Review: Sony MDR-7506 Professional Headphones Tweak
When Sony gets it right for audiophiles these days, it’s usually by accident. Take their headphone line: I defy you to find one decent-sounding unit in their entire U.S. consumer line with the exception of the well-regarded (but expensive) MDR-CD3000. I’ve tried the MDR-V300 and the MDR-V600, which sell for $50 and $100 respectively, and both were unsatisfying, with tinny midranges and bloated bass (on both models) and creaky build quality (on the MDR-V300).
That said, my beloved open-ear Sennheiser HD580s presented a problem -- not enough isolation when my upstairs neighbors mill around, or in the summer when the windows are open and outside the noise level is high. I’ve never had a pair of Sennheisers I didn’t like, so I was ready to order a pair of closed-ear HD280 Pro headphones until I turned on VH1 one weekend. On more than one documentary, I noticed recording engineers and artists were using Sony’s MDR-7506 Professional closed-ear phones for monitoring, mixing and mastering.
THE PROFESSIONAL’S CHOICE
After doing some research, I found that the MDR-7506s are pretty much an accepted industry standard -- the headphone of choice used during the recording of many of the commercial releases we listen to. At $130 a pair, but with a street price of about $100, these became an even more intriguing choice. In addition to being inexpensive, I’d be hearing some of my favorite records -- including Warren Zevon’s farewell gift, “The Wind” -- on the very cans with which they were made.
Next, I searched some discussion forums. Naturally, all of these opinions should be taken with a grain of salt. However, there seemed to be a consensus among the more lucid-sounding participants that these cans are extremely accurate and faithful to the music. To some people, this trait was annoying. To others, it was sublime. One comment I encountered again and again: don’t expect the euphoric house sound of Sennheiser.
The bass, it was said, is another strong point: deep and powerful, yet tight and not at all exaggerated. Many people on sites like audioreview.com, as well as recording engineers with sites of their own, said this was THE headphone, hands down. A good number of pundits claim to have tried considerably more expensive ‘phones -- including top-line models like Sennheiser HD600s, Grado SR325 and others -- and the general conclusion was that one could spend more but not get more faithful sound reproduction.
Unlike my 300ohm Sennheisers, the Sonys are said to be very easy to drive, even with portable equipment. There seems to be some confusion as to what the exact impedance is: the specs on the box list the impedance as a reasonable 63ohms. On Sony’s website (www.sony.com/proaudio), it’s shown as 26ohms with a frequency response of 10-20,000Hz.
Another point worth mentioning: many people believe Sony’s MDR-V6, aimed at the consumer rather than the professional market, is the identical product with two exceptions: the “Professional” sticker on the 7506 is replaced with a sticker reading “Digital,” and the plug is not gold-plated. Well, there’s another difference: the V6 is about $30 less. In fact, one post on headwize.org is from a person who bought a pair of MDR-V6 phones and found that one earcup read “MDR-V6,” while the other read “MDR-7506.” There’s even a photo to prove it. I wouldn’t put it past Sony to pull this kind of stuff. But other people seem to feel that these are definitely different ‘phones, and one posting provided a link to a website where a hobbyist put both models on a spectrum analyzer and charted a different response curve for each. Could sample-to-sample variation explain it? Maybe. I haven’t tried both so I can’t say, but it may be worth investigating if you want to save some cash.
I chose the more expensive MDR-7506 Professional version hoping that if I ever have a problem, Sony’s Pro Audio unit will provide better service. Judging by what I’ve read, their consumer product customer service department has a reputation for being difficult to reach and less than helpful in their responses. They also seem to have an annoying habit of replacing products sent in for repair with less desirable models (from an audiophile’s standpoint).
One other caution I’d received: the earpads on the Sonys were said to messily self-destruct, necessitating frequent replacement. On top of that, I was also warned not to expect Sennheiser levels of comfort, and if I did, to replace the vinyl ear cushions with cloth pads from Beyerdynamic instead. (The ones for their DT250 model are said to be an exact fit for the Sony MDR-7506.) With all that in mind, I placed an order with zzounds.com, got free shipping and a price of $99.97. Not bad. I received the ‘phones three days later, revved up my Creek OBH-11 headphone amp and began the break-in process before sitting down to listen.
Most posts I read on audio enthusiast websites stated that a headphone amp was most definitely not a necessity with the Sonys. A few did concede that an amp seemed to help tighten up the bass and improve its extension. I’ll say that, in my experience, the difference a headphone amp makes -- in my case, the Creek OBH-11 with the optional OBH-2 regulated power supply -- is subtle, even with hard-to-drive cans like Sennheiser HD580s. With the Sonys, I don’t believe the Creek presented any audible improvements. If anything, it made the Sonys sound unpleasantly lean and slightly shrill on some material. (More on that later.)
One thing’s for sure: if all Sony headphones were built this thoughtfully, they might give Grado and Sennheiser a run for their money. The MDR-7506 is solidly built with quality materials. The headband is a thickly padded vinyl, with double stitching -- not fake embossed stitching as on the Grado Prestige Series. Most parts are held in place by honest-to-goodness screws, not glue. That would suggest that, if one were able to get hold of parts, they could be easily swapped out. They easily lived up to their label of “Professonal” grade by virtue of their durable build quality alone. Even the sturdy box and rich-looking packaging are a cut above. There was no manual to speak of, but the box did include a handy service manual with comprehensive parts listing and exploded assembly/disassembly diagrams.
The relatively short, coiled cable necessitated the use of an extension cord, so I used the 15-foot Grado, a sensible match for the Sonys from a cost standpoint and a bargain at only $30. The Creek OBH-11 was connected through my Rotel RC-980BX preamp’s tape output via a Monster Cable Interlink 400MkII. My main digital source, a Sony SCD-775 SACD player, was connected to the preamp with an Audioquest Diamondback interconnect. Finally, my analog source is a Rega P2 with a glass platter standing in for the standard MDF platter, an ExtremePhono None Felt mat in place of the regular felt mat and a Denon DL-160 high-output, moving coil cartridge.
Out of the box, with zero break-in hours, the Sonys sounded pretty good. In fact, they were perfectly listenable within a few hours. After a few days of break-in time, they loosened up nicely. One thing was immediately apparent: these may be the ultimate headphones for someone who doesn’t want, or can’t afford to splurge for, a dedicated headphone amp. They were stunningly good when fed the weak signal from the headphone output of my Sony SACD player. The same signal that could barely motivate my Sennheiser HD580s was more than sufficient to power the Sonys. When powered by the headphone jack on my Rotel preamp, the signal was cleaner, more powerful and more dynamic.
Comfort was surprisingly good. The headband is just tight enough to hold these lightweight phones securely in place without pinching the ears. The vinyl ear cushions -- despite their nasty, low-rent appearance compared to the velour pads on some Sennheiser models -- are actually quite cozy for multi-hour listening sessions. My ears got a little warm and stuffy at times, but not too unpleasantly so. The single-sided cord will place a strain on the left side of your head if the full burden of the coiled cord is imposed on it, but this is really only a problem when standing. Once adjusted, the MDR-7506 headphones pretty much stayed adjusted unless acted on by an outside force, like the family dog.
The bass was definitely the Sony’s strongest point. For the first time ever with headphones, I can say I felt the low notes. That’s not to say the bass was exaggerated. It wasn’t at all, in fact. These may not be the ideal headphones for people who like a nice British mini-monitor. But on Holly Cole’s “Temptation,” Rob Wasserman’s “Duets” and Radiohead’s “Kid A,” I was surprised at not only how much impact the bass had, but also the additional detail accompanying it. The initial pluck of one of Wasserman’s strings was crystal-clear, and each note’s decay was like live music played an inch from your face.
The problem with that, of course, is that all of the instruments seemed to be pushed too far forward. Selections that were deeply three dimensional on my Sennheisers were decidedly 2D on the Sonys. In particular, the Sonys had a difficult time relating the position of one instrument (or an instrument section) in relation to the others. Of course, used for their intended purpose -- as studio monitors -- this probably isn’t nearly as important as overall tonal accuracy. And some people might find their “forward” musical style exciting -- they certainly make music sound “big.”
The Sonys were at their best with rock, and in particular, densely layered studio rock in the style of Radiohead, The Flaming Lips and Pink Floyd. Minute details that escaped me with loudspeakers were front-and-center on the Sonys: ticking clocks, approaching trains, even human breath and the sound of an errant finger glancing off a guitar’s fret board.
The Sonys were also very good with bluegrass and folk. Recent releases from Nickel Creek, Ralph Stanley and Dar Williams were well resolved, and due to the sparse arrangements on all three discs, the lack of three-dimensionality was not a serious problem.
Classical music suffered more from the lack of air and space than did other genres, but resolution was still excellent. The Sonys were at their worst with jazz, sounding shrill and over-hyped. The new SACD reissue of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” for example, was unlistenable, as was most jazz featuring brass instruments. My MoFi LP of Wes Montgomery’s “Bumpin’” fared better, as did my LPs of Keith Jarrett’s “Sun Bear Sessions.” (If you love to focus in on minute details during solo performances, these Sonys are a must audition.)
In the end, I brought the Sonys to work for use with my Sony CD Walkman, model D-EJ368CK. The lower resolution of the portable unit took the edge off these very revealing phones. At night, relaxing on the couch, I much prefer the lush, airy presentation of the Sennheisers. But during the day, under fluorescent lights while sitting at my desk, the Sony D-EJ368CK/MDR-7506 combo is just the ticket: it has the authority to bully its way through any distractions -- ocular and aural -- helping me concentrate on my work and, of course, the music.
Isolation is very good, but not so thorough that I can’t hear my phone ring. Co-workers say there’s no noticeable sound leakage, either. The only problem I encountered had to do with the 1/8th inch plug. It features a screw-on ¼ inch adaptor which, when not in use, leaves the screw threads exposed to pick up unwanted RF interference, resulting in some audible buzzing. A small layer of black electrical tape helped somewhat, though it’s not a very elegant band-aid.
The CD Walkman D-EJ368CK has no problem powering the MDR-7506 headphones to uncomfortable volumes. Overall, for $69.95, this is as decent a digital player as you’re likely to find these days provided you immediately toss the miserable 99-cent headphones that are supplied with it. Sony even throws in a handy, joystick-style wired remote control that works best when velcroed to a solid surface. The player’s sound is full, warm and relaxed with no glaring faults, or at least, none worth mentioning given its price. You’ll never, ever be tempted to hit the ‘bass boost’ button on this little guy. If you do, you’ll be justly punished with some of the most awful sound you’ve ever heard.
The difference between the Sony MDR-7506 headphones and Sennheiser HD580 cans is like the difference between a BMW M5 and a Bentley Turbo R. One is razor-sharp, the other silky smooth. If you want to carve through a set of twisty turns with knifelike precision, visit your local BMW dealer. If you want to set the cruise control for 100mph and breeze down to the seashore for the weekend, I’d suggest a trip to the Bentley store. Both cars will go plenty fast, and both are great performers. It’s up to you to decide which better suits your style.
I don’t enjoy the Sonys at home, but they make for a great travel headphone. Folded up in the supplied vinyl carrying case, they fit nicely into the bottom compartment of my Case Logic CD bag. I’m not overly worried about knocking them around, because (a) they’re built to withstand abuse and (b) most parts are readily available for quick and relatively easy replacement.
If you’re an occasional headphone listener without a dedicated headphone amp, and no plans to buy one, the Sony MDR-7506 is a solid buy. For some people, they may be too revealing. Record surface and groove noise, for instance, are not easily ignored. And they lack the ultimate finesse of the Sennheisers. Still, if you value extreme detail, serious slam and extended bass over relaxed, airy musicality, grab the Sonys.
Buy them from zzounds.com like I did, and you can try them for 30 days. If you don’t like them, trade them for the more laid-back Sennheiser HD280s, which are priced identically. Better still, pay the difference in price for a pair of Sennheiser HD580 or HD600 headphones and then start saving for a good headphone amp. Any way you do it, you probably can’t go too wrong.
Rega P2 turntable with P3 glass platter and ExtremePhono None-Felt mat
Denon DL-160 cartridge
Rotel RC-980 preamplifier with MM/MC phono card
Rotel RA-970 amplifier
Sony SCD-CE775 SACD player
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Kimber Kable 4PR speaker cables
Various Audioquest, Kimber, Vampire Wire and MonsterCable interconnects
Monster Power HTS 2500 Power Center
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine/Disc Doctor record brushes
StudioTech HF series racks
Audioquest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Sennheiser HD580 headphones
Creek OBH-11 headphone amp with OBH-2 regulated power supply
Grado 15’ headphone extension cable
Sennheiser HD565 Ovation