Before you turn up your nose in disgust, it's important not to dismiss these headphones based on looks alone. They are -- at heart -- simply a new type of headphone, in the same way earbuds were when they first came on the market in the '90s.
For around £245, the Sony PFR-V1s aren't offered at a low price point to entice anyone erring on the cautious side when considering their next purchase. But you'd be daft not to give them a chance because we've found some killer features.
We'll forgive you for your initial looks of disapproval; we too were put off at first by the PFR-V1's head brace-esque form factor. It's not visually appealing unless you're a cyborg, and the ping pong ball-shaped enclosures are a couple of steps removed from even the more adventurous of headphone shapes. Yet you won't notice this weirdness when wearing them on your lonesome, which is undoubtedly the situation Sony expects this model to be used in.
The two 'prongs' connected to each enclosure sit just behind the ear's tragus, and actually function as bass reflex ports. Each prong is hollow, allowing bass to escape from the speaker enclosure and out of a small opening at the prong's tip. We had a few people try them out for comfort -- most found them fairly comfortable, but one or two complained. You're likely to find them unusual, but fairly comfortable eventually -- keep your receipt just in case!
Open-back headphones produce a wider, more -- ahem -- 'open' sound than earphones or typical headphones, but they still place the majority of the music in the centre of your head. Conversely, speakers place music in front of you, creating a more believable sound stage. Sony's PFR-V1s aim to bridge the gap between headphone and speaker, by positioning the PFR-V1's drivers at an angle towards your ears instead of flat up against them.
Since this requires more power than most MP3 players are capable of generating, Sony includes an in-line headphone amplifier, powered by two AAA batteries. This adds considerable weight to the headphones, but if you're sitting down it's unlikely to be an issue.
Once you get used to the unusual feeling of wearing the PFR-V1s, you'll notice two things: firstly, the distinct lack of bass; secondly, the music is no longer in the middle of your skull -- it's now just in front of your eyes. It's quaint; different, but not quite as revolutionary as we hoped for.
However, we did enjoy the unique sound stage the headphones created, despite the constant complaints from co-workers to turn the bloody volume down. Suffice to say, they leak excessively, and we mean excessively. They are no good for commuting, a quiet office or anywhere that other people are, unless they're deaf.
The in-line amplifier contributes towards this, bringing sound level from good to mind-blowing. Almost literally. The headphones themselves are extremely detailed, with a bright overall tone and clear mids. Bass is delicate, and absolutely hopeless if you thrive on trying to make your ears bleed from pounding bass lines. But the lows that exist are smooth, clear and balanced.
As a result of all this, the best results we experienced came from acoustic, classical and singer/songwriter recordings. Feist's poppy folk track 1234 highlighted the PFR-V1s ability to create a believable concert-like sound stage. Ms Feist was as good as performing in our office, with us sitting centre stage. Her breathy vocals resonated before our eyes, the honky-tonk piano rang with life, the trumpet was somewhere over near the entrance to our kitchen.
A live recording of K's Choice's beautiful track My Heart was so astounding through these headphones, it was as if our office was a small underground acoustic bar, and Sarah Bettens was singing here to a crowd of 40. The openness and width of the sound stage was several times more enjoyable than even when heard through our beloved Denon AH-D5000 reference cans. That's an incredible achievement, but at the expense of the bass that drives classics from drum 'n' bass experts Pendulum, which was as non-existent as Santa or Scarlett Johansson's singing voice.
We also had great fun using these as gaming headphones with a few hours of Team Fortress 2 on Xbox 360. They're not ideally used in this situation, but the general openness gave the game added realism, even if it didn't vastly improve our ability to detect the footsteps of backstabbing enemy spies.
It's clear these are priced to ensure Sony doesn't easily waste the huge R&D expenses that will have gone into developing this model, but it's hard not to like them, despite their questionable comfort and subtle bass response.
Are they worth nearly £250? Yes, if you just can't afford or find impractical a hi-fi to listen to less rocky, gentler music; and yes, if you want to avoid bulky open-backed headphones, or if you suffer 'sweaty ear syndrome' with regular cans. Otherwise we have to say 'no', as £245 can get you a superb pair of headphones. That money will almost net you a pair of our favourite Shure earphones, or you could try a pair of Denon earphones; both offer sonic superiority and don't dictate the environments in which you can use them.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday