POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 16
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
Winter comes early to my chunk of the planet. Maybe that's why I've been on a serious headphone bender—with a Discman and a set of cans, I can curl up in whatever wing of the house is nearest the sun. Luckily, I've had plenty of headphones to choose from lately. I recently picked up some Grado SR60s, and I'm reviewing Beyerdynamic's new DT880s. I won't make you wait for my reviews to tell you that both are outstanding, even remarkable, yet it's a set of Sony—yes, Sony—headphones that I'm recommending today. Keep reading, though, because there are some serious conditions attached.
Sony's MDR-7506 headphones are part of their Professional line, and sell for a reasonable $100 nearly everywhere (retail is $130). You'll probably recognize them as the headphones of choice for many recording studios and movie sets, but they also qualify as audiophile cans, except at home, where they leave a lot to be desired. Plugged into the headphone jack of good components, they're thin, bright, and nasty on top, with soupy bass below. HeadRoom's excellent Little headphone amp (with the optional Premium Module) laid bare their other shortcomings. The bass tightened up, yet the sound was not only lean but dull and decidedly unmusical. I was ready to chuck them until I plugged them directly into some downright lame equipment. Ta-dah! The Sonys began making music.
Why? I guess you could ask Sony, for all the good it would do. Rather than wait to hear from a 23-year-old product manager, I formulated my own answer. Here goes: The MDRs, given their role as monitoring devices, are designed to be plugged into a wide range of equipment, from expensive mixing boards to low-end handheld video cameras. Driven by good amplification, as in a recording studio, they'll be ruthlessly revealing, precisely as they should be, yet less highly resolving sources benefit from their high sensitivity. My $60 Sony portable CD player (model D-EJ368CK) is a sluggish source, as I discovered when I tried it with the HeadRoom Little and my Sennheiser HD580s, yet connected to the MDRs, it produced plenty of detail, and its wimpy output sanded off all of the overtly rough edges. I've been using this as my travel system ever since.
But aren't the Grado SR60s superior in every way? Yes, they are. Unfortunately, because they are an open-back design, they let in all kinds of outside noise—the college party in the hotel room next door, crying babies in an airline terminal, and every other nerve-shredding sound I don't want to hear when I'm on the road. Without resorting to noise-canceling circuitry, which sacrifices sound quality, the closed-back MDRs reduce much of the din, allowing me to truly relax. They're also comfortable. They surround my ears, though just barely. Folks with big heads may find that they sit on their ears, not around them, which could be a problem. They don't give Barcalounger levels of comfort, like the Beyers or Senns, but they're not too loose or too tight, and they're highly adjustable.
Partial credit goes to their exceptional build quality. The headband is thickly padded vinyl with double stitching, not fake embossed stitching as on the Grados. Most parts are held in place by honest-to-goodness screws. The headband is perfectly tensioned, snapping back positively but not viciously when expanded. There is no instruction manual to speak of, but the box includes a handy service diagram with a comprehensive parts list and exploded assembly/disassembly schematics, for those so inclined. All in all, the MDRs live up to their label of “Professional” grade. They're among the best-built headphones available today.
It's the sound that counts, though, and when powered by my Discman, the MDRs make for a warm, enveloping listening experience. Part of the fun is the very deep, yet slightly loose, bass. Like a sloppy kiss from your favorite mutt, it's just the thing for making that lumpy hotel mattress just a bit more welcoming. Sure, you can tighten them up with a headphone amp, but the mids and highs become too analytical. Run these babies un-amped, and it's like a casual concert.
This brings me to the MDR-7506s' one real weak point—a lack of air and space. The soundstage is always claustrophobic, and instruments just don't have enough room to create a real sense of perspective. In the MDRs' defense, I've found this to be a weakness of nearly all closed-back headphones, to varying degrees. A lesser weakness was some occasionally stingy upper mids and highs. On early digital recordings, certain notes smacked me in the face like sleet on a raw day.
All that sounds off-putting, so onto their strong points. The Sonys render music in a smooth and slightly syrupy manner, like a spa bath for your ears. They're not accurate, but they are soothing, and that's what I want when I'm away from home. I found it easy to slip neck deep into heavily layered songs from Radiohead and Pink Floyd. I didn't have to strain to hear the sound effects, nor did I feel bombarded by them. The Sonys' lack of three-dimensionality hurt their ability to convincingly portray the experience of a live classical performance, but the music was timbrally pleasing.
On Warren Zevon's virtuoso farewell, The Wind (Artemis 51156), voices sounded a little lightweight and out of proportion with an otherwise balanced presentation. On True Love Waits (Odessey 87321), Christopher O'Riley's jazz-infused piano interpretations of Radiohead songs, the sublime delicacy of his performance was preserved, decay included, with just a hint of added iciness. One word of warning—don't hit the “Bass Boost” button on your Discman with these phones. If you do, you'll be justly punished with some of the most screwed-up sound you've ever heard.
Some of the issues I had with the Sonys stemmed from their physical design. Unlike the big Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic models, in which the drivers are situated further from the listener's ears, the drivers in the MDRs sit close to the ear canal. You get better isolation and excellent detail, but the tradeoff is an up-close sonic picture that can be fatiguing. Hip-hop and dance music fans will likely love the full, deep sound. I certainly did. On the other hand, jazz presented a challenge for the MDRs, particularly trumpets and alto saxophones. On the upside, recordings like John Pizzarelli's Kisses in the Rain (Telarc 83491) were downright creamy, retaining a large measure of finesse while being propelled by a fair amount of toe-tapping drive.
Many listeners will be put off by the MDRs' forward nature and slightly exaggerated style. I have no use for them in critical listening at home, yet their ability to bully past distractions and provide a relaxing, occasionally tube-like, musical retreat is beguiling. They're detailed but oddly soothing, plus they are compact, packable, and built to last. I can stuff a Discman, headphones, power adaptor, remote control and eight jewel boxes into my small Case Logic travel bag. For less than $200 including player and travel case, I can bring my CDs anywhere, without the added fuss of a portable amp.
System matching is a strange thing, full of trial and error, but a good little setup can sometimes unfold. In this case it leads me to a conditional but enthusiastic recommendation. Try the Sony MDR-7506 headphones with your favorite portable player. You may end up with a ridiculously affordable travel combo that works wherever open-back headphones are unwelcome or impractical. These could be the cans that commuters and travelers have been looking for. Just don't expect to recreate the magic at home. Ed Kobesky