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Sony MDR-Z1R Review – £2,000 headphones (featuring Chord Dave DAC)

I tested the Sony MDR Z1R today with a variety of FLAC and WAV files either in 16 bit or 24 bit format, via the Astell and Kern AK380 over optical to the Chord DAVE.

I also hooked in a Mac Pro desktop system over USB into the Chord DAVE and it worked flawlessly.

Paul Simon – Rhythm Of The Saints (2011 Remaster) 24 bit 96kHz.

Graceland was a tough album to follow and many critics didn’t warm to the Rhythm Of The Saints album. Personally I actually liked this album better due to some of the astonishing arrangements. It didn’t help that Graceland was played to death on radio for many years. If I hear ‘You can Call me Al’ even today, I want to punch someone, or run. I sometimes wonder if Paul Simon feels the same thing.

One of my favourite Paul Simon tracks is ‘The Coast’, a complex song with acoustic guitar driving home a repeating riff which gets the feet tapping. On top of the guitar is a deep multi layered arrangement from which you can feel Simon is experiencing a spiritual reawakening. There are heavy percussive elements to the track with female singers working in an timed arrangement alongside Simon’s lead vocal.

The Sony MDR Z1R present this track in a very rich yet detailed manner – with copious bass and sub bass presence.

Compared directly against the HE 1000 (with the same base system and Kimber cable) the MDR Z1R loses a little bit of air and ambience throughout. The presentation is still remarkable mind you, I just was aware that the HE1000 was able to position the instruments a little bit better outside the head to the sides. This is likely directly related to the closed back versus open back design.

Both sets of headphones deal with mid range vocals to a very high standard and both Simon and the backing singers felt very real and shaped in a fully three dimensional manner. Other lesser headphones can tend to portray this track in a very flat way.

The Sennheiser HD800S are a remarkable headphone for their relatively modest asking price (don’t email me, I know they are expensive, but in the context of the high end market they are a bargain), although I feel they tend to highlight this album with a slightly  inflated sound stage. Still, great headphones and enjoyable throughout.

Beth Hart – Fire On The Floor – 24 bit 44.1kHz.

This is one of my favourite albums of recent years and Beth Hart’s vocals are very gritty, powerful and passionate. The track ‘Woman You’ve Been Dreaming Of’ is beautifully recorded, with Beth’s stunning vocal placed up front right beside you and crystal clear in the mix.

Her voice has a wonderful tendency to almost break just at the right time, a technique she has mastered. Her vocals send shivers down my spine, especially as most singers today try to iron out what they would class as ‘imperfections’ via recording techniques – to the point of being utterly insipid.

The Sony MDR Z1R, in a very similar fashion to the iconic R10 headphones are sweet and rich in the mid range. Beth sounds very alive and I had a sensation that if I looked around she would be sitting beside me in the room – singing just to me. It is notable that the Chord DAVE does transform this album and it gets the most from the MDR Z1R as I have heard this track before without the DAVE in the mix.

The HE1000 sound almost as rich in the mid range, but present a little more air into the mix which doesn’t quite work as well for me with some of these tracks. I liked feeling that Beth was closer to my ears, but I do feel this particular point will be very much a personal taste decision.

Neither headphone is delivering a bad experience, it is just very different. The HE 1000 extracted a little more high frequency detail, but I am not a ‘micro detail’ kind of listener so it wasn’t entirely positive for me with some of these tracks. As I explained earlier in this article my hearing is close to what the medical profession class as ‘perfect’ (for my age anyway) so I tend to favour a sound signature that is on the warmer side of neutral without an overload of micro detail.

The Sennheiser HD800S again have a tendency to present the soundstage in a much larger than life manner which lost some of the intimacy. Moving between headphones could sometimes exacerbate the problem so I tended to test and take breaks so my ears could naturally readjust.

Overall I would say the best experience with this album was with the Sony MDR-Z1R headphones mainly because of that beautiful sultry mid range, close miked experience.

Deep Purple – Machine Head – 24bit 96kHz.

A classic rock album from yesteryear. ‘Highway Star’ was presented in a very forward driving manner via the Sony MDR-1ZR headphones. Bass was powerful and there was also some emphasis on the sub bass region. These are clearly very good headphones if you enjoying listening to classic rock and pop music. I did find with the Kimber cable that the overall sound signature was erring on the warm side. Almost like listening to vinyl – never a bad thing!

Switching back to the cable bundled with the headphones actually changed the signature a little, reducing the bass, maintaining similar levels of sub bass, but enhancing detail from the higher frequencies. I felt the standard cables might work better for most people with this specific album, but it is really going to be down to the individual.

The HiFi HE1000 are a great headphone for rock and I am glad to say the latest Rev 2 have tamed a somewhat slightly exaggerated treble focus with some tracks. With the Kimber cables on the headphones, the audio signature was as close to neutral as I have heard. Plenty of bass, good sub bass and delicate, slightly rounded off treble extension.

The Sennheiser HD800S are a very versatile headphone and I liked their presentation with this album. As with most music, the HD 800s tend to place a strong emphasis on wide soundstaging and this album was no exception. I actually liked how this album sounded with the HD 800 S headphones, although the bass extension was somewhat limited when compared against the Z1R and HE 1000.

Bruce Springsteen – Greetings from Ashbury Park – 24bit 96kHz.

One of the classic Springsteen albums with a few of my favourite tracks. The 24 bit 96kHz version of ‘Growin’ Up’ is certainly enhanced over the 16 bit versions I have – which isn’t sadly always the case. The Sony MDR-Z1R delivered very clear, focused bass notes throughout the track and the intro piano repeat sounded sublime. When the band kicked in, the MDR Z1R retrieved plenty of detail without causing any excessive harshness in the upper registers. ‘The Angel’ is another memorable track from this album which gets little attention, but I always enjoyed the simple yet effective presentation with Springsteen’s voice very close to the piano.

The HiFi Man HE 1000 delivered an equally enjoyable rendition of the tracks on this album, often retrieving a little more detail than the Sony MDR Z1R … but sometimes when I didn’t really want it. Its a pretty old recording by today’s standards, but the studio was set up well for this recording – there is no doubt they used good microphones back in the 70’s – with some lush valve amplifiers.

The Sennheiser HD800S produced the least appealing experience with these tracks, pushing them almost into what I could class as an hall sized soundstage, rather than a smaller studio environment. Still, if I hadn’t just been listening to the other headphones before using the HD800s last, I would have been impressed. Your ears will adjust to a particular sound signature after a little while. The HD 800S do deliver more detail than the MDR Z1R however, if this is your preference.

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