This week, we are testing three sets of headphones, with the Sony MDR-ZX770BN (Bluetooth and noise reduction), Sony MDR-1ADAC (with integrated 32/3384 DAC & DSD) and Sony MDR-Z7 (hi-fi), some are even certified Hi Res Audio.
Let?s start with a quick reminder. Hi-Res Audio is a quality label created by Sony, which certifies compatibility with studio quality digital audio stream (24 bits / 96 kHz minimum) and wideband delivery (ranging at least from 20 Hz to 40 kHz). This label has since been adopted by other brands and an increasing number of Hi-Res Audio certified products has been appearing on the market.
It is also important to note that if Sony is a brand known for releasing a wide range of products, it is truly specialized in developing high end earphones and headphones. Since the creation of the Walkman, Sony has often released well balanced, ?easy? to listen to headphones.
Out of these three sets of headphones, the easiest to listen to might not be the one you would expect?
Sony MDR-Z7: presentation
The Sony MDR-Z7 hi-fi headphones are a sedentary model, designed to be used along with quality sources (audiophile portable player or DAC). Yet, its technical characteristics (low impedance, high sensitivity) make it possible to use it with a mobile peripheral device equipped with a low power headphone amplifier. The distinctive feature of this big set of headphones is its 2.75″ diameter transducers. By comparison, almost all of its competitors are equipped with 2″ or, very rarely, with 2.4″ transducers.
Using a large diameter driver offers several advantages. First of all, the more important emissive surface guarantees a wider sound, especially in the lower end of the sound spectrum. Moreover, such a transducer offers a higher sensitivity, meaning that less power is required from the headphone amplifier or audiophile portable player.
Typically, this Sony MDR-Z7 is designed for Astell&Kern, ColorFly, FiiO, iBasso and of course Sony audiophile portable players. Which is why we mostly tested these headphones using the Sony ZX2 as their balance suits it perfectly.
Sony MDR-Z7: Use and listening impressions
The MDR-Z7 comes with a high quality detachable cable which can be replaced with an audiophile model. Nevertheless, the listening balance is quite remarkable with this cable. The Sony MDR-Z7 is linear and neutral and does not put any emphasis on a particular frequency range. The mediums and low mediums are very detailed, which allows the headphones to extract a lot of micro-details, regardless of the source. The listening experience is also enjoyable with a Meizu Note 2 smartphone. When using the Sony NWZ-ZX1, it becomes completely addictive, and the music comes delightfully alive with the Sony NWZ-ZX2 (although its output power is limited, it is adapted to this set of headphones). The MDR-Z7 delivers better performances than its competitors in the same price range.
Its strengths: an enveloping sound stage, its bass delivery, detailed lower-medium and low impedance which facilitates its use with DACs and portable players.
Sony MDR-1ADAC: presentation
The Sony MDR-1ADAC headphones are the first model to be equipped with a USB input DAC and a Sony S-Master HX amplifier, powered by a battery which can last about 9 hours. The interest of this set of headphones is the possibility of connecting it to the USB port of a computer instead of connecting it to its headphones output, although this connection is also possible. The Sony MDR-1ADAC comes with a type A micro-USB to USB cable and a driver for Windows. Computers using Linux, Android or Mac OS are natively compatible with the headphones? integrated DAC.
The Hi-Res compatibility of the Sony MDR-1ADAC is based on the fact that the integrated DAC can handle PCM audio stream up to 24 bits / 192 kHz and DSD (up to 5.8 MHz), as well as on the 1.6″ transducers? very large bandwidth. These numbers are impressive and the response ranges from 4 Hz to 100 kHz. This set of headphones offers an impedance of 40 Ohms and its sensitivity is 102 dB for 1 mW. We had absolutely no trouble powering the MDR-1ADAC with an Audioquest DragonFly 1.2 DAC or a Meridian Prime. Nevertheless, we tested these headphones using the USB connector.
Sony MDR-1ADAC: comfort
The Sony MDR-1ADAC is a circumaural model, meaning that its ear pads are placed directly on the head, around the ears. In practice, the ears of the tester were a little compressed, which was not the case with the other headphones we tested for this review. This set of headphones is nonetheless very comfortable, the earcups and headband feel soft and both are well padded. The 300 g weight of the MDR-1ADAC is quickly forgotten.
Sony MDR-1ADAC: practical use and listening impressions
These headphones feature two micro-USB inputs, one to charge the battery using any USB port and the other one to transmit data stream. After installing the driver (for computers using Windows) and configuring it as the main audio peripheral device, we listened to our usual playlist. In DAC mode, the integrated S-Master HX amplifier can be adjusted using the small potentiometer which falls naturally under the right thumb.
The listening experience is straightforward and dynamic with an emphasis on the mediums, regardless of the resolution of the digital files. At high volume, the listening experience can be a bit tiring. Listening to the MDR-1ADAC via its mini-jack output with our usual DACs was satisfying.
Sony MDR-ZX770BN: presentation
The Sony MDR-ZX770BN headphones are equipped with a 3.0 Bluetooth receiver, an NFC microchip for contact pairing and feature an active noise reduction system. No S-Master HX amplification and no Hi-Res audio label either for these headphones and we should also add that alterations caused by the radio transmission compression’ Yet, the MDR-ZX770BN is absolutely addictive.
Let?s admit it right away, we liked this set of headphones a lot and especially when using it wirelessly. Believe it or not, the ZX770BN is not as enjoyable to listen to when plugged into the headphone output of a (very good) DAC.
The logic according to which an analog cable connection should be better than a wireless connection with a compression that affects the signal is not respected here.
The very good performances of the Sony MDR-ZX770BN are due to both its 1.6″ transducers and to its integrated stereo amplification, which is obviously supported by a DSP correcting each end of the audio spectrum.
Sony MDR-ZX770BN: operating in Bluetooth
This set of headphones is compatible with SBC, AAC and apt-X codecs. These sound compression methods based on the suppression of sounds deemed barely audible or inaudible (deteriorating compression like the MP3 format) are necessary when using Bluetooth headphones as the bandwidth offered by this technology doesn’t allow the transfer of CD quality audio stream without any compression.
Depending on the source?s (computer, smartphone, tablet or television) ability to handle one or several of these three codecs, the best of the three will be chosen for the transmission. For example, an apt-X compatible smartphone will stream music to the Sony MDR-ZZ770BN headphones using apt-X. An iPhone, iPod touch or iPad which is exclusively AAC and SBC compatible will stream in AAC. Any other device will stream in SBC.
Sony had the good idea to give the user the possibility to choose the desired transmission quality. By switching on the headphones and pressing the power button and the volume keys (+ or -) at the same time, three modes can be selected: high quality (apt-X, AAC or high rate SBC), medium quality (AAC or medium rate SBC) and basic quality (Low rate SBC). An excellent idea. If the Bluetooth connection comes to experience degradations while the apt-X mode is enabled (this mode requires an important bandwidth), interruptions become quite frequent. The user can then force the headphones to impose a less demanding transmission mode in order to avoid interruptions.
Pairing can be carried out by simple contact with an NFC source, or when switching on the headphones by pressing the button for about 7 seconds to start the discovery mode.
Sony MDR-ZX770BN: active noise-reduction
Far from being a gadget, the active noise reduction is designed to lower any noise between the transducer and the ear, which mechanically increases the signal/noise ratio and therefore improves the intelligibility of the message. Whether you are listening to music at work, while walking in the street or using public transport, the active noise reduction is a precious ally. The functioning principle is rather easy. Two microphones measure the surrounding noise, mainly low frequencies, which is then analysed by a processor that will generate the same frequencies in phase inversion using the drivers. The noise is thus cancelled.
The Sony MDR-ZX770BN noise reduction system can be activated via a switch. By pressing on the button for a few seconds, the processor will start analysing the noise and the headphones will automatically choose one of the three integrated noise reduction modes. The results speak for themselves, even in a car driving on the highway (the noise of the engine disappears).
Sony MDR-ZX770BN: practical use and listening impressions
We used the Sony MDR-ZX770BN along with a Bluetooth SBC (Meizu Note 2 smartphone), a Bluetooth AAC (iPod touch) and a Bluetooth apt-X source (USB CSR dongle with windows). In high quality mode, we were very surprised by the capacities of the SBC codec (about 350 Kbits /sec), especially by the strength of the stereo sound and dynamics..
The sound quality only suffers when the Bluetooth connection gets weaker and when the transfer rate is automatically decreased as interference in the higher end of the sound spectrum alters the listening experience. Most of the time, listening to music in SBC is very enjoyable.
In AAC, tonal balance sheds a little of its brilliance and finds a real harmony. We wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Sony has optimised this set of headphones for Apple devices, while keeping it Bluetooth AAC compatible.
In apt-X mode, balance is affected by a slight brilliance yet benefits from an enjoyable amount of micro details and boasts a better layout of sound levels.
Regardless of the Bluetooth codec used, these headphones deliver an incredibly clear sound, physical yet delicate. The lower range is strong and goes very low, probably due to the bass-reflex ports of the ear cups (Sony Bass Control technology). The integrated amplifier is very rigorous and creates a wide and dense sound stage.
The difference between the wireless and cable connection is outstanding, the amplification of this set of headphones always offers a fine and liberated sound. The listening experience doesn’t suffer any hiccups, at both low and high sound level. When testing the cable connection, we used the Sony ZX-1 audiophile portable player and the Meridian Prime, both really good devices.
The Sony MDR-ZX770BN allows you to listen to literally anything as long as you don’t mind a little zeal. Some recordings, which have a tendency to push more in the treble, sometimes sound artificial. On the other hand, good recordings, especially for jazz and classical music, are an absolute joy to listen to (at least this is the tester?s opinion). Nina Simone, Chet Baker, Yves Montand (Olympia 1981, great energy), Maria Callas, Björk? everything sounds good. Films and TV shows benefit from a flattering sound signature, the little bit of extra treble brings even more clarity to the sound. Note that it is important to use a software capable of taking the Bluetooth microchip encoding time into account in order to respect the audio-video synchronisation.
Sony MDR-ZX770BN: what we liked
– Comfortable and easy to use (the ears can get a little sweaty if used at the height of summer)
– The integrated amplifier is surprisingly musical: everything sounds good!
– Very convincing listening experience in Bluetooth SBC
– Efficient and enjoyable active noise reduction
– Battery life of about 10 hours (with both BT and NC enabled) and quick charging with a USB 1 A port
– The price of this set of headphones in regards of its performances
Sony MDR-ZX770BN: what we would have liked
– Better performances from the microphones during phone calls
Sony MDR-ZX770BN: Conclusion
A surprising set of headphones with a warm, soft and very detailed sound. Recommended for those who are still unsure about cutting the cord.