s a great long-term listening plan though, so it depends on how you like to take your musical medicine – heavy and hard all the time or a mixed batch of mellow and hard.
There’s always heaps of detail on tap though, courtesy of that focused and accurate nature. From the bottom of the lows to the very top of the extended (and ultra clear) treble, where Sony claims a reach of 80kHz, you really can listen right into the recording in a way that some hard-core audiophiles will love.
That precision means that there’s precious little warmth to the sound of the MDR-1R’s. If they were speakers, they’d be electrostatics: dry, maybe even a bit cool, but oh so revealing. So if you’re looking for a mellow set of ‘phones to wile away the quiet night look elsewhere, but if you want an accurate instrument that’ll give you a clearer understanding of what you’re listening to, then these will more than do the job. They’re perhaps a little on the expensive side with Focal’s impressive Spirit One’s at fifty bucks less, but they look good and are very comfortable, and they’re definitely be on my list of ‘phones worth considering at this price point. ASHLEY KRAMER