A couple of months ago, I came across some giant headphones that looked beautiful -- it was love at first sight. The MDR-Z7 is the absolute best pair of over-the-ear headphones that Sony has released this year, and from the pictures alone you can tell that they're going to be something special. These $800 headphones sound just as fancy as you'd expect.
What Is It?
- Headphone Type: Over-The-Ear, Closed
- Bluetooth: No
- Noise Cancelling: No
- Frequency Response: 4-100,000Hz
- Cables: 3m 3.5mm Y-cable, 2m balanced Y-cable
- Weight: 335g
Sony has built 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 $799.95 Sony 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.
These headphones are chunky. At 335g they're not heavy but not exactly lightweight, and they're built with that typically-Sony precision and excellent choice of materials that honestly make them feel even more expensive than their $800 asking price. Each solid, hammered-finish earcup has its own screw-type audio connector, pointing forward for the cable to settle on the wearer's chest. The earpads are plush but firm, as is the telescoping headband wrapped in soft leather.
In the box for the MDR-Z7, you get the giant over-ear 'phones themselves, as well as a 3.5mm stereo mini cable and balanced audio cable -- a Y-corded shape for each, since you'll be plugging one audio cable into each screw-type connector on the individual earcups of the Z7. The box itself is actually a little unspectacular -- there's no travel case, and the cardboard packaging doesn't really have much of a sense of presence to it -- but it's what's inside that counts.
What's It Good At?
The sound. My gosh, the sound. If you like strong bass -- not necessarily overpowered and boomy bass, but just a strong presentation of low-end frequencies -- then the MDR-Z7 has you well and truly covered. The bass of the Z7 has a bit of a dark character to it, too; it's rolling and deep and if you pump up the volume you're going to blow your ears off. The mid-range is comparatively a little thin, but is compensated for by a good amount of exceedingly clear and crisp and superbly detailed treble.
If you have them hooked up to the right audio setup and in the right critical listening environment, the Sony Z7 headphones are able to reproduce an incredible amount of detail in equally detailed audio tracks. Sony has really been pushing the high-resolution audio narrative over the last year, and the MDR-Z7 is the climax of that story; I've listened to some pretty detailed headphones in the past like Sennheiser's HD 800 but I would definitely put these new Sony 'cans towards the top of the list.
Sony bundles a second audio cable in with the MDR-Z7's retail packaging, and it's evident from that where the company is hoping you'll use these headphones. The beautifully twisted wiring of the proprietary Sony balanced audio connection cables begs you to use these cans with a high-end headphone amplifier, either desktop or portable. I gave the Z7 a run-through with two amps -- Sony's own UDA-1, and the Arcam rPAC -- and while neither is a balanced-output amp, you really do notice an improvement in the power supplied during heavy bass hits and especially soaring treble notes.
Listening to the MDR-Z7 is basically like strapping a pair of speakers to the sides of your head. Their massively wide and expansive soundstage makes for beautifully involved listening when you have a high quality music track or piece of audio -- I had a fantastic time with a lossless FLAC copy of Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds musical -- and the stereo imaging means you really do notice positional audio as it moves across from left to right and vice versa. If you were so inclined, these would be great headphones for FPS gaming on PC -- although that almost seems a waste of their potential.
What's It Not Good At?
There's a caveat to the MDR-Z7's sound, and in a way it's a good thing. They don't sound great at lower volume levels, not nearly as impressive as when you turn them up significantly. These are not headphones designed to listen to music quietly with -- they're very much happier with loud playback where the slightly quieter treble and mid-range are less obvious next to the powerful bass.
Lots of people have talked online about the comfort of the Sony MDR-Z7, about the plushness of their earcups and the soft leather wrapping of the headband. I didn't find them especially comfortable for the length of my listening, though, and I've certainly worn headphones that are more relaxing and easier to wear over extended periods of time. A lot of it has to do with the high clamping force of the Z7, which does great things for the headphones' general isolation and for blocking out moderate volume ambient noise without resorting to aggressive active noise cancellation, but you'll find yourself taking them off after a short while for momentary relief. That is to say they're not noticeably uncomfortable when they're on, but their not-exactly-light weight and bulk and clamping earcups are a little tiring over time.
That also means they're not especially portable. You could wear them on the train into work, but you'd probably get some funny looks. Similarly, there's no travel case a la Sony's own MDR-1RBTMk2, so these are headphones for home or office or studio work and not for in between.
Sony lists the MDR-Z7 as a closed headphone, and for the most part they are, but not completely. Two vents towards the bottom of the Z7's outer earcups mean these headphones do leak a little bit of sound, so don't buy these thinking that they're entirely sealed off from the outside world. It's that venting, too, that I think contributes a little to them sounding a little unimpressive at lower volume levels.
They're expensive, too, although you probably know that if you're reading this review. $800 is a lot of money for a pair of headphones (although it pales next to the $1300 Audeze LCD-2 sitting on my desk next to the Z7), and because they're so audiophile-focused and double-cabled and amped and big, there is certainly a sense of getting what you pay for, but I've written before about that ever-present sense of diminishing returns when you look at headphones costing more than a couple of hundred dollars. Excluding the unnecessarily fashionable (and therefore unnecessarily expensive) brands out there, every expensive pair of headphones is well constructed and sounds pretty damn good, so there's minimal differentiation to be found.
Should You Buy It?
The $799.95 Sony MDR-Z7 is a specialised pair of headphones, inasmuch as they're designed for critical listening; if you hook them up to a high quality external headphone amplifier you'll significantly improve the quality of the sound and the extra detail from especially high treble and deep bass. Even if you're listening on a half-decent integrated-amp source like a modern smartphone (I used the Xperia Z3 for most of my listening), though, the MDR-Z7 sounds pretty good at moderate and high volume levels, and is never boring for the music to which you're listening.
They're expensive, of course. Being the flagship headphones for Sony's second half of 2014 and likely the first half of next year as well, you're paying quite a bit for the privilege of knowing you have the top product in the Japanese audio powerhouse's lineup and a pair of truly world-class headphones. Despite Sony's direction as a technology brand, the MDR-Z7 competes with headphone-only marques like Audio-Technica, AKG and Sennheiser.
The build quality is top-notch, the design hits a good middle ground between closed and semi-open, the materials in the headphones' construction are just as premium as you'd expect, and above all else the sound quality is supremely good. You're not getting a perfectly neutral or excessively musical sound signature, but something in between -- and for most people that's just all-round excellent audio.
If you're planning to use the Sony MDR-Z7 with a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, you won't be disappointed -- you don't need any accessories to enjoy them. If you do hook them up to a great headphone amplifier, a desktop DAC or Sony's own hi-res audio player, the sound that the Z7 produces gets even better in a number of small but measurable and meaningful ways; with the MDR-Z7 and a nice headphone amp you'll have very good time.