Sony MDR-R10: The world's best headphone?

In the late 1980s, Sony engineers went all-out to make a statement headphone, the MDR-R10. Too bad you'll probably never get to hear it.

Steve Guttenberg
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 Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read
Sony MDR-R10 headphones, with a Red Wine Audio amplifier. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I've heard most of the world's best headphones, but somehow missed the Sony MDR-R10. Only 2,000 were made. Production started in 1989, and at $2,500 a pair, it was the most expensive headphone in the world. The headphone cognoscenti scooped them all up years ago, and right now MDR-R10s rarely come up for sale. When they do, they usually go for more than $6,000!

The MDR-R10's 50mm "Bio-Cellulose Dome Diaphragms" are credited with producing the headphones' superclear treble and oh-so supple bass. The headphone also sported real lambskin-covered ear pads, and the large sculpted ear cups are made from aged wood from Zelkova trees. Sony did make a few other headphones with Bio Cellulose drivers -- the MDR-CD3000, 1991, MDR-E888 in 1995, MDR-CD1700 in 1996, and the MDR-CD2000 in 2000 -- but those headphones never attained the stature of the MDR-R10. No, it's never just one thing that makes the great ones great, it's the whole design.

That's all well and good, but I had yet to hear a MDR-R10 for myself to see if it's really all that special. I finally got a chance when Red Wine Audio's Vinnie Rossi borrowed a set to show at a recent NY Head-Fi meet. The headphones were plugged into a Red Wine headphone amp, of course, and when I played a few tunes I was shocked by the sound. The MDR-R10's effortless, unforced, yet still highly detailed and clear sound was world class. They're closed-back headphones, but the wide-open sound-staging was exceptional -- no wonder these long out of production headphones developed cult status. The sound is more lifelike and natural than any other headphone I know, so music sounds realistic in ways that hi-fis rarely do. The MDR-R10 is a big and bulky design, but they seemed nicely balanced and comfy for the 20 minutes I listened to them.

So the question is raised: If Sony was clever enough to design a world-class, uber-audiophile headphone back in the day, why can't they do it again? Or make something almost as good and sell it for a lot less? I really don't have a clue, but the MDR-R10 may have really been the Holy Grail, at least as far as dynamic headphones go. Stax electrostatic headphones may be more transparent and clear, but they don't have the body and soul of the MDR-R10.