Can Sony make a $15 full-size headphone an audiophile can love?

The Audiophiliac searches for a decent-sounding, dirt-cheap headphone, and hopes the Sony MDR ZX100 might be the one.

Sony MDR-ZX100 headphones Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I'm always on the lookout for great cheap headphones, so when CNET's Matthew Moskovciak suggested I try Sony's MDR-ZX100 I jumped at the chance. We were both knocked out by Sony's MDR-V6 and MDR-7506 headphones, so I bought a pair of MDR-ZX100s on Amazon for $15. I had no expectations it would threaten those two amazing Sonys, but at less than 20 percent of those headphones' current prices I was curious to see how much of the magic trickled down to the MDR-ZX100. The MDR-V6 and MDR-7506 were both designed more than twenty years ago, when Sony was at the top of its game. The MDR-ZX100 is just a baby, and debuted a few years ago when Sony was churning out new models by the boatload, so quality is a lot more hit or miss. Then again, it's earned 1,100 five-star Amazon user reviews and just 70 one-star pans, so the MDR-ZX100 can't be too bad.

As dirt cheap headphones go the MDR-ZX100 looks pretty good. The ear cups pivot vertically and horizontally, so they readily conform to most ear and head shapes. The round ear pads' head clamping pressure is moderate; so comfort is surprisingly good, I can wear these things for hours and not feel fatigued. The all-plastic design is available in black or white, and feels reasonably sturdy, but I doubt you'll be passing these down to your grand kids.

The MDR-ZX100 is a closed-back design with 30 mm drivers and a 24 ohm rated impedance. The 48 inch long "Y" cable is permanently attached to both ear cups, the cable is a little thicker than average and reinforced where it meets the ear cups and 3.5 mm plug. The headphone weighs just 4.2 ounces, that's unusually light, but it's not hinged, so it'll take up a bit of room in your back-pack.

The sound is decent, the main knock against the MDR-ZX100 is that it sounds a little "canned" plugged into my iPod Classic. The sound is stuck inside my head, tonally it's lightweight, and the treble isn't very clear or clean. Yup, it's $15, so all of that is no surprise. A quick comparison with the MDR-V6 revealed day and night differences between the two headphones. The MDR-V6 is easier on the ears, has better resolution, it's sweeter and more comfortable, so if you can afford the difference, go for the MDR-V6. On the upside, the MDR-ZX100's softer treble may make nasty sounding MP3s easier to take.

Then I plugged the MDR-ZX100 into the $249 Schiit Audio Asgard 2 headphone amp (review in the works) and that demonstrated just how good the MDR-ZX100 can sound. When I just focused on the tunes and forgot about the price and turned off my inner critic, I enjoyed the sound. As long as you don't compare them to anything you might be perfectly happy with the MDR-ZX100.

Thing is, I am a critic, so to finish up I compared the MDR-ZX100 with the $23 MonoPrice 8323 headphones with my iPod. It was a close contest, the two headphones treat vocals, guitars, and horns well, but the 8323's treble and bass are more transparent and clear, but they are bigger and bulkier headphones. And 50 percent more expensive, so I'd go with the 8323. Fifteen bucks might just be too low for audiophile quality, but I will continue to search for greatness on the cheap. Then again, CNET's David Carnoy regularly finds very decent headphones for less than $25 .

So the question remains: can Sony make a $15 full-size headphone an audiophile can love? Maybe, but the MDR-ZX100 misses the mark.

About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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