Sony's MDR-1000X

Sony sent me their reasonably-new portable offering, the MDR-1000X. It occupies a section of the market that is relatively saturated at this point, although the main contenders right now are Bose's QC 35 and Sennheiser's PXC 550, both of which I have yet to hear. These make a great bang-for-the-buck in the wireless, over-ear, noise-cancelling category, and man was that a lot of words to get out. They've got a killer, unique feature-set that offers great ease-of-use, with a sound that falls right in line.

Fit and Form

The headphones themselves are almost coated in synthetic leather. From the headband, to the earcups, to the earpads themselves, this material is nigh-everywhere. Speaking of the earpads, as mentioned in my impressions post, they are just about as small as they could be while still being comfortable, and comfortable they are. My pinna are usually extremely sensitive to discomfort, but I experienced none in my time with these. Although they are cozy, certainly, they don't push, pull, or rub on anything unpleasantly. The adjustment system clicks well, and hasn't adjusted without intent while on my head. The clamp is reasonably light, and that does mean that these don't have an iron-grip on the user's head, but they don't fall off unprompted, thankfully. The headband is well-padded, distributing the ~10 ounces of headphone comfortably across the skull.

Aside from materials, the headphones are very attractive. I was sent the tan colorway, and didn't expect to like it, as I usually shoot for as-close-to-black as possible. Contrary to that, they look pretty sleek, as I hope is evidenced by my pictures. Nothing is ostentatious or flamboyant, and they come across as almost blank, aside from the buttons on the left earcup.

Now, the elephant in the room: the creaking. Is it still there? On this unit, not whatsoever. I've heard from other buyers that the design has been updated to avoid this issue, along with the cracking that some users experienced. I can't confirm that, but I haven't experienced a single creak from them in my usage, and obviously have seen no cracking. In fact, to the contrary, they rotate, tilt, and fold absolutely silently and smoothly. No issues here.

Included is a very compact, hard-shelled, zippered carrying case, with a snap-button lanyard that allows the owner to clip them to anything they like, most likely a backpack. I'm not sure I'd trust a pair of $400 headphones to any button, but it requires a bit of force to clasp, so that's up to the user. Also included is a short, micro-USB charging cable and an almost 5 foot long TRS straight 1/8" auxiliary to TRS right-angled 1/8" auxiliary connector cable, for wired use. For a cable, it's a pretty nice one. Not fabric-covered, but nicely flexible, with seemingly good stress relief at both connections points and good connectors. As an aside, Sony claims a very long 20 hour maximum charge on these headphones, with noise-cancelling enabled, and I found that relatively consistent with my use; I never had them die on me in use, but did occasionally top their battery off, so to say.

There's a very long list of features for these headphones, and I'll try to go through them in the most organized way possible. I'll start with the controls, which are very intuitive. A swipe with one finger from the back to the front of right earcup (horizontally) skips forward one track. Reverse that motion, and the track is either restarted or the track prior is started (depending upon the position in the initial track). A swipe from bottom to top (vertically) raises the volume, as signaled by a small beep that does not interrupt the music (thankfully). Reverse that, and the volume is reduced, with another beep. A double tap on the earcup pauses the track or starts playing it, or answers and rejects a phone call. The coolest feature, in my opinion, is what happens if the user places their hand over the right earcup entirely. If done, the music volume drops, and the noises surrounding you are enhanced. Very useful if you only need to hear the outside for a moment, as it is as intuitive as could be and works extremely well. Also on this earcup is the micro-USB input for charging.

On the other earcup are the buttons which control power on/off, noise cancelling (and optimization, which I'll get to in the next paragraph), and ambient noise enhancement. Additionally, here resides the single-ended 1/8" auxiliary input for using the headphones in wired mode. The power button is fairly obvious in its use, hold to turn on, hold to turn off. To put the headphones in to pairing mode, the user continues to hold it after the headphones have powered on, and then finds the device labelled, "MDR-1000X," in their Bluetooth menu. Speaking of Bluetooth, this headphones supports aptX, and Sony's proprietary LDAC wireless streaming codec, which claims to offer up to 990 kbps over wireless streaming. While that spec is impressive, I did not have an LDAC-enabled product to test with, so I cannot comment on its efficacy. The ambient noise button interested me. Its function, when pressed, is to (instead of cancel out outside noise) enhance the noise of your surroundings. It works very well, having the somewhat creepy effect of even enhancing your own voice when speaking, as well as those of the people around you. I could see this being very useful in airport or train station situations, where announcements over the loudspeakers may be critical and otherwise missed. There are two modes to this function, one being for voices specifically and one being for all surrounding noises. What the voice cuts out is, apparently, the low-end frequencies, leaving just the mid- and high-frequencies, which highlights voices slightly better.

So: the last button, and arguably the most interesting. Starting with the obvious: the noise-cancelling. It works tremendously well, cutting out fans, wind, and nature. I have tried, extensively, the noise-cancelling on Bose's QC 25, and this easily has it beat, but I haven't had the opportunity to hear Bose's (or Sennheiser's) newest offerings, so I, regrettably, cannot offer a direct comparison there. Regardless of that, it does a wonderful job, which becomes more apparent after sitting with it on for a minute, with no music, and then turning it off. All rooms become pretty loud, in comparison. Now, what I alluded to above. Holding this button down for 2 seconds starts a process for the "optimizer". I'll quote Sony here to give a first-person perspective as to what this serves to do:

This function analyzes the wearing condition such as the face shape, hair style, and presence or absence of eyeglasses to optimize the noise canceling performance. It is recommended that you perform this function when using the headset for the first time.

My understanding of this function is that it measures, using a microphone inside the earcup, the way that sound reflects and refracts off of the particular peculiarities of the specific user's head, and adjusts the compensation of the noise-cancelling to better cancel out noise. I didn't notice a huge difference, but the hair on the sides of my head is short, I have fairly average size pinna, and I rarely wear glasses, so there weren't many obstructions to compensate for in the first place.

Sound

With all of that out of the way, let's get to what matters most in any headphone: the sound. These have a slightly V-shaped sound signature, but not so much so that the mids recess to point of seeming distant. This has become very common to my ears, with the majority of consumer-oriented offerings taking this approach. Bass is emphasized, and a little bit slow, but well textured. The mids have a tilt towards lush. They can stray a little bit from natural as a result, but it comes across more as a bit of extra coherence to itself than truly unnatural presentation. The treble, which extends very easily, allows a good sense for harmonics and air in the music, lending back a bit of naturalness to the sound signature.

Soundstage is very good, with good radial extension and height, for a closed-back pair of headphones. They don't touch open-backs, of course, but they do a very competent job, especially for this price bracket and for this targeted audience. Imaging and separation are just okay, as instruments and vocal lines can sometimes blend together a bit, particularly in more dense and intense tracks.

Bass

Songs used: Be Somebody by Clams Casino featuring A$AP Rocky & Lil B, Side B (Dope Song) by Danny Brown, and The Entangled by Noisia

The bass is the noticeable emphasis of this headphones. It is satisfying and full, with great slam and punch. It isn't the fastest out there, but it surely isn't sloppy, by any means. I've just come off Noble Audio's Kaiser Encore and King Sound's KS-H3, so I have admittedly gotten accustomed to very, very fast bass, but this certainly isn't anything bad in comparison. There is a little less control, generally, but they retain good competency in texture. Sub-bass extension is satiating and has great rumble. These generally (as we'll get to in the next couple sections) remain very competent in terms of sound, even though so much attention has been paid of their feature-set in R&D.

Key descriptors: full, satisfying, and robust

Mids

Songs used: Don't Drink the Water by Dave Matthews Band, Are You Serious by Andrew Bird, and Halelyah by Avishai Cohen Trio

It's odd, but the mids are a high point of these headphones, in my opinion. Although slightly recessed, in not-bass-heavy music, it isn't particularly noticeable. They are not the steel-edged accurate that Kaiser Encore or the KS-H3 are, but they aren't sloppy or soupy, by any means. They air towards lush, in a way that makes them seem slightly fluid. This is also partly the responsibility of the imaging and separation. This is all very weird for me to say, because, in a way, their lack of total technical competence makes them a much easier listen than some headphones. Sure, analytically speaking, these are points off, but in a casual listen, they are very enjoyable, and I can respect that. Vocals come through as slightly back from center, but not that much, when compared to something like the Cascadia Audio Talos. Instruments fill the soundstage, without too much separation between them; this is part of the "cohesive image" to which I've vaguely referred to throughout this review. Vocals have pretty good realism, but some acoustic instruments (plucked violin was the one that struck me) can come across as a little bit synthetic, as a result of the lushness of this frequency range.

Key descriptors: lush, recessed, and pleasant

Treble

Songs used: As This Moment Slips Away by The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, Ageispolis by Aphex Twin, and Ukiah by The Doobie Brothers

The treble helps these headphones along the way to a pleasant sound signature, as I oftentimes find to be the case. The extension allows for a relatively realistic portrayal of most instruments (excluding the aforementioned) and vocals. Harmonics are well-presented, with good faith to source. Where the mids were a tad lush for my technical side, the treble is precise enough to render cymbals well, which is a tall order. The "tang" and decay are presented properly, with the texture of China cymbals, although short-lived, being conveyed accurately. Props to Sony here. More generally speaking, there is a good sense of space and air to the music, as a result of this frequency range. I noticed very little peakiness, and almost no sibilance, save for a few rare cases. Additionally, I never felt that the sound became grating or fatiguing in general listening, even over extended periods of time.

Key descriptors: light, detailed, and airy

Minutia and Miscellaneous

I do have two, small design nitpicks to offer. The first is that I wish that these headphones rotated the opposite way that they do. What I mean is that, when I take them off my head, the earcups rotate 90 degrees towards me. I wish it were the opposite, simply so that they could then easily be set down on a table, without having to twist my wrists so much, such that they'd rest on the earpads, not the earcups. Additionally, the only issue that I've had with the touch controls is not incidental adjustments while on the head, but while taking them off my head. I've had a track skipped a few times when taking them off my head momentarily. However, I have learned very quickly to simply claw my hands slightly, so as to not touch the earcups when taking them off. Not a huge issue, but something that I noticed.

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Wrap-Up

This has been a long review, with the majority of the word-count falling to features. I expected this when I started, as there is just so much to cover. Almost all of the design is extremely well-executed, save for two physical issues I encountered, as mentioned right above this section. The controls are extremely intuitive and work almost perfectly, after a little bit of learning. Speaking of the design, it is physically very attractive and almost understated. No big "Sony" logo branding or flashy colors, just a very pretty, aesthetically pleasing pair of headphones. The sound may not be the most technically pleasing, as it lacks some key qualities that I look for in a headphone, but, in case I haven't made it clear thus far, these make for a very enjoyable casual listen. They suit their marketed purpose damn well, without many missteps. If you're in the market for a pair of portable, noise-cancelling, over-ear, wireless headphones, these may be your ticket, as Sony has included everything that could be reasonably expected, and a lot more.

Disclaimers

These headphones were provided to me for review by Sony. I am not being paid by anyone to write this review, to endorse the product reviewed, or for the content that I put in the review.

These headphones were powered by a Google Pixel, a Neurochrome HP-1, and an iFi Pro iCan.

I have had these headphones for about two weeks, and I have put about 20 hours of analytical listening through them during that period.

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