Can Sony make a world-class headphone?

With financial woes mounting, the Audiophiliac wonders if a series of great headphones might help save Sony?

The Sony MDR-R10 headphones Steve Guttenberg/CNET

2014 isn't shaping up as a stellar year for Sony, the company is forecasting losses of $1.1 billion, but I think a serious effort to reestablish its stature as a leading headphone manufacturer might be a wise move. Sony currently offers a vast range of headphone models, but they don't have any truly great ones. With the ongoing boom in headphone sales, you have to wonder why Sony is sitting on the sidelines.

Back in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, Sony made some of the world's best headphones: the very affordable MDR-V6 and MDR-7506 are examples of timeless designs from more than 20 years ago that are still available. Sony advanced the state of the art with the astonishing MDR-R10 in 1989, and that ultra-high-end headphone is still sought after -- used models now fetch upward of $6,000! The market for exotic high-end headphones is so much bigger now than it was in 1989, and yet Sony isn't even trying to field a serious contender.

I bought a set of used magnesium-framed, open-back MDR-SA5000s awhile back. That model, introduced 10 years ago, may have been Sony's last attempt at making truly high-end headphones that compete with Audeze, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Grado, Hifiman, or Sennheiser's flagship models. In 2014 Sony is a no-show in the booming high-end market.

Then again, Sony doesn't even try and seriously compete with the world's best-selling headphones, namely Beats. Sony could do both: make something designed to be Beats killers as well as superb, world class 'phones that would serve to regain its stature as an engineering leader.

Sony MDR-SA5000 headphones Sony

The MDR-1R was the last newly designed Sony headphone I have personal experience with -- it sounded respectable and was very comfy, but it's not flagship material. I had high hopes for Sony's XBA in-ear headphones that came out just a few years ago. They were designed in-house, and were decent enough, but not even close to what top-tier models by Jerry Harvey Audio, 1964 Ears, Shure, or Ultimate Ears are capable of.

My friend, headphone guru Tyll Hertsens, has recommended the MDR 7520. He thinks that might be one of the best models from Sony in ages, I'll try and get a pair in for review.

I still believe Sony could produce stunning headphones and dominate the high-end headphone market. It just has to focus its engineering talent on the goal at hand.

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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