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Being the tech guy at Insider Picks means that I use a whole bunch of headphones. I mean a lot. If someone were to make a nuclear bomb out of the things, ground zero would probably look like my apartment — there are in-ear monitors, full-size cans, Bluetooth variants, on-ear models, exercise-friendly earbuds, a couple of bone conduction pairs, and other remnants of past and future articles all lying around.
But testing so many cans has taught me that naming one The Best is impossible. Some are very clearly better than others, yes, but once you weed out the junk, judging sound quality, comfort, looks, and so on is an intensely subjective process. All you can do is figure out your price range, know what you prefer, and dig from there.
I try to keep varying circumstances in mind when reviewing a particular pair, but today I’m going to be selfish. If I were forced to pick one headphone from my testing to buy for myself, I’d go with the Sony MDR-1A.
They’re far from the highest-fidelity cans I’ve used, and they’re marginally overpriced, but for $A400 — which, in a post-Beats world, isn’t that bad for a higher-end, mainstream headphone — they nail the fundamentals.
First off, they sound great. Again, they can’t touch the better headphones around the $1,500 mark, but their balanced, yet slightly bass-boosted sound plays beautifully for the money. The lows can go nice and deep when they have to, but they’re always more punchy than overwhelming. The mids are smooth, the highs are crisp, and the whole thing is constantly spacious and detailed.
It’s not a flat, true-to-life sound, but it works very well with modern, pop-oriented music. That’s the stuff I listen to most, and I’d guess that’s the case for many of you, too. The fact that it’s clear, but not super clear is something of a blessing in this light — with a very hi-res headphone like the Oppo PM-3, you’re sometimes exposed to how harsh modern recordings can be. The MDR-1As, meanwhile, are pleasant with an external DAC
or your smartphone.
What keeps me coming back to the MDR-1As, though, is their build. They are simply the most comfortable full-sized headphones I’ve used. They’re very light, they don’t clamp down too tight, and the amount of padding on their earcups and headband, for me, is ideal. I’ve worn them for hours at a time — on long train trips and through streaming binges with a Roku remote — and hardly felt a mark afterwards. They stay soft when you have them around your neck, too. It’s actually gotten to the point where I look forward to wearing them once I’m done reviewing a new, inevitably less accommodating pair.
Plus, I think they look great. They don’t feel cheap, either. Whether or not you agree is up to you, though.
Now, as always, there are still little annoyances here. Aside from the sound and pricing nitpicks mentioned above, Sony only puts a one-button remote on one of its two included cables. That remote is geared toward Android phones instead of iPhones, because those are what Sony makes. They also leak sound fairly easily.
Nevertheless, the MDR-1As do everything I want my headphones to do. It’s not a long list — sound great, be comfortable, and don’t force me to take out a second mortgage — but very few cans tick all the boxes as wholly as these do.
This article was originally published on 3/14/2016.