With a street price of around $500 for the Z1000, I believe Sony has hit a good spot in the current headphone landscape. Of course, this is a different landscape from a few years ago when $400 will give you the flagship models of Sennheiser, AKG, or Beyerdynamics. The scale of pricing is vastly different today, as people are spending more for the current flagship headphones and IEMs, and $2,000 models from Stax and Ultrasone being less elusive than it was a few years ago. Although the official price of the Z is around the $700 mark, most vendors are offering the Z1000 at a street price of around $500. Indeed this is a sweet spot, as previously there were almost no other semi-portable closed headphones at that price bracket, other than the Audio Technica ES10 and ESW10 models. There is a very large user base for the mid entry level $100-$200 semi portable closed headphones, and at $500, Sony is tempting them for a nice upgrade.
AMPLIFIER AND SOURCE REQUIREMENTS
The nice thing about having the Z1000 headphone is that it’s very easy to drive, even a tad easier than the Audio Technica M-50. Plug it in to an Ipod directly, or even better to a HM-602/601, and you’re good to go. With the Ipod, a good portable amp would help improve bass articulation slightly, but the Z1000 is very good sounding even driven direct. So, from a user’s perspective, you only need to spend the initial $500 on the Z1000 and you’re done.
The drivers are transparent and resolving enough, and so with the abundance of good DACs and portable players we have, a source upgrade is going to be quite noticeable on the Sony. This, in my opinion, is also a very big plus.
GENERAL SOUND IMPRESSIONS
When I did the Closed Headphones Comparison, the Audio Technica M-50 came out as a favorite all rounder. The other headphone that also came out unofficially as a crowd favorite was the Sennheiser HD25-1. To recap the comparison briefly, the M-50 was the better all rounder headphone, with a moderately laid-back presentation, good sized soundstage, clean and grainless sound, good treble extension, midrange body and bass body (though slightly uncontrolled). The HD25-1 had a more forward presentation, a smaller soundstage, more grain in the sound, and an excellent bass punch, articulation and PRaT.
Now, I’m going to say that the Z1000 sounds like a more mature M-50, as the voicing of both headphones are very similar. In terms of technicalities and driver resolution, it’s quite an upgrade from the HD25-1. But the HD25-1 has a very unique voicing, and if the HD25-1 sounds perfect to your ears, then you would find the Z1000 to be less engaging and lacking PRaT, just like how the M-50 is. So, unfortunately for HD25-1 fans looking for an upgrade, I cannot guarantee you that the Z1000 will be a satisfying headphone.
The M-50 was a good all rounder headphone that tackles a wide variety of music fairly well. Of course, the HD25-1 is king for Rock, but I’m sure all of us have quite some genre variety in our playlist, and that is why the M-50 is more appealing. The M-50 is a hard headphone to hate, and while it may lack a certain area compared to some other headphone, I haven’t quite find another headphone that can be as universal as the M-50. The Z1000 somehow finds itself being as a good upgrade platform from the M-50, offering many improvements where the M-50 falls short. However, due to the similar sound signature and voicing, at first the Z1000 didn’t sound that much better from the M-50. It certainly is not 5x better than the M-50 (the M-50 sells for ~$100 street price).
The thing with the Z1000 is that it gives an improvements on so many areas that the total sum of them is definitely worth the additional $400 from the M-50.
Starting from the ergonomics, the Z1000 is simply better. It’s quite lighter in weight and have a much lighter clamping force. The pads are softer and is made from a better quality leather. Although the clamping force is softer, the design of the headband and the pads makes the Z1000 stays just as securely on your head. As a matter of fact, due to the lighter weight of the headphone, the Z1000 stays on your head better than the M-50 is. There is also size differences. The M-50 looked rather big if you wear it in public. The Z1000 had a slimmer headband and housing, and though it may look like a slight difference in the pictures, it actually make a big difference when you wear it in public. The cable of the M-50 is long and is heavy, as it is designed for studio use. The Z1000 comes with a long 3 meters and a shorter 1.2 meter cable, and so you can plug it in to a player in your pocket and not have cable problems. The cable is also much softer and flexible than the M-50. I certainly would use the Z1000 far more often than the M-50 just based on these improvements.
Sound wise, perhaps the biggest noticeable improvement from the M-50 is that the mids to lower treble is more forward and engaging compared to the M-50. The tonality is very similar, but the M-50 sounds more distant and darker just because of the difference in the mids. The Sony’s mids are fuller, sweeter, and have a warmer tone to it. It definitely translates to a more engaging music listening without being too in your face ala Grado. Vocals definitely sound sweeter and fuller on the Sony, while the M-50 still has some dryness to it. There is no comparison here.
The treble is smoother and extends further than the M-50’s. Somehow, probably due to the choice of housing material and damping schemes, the more extended treble of the Z1000 also exhibits far less sibilance issues than the M-50. The upper treble is also more relaxed, in a way it reminds me of the Stax Omega 2’s upper treble presentation. The upper treble is there, but the Sony presents it in a way that I can listen to female vocals all day long and not meet any sibilance. It’s also soft enough to deal with the prevalent sibilance problem in techno and club music recordings.
Another problem that the Sony “fixes” from the M-50 is the bass area, where the M-50 can be slightly boomy. The Sony cuts down the bass quantity slightly, but in turn you get far better texture and detail on the bass, especially on the low bass where the M-50 is more muddy. The Sony is also much better in layering the different bass notes, definitely much improved from the M-50’s bass quality. The bass punch is also improved considerably in the Sony, although it still doesn’t punch like the HD25-1.
The soundstage is actually wider on the M-50, but the Sony has a better depth, translating to a more three dimensional soundstage experience. The Z1000 also has less housing reverb issues that is quite prevalent in the M-50, while also tuning the timbre to be warmer and more wood-like, compared to the more plasticky and cold timbre of the M-50.
I think that the M-50 was primarily designed to be a monitoring headphone, but it just happens to have good mids and bass body that makes it also suitable for music listening. On the other hand, it looks like the engineers of the Z1000 were tuning the headphone to be a good music listening device. With the exception of small and boutique recording houses, I certainly don’t think that the average mainstream TV and production studios would be willing to spend $500 on a monitoring headphone. And if the Z1000 was used in a monitoring setting, it probably wouldn’t sound that much different than the M-50. Back at the music listener’s realm, the sonic and ergonomic improvements of the Z1000 does make it a far better headphone than the M-50. On top of all the improvements I’ve outlined earlier, the Z1000 is more “nimble” than the M-50, allowing it to pick up a better pace than the darker sounding M-50. It also has a better ability to follow the character of the recording, presenting a good vocal presence on vocal recordings and presenting a deep soundstage for live and classical recordings. It still doesn’t do fast rock, electronic and progressive like the HD25-1, but it doesn’t slack at them either.
Given the design and purpose of the Z1000, I think it’s one of the best and most versatile semi-portable headphone out there. The light amping requirements and the superb ergonomics make it a very good headphone for the road, and the very wide genre bandwith makes it a very good pairing with most of the music in your library. $550 may seem a bit steep for a semi-portable closed headphone, but again, you’re buying a nice product here, and nice stuff doesn’t come cheap.
Thanks to Peter for loaning the Z1000.
Gears used for review:
Headphones: Sony Z1000, Audio Technica M-50, Sennheiser HD25-1
Source: Ipod Classic, HRT MS2+, Hifiman HM-602, HM-601, Grace m902
Amplifier: Grace m902, WooAudio6, HeadAmp Pico Slim