Many years ago, I visited the late loudspeaker designer John Dunlavy at his factory in Colorado Springs. One of the A/B tests we did in his listening room was to compare the spectral balance of his big 650-pound SC-VI loudspeakers with a pair of Sony 7506 headphones. I was struck by a feeling of audiophile déjà vu when I read that the new MDR-Z1R headphones had been compared by senior mastering engineer Mark Wilder to a pair of Duntech loudspeakers as a spectral reference, as these were also designed by John Dunlavy.
I found the MDR-Z1R to be the best-sounding all-around headphones I’ve heard. What do I mean by “all-around?” By this I refer to the fact that unlike most earphones which are either open and need a quiet environment or suffer some sonic degradation because they are a sealed design with interior reflections and non-linear physical resistance to driver motion, the MDR-Z1R is a “unicorn” that can be used in far more situations. Its design combines the best aspects of an open ’phone with enough to be used in environments where an open headphone could not be appreciated, such as your local public library or open floorplan office.
Looking at my listening notes the words “no limitations” occur in numerous sessions. Try as I may, I was hard-pressed to hear any sonic shortcomings that I could lay at the feet of the MDR-Z1R. Whether I was listening to a commercially available recording or my own live concert recordings, the MDR-Z1R provided a clear window into the event. My listening time through the MDR-Z1R was split between the Sony NW-WM1Z and the Mytek Brooklyn DAC/Pre, both of which proved to be synergistic pairings.
Although they image in a different spatial environment than loudspeakers, headphones do create a soundstage. The MDR-Z1R’s soundstage was not only exceedingly three-dimensional, but also quite large. It wasn’t so much that the image was big, but the soundstage boundaries seemed to have far more extension than with most headphones. Also, within the soundstage each instrument had remarkably well-defined dimensions.
On my own recordings, I was more aware of how the sound moved through the hall. The differences between the direct and reflected sound was more apparent than with any closed-back headphone I’ve used, due in part to the lack of interior reflections in the MDR-Z1R’s enclosure. Image specificity was scary at times. Listening to Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings” via Tidal I was aware of how the easy it was to hear each element within the dense mélange of sound—even to the point of hearing the phase-shift added to the acoustic piano at the beginning of the track.
In their informational materials Sony mentions using the Duntech loudspeakers as a spectral reference. And like the Duntechs, the MDR-Z1R’s spectral balance is very much in the “straightno-chaser” school that does not try to editorialize the harmonic spectrum. The bass, while extended, does not have any extra midbass bloom or romance. But, of course, your choice of amplifier will affect this balance, bigly (I couldn’t resist). With the all-tube, single-ended, Dennis Had-designed Dragon Inspire IHA-1, the MDR-Z1R gained some additional lower midrange richness and a bigger, but slightly less controlled low bass.
Bass extension through the MDR-Z1R was as good as I’ve heard from any headphone. On bass-heavy tracks such as DJ Snake’s “Too Damn Low,” the MDR-Z1R delineated the different pitches of the synth drums exceedingly well. Also, that puff of air that accompanies lower frequencies came through with remarkable impact. On Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings” via Tidal, the bottom end seemed to have no dynamic restrictions. Even on cuts that were not bass-intensive, such as Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the MDR-Z1R had a level of definition, detail, and control that would please anyone who favors that low-down sound.
If you have a couple of songs on which you’ve never quite been able to make out all the lyrics, listen to them through the MDR-Z1R. I guarantee that you will never confuse “Kiss the sky” with “Kiss this guy” again. Modern stuff like Beyoncé’s “Sorry” had a lot of “bad words” buried in the mix that I didn’t know were there until I listened to the track through the MDR-Z1R.