Sometimes a piece of technology comes along that just hits all its marks perfectly. Excellent and thoughtful design, high quality components and some smartly integrated features combine to make something that just feels special. Sony's updated MDR-1RBT Mk2 headphones are part of the company's growing stable of High Resolution Audio devices, and they're very nearly the cream of the crop.
What Is It?
- Headphone Type: Over-The-Ear
- Bluetooth: Yes (3.0)
- Noise Cancelling: No
- Playback Controls: Yes
- Battery Life (claimed): 30 hours
- Charging: microUSB (cable included)
The $399.95 Sony MDR-1RBT Mk2 is a relatively minor update to the now-discontinued MDR-1RBT, a pair of headphones that I've liked since I first tried on a pair. They still look the same -- identical, in fact, to my untrained eye -- but it's the upgrades inside that count.
The Mark 2 model updates the headphones' 40mm earcup speakers to a High Resolution Audio compatible driver, improves the fit and finish of the leatherette earcups, tweaks a few hardware points, and adds a few finer touches to the integrated play/pause/skip hardware for Android and iOS devices over Bluetooth.
Straight out of the box, the MDR-1RBT Mk2 headphones are just gorgeous to look at. There's a single anodised metallic red accent running around the circumference of each earcup, but otherwise the headphones are a mix of matte-finish black plastic, shadow chrome and plush super-soft leatherette. The flexible, telescoping headband is aluminium, and the leatherette-wrapped earpads are a soft foam that conforms smoothly against the wearer's head and ears.
Each earcup of the MDR-1RBT Mk2 has a hinge that can fold 90 degrees laterally, so the entire headphone assembly can be laid flat with the ears facing downwards. There's around 45 degrees of longitudinal movement in the hinges directly attached to the earcups, so the headphones accommodate different head shapes and styles of wear.
There's no way to collapse the headphones further than the flat-folded, headband-retracted mode, though, so the MDR-1RBT Mk2 is bulkier to carry onto a plane than something like the Bose Freestyle or Beats Studio Wireless.
The MDR-1RBT Mk2 is the second of three models in the MDR-1 line-up for Sony, and it is improved from the more basic MDR-1R Mk2 in having Bluetooth 3.0 and NFC built in, with an integrated microphone that means you can take a call or record audio through your Bluetooth-connected smartphone. If you have an Android phone with NFC, connecting the MDR-1RBT Mk2 couldn't be simpler -- wave your phone (I used the LG G3, amongst others) over the NFC tag on the right earcup and a few seconds later you're ready to listen to music. Playback controls on the same ear let you skip, pause or play tracks on any Bluetooth device.
What Is It Good At?
The sound quality of the MDR-1RBT Mk2 is so worth its $400 price tag. To start with, there is a huge amount of audible detail across the entire frequency range -- these are the kind of headphones you wear and say "oh, I didn't realise that sound was there in that song." Treble is sweet and rich and rolls off nicely so there's no audible harshness or excess sibilance at louder volume levels, and mid-range is well weighted for guitar and male vocals. Bass is surprisingly strong but doesn't overpower other frequencies, and it extends low enough to make electronic tracks sound impressively punchy. The general tone of these headphones is that they are balanced enough to not favour any one note too much, but they don't suck the fun out of listening to music at the same time.
When you're listening via Bluetooth, the high quality experience continues. Upper treble and lower bass are slightly boosted courtesy of the headphones' internal digital amplifier at work, and there is the slightest hint of ground-floor hiss, but queue up a few of your favourite audio tracks and you'll forget all about that. Listening to music on these headphones at anything from minimum to maximum volume is a joy, free of distortion and full of detail with just the right hint of musicality and oomph. If you don't have any lossless audio files, Spotify's Extreme Quality download setting using 320Kbps Ogg Vorbis is pretty damn good.
If you want to tweak the wireless sound quality of the MDR-1RBT Mk2, you can switch between apt-X high quality, regular high quality and standard Bluetooth, which offers a more stable connection and longer range, by holding down the power button while pressing either the Volume Up or Volume Down buttons to move up or down in quality modes. I kept the MDR-1RBT Mk2 in the apt-X mode for the vast majority of my listening, since the LG G3 supports that codec.
Battery life while you're streaming Bluetooth music to the MDR-1RBT Mk2 is something that really stood out to me in my testing. Sony claims 30 hours of playback time with these headphones -- not having noise cancelling means double the powered-on life of models with that circuitry -- and I easily reached and eclipsed that number with moderate volume listening. I gave up counting after around four 8-hour work days of Bluetooth music playback (that's 32 hours), but I'd peg the life at around 35 hours in my testing. This is incredible endurance from a pair of Bluetooth headphones with the sound quality of the MDR-1RBT Mk2.
The accessories bundled with the MDR-1RBT Mk2 aren't extensive -- there's no double adaptor or airline adaptor, for example -- but they are extremely well constructed and ooze style. The soft leather-sided carry case, with an internal pocket for the included, improved wired headphone cable (it's now thicker and exhibits less microphonics) and the bundled microUSB to USB charging cable, is the best and most practical everyday headphone carry case that I have encountered. I love it. I want more than one for reasons I can't quite explain.
What Is It Not Good At?
Not having noise cancelling, the Sony MDR-1RBT Mk2 is not the perfect traveller's headphone, in my opinion. I have five international flights to catch in the next fortnight, and while I will be bringing the MDR-1RBT Mk2 along for the journey with me, I'll also be bringing a pair of Bose QuietComfort 20i noise cancelling earphones. The MDR-1RBT Mk2 is great, and has decent passive isolation, but even at maximum volume can be overpowered by loud ambient noises.
With one out of the three phones that I tested the MDR-1RBT Mk2's NFC tag with -- the LG G3, the Samsung Galaxy S5, and the Note 3 -- the Note 3 didn't recognise the headphones' NFC tag and wouldn't connect automatically to Bluetooth. I was able to connect manually by setting the headphones to pairing mode and searching manually, and audio and calls worked as per normal, but as usual I'd recommend you try before you buy if possible to ensure your smartphone works seamlessly with the MDR-1RBT Mk2 without any little quirks.
And, of course, the MDR-1RBT Mk2's price tag is a consideration that needs to be taken into account when you're thinking of buying. At $399.95, they're really quite expensive for a pair of everyday Bluetooth headphones and compete with serious wired audiophile headphones that could well offer superior sound, if not quite the same all-round package. Any pair of headphones is a compromise, and the MDR-1RBT Mk2's compromise sits nicely with my lifestyle and needs.
Should You Buy It?
Sony's headphones have played second fiddle to more prestigious brands like Sennheiser, Audio Technica and Bose for years and years, but the continued quality of the current MDR line-up and the MDR-1RBT Mk2 in particular is brilliant. The MDR-1RBT Mk2 blows away other brands' top headphones for wired, critical listening, but adds the cables-free simplicity of Bluetooth and the versatility of NFC and a capacious internal rechargeable battery.
Everything is taken care of perfectly with the MDR-1RBT Mk2, from the out-of-the-box experience to the quality of the cables to the soft carry case. The headphones themselves are so comfortable and so well constructed that I'm confident they'll outlast my other long-term favourite headphones, Audio Technica's ATH-ANC9, as long as the battery doesn't degrade over time. Only the best materials, the best audio drivers, the best equaliser tuning -- the MDR-1RBT Mk2 only misses the mark on a single point that I can make note of, and that's the relative lack of portability compared to competitors like the Beats Studio Wireless, since Sony's 'phones don't collapse inwards to save space.
In the same way that I liked the MDR-10R, the MDR-1RBT Mk2 is just a well rounded, high quality, generally impressive pair of headphones. They're relatively expensive at a $399.95 RRP, and you'll have to shell out more if you want noise cancelling as well ($499.95 for the MDR-1RNC Mk2), but you get what you pay for. These are headphones that, like the MDR-V6 they mimic, should stand the test of time.