The latest in the MDR lineup, the Sony MDR-1ABT (MSRP: $399.99), feature NFC and Bluetooth 4.0 letting you pair and listen to them with or without cumbersome cables. Combine that with a comfortable, modern design and a built-in touch sensor on the right earcup and you’ve got a compelling piece of hardware.
But, when it comes to wireless headphones there’s undoubtedly going to be a loss in audio quality when you transmit over Bluetooth. And you’re shelling out hundreds of dollars for a pair of headphones, it's likely you care about how your music sounds. Sony does have a few tricks up its sleeves though, and we took the 1ABTs to the lab to see if they live up to the $400 price tag.
Sony upped its game when it released the Sony MDR-1ABT headphones (MSRP: $399.99) by including Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and a fancy new touch sensor. But that doesn’t mean they held back when it came to the sound.
With a frequency response that roughly resembles an equal-loudness contour and distortion scores that are pretty fantastic, you should be looking at a great pair of headphones. Unfortunately, the isolation isn't nearly as good as it should be, which hampers what would otherwise be a home run.
But you don’t have to take my word for it, let’s break this down by the numbers.
When we measure frequency response we input a parent signal of 78dB and measure the output of the headphones, which gives us a pretty good look at how they’ll handle each frequency in the audible spectrum (20Hz–20kHz).
The 1ABTs produced a frequency response that roughly resembles an equal-loudness contour. While it doesn’t match up perfectly, it has the same general shape.
Sub bass and bass frequencies (20–300Hz) have a slight boost that brings them up to 80dB briefly before they lower to somewhere closer 70–72dB. The midrange frequencies (300Hz–2kHz) stick between 70 and 74dB. That difference of 10dB between the bass and midrange frequencies translates to midrange frequencies sounding half as loud as bass. When it comes to EDM music or Dubstep, this would translate to
The upper mids dropped even lower than that and were measured between 63 and 70dB. The higher ranges of a piano or crashes of a cymbal aren’t going to have the same impact as they would, especially as they’re eclipsed by the higher decibel output of the lower frequencies.
Bulky yet plush, it’s a winning combination
In order for Sony to justify its steep asking price, Sony had to bring its A-game to the look and feel of the MDR-1ABTs. It can fit all of the fancy technology it wants into its headphones, but if Sony doesn’t make them look as well as they sound, it’s going to have a tough time finding consumers to buy them. Luckily, this isn’t Sony’s first rodeo, and the 1ABTs have a look and feel that matches their price.
The earcups are absolutely massive. Now, I have fairly large ears—it is what it is—but the 1ABTs completely encase them in thick, soft padding. There’s even enough space inside the earcups that my ears aren’t pressed uncomfortably against the driver housing.
That soft padding isn’t only on the earcups either. The band that rests on top of your head also has a generous helping of padding. No matter what part of the headphones touch your head there’s going to be at least a half inch of padding between you and them.
On paper, everything about the 1ABTs should spell out exceptional comfort. However, there is a fair amount of pressure exerted by the earcups that makes them press a touch too tightly against my head. Plus, the large cup size, while a perk in terms of ear comfort, means that force is almost entirely localized to my jaw. It’s still pretty easy to spend a good amount of time jamming to tunes, but you’re going to want to take a break at least every hour or so to recover from the pressure.
Of course, the real star of the show is the wireless capabilities of the 1ABTs. For starters, Sony also included NFC tech into the headphones, allowing you to use a compatible device to connect to them sans cables. Once paired, audio is streamed via Bluetooth 4.0—with the help of Sony’s LDAC technology—for a cable-free listening experience.
However—and this is the case for all wireless headphones—streaming audio wirelessly means you’ll inevitably suffer a loss in quality. While this is mitigated by LDAC, you’ll need to have it in both the output and the input to experience the full benefits. That means using other Sony branded products like its stereo systems or their new Walkman to listen to your music. Otherwise it won’t sound as full or detailed as it was intended to. But, when I listened through my non-Sony phone and MacBook Air computer, I was able to discern a higher quality using wireless then when I used the Momentum Wireless headphones. Just don’t count on that always being the case.
You may not think you’ll be able to notice the loss in quality when you go wireless, but if you do a comparison test, you almost definitely will. Still, the benefits of ditching that pesky cable might outweigh the loss in quality for some people. We’d just recommend trying it out for yourself before making a commitment.
The new tech doesn’t stop there. A removable audio cable makes it rather difficult to have an in-line controller for music and phone control. Instead, Sony opted to include another premium feature: touch controls on the right earcup. Swiping up or down controls volume, left and right for skipping and rewinding tracks, and a double tap to answer phone calls or play/pause your music. The touch sensor is a great addition and hardly impacts battery life at all.
In the time I spent testing the 1ABTs, I only experienced a few minor hiccups in the controls and that had more to do with my finger placement than the sensor not working. Just like a smartphone, once you get a taste of the touch controls you'll wonder why all wireless headphones don't include it.
Following the trend of other manufacturers with similar headphones, Sony kept the included accessories to a minimum with the 1ABTs. The headphones come in a large box, but once you get into the packaging all you’ll find is the 1ABTs, a removable 4-foot cable with 3.5mm, a micro–USB cable to charge the battery, and a carrying pouch. That’s it.
High-quality sound that defies wireless expectations
When it comes to premium headphones, there’s an expectation for high-quality sound that justifies breaking open your piggy bank. As audiophiles are quick to say, though, wireless headphones are known for dropping quality by virtue of being transmitted via Bluetooth. They might have to eat those words though, as Sony is implementing new technology in 2015 to deliver high-quality, lossless audio whether your headphones are wired or not.
When it comes to its wired performance, the 1ABTs have a frequency response that looks very similar to an equal-loudness contour. That means that the entire spectrum is balanced in a way that makes the whole spectrum able to be heard equally as well. Bass sounds get a slight bump that really emphasizes the deep, bumping sounds without losing the higher frequency sounds in the midrange. There is a slight drop in the upper mids that gets a little too low, but overall your music is going to sound detailed and balanced, no matter what genre it is.
There’s going to be a slight drop in audio quality if you take advantage of the 1ABTs ability to go wireless. When using Bluetooth 4.0, sounds are a little less full and detailed than it would otherwise. This is somewhat mitigated by Sony’s LDAC technology, which is a wireless audio codec that allows up to three times more data to be transmitted than standard Bluetooth.
Paired with LDAC is DSEE HX, which attempts to upscale your audio to make up for the details that are normally lost. While you’ll still experience a slight drop in quality when you go wireless, you probably won’t even notice a difference unless you do a comparison test and have very sensitive hearing.
There’s a small amount of fuzzy, crackling sounds that can be found in the bass notes. While it was technically audible, the bass frequencies are the most difficult for human ears to pick up distortion so your mileage may vary depending on how sensitive your hearing is.
As for the 1ABTs ability to block ambient sound, they perform on par with to other over-ear headphones. They have a slight advantage because of the thick padding that completely encases your ears, but when it comes to the deep bass sounds—the ones from a bus or train engine you'll encounter on a commute—they’ll hardly be blocked at all. Also, unlike some of its competition, Sony chose not to include active noise cancellation in the headphones, presumably to save on battery life.
Even the midrange sounds—which you’ll find plenty of in your normal daily routine—are only partially lowered, sticking fairly close to 75% of its normal volume. As you move into the mid and high-range frequencies, ambient sound drops off precipitously. High-midrange tones are about half as loud as they'd normally be, while high frequencies are dropped to just 1/8th their level.
When we test for distortion we’re looking for anything that goes above 3%, which is our threshold for what’s considered to be audible to the human ears. For the most part, the 1ABTs barely reach 1%, instead sticking closer to 0.5%—except for the sub bass and bass frequencies.
The right and left channels don’t line up perfectly, but for each there are some fluctuations that reach up to 4%. While technically this should be audible to the human ears, these frequencies (bass and sub bass) are actually the most difficult for human ears to detect distortion. While audiophiles may be able to pick up some of the fuzzy, crackling sounds, unless you have similarly sensitive hearing you’re unlikely to hear anything but clean and clear music.
Sony didn’t include active noise cancellation in the 1ABTs, so isolation relies on the tight fit and generous earcup padding. Sub bass and bass frequencies (20–300Hz) aren’t blocked at all and will continue unimpeded past the earcups and right to your ears. You won’t start to see any noise reduction until you reach the midrange. If you have a poor fit, the already poor isolation is only going to be worse.
Unfortunately, the volume of midrange sounds will only be reduced by 25%. Midrange sounds make up the majority of what you’re likely to encounter on a typical day, so this isn’t really enough to make a marked difference.
It’s the upper mids that are going to get the most out of the thick padding and tight fit. Sounds that are 2kHz and higher—which there aren’t a lot of that you’re likely to run into—are lowered to relatively half their original volume before quickly dropping down to 1/8th as loud.
Outstanding comfort with great wireless sound
Wireless headphones have a reputation for losing more than they gain. By transmitting over Bluetooth there’s a loss in audio quality that usually doesn’t outweigh the convenience of cutting the cord. The Sony MDR-1ABTs tackle this stigma head-on by incorporating new tech that supposedly upscales your audio to the high-quality standards of premium cans.
While we can't say we're totally sold on what Sony's selling there, the MDR-1ABTs are indeed generally solid headphones. Audio is well-tuned despite some minor flaws, and the drop-off when going from wired to wireless isn't nearly as bad as we've seen with other wireless headphones.
If you’re just looking for wireless headphones, the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless (MSRP: $499.95) have a similar performance to the 1ABTs while ditching the touch sensor for active noise cancellation. But, like other wireless headphones with a premium design, the Momentum Wireless headphones are going to cost you a pretty penny.
That much money might be a little much for most people to plunk down on a pair of headphones, if that's the case we’d recommend the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pros (MSRP: $229.99). Our top-rated headphone for almost 2 years straight now, they give you plenty of customization options—both for look and sound—that let you find your perfect listening experience. The only downside is that you’ll be missing out on the sweet, sweet freedom of ditching the cumbersome cable. For that, you'd be better off sticking to the comfort and quality you'll find with the Sony MDR-1ABTs.
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