Japanese Flagship: Sony MDR-EX1000
Here it is, the MDR-EX1000 flagship IEM from Sony, courtesy of my friend at Bankok’s Munkong Gadget.
Sony started with a huge 16mm dynamic driver that’s just about as big as you can find on any IEM (next to Final Audio Design’s FI-DC1601SS). The 16mm driver uses a modified Liquid Crystal Polymer material, and it is the best kind of material known to Sony for making diaphragms. A very high level of rigidity and a high level of internal loss of the modified Liquid Crystal Polymer result in a very accurate conversion from signal to sound waves. Additionally a “transverse field pressing” manufacturing method is used to boost the magnetic force of the 440kJ/m3 high power neodymium magnets used in the drivers, to achieve an even better sensitivity to the smallest changes in the signal. The adjustment of the acoustic materials is carried out by hand, as Sony believes this would yield the highest level of precision and the best tuning results.
Sony is quite known for implementing quite un-traditional industrial designs, and that continues in the EX1000′s housing design (actually we’ve seen this design before in the lesser EX300 and EX500 IEMs, but it’s been quite unique to Sony). Unlike the mammoth FAD’s FI-DC1601SS, Sony mounted the 16mm driver perpendicular to the direction of the ear canals. Though quite unconventional, this design gives us a thinner housing size and contributes to a better ergonomics of the earphones. The Magnesium alloy is one of the lightest and strongest material that you can form into unique shapes accurately, and that’s the material of choice for the EX1000′s housing. As a result, the rather large EX1000 IEM never feels heavy or burdensome. Moreover, a special structure is designed to integrate the driver right into the housing. This is beneficial for two reasons: to have a largest possible driver inside a smallest possible housing, and to cut off any unwanted air leakage and unwanted vibrations for better low frequency response. It seems that Sony have put a lot of research into the housing design, and it really shows in the EX1000. I can’t remember the last time any other IEMs that offers the wearing comfort of the EX1000 while still providing a very deep seal of the canals.
As visible from the illustration below, there are five different elements, outside of the housing and driver that Sony incorporated to further tune the frequency response.
The cables used in the EX1000 is a 7N-OFC Litz cord with extremely high purity (99.99999%). The cables are removable, and Sony supplied two different cable lengths with the EX1000: 0.6m and 1.2m. The shorter cable is designed to be used with other accessories, so you can plug the EX1000 to a microphone accessory to make phone calls with it. IEM cables are always problematic. You either have the stiff microphonics type, or you have a soft tangly type, and this still remain a big hit-and-miss area with IEMs. Not so with the EX1000. The cables are very soft and flexible, and somehow, due to their internal structure, you can crumple the cables and put them in the pocket, and they would not get tangled when you take them out for a listen. To help secure the IEMs (they are worn over the ear), Sony didn’t use some “low tech” technology like the steel wire you see on Westone ES cables, or the plastic hook you find on some other brands. Not that there is anything wrong with the hook on the Westone cables, but it’s always good to see a fancy material being used. A special TEKNOROTE material is used here, and it is very soft while able maintains its form to a specific shape.
For the tips, Sony designed a special noise insulating tips that combines high density silicone on the tunnel part, low density silicone for a soft contact to the ear canals, and a pressure relieving urethane foam inside the gaps to help create a better seal for noise isolation. Sony supplied seven different pairs of regular tips that goes up incrementally both in height (for deeper seal) and diameter (for larger canals), and an additional three pairs of noise insulating tips.
Compared to the feel of wearing a custom IEM like the JH16, the Sony feels quite different. Even as I am using the noise isolation tips, the JH16 ultimately still has the better seal because after all, it was custom molded to the shape of your ears. However, as everyone knows, the shape and dimension of our ears is not 100% constant. On a cold morning, the JH16 can feel quite uncomfortable in the ears, and having a hard shell only adds to the lack of comfort. Sony’s tips, on the other hand, is one of the softest tips I’ve encountered on any IEM (perhaps THE softest, if we don’t take Comply foams into the comparison). In this case, the fit of the JH16 is like taking a seat in a Formula car with precise fitting bucket seats, while the Sony is more like riding in a comfortable BMW 7 series with the ultra-luxurious leather seats. The Sony still has some room to play, and you need to do small amount of adjustments before you get a perfect fit. However, the shape of the housing really helps in making a good fit quick and painless.
Sound signature wise, the Sony is softer and more relaxed than the JH. The JH has always had a very precise, very agressive, full of PRaT kind of sound. Fast rock listeners will definitely go with the JH as it is just perfectly tuned for their music. The Sony, on the other hand, reminds me a lot of the MDR-R10 “King of Dynamics” headphone. A more romantic presentation, a longer decay, a sweeter midrange, and a smoother sound across the frequency range. The question of “better” will be largely determined by your music. Softer and mellower music would be better with the EX1000, while faster and music with strong beats is far better off with the JH16. The Sony is similar to the Audio Technica CK100 sound, but with a better tonal balance, soundstage, and without the signature BA transients. In comparison to another Japanese IEM like the Ortofon e-Q7, the Sony has a bit more toe-tapping factor than the Ortofon. It can play mellow songs quite well, but it’s not extremely mellow like the Ortofon. The Sony is also cleaner and less grainy than the Ortofon.
The marketing pamphlet of the EX1000 talks a lot about how their technological mumbo-jumbo promises a bass that will blow you over. Well, while the EX1000 is not thin sounding, the bass weight, punch, and quantity is not something that I’d boast with the EX1000. It’s not bass-light, though perhaps semi-bass-light would be a fitting adjective. I find myself using amplifiers that have more mid to low end weight such as the TTVJ Slim, Headstage Arrow, and the RSA Protector with the EX1000. The punch is pretty good, but it really won’t shake your eardrums like some of the triple-BA models like the Westone 3 or Triple.Fi 10, and quite far from the JH16′s volcanic bass. The bass is not too flabby or boomy, but is not incredibly tight either. I do feel, however, that the bass character is intentionally tuned like that, to match the overall voicing of the midrange and the treble. Remember that talk about “a more romantic presentation”, a longer decay, “reminds me of the R10″ kind of sound? What I’m saying is that the bass character is fine and it should not be tuned any differently. Because as it is, the entire frequency range has a nice feel of coherence. In fact, I do feel that the single vs multi-driver debate resurfaces once again in the EX1000 vs JH16 comparison. While the 8-drivers JH16 have a more complete presentation throughout the frequency range, I feel that it can’t give the coherent sound that you find on single drivers like the EX1000. However, a slightly stronger punch and a slightly heavier bass weight on the EX1000 would be welcome addition.
Overall, the Sony is quite brighter than the JH16, though not excessively bright. It has a tendency to push its upper midrange forward, but the Sony also happens to have one of the sweetest sounding upper mid I’ve heard on IEMs, so I happily welcome the forward mids. If you listen to mostly newer mainstream recordings with overboosted trebles, then the JH darker sound should make for a better pairing. However, if you have a mix of quality Jazz recordings, stuff from Chesky or the other audiophile labels, and well recorded classical pieces, all of which are more neutral in the recording, then the Sony slightly brighter sound would fall right in place with those recordings. Personally, my music library is more of the second type, and so, often the JH customs feel too dark for me.
Both IEMs presents the soundstage and ambiance very well, though in their own way. The Sony clearly have a very good instrument separation, but the imaging is quite “all over the place”, unlike the more precise imaging of the JH16. The background is quite dark on the Sony, and the overall sound is very clean and grainless, but again the JH16 has a darker background than the Sony. The JH has a slightly wider soundstage, but the Sony has better depth and a more “surround” feel. The JH comes out to be the more precise sounding IEM, but the Sony shines in that it’s able to create a pleasing sense of ambiance on more recordings, while the JH is more ruthless and more truthful. Some pop recordings like John Mayer’s Continuum have pretty bad studio-recorded sound. The JH will pretty much presents the recording as it is, where the EX1000 will magically adds a nice feel of ambiance.
I definitely feel that the EX1000 is a very special IEM, and one that rightly deserves a flagship status. The ergonomics probably stands out as being one of the best part of the IEM. One of the main reason that I’ve preferred headphones over IEMs is the ergonomics factor. The EX1000 is the closest to a perfect ergonomic I’ve found on IEMs. No ill-designed housing that can’t fit your ears right, no tangly cables, no microphonics problems. The fit is very good, and I never feel the IEM to lack seal on my rather large ear canals. The overall feel of the IEM is very luxurious, almost like having the Stax Omega2 comfort level in the form of an IEM. Sound signature wise, it has quite a wide genre bandwith, though as I’ve said earlier, Rock fans would probably opt more for the JH stuff, or even the Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10. But no IEM is perfect, and the Sony happens to have one of the most enjoyable sound signature I’ve found on IEM or headphones.
Previously, most people’s quest for a high end IEM would be limited to the customs molded stuff. Not anymore, as the Sony EX1000 is here to provide a fresh alternative to the high end IEM world.