Written by Jude Mansilla
Last year, Sony's Naotaka "Nao" Tsunoda stopped by Head-Fi HQ in Michigan for an all-day visit. Nao is a 22-year Sony veteran--a Sony Distinguished Engineer--and one of the heads of Sony's headphone engineering and development efforts in Tokyo.
One of the reasons for the visit was to discuss, and listen to, what was then Nao's most recent project: the MDR-1 family of headphones. One by one, Nao removed a sample of each of the new models from one of his suitcases, grinning ear to ear as he did. He looked like a proud papa as he laid each box down. The new models included the Sony MDR-1R (passive-only, closed, around-the-ear), Sony MDR-1RNC (active noise canceling, closed, around-the-ear), and the Sony MDR-1RBT (Bluetooth wireless, closed, around-the-ear). (You can read about the MDR-1RBT in the Wireless Headphones section of this guide.)
The Sony MDR-1RNC, in terms of technology and features--and in terms of price--is the MDR-1R line's flagship model. It's an active noise canceling model. The MDR-1RNC also differs from the other two models in the line with a 50mm Liquid Crystal Polymer (LCP) driver, the other models sporting 40mm LCP drivers.
As for its noise canceling circuit, the MDR-1RNC uses an adaptive digital noise canceling system that will automatically select one of three distinct noise canceling profiles (airplane, bus, or office), depending on the MDR-1RNC's assessment of the ambient noise around you. In use, I've found the MDR-1RNC's noise canceling to be very effective. However, the way it goes about canceling noise is quite different than Bose's QC15. The Bose's noise canceling seems to cancel more total noise, to my ears, using a technique that sounds like its effect is more broadband. The MDR-1RNC, on the other hand, seems to selectively let more human voices through, but only after substantially blunting them. This effect is so specific, I have almost no doubt that it's deliberate.
One place the MDR-1RNC's noise canceling may have an advantage over the QC15 is in low-frequency noise cancellation. While testing them at an airport, Joe (one of Head-Fi's co-administrators) was wearing the MDR-1RBT (and I the QC15), and when I asked what the rumble of the tram that had just gone by sounded like to him, he asked, "What tram?"
Another advantage the MDR-1RNC has over the QC15 is in sound quality. The QC15 actually sounds pretty good--particularly when its in its element, which is in areas of loud ambient noise--with a smooth, friendly sound signature, but one that's not very detailed, and with rather flat imaging. The MDR-1RNC, like it's wireless sibling (the MDR-1RBT) uses Sony's "S-MASTER" digital amplification and "DSEE" processing which is designed to restore depth and detail lost in the audio compression process. The effect is more dramatic in the MDR-1RNC than it is in the MDR-1RBT, adding a bit more edge to the sound than the MDR-1RBT's implementation of these technologies; but, again, I think this was intentional, as an attempt to accentuate details that loud ambient noise may mask. The result is a more detailed sound signature, and more three-dimensional imaging, than Bose's QC15.
Also, unlike the Bose QC15, the MDR-1RNC can be used in passive mode, so the sound can keep going, even after the internal rechargeable battery dies. However, since the MDR-1RNC's battery life is rated at up to 30 hours of listening time, you're not likely to run it dry if you routinely charge it. (The Bose QC15 is rated for up to 35 hours of use from a single AAA battery, but the Bose's sound shuts down when there's no power.) The MDR-1RNC's passive mode's sound quality is acceptably good, but certainly not this headphone at its best. In this mode, it's bass-heavier and thicker-sounding overall than the better sounding passive-only MDR-1R and the Bluetooth MDR-1RBT in its passive mode--but it's still good. For all of these things, the MDR-1RNC has replaced the Bose QC15 as my top pick for a wired noise canceling headphone.
The real gem in the MDR-1R lineup is, to me, the least expensive one--the passive-only Sony MDR-1R. It's the best sounding of the three, edging out its Bluetooth sibling, the MDR-1RBT. It's also, to my ears, one of the best of the sub-$500 closed headphones currently available.
The Sony MDR-1R has a sound signature that is at once smooth and detailed. Mid-bass sounds a bit north of neutral, but very tastefully so, to my ears. It doesn't quite have the visceral low-end, gut-punching drive that the V-MODA M-100 has, but, for sit-down listening in a quiet environment, the MDR-1R has what I'd call a more reference presentation. Sony's engineers focused a great deal on carefully tuning the MDR-1R's bass performance, with one key aim being to improve the quickness of the driver's response, substantially reducing the driver's rise time in the 30 to 40 Hz area. To my ears, their efforts yielded excellent results.
The MDR-1R's midrange is also wonderful, presenting most vocals slightly forward, and with beautiful rendering of subtle details that some of its peers miss. In terms of treble, the MDR-1R has very good extension, but is never sibilant, never harsh up top, to my ears. As far as sub-$500 closed headphones go today, I can't think of another I'd pick over the MDR-1R for long-term sit-down listening sessions, across a wide variance in recording quality, and a wide variety of musical genres. The MDR-1R is available in black and silver versions.
For all three MDR-1 family models, Nao's team also spent considerable effort to make these headphones exceedingly comfortable. A lot more went into engineering comfort into this line than we have space here to discuss, but innovations in earpad design and inventive engineering around the swivel axis were among the areas of concentration for improving comfort. The results are three of the most comfortable closed headphones I've ever worn (especially the lighter passive-only MDR-1R).
After having spent time with the new MDR-1 family of headphones, it's easy to understand Nao's ear-to-ear grin, and his proud-papa sense of pride. This is a wonderful lineup from Sony.
".....in summary from a physical comfort perspective, I feel these are one of the most comfortable headphones I've ever worn. And it's isolation is also very decent, way above average and one of the better ones. In terms of balance of isolation and comfort, I'd have to say this is the best next to the Denon D7100/5100's."
"When I put them on, I had an odd moment because all of a sudden the ambient noise level dropped dramatically, just as you would expect it would. But it was so dramatic that I thought something around me had happened and the whole hall went silent! I can definitely vouch for the NC abilities of this headphone..."
TYPE: Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone (MDR-1R)
Closed, portable, active noise canceling, around-the-ear headphone (MDR-1RNC)
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MSRP: Around $299.99 and $499.99, respectively