MDR SA5000: Sony's classic, audiophile-grade, full-size headphone

The Audiophiliac falls in love with an older Sony, the MDR-SA5000, and wonders, why doesn't Sony even try to make world-class headphones in 2013?

The Sony MDR SA5000 headphones Sony

When I first spotted the Sony MDR SA5000 headphones at a local Head-Fi meeting in Bayside, Queens, my first impression was that it was eerily similar to Sennheiser's HD 800 headphones. The MDR SA5000 is clearly derived from Sony's old flagship $3,000 Qualia Q10 headphones; both Sonys were first announced in 2004. The HD 800 was introduced in 2009.

The magnesium-framed, open-back MDR-SA5000 is superlight (260 grams) and remarkably comfortable. The real leather earpads' head-clamping pressure is oh-so-gentle, and the sound is remarkably detailed, spacious, and open -- I found the MDR-SA5000 extraordinary in those regards. I generally like Sony headphones, but the last audiophile model I tested was the MDR-R10 , and it can't touch the MDR-SA5000 for clarity of sound. To be fair, the R10 is a closed-back design, so sure, its soundstage and stereo imaging are cramped by comparison. The R10 makes a lot more bass, but then again, most modern high-end headphones outshine the MDR-SA5000's low-end oomph. Bass isn't terribly deep or powerful, but what's there is clear and mud-free. I bought the MDR-SA5000 at the Head-Fi meet for $150, and I'm glad I did!

The Sennheiser HD 800 headphones Sennheiser

I didn't have a Sennheiser HD 800 on hand to compare with the MDR-SA5000, so I used my Sennheiser HD 700 , and the two models shared a common capacity for wide-open soundstaging. The HD 700 is more dynamically alive and powerful than the MDR-SA5000, it's a better headphone overall. That said, I really enjoy the MDR-SA5000's sonic purity; percussionist Mickey Hart's "Planet Drum" CD had more "snap" and presence over the MDR-SA5000. Quiet details, like room sound and the reverberation of the drums in the studio, were easier to hear over the MDR-SA5000. It's a fairly large and fragile-feeling design, so it's definitely not suitable for on-the-go use. Used and new MDR SA5000s can be found on Amazon and other sites with prices starting around $400 for the used ones. A similar, carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer frame model -- the Sony MDR-SA3000 -- is available for a lot less. I haven't heard it, but users claim it sounds much like the MDR-SA5000.

Sony has always made decent headphones, but in recent times the company has apparently given up on making great ones. I wonder what's going on; the high-end headphone market is booming, but Sony isn't even trying to field a contender. What gives?

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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