Sony has a long and prestigious history in the portable headphone market. Since the simple, cheap on-ear headphones bundled with its cassette Walkman players back in the 1980s, the company has had some brilliant (and award-winning) designs at various price points. But they've also had some disappointing releases. The MDR-10R kicks some goals, and misses others.
Sony has been in the headphone game for a long time. Its MDR-7506 headphones are the gold standard for affordable, balanced studio mastering, and we loved the extremely effective noise cancelling of the MDR-NC500D. The Japanese technology luminaries at Sony know how to make a pair of headphones that sounds good, and a pair of headphones that is technologically advanced.
The MDR-10R isn't especially high-tech, with no Bluetooth or noise cancelling or other fancy features -- you can't expect everything for $200 -- so we were expecting decent things from these headphones in terms of outright sound quality.
We came away slightly disappointed. Overall audio clarity is somewhat missing from the MDR-10R, and it's not because of a lack of treble, but rather a preponderance of bass. The headphones' low-end response is big and booming, with the power for huge bass kicks.
Listen to the intro of Bonobo's Days To Come or the middle section of Hugh Laurie's The St. Louis Blues and you'll hear sibiliant cymbal crashes and guitar twangs that are overshadowed by double bass and kick drums. On a similar headphone like Audio-Technica's closed ATH-ES700 or open ATH-AD700 (in a similar price range, and the ES700 is functionally very similar) there's slightly more detail in the high notes and a more restrained, controlled lower bass area.
Listen to the first ten seconds of Haim's Falling, and the MDR-10R's primary shortcoming becomes clear -- if you've got the volume set appropriately for the singers' vocals to be at a comfortable level, bass is disproportionately loud, sitting on the bleeding edge of distortion. It's possible to push the bass to distortion at higher volumes -- when we tried full power on the new HTC One, there was some definite breakup.
To its credit, Sony has imbued the MDR-10R with reasonably detailed (if a little expansive) mid-range, and plenty of treble detail. It's just that most treble notes are relatively quiet compared to bass beats, so it sounds like the MDR-10R is missing out on some of the sharpness and clarity of competitors. We tested the 10R back-to-back with the (admittedly more expensive) first-generation MDR-1R, and there's an obvious difference in the volume of lower bass being projected into your eardrums; mid-range and treble are similar, which is a win for the 10R, but bass on the cheaper headphone is less controlled and louder.
Of course, if you're a big fan of electronic or house music, Sony's MDR-10R might just be the perfect headphone for you. The over-amped bass makes for some huge, booming beats on Skrillex's Rock 'n' Roll -- a track where the tweaked vocals and synthed instruments are treble-biased enough to counteract the strong low end. Anything from the electronic ouevre sounds great on the MDR-10R; Aphex Twin's Flim has smooth bass alongside quick, subtle kicks and sharp synth drum and the end result sounds musical, detailed and just right on these over-the-ear cans.
What these headphones are is incredibly durable. In the short time that we've used the MDR-10R, we've been consistently impressed with their build. The MDR-10R is almost entirely constructed of plastic, apart from the headband, which is aluminium. If you're worried about these headphones lasting for a long time, don't be -- the plastic is thick, strong, and doesn't suffer from even a hint of unwanted creaking or crackling. The MDR-10Rs are a little stiff straight out of the box, but within a couple of days of regular wear and use loosen up into a smooth and flexible headset.
The detachable headphone cable -- there are actually two bundled with the MDR-10R, one with and one without an in-line microphone and multipurpose call answering button -- is slightly thicker than a standard 3.5mm cord, so there's no annoying microphonics from the cable rubbing against your shirt or coat. One cable end is L-shaped, although it's no more compact than a regular plug. Sony also includes a spacious soft flat-case with the headphones, so you'll always have storage for them and a cable as necessary. The cable plugs into a 3.5mm jack in the base of the left earcup; it's the only connector or button on the headphones, since there's no powered noise cancelling or Bluetooth to switch on or off.
Ambient noise cancellation -- through the pressing of the earcups against your skull -- is generally good. The MDR-10R is an over-the-ear, closed-back model, with a good seal from the leatherette earcups that keeps out a lot of background interference. In a particularly loud office, or commuting or for regular air travel, we'd almost always stump up the extra cash for a pair of powered noise cancelling 'phones, but for the casual music listener in a quiet to moderate environment Sony's MDR-10R is perfectly capable.
The Sony MDR-10R retails for $199.95 on Sony's website, but we've seen a pair for as cheap as $149.95 online. The lower street price makes these headphones much more attractive, obviously, but even at the standard price they're a good choice if you're an EDM fan. If you listen to a more diverse range of music, or if more gentle audio is your thing, we'd definitely recommend you give the MDR-10R a serious listen before buying. [Sony]