(December 29th, 2012)
Product Manufacturer: Sony
- Excellent design
- High-quality sound, S-Master Amp
- Versatile connectivity that includes NFC
- Good passive sound isolation
- Very comfortable
- Extensive use of plastic in construction
- Over-ear design is bulky
- Supplied carry pouch offers limited protection
Sony has a long and distinguished history when it comes to making quality headphones to suit the majority of listeners. In recent years, however, their headphone business has shown signs of becoming commoditized, targeting mainstream users at the expense of audiophiles. Over the past twelve months, though, this has started to change for the better. The Beats range of headphones, among others, has shown that many mainstream consumers are prepared to pay more for high quality sound and style. Sony has come to the party, first with its new line of XBA balanced armature in-ear headphones, and now with its MDR-1R range of over-the-ear premium headphones.
Electronista has spent some time with the MDR-1RBT ($400) headphones, which is part of a range that includes a 'standard' set (MDR-1R $300), as well as the top-of-the-range model (MDR-1RNC $$500) that incorporates Sony’s digital noise cancellation tech. As you can see, none of them are particularly cheap, but is the price of admission worth the premium?
Design and build quality:
The first thing that you notice about the MDR-1RBT is its appearance. In Sony’s promotional materials, they certainly appear eye-catching. In the flesh, they are also great to look at and convey a similar sense of quality and style worthy of its premium price point. The black and silver finish with metallic red highlights are classy and understated, while the design of the pivoting arms is futuristic. The leather soft touch materials across the band and covering the ear cushions also convey a sense of quality and style.
However, as we have previously noted in our review of the original Sony 3D Personal Viewer, the promotion materials picks can sometimes be a little misleading. For example, when you look at the silver colored components on the MDR-1RBTs you would think that they are made from aluminum, but instead it is somewhat disappointing to discover that they are instead made from plastic. However, in practice, it does not really detract from the sense of quality that Sony has otherwise managed to convey with these headphones.
Sony appears to have invested considerable energy and thought into the design of the MDR-1RBTs. Not only does the design look futuristic, but it is also among the most ergonomically correct pair of headphones that we have had the pleasure of using. The curve of the arms and the alignment of the ear cups is spot on creating a very natural and comfortable fit that also helps to ensure an optimal seal for excellent passive noise cancellation - good enough that you can comfortably get by without digital noise cancellation.
The padding across the band and around the ear cups is made of a pressure relieving material that works very effectively. Even though the over ear design creates additional bulk and therefore weight (they weigh 297 grams), the MDR-1RBTs can be worn for an extended period without any appreciable discomfort. Generally, the experience can be described as luxurious, although the added size of the closed supra-aural style might make users feel somewhat conspicuous in public.
Sony has given users several options for pairing their device with the MDR-1RBTs. You can choose to connect over a traditional Bluetooth connection, which we found to be relatively painless in practice. Or, you can also use an NFC-equipped device to connect just by tapping the headphones and the device together for an even more seamless connection process. Lastly, Sony has included a 3.5mm jack on the headphones so that if the battery powering the Bluetooth module and inbuilt-amp runs out, you can still connect the MDR-1RBTs to a device over the supplied cord.
Sony has opted for the newer Bluetooth 3.0+EDR specification that uses 802.11 over the 2.4GHz band. Not only is Bluetooth 3.0 more power efficient, it also allows for much greater bandwidth than Bluetooth 2.1. We found that it paired perfectly well with our iPhone 5 (running iOS6/Bluetooth 4.0) and its support for the A2DP protocol means that users can control their music remotely using the built-in on board controls. We also found that the built-in microphone worked well for taking and making calls while continuing to wear the headphones.
The built-in li-ion battery is also good for a claimed 30 hours on a full charge, while it charges directly over a micro-USB connection.
The sound quality is where the Sony MDR-1RBT really shines. Sony has chosen to couple a powerful neodymium magnet with a 40mm dome type driver (HD, OFC Voice Coil) and a new Liquid Crystal Polymer diaphragm. Sony says it chose the material for its rigidity, but also its ability to deliver an exceptionally wide frequency response of 4 – 80,000 Hz. Impedance is rated at 24 ohms at 1 kHz, while sensitivity is 105 dB/mW. Capping things off is Sony’s clever inclusion of its vaunted S-Master digital amplification technology, built right into the headphones
All of this culminates in sound reproduction is this worth every cent of the price of admission. Rarely have Bluetooth-enabled headphones sounded this impressive. In fact, we could not make any obvious distinction between the qualities of the sound when connected over the analog cable against listening to music over the Bluetooth connection, which came as a real surprise.
In our previous encounters with Bluetooth headphones, we have invariably experienced a noticeable drop in audio quality. The freedom of wireless connectivity has been, for some users, worth the trade-off in sound quality for convenience. In the case of the Sony MDR-1RBT, there is no such trade-off. We put this down to Sony’s implementation of Bluetooth 3.0+EDR, with its much improved data bandwidth, as well as Sony’s S-Master amplification.
The S-Master amp makes a significant difference to the quality of the overall sound produced by the MDR-1RBTs. There is an added richness to the sound that would be impossible to create without its addition. You are likely to hear instruments and vocal parts that you not have noticed before, such is the clarity and detail present in the headphones. There is a clear separation between all of the instruments, making it easy to pick out the contribution of each to a piece of music.
The tone produced the headphones is also a highlight with an evenly balanced across the dynamic range. The bass notes sound solid without being overpowering, while the mids are present they straddle nicely between the crystal clear treble that manages to sound pure and true, without any high-end harshness. Whether you enjoy rock, dance, classical music, country or jazz, you will find that the MDR-1RBTs deliver.
Sony has produced the best Bluetooth headphones we have yet lay our ears on. In our view, the MDR-1RBTs are worth the price premium although $400 is a lot of money to spend on a pair of headphones. However, their versatility means that you will be able to extract great sound over Bluetooth, or enjoy the experience over a cable if that is your preference.
Our criticisms of the headphones lie not in the audio quality, but in the extensive use of plastic in its construction. While it would have been nice to have some portions of the design fabricated with aluminum, the headphones remain sturdy while it also helps to minimize weight. The over-ear design is also relatively bulky in terms of their dimensions, although they don’t feel particularly bulky when worn. The supplied carry pouch is also nothing special and will only offer only basic protection if tossed in a backpack.
Despite these minor gripes, we wholeheartedly recommend the Sony MDR-1RBTs. They are expensive, but you can be confident that you will be getting what you pay for. The Sony MDR-1RBTs offer that rare combination of both style and substance.