New MDR-1R owner here. These are getting better the more I listen to them. Have to say many of the reviews on head-fi pushed me to get them, plus I got an incredible deal on them with complete warranty including accidental damage.
Still, I was surprised that one of my current headphones beat it solidly in a couple areas.
For years I've been happy with my Shure SHR-840, and I used it for mainly gaming , piano practice and music production. Oddly, I don't really listen to a lot of music on it. For all the reasons I like it for studio purposes seem to work against it for music enjoyment. They are still awesome headphones though.
My main portable has been a Sony MDR-EX600, but it has mainly been at my office and has not seen enough use. Initially I was impressed with it, but it always seemed quite harsh and sibilant. Adding to this, I find music can be distracting for work, and I've been mostly using them to listen to the Naturespace app on ios, which are binaural environment recordings.
Over the last couple days I've been pitting all of these phones against each other, unamped from an iPhone 4S. I don't have a dedicated headphone amp, but I do have more powerful amps to test on later (rotel, Steinberg UR22, Yamaha P155).
So here are my impressions:
This was one of things that first caught my attention at the Sony Store listening to the MDR-1r, was how comfortable they were. But they feel a bit clampy on my big head, and my old 840s have it beat here. I could wear the 840s for hours and aside from a bit of heft, they are very comfortable. The Mdr-ex600 is also very comfortable, and fits my ears perfectly. I'm thinking over time the 1r will loosen up.
The Shure SRH-840 is the best here, closely followed by the Sony IEM, and then the MDR-1r.
Isolation: none of these headphones isolate too much, but for me the MDR-1r is the better of the three.
Build: the ex600 take this, followed by the Mdr-1r then the 840
Imaging: MDR-1r beats both, followed by the 840 then the ex600. Perhaps the biggest problem with the ex600 is that everything just sounds hard panned, it's hard to position instruments. Tried it out gaming and that was a mistake, the 840s worked fine for modern FPS (csgo, bf3). Made more evident, with the mdr-1r I was able to hear a very natural violin performance right in front of me, not real enough to reach out, but pretty good, whereas the two other headphones couldn't pull this off. For my office applications listening to binaural environment sounds using Naturespace, the MDR-1r is incredible. From the pitter patter of rain, to birds soaring overhead and insects making sounds along the ground, the imaging was solid. They handily beat the ex600 and the 840.
Resolution: MDR-Ex600 edges out the MDR-1r here. The pure sonics of instruments are more clearly reproduced by the ex600, it surprised me and I played a wide range of music and in all cases the ex600 edged out its newer brethren. Wow. I was just starting to appreciate the Ex600 the day I bought the MDR-1r, but wasn't quite sure they were as good as what I was hearing. Overall, my Ex600s have seen little playtime, but I'm starting to really appreciate them. The Mdr-1r are brand new though. So this may change, and actually between these two headphones you get a sense that there is a relation, maybe a Sony sound.
Must be noted that the MDR-1r have a "natural" presentation. Warm but with enough presence. Seem to do better at quieter listening, which is fine by me. Turning up the MDR-1r does not help it, whereas cranking the ex600 just give you more of it what it is, which can be a very good thing for those moments when you need it.
Treble: this is harder for me to evaluate. One thing that turned me off from the Ex600 was that it was ear piercing, whether it was shakers or hats, they seem to scrape in my ear. But lately either I've adjusted or they've changed but they seem much better. I think I'm going to give it to the Mdr-1r just because they are less fatiguing. The ex600 may be more neutral though, but it does sound like something is a bit odd up there.
Mid-range: actually all of these sets are pretty great here. I think I prefer the MDR-1r overall, but more for its overall presentation. The ex600 technically may outperform it here too though.
Bass: okay this where the ex-600 leaves the MDR-1r behind. For a while I've been thinking that I needed more bass quantity out of the ex600, not realizing how good their quality was. Out of all the headphones I've owned, from slamming hd25s to k271, the ex600 is solid, taught and well defined. Comparing it to the MDR-1r I'd be listening to even guitar plucks, acoustic bass notes, and the ex600 had not just more bass presence but hit you emotionally whereas it just wasn't there with the mdr-1r. In one way I'm happy that these little headphones pull this off but sad that my new ones are missing something. Can't have it all in one phone? (well I probably could had I just bought one headphone instead of all of these ).
That said, the MDR-1r is still very enjoyable, and perhaps it is an area amping can improve on. Supposedly its there according to the specs, so we'll see. Actually even now I'm listening to some old school drum n bass, where the Mdr-1r has more of that 'tubby' bass reproduced than the Ex600. But switching back to the ex600, yes it's extending lower.
The Shure 840 doesn't quite cut it here. It is less defined than the Mdr-1r. A little loose, not the headphones strength. Not bad though.
Overall Impressions: it's a bit of mixed bag isn't it. What it comes down to is that the 840s are a solid headphone for what they are designed for and they are still enjoyable even without being the most musical if that makes sense. With their coiled cord, good fit, and sweet midrange these are now relegated to piano and gaming duty. I can see why i havent used them for music, they are not the most engaging. The Mdr-1r present themselves more like a set of speakers and you get sense of real space. With the Mdr-ex600, not only does everything feel panned, but it feels like someone lowered the ceilings and raised the floors - the sound field is bit squashed. Now, you can adapt, and the ex600 has plenty to offer sonically in a small package, and if you are listening to electronic music where the stereo field may not be the most realistic then this is fine. The ex600 is also great for classical, solo piano, and vocal.
The Mdr-1r is laid back, and could benefit from a bit more detail and deep accurate bass, but for the most part it is doing many things very well that add up to a rich and luscious experience. You can enjoy music with these, they have musicality, and they've passed the test where they make you want to get up and bust a move.
If anything, getting this headphone has actually made me appreciate my other headphones more.