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Sony's new high-end audio range is nuts (hands-on)

Sony's Signature Series includes a gold Walkman and a headphone inspired by mathematics. CNET goes hands-on to see if they sound as weird as they look.

The MDR-Z1R headphone, the TA-ZH1ES headphone amp and the gold NW-WM1Z Walkman

Sony has revealed its latest high-end personal listening range, the Signature Series, and it includes a headphone, two Walkmans and a headphone amp. But with prices up to $3,200, and finished with a good dollop of Björk-level oddness, this line is for serious music fans only.

Sony's new MDR-Z1R flagship

Likely of most interest to people like you and me is the new MDR-Z1R headphone. This new flagship has an attractive design with large, dampened earcups, and it includes some quirky touches -- golden ratio-shaped driver grilles anyone? The 70mm drivers feature a magnesium dome and an "aluminum coated LCP edge diaphragm".

The MDR-Z1R headphone was developed in collaboration with Mark Wilder, senior mastering engineer at Battery Studios in Manhattan, and he had worked with Sony Japan previously on the MDR-1A.

CNET was invited into Mark Wilder's mastering studio to hear the new range of products, and to compare the headphones against Wilder's own audio monitors which were used to help tune the Z1R's sound.


The $2,199 Sony MDR-Z1R.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Wilder said the Sony engineers would make regular visits to New York and make improvements on the fly. He said at one point he wasn't getting the bass timbres he wanted out of the Z1R so one of the engineers "popped the headphone open like an egg" and fixed the issue straight away.

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How did the MDR-Z1R sound? Remarkably like the ceiling-high speakers in the corner of the room. Voices had the same expressiveness and timbre. While the headphones lacked the deep bass, the texture was still the same. Only a slight treble zing in the Sony headphones separated them from the reference-quality speakers, but they still shied away from being overly analytical.


CNET's Steve Guttenberg getting the VIP treatment at at Battery Studios in Manhattan.

Ty Pendlebury/CNET

The new Walkmen

Taking a giant leap into all kinds of "Sony weird" is the new flagship NW-WM1Z Walkman, which features a solid copper housing encased in gold. Think"Apple Mac designed for Kanye West". But despite the ostentation, the $3,200 (converts to roughly £2,400, AU$4,200) NW-WM1Z is designed to be user-friendly, with large, indented buttons which are difficult to accidentally activate in your bag or pocket.

It also has little touches like a dual clock circuit with low phase noise quartz oscillation and internal wiring by Kimber Kable. Naturally, the Walkman has a high-end amplifier which will drive headphones, such as the MDR-Z1R, in balanced mode and also decode almost every digital format, including DSD.

The NW-WM1A meanwhile features a less-fancy aluminum housing more in line with its "cheaper" $1,200 price-tag. The NW-WM1A replaces the NW-ZX2 and will be available in 2017.

Finally, the company showed off the ZH1ES, the first headphone amplifier under the ES brand. It features a new D.A. Hybrid Amplifier circuit and a wealth of connectivity, including balanced mode outputs.

All of the products bar the NW-WM1A will be available in November while Australian and UK pricing and availability are yet to be announced.


The MDR-Z1R headphone, the TA-ZH1ES headphone amp and the gold NW-WM1Z Walkman