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Sony MDR-ZX770BN review: A wireless Beats alternative for less

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Over the last few years Sony's put out a number of wireless Bluetooth headphones, some better than others. For 2015 we get four new models -- the MDR-ZX770BN (reviewed here: $230, £129), MDR-ZX770BT ($150 -- US only), MDR-ZX330BT ($100, £69) and MDR-AS600BT ($100, £69) -- which form the core of Sony's entry-level and midrange Bluetooth headphone lineup. (None of these headphones appear to be officially available in Australia.)

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7.8

Sony MDR-ZX770BN

The Good

The Sony MDR-ZX770BN is a well-designed Bluetooth headphone, sounds good for the money, is comfortable to wear, and has active noise-cancellation with three ANC modes. It can be used as a wired headphone with the noise-canceling on.

The Bad

Doesn't quite have the look and feel of a premium headphone; the three sound modes introduce more confusion than convenience.

The Bottom Line

While it isn't quite as good as the Beats Studio wireless, Sony's MDR-ZX770BN is a quality Bluetooth headphone and costs significantly less.

The Sony MDR-ZX770BN features both Bluetooth and active noise-canceling and is geared toward frequent travelers, because it can also be used as a wired headphone on flights that prohibit the use of Bluetooth.

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The headphones come in an all-black model or one with blue trim. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony also seems to be targeting consumers who can't quite afford the Beats Studio Wireless but want a quality wireless headphone that shares many of its features, including noise-canceling.

This is a quality Bluetooth headphone, though not quite as good as the Beats. It's comfortable, reasonably lightweight (around 240 grams or 8.5 ounces), with memory foam in the ear pads, and has well-placed volume and track controls on the right ear cup (the pause button also serves as the answer/end button when making cell phone calls).

Build quality is good, though not exceptionally so, and it doesn't quite have the look and feel of a premium headphone like Sony's own MDR-1A , a new wired model that offers impressive sound quality and superior comfort.

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What comes in the box. Sarah Tew/CNET

As far as other extras go, you get NFC tap-to-pair technology (the ability to automatically pair the headphones to that offer Near Field Communication chips) and AptX for smartphones that support it. (AptX is supposed to enhance the quality of Bluetooth, but it remains unclear how much of an impact it has.)

Battery life is rated at a decent 13 hours with noise-canceling and Bluetooth turned on. Color options include an all-black design and black with blue trim, and the headphones ship with a simple protective pouch, plus a headphone cord and USB charging cable.

Performance

One thing to make sure of when you first turn the headphones on is that you have them in the right listening mode. The headphone has three levels of sound quality, which I didn't realize at first. There's a standard-quality mode that puts the priority on a stable Bluetooth connection. That cuts down on the sound quality, and it appears the headphones might ship in this mode. The big problem is that it's hard to tell which mode is activated (a little LED flashes to indicate what mode you're in when you hit the power and volume buttons).

What you want is one of the two higher-quality modes, one of which includes the aforementioned AptX streaming option, as well as AAC. (Frankly, I found the whole sound-mode option a bad idea).

As I said, you can use this as a wired headphone, but you can't turn off the noise-canceling in wired mode. The headphone sounds slightly better in wired mode, but the sound isn't on par with the higher-end MDR-1A, which delivers cleaner, smoother and more refined sound. (That said, sound quality improved ever so slightly when I turned the noise-canceling off in Bluetooth mode).

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The integrated microphone, noise-canceling button, and line input. Sarah Tew/CNET

The noise-canceling works pretty well and has three different modes depending on your environment (Air Travel, Ambient Noise, and Ground Travel). However, it's not on the level of Bose's QuietComfort 25 , which is a dedicated noise-canceling headphone and has no Bluetooth. I also thought the headphones let in more ambient sound than the Beats Studio Wireless, which seems to have a somewhat tighter-sealing ear cups.

Cell-phone call quality was decent, too, though you don't get the dual microphones that the Beats Studio Wireless or Plantronics BackBeat Pro have. Having two microphones allows you to hear your voice inside the headphones as you speak.

Bluetooth sound quality is quite good -- for Bluetooth anyway -- but it falls a little short of what you get from the top Bluetooth headphones out there, which include the Beats Wireless Studio and even Sony's discontinued MDR-10RBT, which I liked a lot for the money and can be had for around $135 while it's being phased out.

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Volulme and track controls on right ear cup. Sarah Tew/CNET

What makes MDR-ZX770 fall a little short? Well, it sounds slightly duller and slightly more recessed than the Beats and also doesn't play as loud. That's not a big factor indoors, but in the noisy streets of New York, I felt less connected with the music. The bass also isn't quite as tight.

I use modifiers like "slightly" for reason. There's isn't a huge difference between this Sony and the Beats, and some may prefer its more laid-back sound. I also thought it sounded a touch better after a break-in period of 30 hours or so.

Conclusion

Not everyone wants to drop $350 on a pair of wireless Bluetooth headphones with noise-canceling. Headphones such as the Plantronics BackBeat Pro and this Sony MDR-ZX770BN are quality alternatives that cost less than $250. For in-the-office use, the Plantronics may be the better option, but I prefer this Sony for on-the-go use despite its not having as good battery life as the Plantronics.

Sony's $150 MDR-ZX770BT is very similar to this model, but doesn't include noise-canceling. If you don't need that feature and are just looking for a wireless headphone, that's the model to get. But if you want both noise-canceling and Bluetooth -- and don't want to spend upwards of $300 to get those features -- the MDR-ZX770BN is certainly worth considering.

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7.8

Sony MDR-ZX770BN

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Sound 7Value 7