Pros: great sound quality (balanced, neutral, detailed; deep, tight & well controlled bass; good comfort; feels solid; nice unobtrusive design
Cons: they do get warm after a while
REVIEW: Sony MDR-ZX700, Philips Cityscape Uptown, Sennheiser PX 200 II
Recently I've been in search of a pair of portable headphones. My main use scenario is music on-the-go. I do cycle a lot so I really needed something that would be compact, light and sturdy (in case of accidents) and yet not lacking in SQ department. Amps were a no-go since I want my setup small and simple, so I had to settle for something easy to drive. My budget - €100 / $125.
I chose two candidates:
Sony MDR-ZX700 (€79 / $99 ) & Philips Cityscape Uptown (€ 99 / $125).
I'll compare the two to my girlfriends Sennheiser PX 200 II (€56 / $70) here & there just to give some perspective.
BACKGROUND & TEST PROCEDURE
I'm a photographer, I love my music on-the-go, I do care how things look on me, but wouldn't call myself a fashionista. Note that I don't consider myself an audiophile and don't have any experience with expensive headphones other than listening briefly in the eletronic store.
My source was my trusty Sansa Clip+ (the thing has been reviewed by many, whats more it has been measured aswell and it did admirably for its size/price). No EQ has been used at any stage of my review (EQ set to normal on the Clip). I've listened at fairly loud level in a silent room.
For the listening test I've settled for 320kbps CBR mp3 files. Why? Well, I've tried in a blind listening test and honestly I couldn't tell the difference between those and the FLAC files. Call me deaf but I think that at this price point, with the source that I have (Sansa Clip+) the setup is not revealing enough to discern any difference. And the battery hit that the Clip gets playing those flac files just isn't worth it.
Amy Winehouse "Know You Now"; Anna Calvi "Suzanne and I"; Aphex Twin "Fenixfunk 5"; Atlas Sound "The Shakes"; Buena Vista Social Club "Chan Chan"; David Bowie "Station to Station", "Candidate"; Lou Reed "Walk On The Wild Side"; Massive Attack "Protection"; Norah Jones "Sunrise"; Orbital "Way Out"; The Pixies "Bone Machine", "Hey"; Primus "Here Come The Bastards"; Radiohead "Myxomatosis", "There There"; Rafal Blechacz "Chopin Preludia"; Roxy Music "Amazona"; The Chemical Brothers "Block Rockin' Beats"; The Cinematic Orchestra "Flite"; The Tuss "Last Rushup 10F", "Rushup | Bank 12"; The Rolling Stones "Sympathy For The Devil"; Jimi Hendrix "Hey Joe"
Please keep in mind that I'm not a native speaker and this is my first review, so be forgiving. Ok, now read on!
BUILD QUALITY & COMFORT
Philips Cityscape Uptown
Philips has made some good effort here. The materials used are of good quality, everything is well put together, the stiching on the faked leather is spot-on and the heaphone makes a good first impression (the retro design is nice too, at least for the Mini Cooper crowd ;-). The earcups are nice & soft (memory foam they say). The faked leather does feel a bit fragile however. So, on the outside everything perfect so far, right? Well there is one thing that bothers me, one flaw that is maybe not a deal breaker, but is worrisome to say the least. The cable. Now I've had some low-fi headhones with terrible cables (Senn HD201 anyone?), but what on earth were those Philips guys thinking?! Honestly the cable is like they've forgotten to design one and afterwards went like: "Well, we still have those old telephone cables in-house, let's use them!". It shouldn't happen at this pricepoint!
The remote thing hanging on the cable works, I've tried it with Samsung Galaxy Note. Pressing the button PLAYs/PAUSEs your music player (the music player launches as soon as you press the button) or answers calls. The volume slider is, well, a volume slider. A bad one. It introduces noises and distortions if not at max level. At max volume level there is none of that however. In general I have no reservations concerning build quality save for the cable.
The Philips headphones were really comfortable. They don't get warm since they don't touch your ear. It's a real over the ear experience, more like a full-sized cans. They clamp quite firmly, but if you move yor head a lot they do tend to move kind of round your ear and can slide of of your head.
The ZX700's look sturdy. It's an all-plastic and faked leather design but the materials used feel solid. The cable is good too, it's of a round variety, has its weight and is quite assuring. I would say that the ZX700 induce confidence.
The fit of the Sony's is quite different compared to the Uptown's. Those are over ear aswell, but there is signifficantly less space over your ear. Actually the earcup is shallow enough to touch your earlobe. I wouldn't call it uncomfortable, but it can get warm after 1-2h of listening. Clamping is good, the headphone sits firmly (moreso than the Uptowns). I have to admit that while on your head the Uptowns do feel bulky in comparison. The ZX700's are compact enough to call it portable, which I cannot say about the Philips. Its not bad or good, its just that while the ZX700's feel compact and sealed around your head, the Uptowns feel more like full-sized cans.
SOUND QUALITY IMPRESSIONS
Philips Cityscape Uptown
At first the Uptowns sound signature appeared to me right away. The sound is clear, separation is very good, bass is thumping and rumbling nicely, the highs are prominent and the mids are there aswell. It's all quite detailed too. What I especially liked about them though was that it never felt crowded, there was always room for yet another instrument. The bass never got in the way of the midrange. In busy tracks like Radiohead's "Myxomatosis" they excelled - the buzzing sound that goes throughout the song was dominant, yet I could still hear the vocal, percussion and hi-hats very clearly. David Bowie's "Candidate" is another example of that - it's a wall-of-sound type of track, but it never felt crowded, nothing got in the way and I could still hear instrument separation.
Now, I must point out that these are the most difficult to drive of the bunch. On too many occasions I had to crank the volume all the way up on my Sansa Clip+ to reach satisfying sound level. There is absolutely no way that these will be too loud with the Clip on any track. So keep that in mind.
Sony MDR-ZX700 (...and Philips Cityscape Uptown)
The Sony MDR-ZX700 is a completely different beast. At first I wasn't impressed. It has a right-in-your-face presentation. There is plenty of detail (more than in the Philips), but the mids can kill you if the volume is set too high. The highs seem to be gone when you come from the Cityscape cans. What I really loved about the ZX700's right away though was the bass - it's clean, fast, detailed & deep when needed. Now I've noticed that some people say these headphones lack in low tones - it's definetely not the case. My previous headphone was Sennheiser CX 300 II - so, bass-heavy-low-mids-mixed-with-bloated-lows-no-highs kind of affair - and I can assure you that the ZX700 has some really good low frequency response. When the track asks for it, it can go properly low and yet it still keeps its tight/fast/detailed nature. When the kick is dominant in a track you hear a KICK, no additional rumble or bloat. I would say it's very nicely controlled and neutral sounding. These headphones are a bit mid-range heavy. It seems that the mids are always a bit up-front, although on most occassions they stay clean and detailed. There is one case where the Philips has the upper hand - it's instruments separation in busy numbers. Especially when it gets busy in the mids (many Radiohead tracks, Bowie's "Candidate" mentioned before etc.) the ZX700 do tend to sound crowded and the instruments separation gets lost in the process. High tones are there, but to be honest they're not exceptional. I wouldn't mind a bit more high frequency response, but I guess it's asking too much from a €79 / $99 set of headphones.
Now, I've said I wasn't impressed with the ZX700 initially. But these headphones grew on me (and they still do :-). The more I've listened to them the more I preferred them over the Cityscape Uptowns. Why? Well, on some tracks the Philips sounds just downright faked and artificial. Take Buena Vista Social Club's "Chan Chan". On the ZX700 you hear the music as if it was played live by musicians in a room. Everything is clear, every instrument is well presented, nothing really dominates in the track. It's balanced and natural sounding. On the Philips Cityscape Uptowns however you get the impression that the musicians are far, far away as if the music was being played in a hall. There is this strange kind of reverb created by these headphones (my girlfriend referred to it as "the music being played in a tube" right after the first listening). This effect is always present with the Philips, it's just that on some tracks it doesn't get in the way and on some - in combination with the boosted highs & lows - it sounds awful. It's never the case with Sony's headphones - when there is reverb/echo in the song you will surely hear it, when there is none, you won't hear one. Same applies to low and high tones. Due to the ZX700 midrange nature all acoustic/guitar/vocal dependant tracks sound really satisfying. The mid-range of the Sony's has that agressiveness to it that the Philips lacks. It's more detailed too - you can clearly hear the texture of the guitars in rock tracks or even the air that's being breath out while singing (Norah Jones "Sunrise").
The Sony MDR-ZX700 are also extremely easy to drive. They reach ear splitting levels with my Clip+.
Sennheiser PX 200 II
The little Senns are not bad at all in comparison. Their signature is far more on the neutral side than the Cityscapes. The sound is nicely balanced throughout the spectrum. They have a fairly good bass extension aswell, but it does get bloated at times, as it gets mixed with low-mids easily. The Senns do get destroyed by both other headphones in detail & instruments separation department however. Don't get me wrong - for their price they're still worth every penny and they easily trash the Sennheiser's CX 300 II in almost every respect. It's just that they don't stand a chance compared to the other two (although if you cannot bare the colored presentation of the Uptowns you might actually prefer the Senns, especially considering the price difference).
Wrapping up, it all boils down to the listeners preference. The Sony MDR-ZX700 & the Philips Cityscape Uptown are superior to the little Senns in almost every respect (save for portability). But if you start considering the price/value ratio things do get complicated. I would say the Sony's at €79 / $99 are well worth it, same applies to the Senns at €56 / $70. The Uptowns at €99 / $125 however... If you're after something that would be a good Beats replacement, they're good enough not to dissappoint. They sound good, they look good too (for the style aware ones). Keep in mind that the cable is really dreadful and the way it's attached causes concerns aswell. This is something that I personally cannot accept at this price point, especially if we're talking portable-everyday-use-workhorse kind of headphones. If you prefer a more neutral presentation stay away from them.
The Sony MDR-ZX700 (as you may already tell from this biased review ;-) is my heaphone of choice in this case. Their closer to neutral presentation, their rigid build quality, simplicity & portability in combination with their modest pricing has won me over. They sound clean and loud with my Sansa Clip+ so my setup stays nice and pocketable. I'm not afraid of damaging them on the go (it's just plastic ;-) and their comfort is reasonable for my needs. Every time I listen to them I'm more and more impressed with their performance. Although I must admit (and warn you!) that some of my favourite tracks don't sound as good as I thought they sounded. The truth is when the song is poorly mixed/recorded there is no escape - it will sound dull, flat & lifeless. On the other hand in those rare cases where the track is properly mixed the ZX700 shines. And that's just about enough for me :-)