Sony MDR-SA5000 Review
Well, it’s been a while since the last time I posted something on Headfi. Seeing as how there seems to be a growing interest in the Sony MDR-SA5000 headphones, I figured I’d contribute a review regarding them. I hope it will be of some use to those trying to choose a headphone on which to spend their hard earned money. Please note that this review reflects my own personal musical preferences and opinions, and may or may not be in agreement with you, the reader, or even the general public concensus on the headphone being reviewed, or any other headphone referenced in this review.
Let’s start with what attracted me to the SA5000s to begin with. It was a simple phrase mentioned by somebody else on Headfi that intrigued me, and it was essentially “the MDR-SA5000s may very well be the most detailed headphones ever made”. Simply stated, but so ludicrous to me at the time that, although I no longer have a major interest in headphones as I once did, I found myself really wanting to give these headphones a listen. As I researched these headphones further, I found more and more evidence pointing to the possible truth of that statement. Because…could it be…that this headphone was the Holy Grail I was looking for all this time?
I say Holy Grail, because of my listening preferences. One of the major things that attracted me to higher end headphones was the amount of details afforded by them. I don’t have an easy explanation as to why, other than that it’s what makes listening to headphones fun for me. I delight in being able to hear tiny details deep within a recording, especially if it’s a detail that was glossed over by another headphone. This for the most part has formed the foundation of my listening preferences. It makes for a highly focused listening session, and of course not everybody listens to music this way. Some prefer to just have it wash over them, or encompass them, which is quite understandable.
I also value a rather flat, dry tonal quality, with clearly noticeable highs, flat mids, and tight bass. Extension and decay on both highs and lows are very important, but should not be overemphasized. The bass in particular should not be heavily visceral, but have just the right amount of natural grunt to it. Mids should be able to clearly reproduce the emotion of a human voice or the warmth of wooden instrument, but not be deliberately heavy with warmth. A lot of what people were saying about the MDR-SA5000s seemed to jive with my preferences, so I figured…why not. With my listening preferences laid out, onward to the sound.
Treble is probably one of the first things that grab your attention on the SA5000, in that there seems to be a good deal of it at first glance. The treble is very crisp and clear, with excellent extension and decay. Strings come through sharply, and cymbals have the right amount of sheen. I have not encountered any harsh sibilants at all, with just the right amount of lisping to the S’s. I would not call the treble bright, in the sense that it completely overrides everything else…rather I believe the treble is simply so well defined that you sit up and take more notice of it. This may be particularly true if you come from a headphone that has a more muted treble response. Bright would imply fatiguing, a problem I haven’t had yet with the treble specifically.
The midrange on the SA5000 can probably be summed up in one word: clear. It is brutally, coldly, ruthlessly clear, and in and of itself offers little warmth. If you like having deliberately heavy warmth added to the midrange, this is definitely not the headphone for you. This is a headphone that relies upon the recording itself to invoke emotions, particularly in the area of voices. Personally, I like it. I’ve learned to recognize that a good singer knows how to project emotion into the singing almost effortlessly, while bad singers or amateur singers will tend to sound flat and cold. You can really hear the naked emotions being projected in a good singer’s voice through these SA5000s, as it’s not being hidden behind any additional warmth. I’ve found that headphones with warm midranges tend to give emotion to any voice, whether it was there to begin with or not.
Perhaps a downfall to this clarity in the midrange is in acoustic instruments that make use of the midrange and lower midrange, such as pianos, violins, or cellos. Such instruments tend to lose a sense of body with the SA5000s, while headphones with a heavier midrange tend to provide a better sense of body, and thus realism, to such instruments.
I find the bass on the SA5000 wonderful, in that it’s musically tight, and has what I feel is just the right amount of extension and decay. There is no excessive bloom or grunt to the bass, and it never thuds into your ears with huge amounts of impact. You can hear low bass notes that play in succession drop down lower and lower very clearly and simultaneously “feel” those notes drop down, but the audible seems to take precedence over the visceral in this headphone. I find this portrayal of bass rather accurate, as opposed to headphones that provide such a tremendous amount of grunt to the bass that it overwhelms the subtly of being able to hear the bass note clearly. If your preferences lies towards being able really feel the bass impact, this is definitely not a headphone for you.
Well, the supposed inner detail and resolution that the SA5000s possess was what originally lured me to them, and it undeniably passes this test in flying colors. Without a doubt this is probably the bread and butter of the SA5000s, its signature trademark that distinguishes it from other headphones…just the sheer amount of details that it is capable of presenting. This is probably the only headphone where I can honestly say I can hear everything that there is to hear in any recording. The only other headphone I’ve heard that comes close to revealing as much inner detail as the SA5000s are the Etymotic ER-4Bs, and to my amazement, even they pale in comparison. Two of the most expensive headphones in the world, the Sony MDR-R10s, and the Stax Omega IIs, don’t come close to providing the amount of inner detail that the SA5000s casually throw out (they are both very good though at something else I’ll mention later). The SA5000s, in my opinion, may very well be worthy of being called the “most detailed headphones ever made”.
These headphones are fast, for starters. Incredibly fast. Transient response is up there with electrostatic headphones, if not bettering them. You can so clearly hear where individual notes start and stop that it becomes effortless to discover what a recording is composed of. There is no blurring of notes, nothing that sounds muddy and undistinguishable. All this speed helps to deliver up the tiniest, deepest detail without contaminating it, so to speak. In this regard, crisp, sharp treble, the extremely clean, almost sterile midrange and tightly controlled bass suddenly makes sense. The detail is not hindered in any way by dull treble, heavy midrange bloom or thick, bloated bass.
The headstage also helps increase the perception of detail, because it’s a very near-field headstage. The overall size of the headstage is very small. The result is everything feels as though it’s playing extra close to you. When combined with the speed of this headphone, it becomes very easy to pinpoint instruments in an ensemble. However, at times this can become somewhat fatiguing as the brain tries to cope with the sheer amount of details being focused at you at close range. At times the listening experience almost becomes claustrophobic. The headstage sometimes gets so small on some recordings that the imaging goes flat, and you can no longer get a sense of anything playing in “front” of you. You get a relative sense of position, but it simply sounds as if everything’s located right between your ears, literally. This, I feel is a weakness of the SA5000s, in that it’s not very good at pushing the imaging out in front of you. Most headphones can pull this off to some degree without much difficulty, but the SA5000s struggle a bit here.
The overall soundstage is probably the most disappointing aspect of the SA5000s, in that it feels very stark and lifeless. This is probably the ultimate tradeoff to its other strengths. Soundstage is what I feel is the ultimate strength of some of the most expensive headphones available, such as the Sony MDR-R10 and the Stax Omega II (I mention these two here because I have owned both for an extensive period of time in the past). While I feel neither offered the inner detail resolving power of the SA5000s, both had a true soundstage that came as close as I’ve ever felt to what you can get from good speakers. Good speakers seem to have a way of just gently enveloping you in the music, washing over and surrounding you until you sort of get tingly goose bumps from the music. It becomes hard to focus on the details at that point…and this is exactly what I got from both the R10s and Omega IIs. They both provide a warm, enveloping soundstage that just wraps you up in the music. It simply sounds natural . I’ve yet to hear any “cheaper” headphone be able to produce as realistic a soundstage as these two headphones, SA5000s included.
I figured I’d mention this last to avoid torturing those that wanted the sound impressions primarily. Build quality on this headphone is simply terrific…very, very well made, with most of the headphone being made out of metal. Yet the headphone remains quite lightweight on the head despite all the metal. My biggest gripe by far is the two hard rubber strips that surround the headband net. Over time those two strips start “eating” into my head, and things get pretty painful. Why Sony chose such a stiff material for that, and to have its thickness be greater than the headband net, is beyond me. A simple cloth or leather fabric to support the headband net would’ve have been much more preferred, and probably served the same purpose.
I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned too often in past SA5000 reviews, but I think these headphones would be amazing as studio monitoring headphones, because of their analytical and revealing nature. But I honestly don’t think I would recommend these headphones to those that truly love music , in the musicality sense, and want a headphone that can truly reproduce music. Those that have come to love the Sony MDR-R10s over time can probably appreciate what I’m trying to say here. The SA5000s headphones are like taking a quick dance with some girl (or guy) that you’re not familiar with…good for a quick fling, but perhaps not so good for permanence. IMO, you really need to be firmly in the camp of listeners that prefers a clean, flat presentation to enjoy these headphones long term. Those that prefer a warmer, gentler musical presentation should consider other headphones. Personally, I’m in the “quick fling” camp…my listening time with headphones now days is very short, and I simply want a headphone that can quickly deliver all the musical content available in a recording. For that simple purpose, the MDR-SA5000s are exactly what I’m looking for.
Make no mistake about it though…if hearing those last details is what you’re looking for, the MDR-SA5000s should be a prime candidate…maybe your only candidate. In some ways this headphone is quite a bargain, for what this headphone can pull off effortlessly, you’d have to pour money left and right upgrading other components for other headphones to attempt the same sort of resolution and detail the Sony MDR SA-5000s can put out. And even then, none of them come close.
Arcam FMJ CD23T CD Player
JMT Audio PPA Special Edition headphone amplifier
Zcable Live V5 interconnects
(2) Zu Mother power cables, 1 on CD player, 1 on amp.
Monster Power HTS-2000, (4) Audioprism Quietlines