Sony MDR-Z1R Sealed Over-Ear Headphones

Twenty five years ago when I started HeadRoom and built the first commercially available portable headphone amplifier I said to myself, "The day Sony decides to enter the fray with a portable headphone amp my mission will be complete." That happened a few years ago and I've found it quite entertaining to watch this humungous consumer electronics company try to snuggle into our tiny headphone enthusiast niche.

Sure, they've been at it for quite a while: First in 1989 with the legendary $2500 MDR-R10, then in 2004 with the $3300 Qualia—an underperformerto me—but I didn't feel they were starting to really "getting it" until they introduced the PHA-1 portable headphone amplifier in 2012 and started showing up at headphone shows. It's a tricky thing to satisfying our kind, and personally, I don't think they've managed to bottle the magic of the original MDR-R10 since. Now they've taken another run at it with the similar looking, but vastly different MDR-Z1R. Let's have a listen.

Sony_MDRZ1R_Photo_Z1RvsR10

The 1989 MDR-R10 (left) and new MDR-Z1R (right).

Sony MDR-Z1R ($2,299)
The Sony MDR-Z1R is touted as an around-the-ear, sealed headphone, but measurements show it's better thought of as a semi-seal can. The build quality and look simply reek of luxury. This is a beautiful headphone.

The main internal headband arch is beta titanium; an alloy often used in orthodontics (braces for teeth) and glasses frames due to its superior strength and elasticity. The headband is indeed very flexible with just the right amount of caliper pressure. Sony claims it can be significantly bent and will still return to its original shape.

The headband exterior is leather covered. The ample headband cushion is covered with a very flexible material and cushions nicely...but it doesn't smell like leather, and seems to me to be a nice grade of protein leather. I really don't have a problem with this as its flexibility may give it superior performance in the area.

Aluminum headband arms extend from the ends of the headband for adjustment, and are detented to click into place. The adjustment is smooth, easy, and secure when set. The inward side of the headband arms are laser etched with markings to show how far the headband is extended.

An aluminum "hanger" (as Sony calls it) is attached to the arm ends and swivels to allow forward and back movement; the ear capsules attach to the hanger fore and aft to provide up/down tilt. A 3.5mm TRS jack is integrated into the rear end of the hanger. The jacks are threaded on the outside to permit a positive lock with the cable. While you'll probably not find many after-market cables with these threads, the jack is designed in such a way that it will accept a standard 3.5mm plug.

Earpads are leather over memory foam; ear openings are ear shaped and fairly large at 48mm x 62mm. The deep pads and angled driver allow generous room for the ears without touching the driver grill. The earpads have an unusual but very effective shape that allows them to mate nicely with the shape of your head/neck under your ear. They can be removed with a counter-clockwise twist, but I have not been able to find a part number for replacement pads.

At 385gr. the MDR-Z1R is a fairly light headphone for its size. Sony shows their ergo-chops with this one...the MDR-Z1R is extraordinarily comfortable.

Two cables with silver coated oxygen free copper conductors and gold plated connectors come with the MDR-Z1R: a 3 meter (9.8') cable terminated with a straight 3.5mm TRS plug with 1/4" adapter, and a 1.2 meter (3.9') cable terminated with Sony's new Pentacon 4.4mm TRRRS balanced connector in a 90 degree configuration. Both are terminated at the headphone ends with 3.5mm TRS plug with threaded housing to mate with the headphone's jacks.

It seems odd to me that balanced cable is the shorter of the two, I would have expected it to be the longer one for home use and the 3.5mm to be short for portable applications. Perhaps they were expecting folks to use the balanced cable with the new Sony NW-WM1Z Walkman, which has a Pentaconn jack.

Aftermarket cables are available from a number of sources, noteworthy among them is the Kimber Kable Axios model developed in collaboration with Sony. For all you DIY cable builders out there, Pentaconn connectors (as well as finished cables) are available from Moon Audio. This SBAF post and following gives some info on working with the new connector.

Lastly, a very nice leather bound, satin lined, presentation case with latching closure is included with purchase. Unfortunately, no travel pouch comes with the product.

And now, for the two big things...

The 70 mm Driver
Sony_MDRZ1R_Photo_Driver

Holy guacamole! That driver is big!

At the center of the driver is a 30 micron thick magnesium dome, which is surrounded by a aluminized liquid crystal polymer (LCP) flexure fixed at its edge. Behind the edge of the dome is the 64 Ohm copper clad aluminum voice coil suspended within a two-piece neodymium magnet with pole piece. Sony claims the driver will respond to 120-kHz.

Sony_MDRZ1R_Photo_DriverExploded

A few comments here: I really have a hard time believing the LCP around the dome, aluminized or not, will be rigid enough to continue to deliver pistoning movement in the audible range, much less to 120kHz. I'd love to see the Klippel scan of that.

For those of you not familiar with this concept, here's a few illustrations. These are simplified images of a circular film like you would have on a drum head, but the concept with headphone diaphragms is the same.

Here is the normal mode of vibration.
Sony_MDRZ1R_GIF_Mode0

Here's the first annular mode.
Sony_MDRZ1R_GIF_ModeA1

And the second annular mode.
Sony_MDRZ1R_GIF_ModeA2

There are also rocking modes.
Sony_MDRZ1R_GIF_ModeR1
Sony_MDRZ1R_GIF_ModeR2

This behaviour can get very complex at high frequencies.
Sony_MDRZ1R_GIF_Mode32

Modal "break-up," as it is often called, is quite common in plastic film diaphragms and can sometimes be seen as little wiggles in measured impedance. The behaviour can be reduced by making the diaphragm stiffer with metallization as Sony has done, or by making the diaphragm of a different material, which Sony has also done here with the magnesium dome. Other approaches include having a dome/diaphragm so stiff that it needs a surround at the very edge just like a regular speaker, as in Focal's metal domes, or fiber domes like AudioQuest and Denon's old DX000 lines.

My point here is that Z1R driver has a lot of surface area in that LCP edge, which provides opportunity for these modes to arrise.

A rather casual and possibly worthless comment is that the magnet and voice coil seem a bit small to me. But hey, that's something only a bunch of talk with the engineers could sort out.

In front of the driver is a "Fibonacci-patterned Grill." Sony's product information manual says:

The grill of the driver unit applies the pattern of the curve referred to in the Fibonacci sequence that makes its opening equalize (emphasis mine). Also, using the high rigidity material to thin the crosspiece as much as possible, the propagation of air is not inhibited and smooth ultra-high-frequency characteristics are made.

I'm not sure what that means exactly, but George Cardas would approve.

Resonance-Free Housing
Sony_MDRZ1R_Photo_CupExploded

MDR-Z1R housing exploded with housing frame at left, acoustic filter at center, and housing protector at right.

The sumptuous curved housing delivers more then just good looks, it's designed to reduce resonances behind the driver. The housing frame establishes the shape of the housing; the housing protector is a contoured stainless steel wire mesh coated with a chromium compound, which Sony claims to be highly resistant to scratches or marking; the acoustic filter is the magic bit.

I prefer the term "acoustic resistor" as it's often used to describe aperiodic vents. Aperiodic vents are sometimes used in small speaker enclosures to reduce the "pressure effect" at low frequencies without introducing resonances as simple ports do—hense the term "aperiodic." In the MDR-Z1R this resistor is made of long-fiber Canadian softwood pulp in the traditional Japanese Washi paper style.

All well and good; I buy it in principle. But it's the shape of the housing that got me to thinking. I see it as a way to rid the housing of parallel surfaces that produce resonance by dispersing sound from the back of the driver and aiming it away from a return trip reflection. So I made a little drawing.

Sony_MDRZ1R_Photo_RayTrace

Because the driver is so large I assumed a planar wavefront and drew a ray trace diagram. As you can see, the complex curve does manage to point reflections away from the driver. I have no idea how accurate my assumption is, but it seems to make sense.

Let's have a listen...

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COMMENTS
Chiumeister's picture

Sad you did not like Z1R, that's too bad.
moving onwards, please review the New Stax SRM-T8000 Hybrid Reference Energiser!

dumbasstyll's picture

HYPOCRITE

Maybe's picture

"When I'd rather listen to the Audio Technica ATH-M50x we've got problems."

I think that's a good TL;DR.

It seems to me that Sony is too hung up on making everything look beautiful and impressing with big numbers in their marketing.

Just looking at that horrid impulse-response and you can see why going 70mm is a bad idea.
The driver actually looks really nice, it's just wayyy too big. That peak at 10kHz seems to be the dome breaking up?
I wish they would have stuck with the 50mm size that worked so well in the R10/CD3000 and just refined it.

The acoustic resistor in the back is a cool idea actually. Since acoustic impedance is frequency dependent, high frequencies can pass through while lower frequencies don't.
This leads to an effective dampening of the resonant frequency while maintaining a relatively resonant-free treble.
Beyerdynamic has been doing this for decades, not sure why Sony is making such a big fuss about it.

The thing is, Sony knows how to make good headphones. They still have capable engineers. Thinking about it just makes it more frustrating.

I'm sure people are going to have fun with the Z1R though. It has a unique tuning which some may find attractive. Pretty sure the ringing is gonna give it a nice "room-DSP"-esque effect. And the ergonomics/design are insane, Sony certainly knows how to impress here.

Tyll, you should really look out for that MySphere thing.
It's engineering-porn through and through.
Heinz Renner has been posting some measurements on head-fi.
The impulse response is great, makes the Utopia look bad.

metal571's picture

It's always reassuring when you aren't afraid to nitpick on a headphone this expensive. It sure measures poorly in terms of tonal balance for being so expensive. Thanks for the fair assessment.

--------------'s picture

How can you be disappointed? Do you not look at measurements from other sources?
It should come as no surprise these headphones sound bad.

raulromanjr's picture

A lot of broken hearts tonight all over headfi. I love the way my Z7 phones sound so I was curious if the ZR1 has a similar tuning. Now I will say that the ATH-50 comment had to be an exaggeration, Right?

MattTCG's picture

It seems to me that Sony could EASILY recreate a similar sound to the r10. They choose not to. They are first a foremost in the business of making money. I'm relatively certain that their marketing probes said, "a V shaped signature will sell much better than an r10 signature." Just my guess. I listened to this headphone for 15 minutes and decided that it sucked.

Jazz Casual's picture

My listening impressions are similar to yours Tyll. I suspect that I enjoyed the headphone experience that it offered overall more than you did tho. It certainly is a beautiful headphone and supremely comfortable.

Now that you've dispensed with the MDR-Z1R, is there any chance of you doing the same with the PS2000e? ;) Would you be willing to measure one at least?

GNagus's picture

For $2700 it will NOT disappoint you.

Rowethren's picture

Just because Tyll doesn't like it doesn't mean the whole world has to not like it as well. Everyone is entitled to their opinion... I personally love my Z1Rs. Like I said on the Head-fi thread the world would be a boring place if we all liked the same thing ;)

acbaines's picture

Hello Members,

I offer this opinion with humility.

Listen to your headphone purchase choices with your own music on your own source device instead of following the advice of a reviewer. Your ears listening to your music is what counts.

I own a pair of Sony MDR-Z1R headphones and I could't disagree more with Tyll's review. He is entitled to his opinion and also his buying choices. Have you ever enjoyed a movie even though all the professional critics said it was a disaster?

There is a level of excellence and enjoyment with these headphones that I didn't achieve with My Stax SR-009's, SR-007 MK1's, Sennheiser HD 800's, or Oppo PM 1's regardless of the source.

I am driving the Sony's with the Ibasso DX200 through the 2.5mm balanced output. I have the Astell & Kern 75 Album 24/192 Bluenote Collection loaded up on a micro SD card and the sound is outstanding!

Make your own choices,
Anthony

Jazz Casual's picture

I think that goes without saying.

24bitbob's picture

... there's no chance it was a defective unit ;-)

MRC01's picture

It scares me to see these recent super expensive headphones having such poor performance.
Has headphone audio reached the point where excellent measured performance is so commoditized that the expensive stuff instead differentiates itself with style, euphonic distortion and the price tag?
Perhaps it's a sign of maturity -- headphone audio has emerged from the closet to become a 1st class citizen of the over-hyped, over-priced, under-engineered world of "high end audio".

Shike's picture

I've come to this conclusion more often than not. Some companies have an idea of what their "house sound" or "reference" is without having a true objective on it being accurate. Back with the old AKG lines I found the lower models sounded more natural than the higher end. Many preferred the HD600 to the HD650 - let alone the HD700. The HD800 at least felt like a genuine attempt at accurate TOTL. Going up the Grado chain the significant tuning difference in the older GS1000. Denon's newer lines have exaggerated certain characteristics on the higher-end, same with Fostex. Sometimes this drives people back down the product lines, and I think it happens more than expected.

At this point if you want a good headphone that isn't trying to impose its own sound it seems like you're better off staying away from TOTL. They appear desperate to differentiate themselves more than creating a truly accurate reference product. If you like a house sound then by all means indulge.

maelob's picture

Interesting how some people love them and others no so much, I bought them (used for 1600) after reading the reviews of Stereophile, What Hifi, Steve Guttenberg, and others. I briefly compared it to the Aeon and I preferred the Z1R, nooooo lol oh well. But to be honest I see a trend where Tyll is very tough on closed headphones the Ether C flow barely made it in the wall of fame. I don't think he is a big fan of expensive closed headphones.

coastman25's picture

Hi Tyll
I seem to recall that some time ago, possibly over a year or more by now, you made an appeal to Inner Fidelity readers/account holders to provide you with some affordable open backed headphones options for you to review as there was a large gap in your recommendations within a certain price range.
As I recall you received many replies offering suitable candidates which you generously replied to.
However what appears to have happened in the meantime is a complete obsession which headphones costing mega bucks and well out of the range of most hifi and headphone enthusiasts.
Any chance of you getting back to that reality? It would, I am sure be most appreciated.
Regards
Chris

thefitz's picture

Why here?

coastman25's picture

Where else?

Beagle's picture

""The Emperor's New Clothes" was a fairy tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that they don't see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as "unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent". Finally, a young child cries out, "But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

When enough overpriced, underperforming headphones get cut down to size, maybe we will see more good sounding ones at reasonable prices. They lost me after the $2000 line was crossed (the TOTL Stax notwithstanding).
(Caveat: this is IMHO and it all comes down to taste and preference)

thefitz's picture

That 300Hz square wave is in the same realm as the Ultrasone Edition 10 as far as bad square waves go. Arguably, I find the square wave to be more useful than the FR when looking to see if I like a headphone or not. For example, the HD700 FR graph doesn't look too offensive but the 300Hz square wave shows that it's an ice pick to the ear.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
T1, Ultrasones, K812, the list goes on and on.
sarin's picture

What makes it more desire to have overshoot rather than well damped 300Hz square wave? For example, the utopia overshoot is double its amplitude at leading edge, with nice ripple compared to Z1R while having sawtooth ripple but with well damped, no overshoot?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
The overshoot essentially represents the 3.5kHz concha peak in the raw FR measurements in the time domain.
Luigi's picture

When i first listened to these in Fukuoka Sony shop i was horribly impressed from the rumbling bass ang the bloated voices it produces even from a dedicated amp. When i posted my experience in Facebook a guy attack me. Now that guy doesn't attack you... strange things.

absolutperception's picture

Who should be trusted?
Just read the glowing review of the Sony MDR -Z1R by Herbert Reichert in the recent June Stereophile.

Reichert: " Their sound has unique purity. naturalness and beauty..... rival Audeze, Focal and HiFiMan. That makes them already one of the greats".

And What HiFi enthuses : The finest closed back headphones we have heard..... Paired with fine electronics thy shine...
Maybe T H should test another specimen of these headphones?

AJ's picture

Thanks for the review as always, although surprised with the assessment of sound. I have had these headphone for 2 months, used them a lot and really like them. I settled on them after looking for a good closed back headphone for a long time and the Meze 99 were my previous closed back use phones. The options are many in open back designs but for closed back phones, choice is very limited for reasons this and other sites cover extensively. My other frequently used sets are the Stax L700 at home, Roxanne & Shure 846 on the go. I have and have had other headphones as well from Sennheiser, Audeze, HiFiMan, AKG etc. Because CB designs are also for on-the-go use, they need to be rugged and light apart from sounding great, I felt the Sony's achieve this balance well.

I do see with some recordings the sound falls apart, but most of the time the combination of the soundstage and clarity from these headphones is incredible. They are warm (which works for me given my selection of other phones) and a little "hi-fi" like in signature which doesn't seem to bother me. I did try the Ether line up including the Flow which was very good but I preferred the Sony. The Aeons were great value but did not have the soundstage of the Sony. I was sorely disappointed by the LCD XC which I had thought would be the 'one" when they came out but they didn't work for me.

Being a long time visitor to the site, I very much appreciate the reviews, the insights and the community but ultimately we must follow our ears :-) Mine lead me to the Z1Rs. I hope there will be better closed back headphones than these in the future, but for now I haven't found them.

Beagle's picture

...it serves as sort of request for Sony to 'reissue" the R10. I mean hell, there's a built-in demand, it's already been designed, no R&D necessary. Just make it again. And put it our for $1500 and sell a truckload of them in a week.

Old Pa's picture

Your opinion seems to differ from Jude and me. Have you tried them with the optional MUC-B20BL1 Balance 6.56 ft Y-type Cable so that they can be driven by the PHA-3 balanced portable amp? This is what I've been enjoying recently.

isquirrel's picture

I have owned these for 3 months now and find them easy to listen to, yes they are on the warm side and the bass is a bit too pronounced. I run them fully balanced with DHC Prion4S cable which made an enormous difference over the stock cables. I also noticed they needed a good 250-300 hours of burn in after which the sound champed markedly for the better. With Focal and Audeze producing variances it wouldn't hurt to request another review pair.

Thank you for the technical drawings and explanations.