Sony MDR Z7 review: A high-end Sony headphone that's truly high-end

As we said, imaging is broad and beautifully focused. That really describes the MDR-Z7's overall sound, which is very linear and transparent. You hear more of the recording -- good or bad -- which is exactly what audiophiles want -- you get the feeling that the headphone, which has 70mm drivers, isn't adding or taking anything from the sound of your music.

Harsh recordings will sound harsher than you've heard them before, but the best ones will sound better than ever. That's usually the case with these types of transparent headphones, but there's enough bass here to appease folks who crave lots of bass. That said, it's not overemphasized the way it is with a lot of today's headphones.

The headphones come with two sets of audio cables, one of which is a balanced audio cable. Sarah Tew/CNET

We compared the MDR-Z7 with Bowers & Wilkins' top-of-the-line P7 (which you can buy for about half the price of the Sony). They're very different-sounding. The first thing we noted was perspective. The P7 makes instruments sound closer, while the MDR-Z7 gives them some distance, making the sound feel less stuck inside your head. There's an immediacy to the P7's sound we like, but in the end we preferred the MDR-Z7's bigger soundstage, which seemed more natural.

Bass definition and impact exceeded the P7's and the MDR-Z7 is also more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.

This headphone will sound terrific plugged into your phone, but to really hear it at its best you need a high-end headphone amplifier, something along the lines of a $249 Schiit Audio Asgard 2 or Sony's $999 portable PHA-3 digital converter/headphone amp.

With a great amp, the MDR-Z7's dynamic punch improves, treble is more delicate and bass plumbs deeper. If you're going to invest in a high-end headphone like the MDR-Z7, it makes sense to hear what it can do.

We also tried the headphone with the $400 PonoPlayer , which has a balanced audio option (it has two outputs to plug into), and came away wondering why Pono didn't market the player to be used in this mode with a headphone like the MDR-Z7. The player sounds significantly better when used in balanced audio mode -- it plays louder, the bass is stronger and overall definition is improved.

Conclusion

There are a lot of really good headphones that cost less than the MDR-Z7. For example, we like the NAD Viso HP50 , the Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 and Sony's own MDR-1A . From a build quality and comfort standpoint, the the MDR-Z7 has those models beat (the MDR-1A is also very comfortable). From a sound standpoint, it isn't going to blow those less expensive headphones out of the water, but, depending on your source material and hardware (device), you'll get even more impressive sound from the MDR-Z7 and it plays well with other high-end components, such as headphone amplifiers that offer a balanced audio option.

In short, as far as audiophile headphones go, the MDR-Z7 is the real deal.