Good Bass, Bad Treble (GBBT)
Pros: Great bass quantity
Excellent instrument separation
Good comfort/build quality
Low noise leak
Non-microphonic cable (super long)
Cons: Recessed vocals
Up for review today is Sony’s TOTL closed-back MDR-Z1R (Z1R) over-ear headphone. These have been around for about 5 years, but consistently still show up on the lists of the best headphones along with the ZMF Verite-Closed and the Focal Stellia. So, the real question is: how do they still hold up now, 5 years later. My set is not 5 years old, but nothing has really changed from the 5-year old version to brand new ones you can buy today. So, is there a reason that the Z1Rs have hung around this long with no changes? If you don’t feel like reading my review, then yes – they are still some of the most comfortable basshead closed-back headphones on the market.
Build Quality / Comfort:
The Z1R have really good build quality and remind me of the Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless headphones with similar coloration and a similar headband. That headband is very soft, but I have also seen it crack before if not taken care of correctly – condition your leather people! The ear cups are also very comfortable, but need to be taken care of as well. The cable is very nice, not microphonic at all, but it’s around 10ft (too long for portable,) with both 3.5mm and 6.3mm connections and the connectors screw in at the ear cups. The 70mm drivers are housed inside some crazy looking magnesium domes, which are lightweight and covered in a mesh that reminds me of a fencing mask. Annoyingly, that mesh has holes in it and it picks up all kinds of crumbs and dust, etc. and is very hard to clean.
The comfort is excellent – the headphones are lightweight (385g!) and at no point did I feel they were too heavy or painful – truly a masterpiece of fit. That said, the ear cups can get a little hot, but sound leak while being worn is minimal – these have the JM Audio XTC-Closed (XTC-C) AND the Kennerton Gjallarhorn GH 50 JM Edition V2 (GHJM) beat on build quality and weight.
Sound / Source / Comparisons:
I am running these back to back with my JM Audio XTC-Closed off of my Burson Conductor 3X Performance (3XP) and my Shanling M3 Ultra (M3U) DAP. The Sony’s take a little bit more power to run (52/100 on the M3U, 80/100 on 3XP low gain) than the XTC-C (45/100 on the M3U, 70/100 on the 3XP) at the same volume. I wanted to be able to compare these two since the XTC-C currently holds my “Best Closed-Back” rating and the Sony is the older contender. Below are songs that I listened to back to back, adjusting for volume with both headphones to get an impression of how they compare. The quick and dirty breakdown of the Sony though is: boosted bass, recessed mids, sharps highs, massive soundstage, good clarity and detail.
Starting off with bass heavy songs, we have Basshunter’s “All I Ever Wanted.” The vocals and piano come in strong on the Z1R, though to vocals feel further back than on the XTC-C’s (a common theme with these headphones.) The bass drums come in extremely hard and show off the headphones v-tuning – it’s very strong and detailed bass with only a tad bit of bloat. The entire song comes through with detail and clarity – these are really good headphones, but the XTC-C is tighter and has more detail from the Beryllium drivers.
I wasn’t going to use David Guetta’s “I’m Good (Blue),” since I don’t want to over use it. But while the bass sounds excellent, the synths came across very metallic and harsh sounding in the upper registers – definitely a weakness in these headphones that the XTC doesn’t have.
Dirty Heads “Sound of Change” opens with a deep bass line and it sounds excellent on the Z1R, the vocals still further away, but the instrument separation is excellent and you can hear the fingers running over the strings of the guitars from 1:09 to 1:12 (which is kind of annoying, but detailed.) Compared to the Z1R, the XTC-C bass comes in with a little less quantity, but no less quality – the vocals are more forward and clearer/cleaner on the XTC-C. The fingers on strings mentioned previously are still there, but less grating than on the Z1R (which seems to struggle a little with sharpness in the highs.)
Moving on to songs that have a heavy focus on vocal and instruments, we start with eleventyseven’s “Appalachian Wine.” The piano and strings come in wonderfully represented on the Z1R. The vocals are accurate and the acoustic guitar sound great – the vocals are still a little far away sounding, but it is far less noticeable on a song that isn’t bass heavy. Instrument separation is crazy and it sounds like people are clapping behind you while the singer is in front of you and the guitars come in from the side – bravo Sony. As the vocals move into the high register towards the end of the song, the Z1R starts to fall apart as it begins to sound slightly metallic and sibilant. The XTC-C does better here with vocals and strings, but it doesn’t have the instrument separation or soundstage the Z1R has.
Up next is One Republic’s “All the Right Moves.” This is a great test because it has strong bass, powerful mids, and controlled highs. I’ve never heard the bass in this song so intensely as with the Z1R – it comes in hard. The distant sounding vocals and the massive soundstage with excellent instrument separation continue here as well. I’ve heard parts of this song on the Z1R that I’ve never heard before – that’s not actually a good thing in this case because the parts I heard were distracting and came out of nowhere making me wonder if the song is poor quality – something I’ve never wondered before. The XTC-C still has a powerful bass response in the intro, but it’s less overwhelming and the vocals are clearer and closer – I don’t notice as many details in the background as with the Sony, but that does make the song far more enjoyable. Neither headphone really excels at this song to be honest. I plugged in the XTC-O to test and the open-back XTC seems to have a better depth representation overall of this song than either closed-back.
Lastly, hitting songs that have a focus on higher notes, we start off with Slash’s “Anastasia” which opens with a really beautiful acoustic guitar intro. The Z1R does a good job portraying the guitar notes in this intro and then it does a good job as well when the bass drums and electric guitar come in at 0:35. It doesn’t do as well with the higher electric guitar notes or the higher vocals. They come across as metallic and sharp. This song shouldn’t feel as flat and metallic as it sounds on the Z1R. This shows once more where the Sony really struggles – these are EDM headphones, not metal or rock headphones. The XTC-C doesn’t have that issue with the high-notes or with the high vocals – it represents this song very well.
Panic! At the Disco’s “High Hopes” is the best example of simbilance from the highs on the Z1R I’ve experienced. The intro opens really well with the instruments, but the vocals are extremely painful and the sibilance is extremely rough to the point where it feels like someone is stabbing me in the ear consistently as Brendon sings. Ahhh! I get none of that from the XTC-C. Everything just comes across really well, strings, vocals, bass, etc.
So, for my preference, despite the smaller soundstage, the XTC-C win this round and maintains the coveted “Best Closed-Back” title. They have less bass quantity, but it’s tighter and cleaner. The mids are more forward and neutral, with excellent clarity and detail – vocals are prominent and guitars sound life-like and accurate, though the Z1R does a good job here as well and can present sound sounds the XTC-C doesn’t present (not always a good thing.) The highs are not even a competition as the XTC-C avoids the sibilance and harshness that the Sony has been criticized for by multiple reviewers. Overall, it’s a no contest win for the XTC-C (the GHJM is also slightly better across the entire range, more bass, good mids, and less sibilant highs.)
These are great basshead headphones – for people who want good quality across the board with elevated bass and a solid v-shape frequency response. For my personal preference, the mids are too far back, the highs are harsh, and I prefer less bass quantity. But, the soundstage and instrument separation are bar none – literally the best I’ve ever head on closed-back headphones. Also, the quality, comfort, and stock cable are classic Sony goodness. So, if you like the positives and don’t mind the negatives for your style of listening, get these – I don’t think you can do much better for v-shaped basshead closed-back headphones (well, except maybe the GHJM.)
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