Few other ultra-rare, out-of-production full-sized dynamic headphones are as polarizing as the SONY MDR-010 Qualias amongst audiophiles who had the opportunity to see, touch and audition them. Yet, with only 220 copies of them in existence--the last production model is exhibited at the SONY museum in Tokyo, Japan--purely by their visual presence of their design and the price tag they now command, they have become the Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera of reference headphones. And just like the limited edition Lambo, they are not for everyone.
I have been trying to acquire one of these works of art for some time now for my collection. Luckily, an opportunity has presented itself due to a courtesy of another member of this forum to audition one in my own home and system. He had been considering selling them but wanted to make sure that I knew what I was getting into for the very same reasons I have started in the Foreword. Due to fortunate timing, I had just
returned a few days earlier from the Carolina Can Fest, where I had the opportunity to purchase a few goodies, such as a Ray Samuels Audio Apache Solid State headphone amp, several reference interconnects from Whiplash Audio, and other stuff not related to this review. My trusty SONY DVP-9100ES Modwright Platinum Truth Package SACD Player--which has since been upgraded away for a Cary Audio 303T Pro hybrid transport--has served as the source, when I got to unpack and plug in the Qualias the first time into the Apache, knowing that my system was capable enough to at least allow some of the incredibly wide frequency response range of the Qualias to surface.
The Initial Listening Session
Although I admit, just holding the famed, featherlight Qualias in my paws was an experience itself, when I plugged in the stock single-ended cable into the Apache and started listening, I was...underwhelmed. No matter which of my favorite reference recordings I have tried--from Bella Sonus thru Jacintha to Jazz at the Pawnshop--the Qualias sounded unlike any headphone i have ever heard, and not just in a good way.
Next to my favorite JH13s and JH16s, these were by far the most comfortable headphones of any kind I ever had the opportunity to adorn my melon head. The Medium headbands were just the right size for me and when I positioned them correctly, the weight seemed to disappear in a strange sensation as if the Qualias somehow were able to define gravity. Actually that is the first thought that came to mind when I had seen the first pictures of these just sitting on top of their custom headphone stands. As to the sound; it seemed to have emanated from all around in an impressive, completely three-dimensional headstage. Crystal clear treble with an almost unbearable brightness and clarity were the hallmark of the default sound stage, at least thru the Apache. From an instrument separation and placement standpoint, the Qualias were head and shoulders above any other dynamic headphone I owned or auditioned before, but there were critical shortcomings as well.
It never ceases to amaze me that headphone manufacturers--perhaps with the exception of the new Ultrasone Edition 10s--routinely release even their top-tier models with merely average, or even below-average quality cables. After my initial experience, I would rank the Qualia stock cables in between the latter or the "to be hidden forever in the box" category. The microphonics were just plainly awful; the slightest turn of my head to left or right would cause audible reverberance throughout. Acoustically, bass rendering was nearly non-existent, except for a slight presence in the upper-bass, lower mid-range. What I heard was nowhere near what I would characterize as a balanced presentation, certainly not good enough to justify the price of three brand newSennheiser HD800s, the closest match to this sound signature I have heard before (no, I haven't heard the MDR-SA5Ks).
So, what did I do, you ask? I have promptly wrote out a check for the thing, for two reasons:
- I simply could not let something so uniquely beautiful escape my grabby paws
- I have been betting on the well-founded hope--based on prior experience--refer to the link in my signature block below for my previous review, "Duel of the Xes" describing the sonic improvements the new Whiplash Audio Elite Reference X Series cables made to my HD600s and 800s--and immediately fired off an email requesting a custom replacement cable from Craig. Luckily--unlike the R10s--the Qualias have been designed with detachable cables featuring the so-called Lemo connectors, so replacing the cable should not be that difficult....or so I thought.
The New Cable Arrives
Turns out, the Qualia Lemo connectors are not easily obtained from your local Radio Shack. Even after Craig was able to hunt a few down, making the cable has been taken some doing as the Lemos were much smaller than the comparable Sennheiser HD800 plugs. But in a week, the new cable has finally arrived. My hands were shaking a bit when I plugged them in the first time, but that stress quickly dissolved into relief as the welcome presence of the TWag signature sound improvements began to fuse into the Qualia sound and, just like in the case of the Sennheiser cans, the difference was immediately noticeable and distinct, despite the fact that at this point, this was a fresh cable, without any pre-burn. The head stage became even bigger, the tonal imbalance has significantly subsided with more pronounced mids and bass tonality without affecting the outstanding treble clarity that seemed to reach into stratospheric highs without any detectable treble rolloff. To be fair, that was present even with the stock cable, but that brightness has smoothed out as if someone placed a UV filter in font if that light source an enhanced the picture without darkening it.
Update: After 300 Hours of TWag Reference X Burn-In
All TWag cables require at least 300 hours to fully open up, so I knew my investment was just starting to pay off. Fast forward 2 and 1/2 weeks of continuous burn-in and the Qualias have really started to sing. Those of you who have had the opportunity to audition these cans know that "sweet bass" is not the firs sonic characteristic one would associate with them. Nevertheless, mine is now capable of such a feat on this system and with the right recordings. For example, Arne Domnerus' Jazz at the Pawnshop, especially from the Cary 303T Pro in solid-state output/fully balanced mode thru the Apache have become a truly out of body experience, leaving even the Whiplash Reference X-recabled HD800s running for cover in terms of tonal balance, instrument separation, and a three- dimensional soundstage that, to my ears, as of yet unparalleled by any other of my cans.
Enter the Cary SLI80
As impressive as the sound that evolved when paired with the Apache, especially when the Whiplash Reference XLR IC and the Locust/Whiplash Reference power cable upgrade had been added, I have been totally unprepared of the level of smoothness, and warmth achieved by switching to my new Cary SLI80 Signature amp, armed with a full-package of EAT "Gold Lion" KT88 Output tubes, EAT 6SN7 Phase Inverter tubes and 6922 input buffer matched pair (Cool Tubes). Although, this is not an insignificant investment, it does elevate to the already formidable SLI80 to bring out almost organic subharmonic not found in the Apache representation. When listening to the Bella Sonus CD and especially Jacintha's "California Dreaming" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" on SACD, it was difficult to believe these were the very same headphones that gave me such a negative first impression using the stock cable. As I write this, the Cary has not even started to fully burn-in, it has around 15 hours total on it and Cary Audio recommends 100 hours. And even though the SLI80 is not a balanced design, I couldn't detect any narrower soundstage than the Apache can provide with the Qualias in fully balanced mode, which is a testament to not only how good the Cary is, but the added headroom resulting from the EAT tube rolling vs. the stock Cary-supplied tubes.
I have a set of tube upgrades on the way for the 303T Pro as well, because to my ears, solid-state output mode (switchable) sounds a bit better. It will be interesting to see what additional benefit that will bring to the picture.
SONY has had two great reference headphones in the past twenty years, both unique and beautiful in their representation, design and manufacturing process. The R10s have pushed the envelope of the possible what can be created by hand from nothing but the finest natural materials available anywhere. The sound corresponds to this heritage. The Qualias are the antithesis of the R10 in that there is nothing--not even the ear pads--are made from natural material, such as leather. Everything about it is artificial and pushes the envelope in an opposite direction shooting for the same goal; the most accurate, clear representation of music. It's ironic, but not unexpected, that it took a 3rd party cable to achieve that goal.
Update: access issues to above photo libraries have been resolved. Apologies for the inconvenience.
Edited by warp08 - 9/6/10 at 4:09pm