Sony MDR-1000X wireless headphones review: a worthy alternative

Sony MDR-1000x Cover

When you show off your Sony MDR-1000X wireless headphones, people aren’t going to notice its premium looks or its high-tech wizardry. They are going to express their incredulity at its price, first and foremost. And you can’t blame them either. At an eye-watering ₹31,000, these headphones make you wonder if they are really worth all that dough.

Expensive Doesn’t Mean Better

Then again, that’s roughly the going price for a premium wireless headphone experience these days. The Bose QuietComfort 35 is about 600 bucks short of 30 grand, whereas the Sennheiser Momentum is 5 grand dearer at ₹35,000. It’s clear that the industry standard for a compelling electronically noise-cancelled wireless headphone experience is around the ₹30,000 mark.

But here’s the kicker. Spending all that money doesn’t quite ensure a superlative aural experience. Not even close. Pretty much anything from AKG or Beyerdynamic that costs half as much would beat any of these wireless headphones hollow when it comes to audio quality. In fact, the $100 Alessandro Grado MS1i or any of Audio Technica’s AD series of open-back headphones will beat the stuffing out of these expensive wireless headphones for a fraction of the cost.

Hidden Costs of Going Wireless

Then again, it’s unfair to compare plain-vanilla open-back wired headphones with wireless headsets. This is all the more true for the ones that incorporate noise cancellation technology and the capability to handle high bitrate audio. That’s a lot of expensive electronics, wireless radios, noise cancellation hardware, and processing circuitry crammed on top of what’s already supposed to go into a pair of regular headphones. And, let’s not forget batteries either. Plain vanilla headphones get away being cheaper because they depend upon external sources to process the sound.

Sony MDR-1000X Design
To put this into perspective, my $100 Alessandro Grado MS1i headphones sound at their full potential only when I pair them to a $168 Audinst HUD-MX1 dedicated DAC. Premium wireless headphones such as the Sony MDR-1000X, on the other hand, must incorporate hardware of equivalent calibre if they are to sound good in the wireless mode. Then, on top of that, you have the R&D cost of overcoming the low bandwidth of the Bluetooth interface with proprietary technologies such as LDAC and the licensing fees associated with implementing Qualcomm’s aptX wireless codec. Moreover, let’s not forget that this a niche market where the cost-reducing virtues of economies of scales don’t hold true. That’s when you begin to realise why premium noise-cancelling wireless headphones cost a fortune.

Understated Design

Now that we have established why Sony’s MDR-1000X costs a bomb, you might wonder why it still isn’t apparent just by looking at it. That’s a good thing because most decent folks definitely don’t hanker for blinged-up abortion of a headset adorning their heads. You might want to check out Beats by Dre if you have such proclivities. The MDR-1000X is all about maintaining a discreet understated look. The all-black circumaural design is supposed to blend in inconspicuously, without calling much attention to itself or the wearer. In effect, you can wear these outdoors without ending up looking like too much of a douchebag. But let’s face it, even the subtle design of the MDR-1000X is going to help only to a certain degree, especially since the Bombay Vikings has amply demonstrated that you’re going to look like a douche no matter what you do when wearing headphones outdoors.

The headphones blend an old-school look of the large circumaural ear cups with all the technology crammed inconspicuously within the enclosure. The buttons for Power, Noise Cancellation, Ambient Sound (all with intuitive tactile bumps), and the 3.5 mm TRS jack are all hidden at the bottom of the left ear cup, whereas the right one houses a solitary Micro-USB charging port. The outer surface of the ear cups also doubles up as a touchpad that accepts gestures for controls such as playing, pausing, and skipping tracks, in addition to adjusting the volume. I especially like how you can simply cup both (or just the right) touchpads with your palms to instantly mute the sound and remove your hands to resume the audio feed.

This comes handy when you wish to have a conversation seamlessly without fumbling for the pause/mute button on your PMP/media player. The only problem is that the touchpad doesn’t have any indentation or other such tactile marking to locate the centre point. That makes it difficult to get the play/pause functions right the first time, since you most likely won’t hit the centre of the touchpad. However, these are small niggles that get ironed out once you achieve the muscle memory required for ensuring 100-percent accuracy. Over time, I did find the touch controls to be quite reliable and an absolute pleasure to use.

Sony MDR-1000X Comfort
Solid Build Quality

A pair of microphones on each ear cup are cleverly occluded by the gymbal mounts that allow the enclosures to be pivoted and swivelled around to achieve a perfect fit. As expected, the assembly allows the ear cups to swivel flat and fold further inwards to reduce the overall footprint for easy storage. The mechanism exudes quality and seems to employ high quality bearings and extremely tight tolerances to achieve the sort of smoothness and refinement one would expect from headphones costing nearly as much as an entry-level motorcycle.

The MDR-1000X is quite lightweight for wireless circumaural headphones, and therefore comfortable too. The leatherette ear cups are designed to trap in and enhance the lower frequencies, but they surprisingly didn’t get as hot and sweaty as I had expected. The fit is snug and pleasant thanks to just the right amount of foam padding, which allows the headphones to be worn for an extended period of time without any discomfort. A similar padding is found on the headband that can be extended to fit heads of all sizes. The clamping pressure has been finely tuned to strike the best balance between optimum isolation and comfort. As a result, the MDR-1000X achieves excellent mechanical noise cancellation without any discomfort of aggressive clamping.

Innovative Approach to Noise Cancellation

However, that isn’t the only way the headphones cut off ambient noise. At the heart of this lies a sophisticated electronic noise cancellation circuitry that relies on microphones assigned for each ears. The external noise captured is then run through a sophisticated algorithm to create an out-of-phase audio signal that cancels out all ambient noise to a startlingly great degree. The result is on par with that of Bose, which is considered the industry leading standard. With or without music, the noise cancellation system can completely filter out ambient noise indoors such as that of fans and conversations; however, loud external music at the gym will still filter through, but the intensity is greatly reduced, with almost all lower frequencies attenuated.

Having said that, you can still listen to your music in the gym without much hassle, but the bulk and the prohibitive price tag of the MDR-1000X would make any sane person reconsider. The headphones still do a pretty fine job of cutting outdoor disturbances such as traffic, but you’ll be fine as long as you don’t expect pin drop silence. The net effect is nevertheless better than any triple-flange IEM can achieve, and that too without the accompanying discomfort of having your ears stuffed with silicone. Full marks to Sony for that. The MDR-1000X, however, goes a step further and also mitigates the risks associated with cutting off external noise, especially on the roads.

Sony MDR-1000X Controls
Clever Implementation of Audio Processing

The dedicated Ambient Sound button makes good use of the pair of noise cancellation microphones to allow certain audio frequencies such as car horns and traffic noises to filter through to ensure safety. The same feature also has a voice only mode that only allows the frequencies associated with human speech to pass through, thereby allowing you to listen to music while having a conversation. That’s a good way to ensure that you only look rude, without actually being rude to people trying to have a conversation with you. But jokes aside, I found this feature pretty convenient to hear my gym trainer barking at me to take off the headphones and focus on the workout even while listening to music. However, that also meant that the vocals from the gym’s own audio system also filtered through. Well, like they say, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The Personal NC Optimiser is a nifty feature that mimics the setup algorithm found in high-end multi-channel A/V receiver systems. Like its home theater cousin, it essentially sends out test tones and uses the same to measure and crunch data on the size and shape of your ears and head in relation to the position of the headphones. While I noticed no change in audio quality after running the Personal NC Optimiser (for obvious reasons), it did have a palpable effect on the positional accuracy (imaging and soundstaging) of the sound and the efficacy of the noise cancellation system. Features such as these are great examples of technology and engineering being leveraged to offer something meaningful, and that, I believe goes a long way towards justifying the product’s prohibitive sticker price.

One of my major concerns regarding audio quality was the fact that the MDR-1000X employs Sony’s proprietary Digital Sound Enhancement Engine HX (DSEE HX), which essentially upscales compressed formats such as MP3, ACC, ATRAC, and WMA to high-resolution standards. The idea is to restore the low and high frequencies that these formats drop while trying to minimise the file size. The scary bit is that there’s no on/off switch for the feature, which means it will cut in automatically for most lossy file formats, which includes audio being played on YouTube, Spotify, or any other streaming service as well. In other words, if the algorithm does a bad job of upsampling, you’re stuck with it forever. Thankfully, that isn’t the case. The DSEE HX does a great job of upsampling lossy file formats, while enhancing bass and treble without sounding too artificial. This could have been a deal breaker, but credit goes to Sony engineers for fine tuning it enough to make the feature a worthwhile addition.

Caveat Emptor

Before we even begin to cover the raw sound quality of the headphones, let me reiterate what I had mentioned at the outset. Do not expect to buy the Sony MDR-1000X expecting it to be the pinnacle of aural fidelity. The fact remains that audiophile grade open-back headphones costing half as much can easily humiliate these headphones in terms of sound quality, whereas some even cheaper gems (around $100 or ₹6000-7000 mark) from the Grado and Audio Technica stables also end up sounding better.

Sony MDR-1000X Case
The wireless bluetooth headset technology is nascent and hasn’t been around long enough as its traditional wired cousins, so the price you pay to achieve similar levels of sound quality in a wireless package is bound to be high. The Sony MDR-1000X is among the rare breed of high-end wireless headphones which employ technologies such as LDAC and aptX that allow them to handle high bitrate lossless formats without dropping any bits. The amount of R&D and cost associated with incorporating wireless hardware and processing circuitry means that these ₹31,000 wireless headphones cannot possibly sound as good as ₹31,000 wired headphones.

Certainly Not an Ace of Base

With that out of the way, I have one serious reservation with the Sony headphones. The bass output is pretty bad, even when you consider the aforementioned factors. It’s loose, lacks definition and tightness, and I’ll even go as far as to say that the lower bass frequencies end up sounding a tad bit distorted. I can forgive the slight mid-bass hump, but the lack of overall bass fidelity (especially in the deeper frequencies) means that the headphones’ audio signature ends up lacking authority, which in turn makes it unsuitable for hip-hop, trap, and other genres of music that depend heavily on bass extension.

Is this a damning indictment on the MDR-1000X? Well, far from it to be honest. Interestingly, this lack of bass fidelity is something I have noticed on pretty much every single wireless headphone I have tried to varying degrees. And you’re mistaken if you believe ultra expensive ones such as these should be exempt from this fatal flaw. I recently experienced that gremlin on Samsung’s Gear IconX and here’s Chris Ziegler from The Verge finding the exact same issue with the ₹30,000 Bose QuietComfort 35. I haven’t heard on the slightly more expensive Sennheiser Momentum wireless headphones, but I won’t be surprised if those were plagued with the same issue. At the end of the day, whether or not this serves as a deal breaker is a value judgment you will have to make; knowing well that at least two out of three wireless headphones in this segment have the same damning flaw.

Premium Wireless Aural Experience

Once you take the wonky bass variable out of the equation, the Sony MDR-1000X really begins to shine. While the treble is rolled off slightly at the extremes, you will not get the sort of shimmer and sparkle that you expect from high-end Grados or AKGs. However, the Sony headphones have a pleasingly neutral sound signature, with none of the treble harshness evident in Bose and most other wireless headsets. The fair amount of distance between the ears and drivers, when combined with the steeply-angled driver plane allows the headphones to achieve excellent soundstaging and imaging. This was amply evident in the Chesky Record audio sampler, where the cathedral recordings could be resolved well both vertically and horizontally. The crisp, clear nature of the treble also meant that the separation between the instruments as well as their positioning in the soundstage was on point in the excellently mic’d jazz test recordings.

Sony MDR-1000X Case Cable
The MDR-1000X is slightly skewed towards the warmer side of neutral, with a fair emphasis on the vocals, and they do tend to stand out in the various recordings that I auditioned. The pleasing acoustic signature also meant that the vocals that I’m familiar with such as Carla Lother, Duncan Sheik, Holly Brook and others from my selection of favourites sounded closer to their natural tone, with little to no colouring. This is pretty damn good for a closed-back headphone design, which naturally tends to colour the sound. The transients sounded great as long as the test audio tracks didn’t include too much bass. That means, the MDR-1000X performed well with the heavy transients in the jazz recordings, but lost its composure in the orchestral recordings with a lot of instruments crowding the lower end of the frequency spectrum. However, in real-world usage, the problem with bass isn’t too evident with regular rock and pop recordings. Chances are, most of you won’t even notice it unless you know what you’re looking for.

Incorporating Best Wireless Hardware with Potent Battery

Interestingly, the headphones sounded nearly identical in the wireless as well as wired modes, with the wired one being only slightly better. This is pretty kickass considering the fact that I had hooked up the MDR-1000X to the high quality Audinst HUD-MX1 dedicated DAC. In other words, Sony has spared no expense on the wireless hardware and the onboard amplifier/DAC. In fact, the overall audio fidelity is only limited by the drivers. In layman’s terms, that means these headphones incorporate some genuinely high quality hardware considering the fact that the wireless sound quality is pretty damn good; especially, once you ignore the issue with bass that affects virtually all wireless headsets.

Let’s not forget the fact that these headphones come with a battery. And experience tells me that anything with a battery tends to suck big time. Thankfully, the MDR-1000X claims to have a battery life of 20 hours with noise cancellation and 22 without the same. It’s really hard to keep track of this parameter on a device like this, but I found that the actual real-world endurance came pretty close to that figure. The only sore point is that Sony doesn’t provide a power adapter, so you’ll have to plug the provided (thank heavens) Micro-USB cable to your PC to charge up the headphones. This, however, takes a dismal four hours to achieve a full charge, so bear that in mind.

A Compelling Argument

Once you factor all these variables, the Sony MDR-1000X makes for a compelling argument. Yes, it has a prominent flaws with its bass delivery but, then again, which wireless headphone doesn’t? Its closest competitor, the Bose QuietComfort 35, has the same flaw but with the additional caveat of a slightly more harsh treble-heavy sound. The MDR-1000X on the other hand genuinely sounds like a premium headphone, with accurate treble, great tonal balance, and spot-on imaging as well as soundstaging. Furthermore, the noise cancellation is potent and on par with the best in the industry, while being bolstered with some clever examples of audio processing such as the safety conscious Ambient Sound modes, home theater-esque Personal NC Optimiser, and an inbuilt upsampler that actually works well.

The onboard wireless hardware and DAC/amplifier circuitry is pretty high quality as well, which is complemented well by the high bandwidth formats such as LDAC and aptX. And all of this technological wizardry has been crammed into an understated, old-school black chassis that allows intuitive touch and gesture based control over your music. All that, without going for the obnoxious wannabe Sci-Fi/gaming look. I would have otherwise docked points for the inherent bass issues, but since this problem affects the entire segment and its closest competitor, I’m going to ignore that bit and give a hearty recommendation to the Sony MDR-1000X.

Sony MDR-1000X

₹ 29440
8

Design and build quality

9.0/10

Features

9.5/10

Sound quality

7.0/10

Value for money

6.5/10

Battery

8.0/10

What Is Good?

  • Excellent noise cancellation
  • Nifty and reliable touch controls
  • Classy design and premium build quality
  • Great onboard audio processing
  • High-quality onboard wireless and amplification hardware
  • Quite comfortable
  • Ample battery backup

What Is Bad?

  • Lower bass isn't tight and well defined
  • Power adapter not provided
  • Four hour battery charge time

Thanks for reading till the end of this article. For more such informative and exclusive tech content, like our Facebook page


Content peddler by day and avid gamer by night, Nachiket has been obsessed with computers since the days of the 8086. He has worked with some of the reknowned tech publications and media houses like UTV, Network 18, Digit, Chip, TechTree, Tech2, International Business Times Australia, and DNA. His free time is meant for tinkering with hobby grade R/C, or just sharpening his knives. He also has a kitten named Nigel and is ready to give up his aquariums for him.