IFA 2014: Listening To Sony's $800 MDR-Z7 Headphones

Do you like big sound? Do you like giant headphones? Do you have a couple of thousand dollars to spare on the best home audio componentry that money can buy? The new MDR-Z7 is a $799.95 full-size pair of closed headphones, coming to Australia in November, that may well be the best listening experience that Sony has ever created.

Campbell Simpson travelled to Berlin and IFA 2014 as a guest of Sony Mobile Australia.

Sony has had some excellent headphones over the years, even though the general public don't really think of it as a headphone company. The MDR-7520, the MDR-7506, even the far more recent MDR-10R and MDR-1RBT Mk2 have all been able to create rich and inviting and involving sound. The new MDR-Z7, though, are different.

The MDR-Z7 uses massive drivers, for one — 70mm HD units of the kind Sony has used before in the MDR-XB1000. In a headphone of this calibre, it's not about the volume of the bass that is produced but the minimum frequency to which it is accurately recreated, and larger drivers (all else being equal) mean more low-end potential. To that, Sony claims the MDR-Z7 can reach a maximum realistic minimum frequency of 4Hz. Four. Four. Oh, and a top-end roll-off of 100,000Hz, if that matters for much as well.

Those lofty numbers perfectly suit the MDR-Z7 to Sony's ever-growing suite of Hi-Res Audio products, like a new PHA-3 portable headphone amplifier and super high-end NWZ-A15 Walkman music player. You're not going to be using these headphones to their fullest on streaming Spotify, and in a test booth at IFA 2014 the closed headphones were set up with a UDA-1 desktop headphone amp and a couple of dozen ultra high quality Hi-Res Audio music files (including a goodly number of Beyonce tracks, if you were interested).

And, coming from a reasonably high-end audio background and with a half-decent appreciation for the potential of lossless tracks and the advantages of a good headphone amp, I was genuinely impressed by the MDR-Z7 headphones during a fifteen minute listening session in a reasonably noisy room. They're expensive, and they're big, and they're bulky, and they're heavy, but by God they sound great.

You get the same listening experience as Sennheiser's top of the line HD 800 — that vague sense that you're wearing an extremely powerful set of speakers on your head, sitting further away from your ears than most headphones dare. Because of that, there's a definite airy feel to the MDR-Z7's audio, and an incredibly detailed soundstage that begs you to listen to the same track over and over again to pick out all the nuance in instruments and vocals.

And, when you crank the volume, the power of the MDR-Z7 scales effortlessly. There's no overly bloated bass, no excessively sibilant treble, just a larger presence of sound. It's genuinely a next level listening experience and I think that if Sony had a pair of these in every Dick Smith and Harvey Norman showing off its Hi-Res Audio products, it'd sell a lot more — it really is something you have to experience first hand. Sony is including a pair of balanced connection headphone cables with the Z7, too, so it'll fit right in with your other ridiculously over-powered home audio components.

These are headphones that really, really need everything else from the audio file onwards to be top-notch to make the most of your listening experience. The MDR-Z7 is not worth sullying with 128Kbps streaming MP3s or the occasional YouTube clip. For that reason alone, they're going to have a niche market. But they'll stand up proudly against Sennheiser's HD 700s and the like, and from a company with as many juggling balls in the air as Sony, that's an impressive achievement.

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