Simulationszeitalter. The age of simulation. Frankfurt electro artist Anthony Rother’s second long player is as close as it gets to the Kraftwerk sound without the Kling Klangers calling in the lawyers. Behind headphones, I walk the length of Kurfurstendamm, the half-stepped mechanical pulse of “Biomechanik” slows my own. This is electro shot through desolate warehouses and hillside power stations at twilight. Germanic music piped hot through a new pair of headphones. Wilkommen in Deutschland.
Seven days into a new country and this headphile finds himself already €399/US$399 lighter. A casual drop into Sony’s flagship store at Potsdamer Platz the day after landing saw this reviewer return to a bright, airy Charlottenburg apartment with a fresh set of circumaural cans: the MDR-1000X.
It’s the first week of November and Berlin is approaching the dirty end of Autumn. It’s cold. Really cold. The upshot of single digit temperatures is that this guy’s usual travel companions – IEMs from FitEar, Noble Audio and Campfire Audio, each driven by a Sony NW-ZX2 Walkman – are no longer de rigeur.
With the NW-ZX2, launched at CES 2015, Sony said what no-one else could or would, “DAP battery life matters”. A 30-hour runtime between charges throws significant shade over the competition whilst bringing the user experience closer to that of your average smartphone. Why tolerate a portable audio player that requires charging after nine hours when we would laugh a similarly-specified smartphone out of the building?
Soundwise, the Sony NW-ZX2 doesn’t have the beatific midrange glow of the Pono player, nor is its 3.5mm headphone output especially powerful. That makes it better suited to high sensitivity IEMs with which it won’t quit halfway on a trans-Pacific night flight through Brian Eno’s ambient catalogue.
Sony have customised the ZX2’s Android OS to give us a bespoke local file player and, more crucially, Google Play Store access – the gateway to all manner of streaming service apps. This allows us to sidestep the possibility of development delays and feature loss that can plague manufacturer-coded implementations. See: Astell&Kern where Tidal users don’t get offline content – a feature that the record labels themselves reportedly refused to green light. On this Sony Walkman we see no such boardroom-derived hamstringing. We get everything that Android smartphone users get. Sony transposed applied audiophile thinking over mass market considerations.
Ditto the MDR-1000X. With one eye on the man in the street: they connect to a source device over wires or wirelessly (via Bluetooth) and they optionally cancel noise. They also feature some rather clever transport control magic. Sony state the non-removable Li-on battery’s life as capable of 20 hours from a full charge (6 hours). Ample for all but ‘round-the-clock shift workers.
Standing in front of the Reichstag, full-size headphones become ear-warmers. The MDR-1000X’s sideways clamp pressure isn’t as fierce as a stock pair of Audeze Sine. Neither is their downward force as ghostly as the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0. Build quality on the MDR-1000X is sturdy but their broader aesthetic cannot outrun its plastic exoskeleton, which mercifully does not creak.
For Android device like the NW-ZX2, NFC makes Bluetooth pairing the Sony noise cancellers a one touch affair. And because it’s a Sony Walkman playing into Sony headphones, we get the benefit of LDAC, the company’s own Bluetooth transmission protocol. Switching between LDAC and SBC in the ZX2’s settings puts LDAC’s audible superiority over SBC beyond doubt. SBC sounds comparatively weaker with micro-dynamics, its tonal colours more washed out.
Bluetooth codec support is where Sony come up trumps: the (mandatory) SBC as well as aptX, LDAC and AAC. iOS devices don’t support aptX. Apple specify AAC instead. The upshot? Zero evidence of the qualitative cliff jump heard from the aforementioned SBC/aptX-only Sennheisers when switching sources from the Sony Walkman to an iPhone 6S Plus. An early score for the Sony in terms of an iPhone connection’s tonal avidity.
With one click on a button position behind the left ear I engage noise cancelling mode. I punch in Ken Ishii’s Overlap EP and go for a brisk pre-dawn stroll around Wilmersdorf and beyond. I think about how an SBC-fuelled experience might be why so many audiophiles shy away completely from Bluetooth. Yes, it’s lossy, but not all Bluetooth connections are the same. aptX and AAC connections can sound very good. Good enough for listening to all manner of modern music – B12, Animal Collective, Clearlake, Momus – whilst pounding the streets of Berlin.
On my mind is coffee. So too is an early conclusion: Spotify’s lossy Ogg Vorbis streamed via iPhone to the Sony MDR-1000X sounds superior to the same NW-ZX2 streaming lossless FLAC to the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0. Why? With no LDAC and no AAC on board, the German receivers revert to SBC when aptX is absent from the transmitting device i.e. Sony Walkman or iPhone. The Japanese cans suffer no such fallback position – they draw on the AAC codec for iPhone connections and LDAC when faced with a Sony Walkman (or Sony smartphone).
Between LDAC-parsed FLAC on the Walkman and AAC-parsed Spotify on an iPhone 6S Plus, I could not drive a wedge. Hmmmm – interesting.
I reach a set of pedestrian crosswalk lights none too far from KaDeWe. Here I cup the MDR-1000X’s right earshell with my right hand. Sony’s auto-sensing circuitry kicks in and street noise, amplified from mic to transducer, joins the music mix. Removing my hand sees street noise fall away again. Sony call this ‘Quick Listen’ mode. I call it smart thinking.
A plain-Jane hardshell carrycase, into which the headphones fold flat, keeps the right earcup’s capacitive touch pad out of harm’s way whilst in transit.
Reaching a nearby bakery, the temptation to reach for the pocketed Sony player is overturned by another of the MDR-1000X’s clever features: that same righthand earcup doubles as a control pad.
I swipe down thrice to lower the volume but it’s not enough to order breakfast. Instead, a double-tap puts Ken Ishii on pause. A piping hot mug of the black stuff sits in front of me as I play with the forward and backwards swipes that facilitate “Next” and “Previous” tracks. I was never a fan of DJ Food’s remixes anyway.
Isolation from the outside world is very good indeed. Switchable noise cancelling strips away the low rumble of traffic but also the background hum at home. For those who find this sonic disconnect too disconcerting, Sony offer switchable ‘Ambient Sound’ modes. A secondary switch toggles between ‘normal’ and ‘voice’ noise cancellation profiles that don’t cancel noise as thoroughly. A win for listeners who prefer to maintain a sharper sense of their surroundings whilst listening to music. The point here is that Sony give us options.
Such DSP trickery is less crucial whilst walking Berlin’s Tiergarten. Listening to The The’s Soul Mining – the original CD, not the hot 2002 remaster – means a couple of upward strokes on the left earcup are required to lift the volume. Mid-bass thrust from the kick-punching album opener “I’ve Been Waiting For Tomorrow (All Of My Life)” is robust but not overbearing. There’s a nice fluidity to the accordion that drives the chorus on “This Is The Day”’. The guitar strum that flutters around the soundstage perimeter during “Uncertain Smile” comes across just so; you can’t say that about every sub-$1K headphone.
The MDR-1000X’s midbass comes on as occasionally (and slightly) overcrowded on Bowie’s Blackstar but such nit-picking dissolves when hearing how well Aphex Twin’s furiously dense “Cock/Ver 10” is unravelled; seriously impressive performance given the entry-fee.
Like many of Sony’s other headphone models, the top end hasn’t been overcooked for a false sense of excitement or illusory detail. This lends the MDR-1000X a more intimate vibe as if one were listening in a room with a lower ceiling than that of the average Berlin apartment (read: high).
Treble refinement travels north once the Personal NC Optimiser – a long press on the NC button – is run. From the manual: “This function analyzes the wearing condition such as the face shape, hair style, and presence or absence of eyeglasses to optimize the noise canceling performance. It is recommended that you perform this function when using the headset for the first time.”
Think of this feature as earcup cavity response correction with respect to head and hair (!) size and whether or not the user wears glasses; it’s analogous to room correction in the loudspeaker domain. In practice, we hear a series of bleeps and boops. It’s over and done in five seconds.
Earlier in the day, two hours before sun up and in a lamp-lit apartment, I journeyed back through Lambchop’s extensive catalogue to Is A Woman. Keeping the source tables level with aptX I drew on Spotify on a Macbook Air. Next to the Sennheiser, Sony play it thicker in the mids and wetter from top to bottom; they are notably more physically impactful to boot. Low frequency reach is spectacular. I ruminate on how much cash one would need to drop to net similar performance from a loudspeaker rig, into which the room comes into play, and then on how much MDR-1000X owners would save over their passive headphone wearing brethren who are then tied to the trial-and-error DAP/DAC/amp dance.
These Sony don’t give us the face-against-the-glass immediacy of the Audeze Sine + Cipher cable but they do lend suitable levels of intimacy to Kurt Wagner’s tender growl. Even when hardwired to the Sony Walkman playing FLAC files and with noise cancellation turned off, the Sony headphones are musically more convincing than the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0. In fact, it’s tough to the return to the Germans having spent time with the Sony offering. Given my listening location, that’s a harsh irony.
How did we get here?
For answers we look to Tokyo but further back than the most recent Fujiya Avic headphone event. December 2015 took me to Sony’s headphone development division in Shinagawa-ku, headed by one Naotaka Tsunoda.
Tsunoda-San leads the way, across the highly polished floors of the lobby and up an escalator to the first floor reception area. On a distant wall I spy a dissected Sony NW-ZX1, the predecessor to my current DAP of choice.
Up two more flights of stairs and into hallways of (almost) anonymous doors. One is marked MDR (“Micro Dynamic Receiver”). We enter a single 6m x 3.5m room. This is where Sony headphones come to life.
The first hardware I notice – and the last I can comment on here – is a pair of active loudspeakers from Germany’s Adam Audio. Beyond my bearing witness to a pseudo-multichannel headphone demonstration and that which appears in the photo of Tsunoda-San and his offsider, I’m asked not to divulge.
A second visit to this monolithic Sony building arrives some ten months later with my interest very much attuned to the new Signature Series Walkman. This time out, Tsunoda-San introduces me to members of the Walkman’s engineering team. I meet Sato Tomaoki, project leader for the company’s cost-no-object take on the NW-ZX2’ successor. Tomaoki-San’s team begat two new models that differ more outside than in: a gold-plated OFC copper chassis for the top-flight NW-WM1Z (US$3199) and an aluminium shell for the standard NW-WM1A (US$1299). I then learn that such material choices heavily influence each model’s sonic flavour.
Three days after this second visit to the Sony MDR lab (and canteen), I’m in Nakano at the Fujiya Avic headphone festival. Tomoaki-San and his project team-mate Hiroaki Sato talk us through the impact of materials on the Walkman’s sound.
The WM1Z also features higher quality components than its more affordable sibling. I was curious: how did Kimber Kable become Sony’s internal wire of choice for their new flagship DAP? The man himself, Ray Kimber, was on hand to explain how this relationship got started:
Both new models will supersede the NW-ZX2 when they begin shipping in late 2016 / early 2017. For die-hard streamers though, both copper and aluminium bricks will come up wanting. Reducing electrical noise saw the benching of wifi connectivity and reducing CPU grunt below that needed by an Android OS. A bespoke operating system had to be coded from scratch which in turn gave engineers an opportunity to lower electrical noise yet further. With streaming out of the picture, the ‘ZX3’ mandate soon became the SQ optimisation as it applied to locally stored files. The WM1Z doubles down on the WM1A’s 128Gb internal storage. Both offer microSD card expansion slots.
Time spent with Tomaoki-San and Sato-San after hours revealed how much attention to detail the duo have poured into the New Walkman (NW-) project. Their latest range of players is up there with the best of them. Sony’s new wave perhaps?
Back at the MDR lab, Tsunoda-San hooked up his new baby, Sony’s MDR-Z1R flagship headphone, to the NW-WM1Z via the company’s newly-introduced 4.4mm five-pole TRRRS jack – an open standard reportedly enjoying broad local adoption right out of the gate.
With no other headphone with which to compare the MDR-1ZR and with only a few minutes firing through some Bright Eyes and Monolake, I can only confirm a most enjoyable listening experience, one that erred toward the darker side of head-fi sonics: no overly etched, unforgiving, unrelenting top end in evidence. That’s about as far away as we can get from the Sennheiser HD800.
Also on the table, a product previously unseen by yours truly: the eminently more affordable, Bluetooth-transmitting, noise cancelling MDR-1000X, which our host explains as not yet available in Japan but that I would easily find a pair in the USA or Europe. Sony are presently prioritising overseas markets.
I ask Tsunoda-San why aptX is the boy from nowhere in the Bluetooth world (and nowhere else). He suggests gently that it might be down to Qualcomm, aptX’s owner and licensee, being the only (?) company to offer a single-chip Bluetooth solution to third party hardware manufacturers.
This brings us full circle…
Back in Berlin, over a pork knuckle and beer, I begin reflecting on how this most recent Tokyo trip led to a most unexpected discovery in the MDR-1000X. I get to thinking about how these €399 headphones, with their in-built DSP, onboard DAC and bespoke amplification, could be cast as the head-fi equivalent of the Dynaudio Xeo 2 – a product that connects the mass market to audiophile thinking without losing sight of functional niceties.
I make a Bluetooth-fuelled phone call to a friend in New York and in enthusing about the MDR-1000X’s performance with music discover first hand precisely how much noise cancelling brings to the table with just voice; traffic noise seems to come from further away despite my eyes telling me otherwise.
Recalling a conversation back in Tokyo with Head-Fi.org’s Jude Mansilla, he reckons the Sony headphone’s noise cancellation to be more effective than Bose’s.
Lossless or die purists might bristle at the idea of Bluetooth. It isn’t mandatory. For those who prefer to use their own source device a la Sony NW-ZX2, a 3.5mm cable shows up in the box.
Optional too are noise cancellation and – when the battery runs dry – amplification. Mercifully, the bottom doesn’t fall out of the listening experience when the MDR-1000X are run as passives. Here’s something on which to ruminate: NW-ZX2 + MDR-1000X in passive mode doesn’t get close to the same headphones run actively (with noise cancellation off).
For everyone else, for pragmatists who find Spotify’s UX the best in the business and its lossy streams all but indiscernible from Tidal Hifi out in the street or in-flight, Sony’s elegantly implemented noise cancelling headphones will be somewhat of a revelation. Be prepared to wave Sayonara to your DAP and make better of use of the device already in your pocket: your smartphone.
Here, the MDR-1000X will see (some of) us questioning the value proposition of separate DAC/amplifier and passive transducers. From the seat of DAR’s new Berlin base, it has me wondering what Tsunoda-San and his team could do with a more generous build budget in designing a seriously high-end active (noise cancelling?) headphone.
Just as KEF intend to shift the audiophile world’s perception of active loudspeakers with the forthcoming supercharged LS50, for which a tidier all-in-one design brings the endless gear churn so beloved by audiophiles to a screeching halt, a revitalised Sony and their MDR-1000X makes the case for less being more in headphone land.
Further information: Sony