Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Sony MDR-Z7 Review: A Swing and a Miss



Below is a written version of my video review of the Sony MDR-Z7. If you like the video, check out my channel and subscribe for more reviews!

Introduction

For the past few years it has seemed like Sony was done with flagship full-sized headphones. The MDR-MA900 and MDR-Z1000 were released, but neither of them were really filled the same niche as say, the MDR-SA5000 did. Sony was in dire financial troubles, and making exotic flagships didn't seem to fit in with the new drive to return Sony to profitability. But at the end of last year, Sony released the Sony MDR-Z7, a flagship closed full sized headphone.

Now if you’ve watched my channel long enough, you’ll know that I have a soft spot for Sony gear, but I would be the first one to tell you that the company puts out a lot of hits and a lot of misses. So is the Sony MDR-Z7 one of the hits or the misses? Let's find out!



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Design / Build

You can tell from the MDR-Z7's $699 USD price tag that this is a serious product. It's not quite as expensive as some other flagship headphones like the Sennheiser HD800. In terms of closed headphone prices it’s around the same price as the Fostex TH600 or the Shure SRH1540, which positions it at the top of the middle-tier or the bottom of the top tier, depending on how you want to look at it.

But looking at the headphone by itself,you can tell that Sony considers this a top tier product, because they’ve pulled out all the stops - at least in terms of build quality.

Sony went all out with the fit and finish on this headphone. We can start with the gorgeously shaped magnesium metal earcups, which have a speckled texture and sculpted shape to them that just loves the camera. The attention to detail is fantastic: the stitching on the plush headband, the precision of the adjustment mechanism, the luxurious softness of the earpads.

I feel like you could spend hours just marvelling at the exposed drivers. Just try not to get hair in them.

One thing to note is that while the Z7 is a closed headphone, it isn't sealed. It has not one but two ports on each earcup at the top and bottom. This means that noise isolation is actually quite poor with this headphone, and I would not recommend it if external noise was a critical issue. Needless to say, this headphone is too large to be used as a portable.

The detachable cable on the Z7 is just as nice, with a secure screw-in mechanisms, subtle serrations down the length of the cable that prevent tangling, and a substantial Y-split and headphone jack.

Sony also sells some fancy high end cable for the Z7, but you know I don’t go in for that kind of faffery.

Now this amazing build quality would all be moot if the headphone felt like a tonne of bricks on the head, but I’m also very happy to report that the Z7 feels extremely good on the head as well. It’s 335g, which is on the lighter side for a headphone of this size - consider that an Audio Technica ATH-M50X weighs 285g.

The earpads are very soft and very deep, giving your ears a lot of room to breathe. Thee headband is exactly the right shape to make contact with most of the top of my skull, which means really even pressure distribution.

This headphone isn’t like wearing a cloud on your head like the Sony MDR-MA900, but it comes very close. It’s a headphone that can be worn comfortably for hours and hours, and you get the feeling that Sony tried to engineer this entire headphone for long term comfort, both in terms of physical design and sound signature.

Sound

What do I mean by that? Well, now we're get into the sound of the Z7, and I’ve gotta say that this is the part where I have some very mixed feelings.

I’ve had the Z7 for more than 3 months now, and in that time I’ve developed a sort of love hate relationship with it.

I’ll put it bluntly. The Z7 is an extremely thick sounding headphone, with a great deal of emphasis on the bass and lower-mids. In comparison, high frequency treble is somewhat recessed and rolled off.

Now that description is accurate, and it will scare off a lot of people, but it doesn’t quite capture what the Z7 is really all about.

Everything about the sound of the Z7 seems like it has been deliberately tuned for a very specific sound. The best aspects of the Z7’s sound is a grand sense of scale, a very clear and smooth tone in the mids, and a relaxing, mellow signature that can be enjoyed for hours and hours with no fatigue.

But the worst parts of the sound are the ones that will strike you on your first impression: it sounds compressed and somewhat congested sounding, and it tends to sound dull and lacking in detail and extension in the high frequencies. Honestly I think a lot of people are going to put this headphone on for 1 minute and decide on the spot that it is a mess.

Probably the most controversial part of the Z7 will be the bass. The bass is huge on the Z7, but not solid in the way that it is on something like the Fostex TH600, or even tight and crunchy like it is on a smaller portable headphone like the V-Moda M100. It’s bigger and more diffuse, more mid-bass than sub-bass, and you are either going to think it gives everything a massive, sort of resonant impact, or you are going to think it sounds artificial, uncontrolled and flabby.

Now, I’m not going to sugar coat this. I paid well under retail price for this headphone, and I can tell you that if I bought this headphone at the recommended retail price I would be sorely disappointed, because it just seems to lack the finesse and fidelity of high end closed headphones like the Fostex TH-600. I would also argue that a headphone like the V-Moda M100 actually does a lot of what the Z7 does, with more energy and control but with less scale, and at half the price.

Heck, even Sony’s own MDR-1A has more extension and detail in the mids than the MDR-Z7 and arguably will give you the technical performance of the Z7 in a smaller package.

And compared to open headphones like the AKG K712, the Z7 is a whole other ballgame. If you think the HD650 sounds veiled, you will think the Z7 sounds like it’s been stuffed into a sleeping bag.

But for some reason, there’s just something about the pure scale of the sound of the Z7 which is quite satisfying. Combined with the wearing comfort, is easy to listen to the Z7 for hours and hours on end.

It also helps that the Z7 is a relatively undemanding headphone, and doesn’t seem to require a great deal of amplification. It’s perfectly happy with my Objective 2 amplifier, and it seems you can even drive it comfortably out of portable players - though I’m not sure why you would.

I would say it works especially well with both acoustic and electronic music, and here’s some examples of tracks where I think it works well, and where it doesn’t.



The ethereal R&B track 'Lights On' by FKA Twigs is the kind of music the Z7 does brilliantly with. The Z7’s glossy mids send the artist’s atmospheric vocals floating above a pulsing, turbulent bass line. By the way, this is probably my favourite new musical discovery so far this year, and it’s well worth checking out.



Likewise, the Z7 does nicely with acoustic guitar and male vocals. 'Oblivion' from Patrick Wolf’s album Sundark+Riverlight just shines on the Z7, where the Z7’s clarity of midtone really lends this track atmosphere and dynamics.



The Z7 doesn’t do well with stringed instruments and upper harmonics. On the track 'Many Lives -> 49MP' by Final Fantasy (also known as Owen Pallett) the Z7 just sounds dull and stuffy, and the strings lack the kind of bite or texture you would expect.



On a track like Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees, the Z7 stumbles as well. The cymbals and the vocal texture and reverb are dulled due to the high frequency roll off, and as a result the whole dynamic of the track is compressed.

Comparisons

So I’m going to end this review with how I would approach the Z7. Firstly, I think the appropriate street price, given how it compares with other headphones on the market, should be around $400-$450 USD. I would still not buy this headphone without a demo, and it should be relatively easy to find a demo of this headphone at any Sony store if you have those where you live.

If you can’t find the Z7 to demo, find the MDR-1A. The MDR-1A will give you a taste of what the Z7 is like, but the MDR-1A has a heftier bass tone, more mid and treble energy, and a smaller soundstage. Who knows, you may even prefer the MDR-1A over the Z7!

If you want a full sized closed headphone that has a lot of bass, but nice mid-energy, more aggressive than the Z7, then get the V-Moda M-100. I would say on a purely technical level, it actually outperforms the Z7 in terms of detail and control. But it doesn’t have that spaciousness to the sound, and it isn’t nearly as comfortable.

Now compared to the Fostex TH600, the Z7 is interesting. If you remember, I almost bought a TH600 in Hong Kong. In the end, I didn’t, and that was because I had the Z7 back at home. This isn’t to say that the Z7 is better than the TH600, because the TH600 is an amazing headphone that I think in terms of pure technical performance, easily walks all over the Z7. It has a punchier, tighter low frequency bass tone, and it has really stellar detail and texture that the Z7 lacks.

The problem is, the treble on the TH600 is a double edged sword. It is so forward it can be a bit fatiguing. I thought if I was going to have one closed headphone at home (and I only have room for so many headphones) I should stick with the one that I could wear for hours and hours.

My last comparison is going to be out of the left field, but it makes sense if you’re the kind of person who is specifically shopping for a flagship product and you want it to be a Sony: the MDR-Z5, which is the flagship IEM sister of the Z7. I’ll tell you pretty simply: the Z5 has the sound I wish the Z7 had. They both have big, bassy, grand, laid-back and relaxing signatures, but the Z5 has better controlled bass than the Z7, and it has more high frequency detail and shimmer than the Z7. If the Z7 sounded like the Z5, but in a full sized headphone package, this review would have been a lot simpler, and a lot more positive.

So do I think the MDR-Z7 is a hit or a miss? I think at the recommended retail price, I would have to give it a miss. But I wouldn’t write it off entirely. If you were after something comfortable and laid back, with a bit of isolation, I think it would be worth a demo. Again, I think the street price you should be looking for is around $400-$450. Any more then that and you have to ask yourself: how much more of a premium are you willing to pay for excellent build quality and comfort?

So after all these caveats, I can say the Sony MDR-Z7 gets a very firm MAYBE from me.

Anyway I’m looking forward to your comments and questions, and you can check out my Youtube channel for more reviews.

Thank you again to all the people who help support the channel, and you can join the people helping out by heading on over to patreon.com/lachlanlikesathing. Thanks!