Sony MDR-Z7 Headphone Review
A big world needs a big pair of headphones, right?
What is the Sony MDR-Z7?As ever with me, I start this review at a tangent and that tangent is fanboys (I use the term as recognised - I appreciate that the symptoms can be equally applicable to girls too). The fanatical following of a brand, product or person is as old as the hills but has taken on a special… ferocity since the advent of arguing with each other on the internet. Across various categories on AVForums we have people willing to wade into online combat to uphold the worth of their chosen product or brand. These days, I think the honours are shared across a number of brands for most fanatical loyalty but when I started working in this industry, one brand stood out above all others and that brand was Sony.
Sony fanboys were a class apart. They had the absolute assurance of religious fanatics and you could reason with them with about the same levels of point and success. The only reason, they didn’t buy Sony underpants was that the company had omitted to make them. At the centre of this fanatical loyalty was a brand that had come off a long streak of producing truly excellent products. The QS and ES hi-fi ranges were beautifully made and genuinely excellent to listen to. Minidisc was the best portable music option going, Trinitron CRTs were the business and the PS1 was busy issuing a solid kicking to the established console order. There was much to be fanboyish about.
The next decade wasn’t as amenable to Sony though. Flatscreens, portable audio and AV in particular were areas where they saw quite serious falls from grace and the console market would become more aggressively contested (bringing with it new fanboys). Now Sony seems to have its mojo back. The company has moved into 4K with an assurance it never did with flatscreens and the PS4 keeps the X-Box One honest. It is audio though where Sony has really staged a fight back. Having all but abandoned two channel, Sony is back in the category with bold and innovative products. With headphones still big business, this has resulted in a sizeable range of which the MDR-Z7 is the top of the pack. Is it good enough to bring out your inner fanboy?
What are the specs?As the flagship of the current headphone range, Sony has put some serious technical effort into the Z7. Most notable of all of these is obvious when you take them out of the box, because the size of the headphone as a whole has a direct bearing on the size of the driver. The bulk of headphones that are sold today between £100 and £600 use 40mm dynamic drivers. There are some outliers and oddities to this and when you consider more expensive designs like Oppo’s PM-1, their planar drivers have greater radiating area but 40mm is the norm. The Z7 fits a 70mm driver into each enclosure, nigh on doubling the radiating area.
The thinking behind this is interesting and not something I’ve seen before. Sony claims that a 40mm driver produces a hemispherical soundwave (which is true of any dynamic driver) and the size of this theoretical half sphere is small enough that there will be sonic reflections within the driver housing itself before the sound reaches your ears. The larger 70mm driver has a correspondingly larger radiating sphere and this means that in the Z7, the sound reaches your ears without having bounced off anything first.
The driver itself is an aluminium coated liquid crystal polymer which keeps the weight down to that of a standard 40mm driver without compromising structural strength. Of course, this increased radiating area also pays dividends in frequency extension and the Z7 has a claimed frequency response of 3Hz to 100Hz meaning that the Sony is the first single driver product I’ve tested to beat the immense claimed response of the Sennheiser IE800. There is no roll off figure given with the herculean response but all signs point to the Z7 being up to the task of full range playback.
Unusually for a headphone at the price point, the Sony is a closed back design although Sony’s definition of ‘closed back’ extends to there being vents on the underside of each housing - in fairness these don’t appear to leak any noise. This makes the Z7 perfectly suited for use in busy spaces provided that you don’t mind their sheer bulk. And make no mistake, the Z7 is bulky. The requirements of accommodating 70mm drivers has resulted in large housings. There is no folding down or deconstruction and the cord is a 3 metre length typical of home headphones. At least one of the cords is. Sony also supplies a balanced cord with twin inputs and outputs which should give a little jump in performance but was beyond any partnering equipment I have to test.
The Sony is far from small but it is a nice piece of industrial design. One of the ways that Sony has minimised the bulk is by making them extremely simple, almost to the point of minimalism. The driver housings are free of any adornment bar a single Sony logo and the whole design is impressively clean. It is also beautifully made. The Z7 is the first piece of Sony equipment I have tested in quite a while that is actually made in Japan and the build quality of the headphones as a whole is excellent. The Sony is effectively leather and metal in terms of the materials you actually interact with and these feel solid, well thought out and worth the not inconsequential asking price. The resulting design is also comfortable to wear given the fairly hefty 355g weight.
The Sony is far from small but it is a nice piece of industrial design.
Any downsides to the MDR-Z7?In terms of design and build, not that many. If the sheer size of the Z7 is not an issue, then the design is competitive with rivals at the asking price. This being said, if you are the owner of a small head, the Sony is going to take up most of it. Some sort of storage bar the box it comes in might have been a pleasant addition but few rivals are supplied with anything of this nature so the Sony is hardly out on a limb here by not supplying one either. One feature that many rivals do offer that is absent here is the ability to replace the earpads which is something you can’t do with the Z7.
How were they tested?The review sample showed up to work with the Sony NWZ-ZX1 Walkman and was tested both at length as part of an all-Sony system. They were then used with a Chord Hugo headphone preamp and Lenovo T530 ThinkPad running Foobar and a Naim SUPERNAIT 2 and ND5XS/XP5XS streamer and power supply combination streaming files via NAS. Material used included lossless and high res FLAC, Tidal and Spotify as well as a small amount of on demand TV viewing (I watched Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe with them).
How does the MDR-Z7 sound with lossless material?From the outset, one aspect of the Sony’s performance is immediately noticeable. These are extremely sensitive headphones considering their size and driver complement. The ZX1 Walkman has a deeply impressive headphone amp for a product as small as it is but it is clear when you switch to other headphones that they are being helped along by the Z7 being impressively sensitive. The only headphone of similar dimensions that I remember showing the same kind of attributes is the Final Hope Pandora VI which achieved its sensitivity in part by using an armature for the treble. The Sony doesn’t use anything similar, and given that closed back designs are generally less sensitive than their open backed counterparts, this is quite an achievement.
This sensitivity gives the Z7 a pleasantly open performance and there is a sense of effortlessness to the way it goes about making music that is extremely pleasant. Continuing my recent 80s revival, I found myself enjoying Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring, and the way that the Z7 tackles the wonderful Happiness is Easy is genuinely refined and considering that the Sony is not open backed, very open and spacious. After only a fairly brief period of listening, it seemed increasingly clear that the larger drivers in the Z7 might well reach 3Hz in some meaningless sense but where they are doing something more useful is giving the Sony an refinement that many rival designs can’t emulate.
Their ability to handle large scale material is excellent as well. Returning to John Grant’s mighty live album with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the Z7 is completely at home with the huge rendition of Pale Green Ghosts and gives a genuine sense of the space around Grant and his supporting musicians. Switch to something more intimate like Nick Drake’s wonderful Pink Moon and the Sony shrinks sympathetically to fit the close mic simplicity of the piece. There is a realism and tangibility to the way the Sony recreates music that is both consistent and consistently good.
Where I’m less sure the Z7 is completely convincing is that it isn’t hugely fun. Fun is an impossible construct - I wouldn’t know what to measure or even look for on a trace - but there is always the slight sense that the Sony is delivering the content but not always coming good with the head nodding, toe-tapping bit. When connected to the NWZ-ZX1, the energy and enthusiasm of the Walkman rubs off on the Z7 but when you substitute the Chord Hugo which is a little more matter of fact, while there is a jump in performance, the result can be a little on the sterile side. With careful matching, I don’t think this will be a serious issue but the Sony isn’t intrinsically lively. The SoundMAGIC P30 that passed through the review process at the same time is outgunned by the Sony in every technical benchmark but it does ‘joy’ and the Sony doesn’t. Make of that what you will.
What about high resolution and compressed material?Sony makes great play of high res in the promo material for both the ZX1 and Z7 and by way of justification of this, the Z7 responds to the better mastering and higher bitrates of high res to good effect. If you have material that is well mastered, the Sony is a seriously talented partner to explore this connection with.
The Z7’s ability to produce real scale and soundstage is richly rewarded by higher quality material. As I have suspected before at times, the difference is the mastering not the sample rate - great 16/44.1kHz files are equally impressive - but as record labels generally try and make the effort when selling high res files to master them properly, this is a good source of really finding out what the Z7 is capable of.
The refined nature of the Z7 means that although it is exceptionally good with great recordings, it makes a commendable job with material that is less polished. The performance with Spotify was perfectly listenable and the Z7 has to be fed a fairly compressed signal before it becomes truly unhappy. In the limited amount of TV material I tried with them, they also seemed to be well up to the task.
There is a realism and tangibility to the way the Sony recreates music that is both consistent and consistently good.
- Clear, accurate and refined sound
- Usefully sensitive
- Beautifully built
- Bit clinical
- Rather large
- No storage
- Slightly soulless
Sony MDR-Z7 Headphone ReviewHaving been sent two Sony products back-to-back, I find myself drawing slightly contrasting experiences from then. The NWZ-ZX1 is flawed in a number of ways and faces stiff competition from more conventional means of listening to music on the move. The product is slightly flawed but there is a brilliance to it that has me enthused to recommend it almost in spite of the slightly niche nature of the product.
The MDR-Z7 is objectively a far more capable and viceless piece of equipment. It is beautifully made and extremely capable. I think it is undoubtedly competitive with any other headphone at the price but I find it ever so slightly sterile. I find myself wanting to listen to the ZX1 even after finishing the review process but I don’t immediately reach for the Z7 to partner them. Such is the subjectivity of audio, you may find these findings to be bizarre and revel in the sheer ability of the Sony but there you are.
Much more exciting though is that these products hark back to the Sony of old. These are products that go their own way in engineering and technology and they are peerlessly built. From an audio perspective, this is the sort of engineering that is exciting and singular enough to make one become a fanboy about all over again.
You can buy the Sony MDR-Z7 here
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £550.00
Ease of Use8
Design and usability8
Value For Money7
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