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The Sony MDR-V6 definitely qualifies as a classic headphone. It was introduced way back in 1985, and while Sony has since released a string of "improved" and more expensive V6 inspired models -- the MDR-V600, MDR-7506, and MDR-7509HD -- the $109.99-list MDR-V6 is still available. (Sony's Web site lists it as discontinued, but it still appears to be widely available, and for well under its list price at that.) It's been a favorite of audio mixers; radio, film, TV engineers; and consumers for years and has managed to endure for nearly three decades without being endorsed by a hip-hop star or a pop singer.
Why are we reviewing it now? Well, we were finally getting around to reviewing its popular sibling, the MDR-7506, so I figured I'd have a listen to the "original" and compare the two of them, as well as some of today's top midrange headphones.
Since the MDR-V6 had amassed more than 900 five-star reviews on Amazon over the years, I assumed it would be competent. But after taking it for a spin I was a little bit surprised by how good it sounds -- and how comfortable it feels -- for its modest price point. It was not hard to see why the headphone was still in production after all these years: it just sounds and feels right.
Design and features
Most new headphones are packed in impressively heavy cardboard boxes, with thick flaps and snazzy product photography emblazoned on every surface; the MDR-V6 comes in a lightweight gold-toned box, with the headphone visible through a window, cradled in a bed of bright red satin fabric. If it looks like a throwback to the 1980s, it's because that's what it is.
The MDR-V6 weighs 8 ounces, which is slightly lighter than average for a full-size headphone. It's a mostly plastic design, but still feels fairly rugged. The outer ear cups are metal, it has 40mm drivers, a 63-ohm rated impedance, and the headphone features user-replaceable ear pads (new ones sell for $9.99 a pair).
The headband and racetrack shaped pads aren't as thickly padded as those on many new headphones we've tested, but comfort is well above average. Stretched out to the max the coiled cable is about 10 feet long, and it's permanently attached to the left ear cup. The extralong cable lacks any type of mic or phone controls, so the MDR-V6 may not be ideal for use with phones or portable music players. The cable is terminated with a nicely-finished 3.5mm plug; a screw-on 6.3mm adapter plug is included for use with home or pro gear.
The MDR-V6 collapses into a small bundle, and the hinges seem fairly durable. I like that the "L" and "R" markings are color-coded and easy to see in dim light. A no-frills black vinyl carrying bag is included.
The MDR-V6 comes with a 90-day warranty.
Balance. That's my best one-word description of what makes the MDR-V6 so special. It does everything well: the bass-midrange-treble balance is nice and smooth, the sound is spacious, and it's easy to listen to for hours at a time. Isolation from environmental noise is quite decent, and no one near you will hear much sound coming from these headphones.
I first compared the MDR-V6 with another Sony, the $299 MDR-R1. That one has more bass, but it's a softer, less detailed, and mellower sounding headphone, and I preferred the MDR-V6's clarity. The MDR-R1 looks nicer, has a more refined feel, and it's more comfortable. Still, I'd rather listen to the MDR-V6.
Next up, the $199 Audio Technica ATH M50, another popular and well-regarded full-size, over-the-ear headphone that doesn't cost too much. The M50 is hard to beat, and the MDR-V6 put up a good fight.
The M50 had more bass oomph, but the MDR-V6's definition and clarity in the low frequencies were just a wee bit better. In the midrange -- pianos, guitars, and vocals -- the M50 had more body, but the MDR-V6 sounded clearer. The M50 has less forward treble, which I like. I found the MDR-V6's high-frequencies brighter (more forward), but not so bright that they became annoying.
The spacious soundstage I heard from Brian Eno's ambient classic "Music for Films" CD was impressive on both headphones, but when I added it all up, I gave the nod to the M50 for its richer sound and better comfort. However, it's nearly twice as expensive as the MDR-V6.
Comparing the MDR-V6 with the Sony was interesting. The two headphones look almost identical and sound similar, with a few key differences. First, the V6 produces a little more bass, but the MDR-7506 is leaner, and its treble range is accentuated. The MDR-V6 sounds more laid-back and mellower, while the MDR-7506 crisper and livelier. I'd go for the MDR-V6, but others may prefer the MDR-7506.
For the last comparison, I donned my former budget favorite audiophile headphone, the Noontec Zoro, which sounded lean and dynamically constricted next to the MDR-V6. The Sony's extra brawn let it rock harder than the Zoros. No sub-$100 headphone in my experience can touch the MDR-V6's sound quality.
I'm thrilled that Sony never tinkered with or tried to improve the MDR-V6. Not every product needs to be updated every year -- or every few years. When you make a great-sounding headphone that people are still buying, let it be, and that's just what Sony did.
Of course, the V6 can't be considered in isolation, given its very close sibling, the MDR-7506. Comparing the two was interesting; anyone who claims these two look-alikes sound the same should have their hearing tested. First, the MDR-V6 makes more and fuller bass while MDR-7506 is leaner -- vocals sound more immediate, and the treble range is accentuated. As noted, the MDR-V6 is comparatively has a more relaxed sound while the MDR-7506 is more crunchy and alive.
I can't say they are day-and-night opposites -- the two headphones share a similar overall sound -- but the differences are significant, so it's just a matter of picking the one that matches your taste. I'd go for the MDR-V6 -- I highly recommend it -- but CNET Executive Editor David Carnoy, who edited this review, preferred the MDR-7506. And so did CNET editor Matthew Moskovciak.
In other words, these are two excellent headphones that offer distinct sonic differences. It's less about which one is "better" and more about which sound you prefer. But if you value sound quality and comfort, both of these should be at the top of your list when you're shopping for headphones under $100.