Cage Match: Pioneer Monitor 10 vs Sony DR-Z6
All right, I have with me two mostly-metal, well-built, ruler-flat classics. Let's see how they stack up. Both headphones have been broken in for, oh, about 30 years.
The Sony has ear cups that pop out, can be half-removed to fold flat, and are just generally slickly designed. The Pioneer Monitor 10 are significantly larger, aiming for stability and durability instead. Highlights are the pull-tabs to adjust headband tightness. While both are mostly metal, both have made the crucial hinge portion plastic, which is a minor complaint.
With mystical pads that seem brand new, the Sony are about as comfortable as any on-ear I've ever heard. The weight is distributed nicely around the head. That said, these little buggers are considerably heavier than they look, given that I think the entire cup structure is essentially one big magnet. The Pioneer, on the other hand, lacks some padding along the top, but is easy to adjust and has a really nice clamping level.
Winner: Pioneer Monitor 10
Looking at them, I initially thought that they DR-Z6 was open at the back. They aren't. With this design, these offer really impressive isolation from outside noise. Once worn, even someone a few feet away would hear basically nothing at moderate listening levels. The Monitor 10 offers a very similar level of isolation.
Listening Test: Damien Rice - The Blower's Daughter
The balance of instruments and excellent recording make this one of my consistent first listening test songs. On the Pioneer Monitor 10, a nice balance is created between the various instruments. Instrument separation is also clear, but the headstage is fairly narrow. The vocal tone is excellent, and the cello has a nice level of body and warmth. In the second verse, the arrival of the bass is noticeable without dominating. Small details--the tapping of the guitar, etc.--are audible without sticking out. Overall, the Monitor 10 is a pleasant and mellow way to listen to this song.
On the DR-Z6, the treble is immediately more clear. It borders on harshness, but doesn't quite reach over that line. It pushes the vocals forward a bit, but also takes just a bit of warmth out of the cello. The DR-Z6 is definitely more detailed, though, making guitar string scrapes clearly audible throughout. There's also a much more expansive sound stage, feeling far more open than the Pioneers. The bass level is perfect, with more impact and a more natural tone than the Monitor 10. While I wouldn't really describe this experience as mellow, the increased sound stage and detail are welcome.
Listening Test: Elbow - Grounds for Divorce
This track really emphasizes the impact of dynamic range. Here, the DR-Z6's crisp treble really works. The snap of the drums sound great, and the vocals are never drowned out. Once again, there is a great sense of space as well, Much like the Beyerdynamic DT48, it's almost possible to hear the recording studio. The bass has a nice level of impact--these will never be basshead phones, but they reach down nice and deep for this use. Things sound a bit overwhelming during the chaotic bridge section, but it handles the busy passages without any congestion. While they might sound even better from a slightly warmer source, this is a great way to listen to Elbow.
Moving to the Monitor 10, the vocals sound a little less forward once again, and there seems to be a bit of resonance somewhere in the treble range. The bass has a similar level of impact once again, but it doesn't have the clarity or definition that the Sony does. The Monitor 10 sound like closed headphones in a way that the DR-Z6 doesn't. That said, a slight drop off in treble really brings out the backup vocals in a pleasant way. There is no real congestion here in busy passages either, but the Monitor 10 doesn't hold its own in the area that I am using this track for: dynamic impact. The song sounds excellent, but it doesn't quite pop the way it should.
Listening Test: Solomon Burke - None of Us are Free
This is my male vocal test. Burke has a nice, deep baritone that can result in issues with many headphones. The Pioneer Monitor 10 does a fine job in this regard, adding a nice richness to his vocal work here. The Monitor 10 does an uncanny job with guitar as well, though the organ gets a bit lost in the mix at times. Still, this is a great way to listen to this track. It has a warmth, but the drum treble is nicely mixed. The sound stage features nice separation, and the backup vocals sit nicely in the mix. Few headphones create this nice of a mix on this track.
By this point in the comparison, the result of switching to the DR-Z6 is exactly as expected. Burke's voice is a little less rich, but more forward and clear. In fact, this might be a more accurate representation of his vocal work. The drums also step out a bit more in the mix, but the guitar is even better, drawing out the sound of the guitar, not just the notes--if that makes sense. Once again, the bass also has better impact here. The organ is interesting. With the Monitor 10, the organ sounded like it had a place in the sound stage. With the DR-Z6, the reflection and ripple of the organ through the space can be heard, as can happen with amplified instruments in a real space. It is easier to pull specific backup singers out of the mix, and while a little bit of the warmth is lost, the DR-Z6 definitely wins out with the clarity, depth and precision.
Listening Test: Melody Gardot - Over the Rainbow
For female vocals, I've picked Gardot's classy and very well-mastered cover of Over the Rainbow. The instrumental section at the front end also is a great test of sound stage and depth. I'm not surprised that the DR-Z6 does a great job here, though it doesn't have quite the width or depth of some of the open headphones I've tried, though all headphones have design limitations. It is pretty much perfect in voice representation, though, as Gardot's voice is about as stunning as I've heard. While the DR-Z6 does has sharp treble, her voice has plenty of body. It isn't shrill, it isn't nasal, it isn't chesty--truly exceptional. Again, even in pretty busy sections of this song, nothing ever gets lost in the background or overwhelmed.
The Pioneer Monitor 10 does a great job with this track too, but the results are pretty much exactly the same: The vocals are pulled back a bit, the sound stage loses a bit of depth, and some clarity is lost. I realize this makes it sound like the Monitor 10 is bad, but it isn't. The tonality is quite similar, and it also shows off Gardot's voice without any weird tonality issues. After the DR-Z6, though, it just sounds kind of flat.
Winner: Sony DR-Z6
Either of these headphones would be great ways to try out vintage cans. They make me wonder what we've accomplished in the last 30 years of design, engineering and manufacturing developments, if anything. In terms of the difference, I would say this: the increase in bass and treble extension on the Sony DR-Z6 makes a significant difference, and that frequency response isn't everything. The result? The Pioneer Monitor 10 has a strange knack for making everything sound just right. The Sony DR-Z6 has a mysterious way of making things come alive. Neither pair is going to be leaving my collection anytime soon.