Headphones

This is the $11k product that had people in tears at CES 2019

Some crazy expensive headphones had us feeling kind of blue, kind of great

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Tucked away in a corner at CES is a quiet, dark room that offers respite from the cacophony of the show floor. The formal purpose of the space is to showcase exceptionally high-end audio products from Sony, but its true purpose can only be divined by those willing to exercise that increasingly difficult skill of simply listening and letting go.

Technology, particularly what’s on offer at CES, yammers endlessly about how it can improve human connection. If only we spend just a few more dollars, add just a few more megabytes, and share just a little more personal data, we will eventually cross the threshold to Shangri La.

To say that that couldn’t be further from the truth might be stating the obvious, but in that dimly lit room full of fantastically expensive headphones and amplifiers, I manage to find a ray of hope.

Entering the small enclosure, I'm welcomed by Armand Delisle—a retail sales supervisor for Sony, and as kind and warm a gentleman as I have ever encountered in my many trips to CES. There, he invites me to try out the MDR-Z1R headphones and “portable” DMP-Z1 music player. Total retail price: $10,800.

Sony DMP-Z1 digital music player and MDR-Z1R headphones
Credit: Sony

The Sony DMP-Z1 digital music player and MDR-Z1R headphones, with a combined price of $10,800.

It’s no surprise to him or me or Sony that the tiny crowd clustered around the demo area has no intention of ever buying these items. Armand’s goal is to simply give us the opportunity to hear what could justify such a cost, equivalent to no fewer than fifty-four iPod Touches.

As it turns out, what it buys you is a music listening experience that staggers the soul. I select “So What” by Miles Davis, off his seminal 1959 album Kind of Blue. It’s a track I’ve probably heard 200 times or more, but I’d never actually sat in the studio next to Phil Chambers as he laid down that famous bass line or witnessed the slight hesitation in Bill Evans’ fingers as he tested out the first few chord variations. At least, not until I put those headphones on.

I'm brought to the verge of tears each of the three times I listen to the track. Then I sit and watch as Armand hands the headphones to customer after customer, most of them experiencing that same moment of revelation and some, like me, too choked up to answer the single survey question at the end: “So, what did you think?”

The technology underlying the DMP-Z1 music player is equal parts impressive and bewildering for the non-audiophile. Weighing about as much as a laptop, it’s a hunk of battery-powered plastic and silicon with a spec sheet a mile long. Even if you don’t speak the lingo, the gold-plated volume knob sufficiently implies its status.

The sound quality can also be attributed to the audio file format, restored from the original recording masters and saved in the Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC). For a 3-minute song, a FLAC file is about 34x larger than an MP3 file. I'm reminded that most of the music I listen to on my phone is the equivalent of eating day-old Wonderbread while a Thanksgiving feast is occurring in the next room.

Jargon-filled shop talk streams endlessly from certain customers in the listening room, as well as the occasional brag of "Good, but I've heard better." But Armand prefers talking about what the music evokes in people, and he's kind enough to share a remarkable story with me.

On the first day of CES, an 80-year-old man sat down to give the headphones a spin and lit up when he saw the Miles Davis track on the playlist. The man, it turned out, had been a roadie for Miles and other jazz musicians at the time of the recording. He had touching, quirky anecdotes about each of the musicians on the album—what was going on in their lives at the time and what lay ahead for them. They were his friends and now, he lamented, nearly every one of them was dead and gone.

As he sat and listened, tears began pouring down his face. When he finished, he said, “I haven’t stood that close to Miles in sixty years.”

Here, at long last, was technology making good on its promise of human connection.

I don’t expect I’ll have this kind of experience with another tech product for a long time, but so what? As long as the possibility exists, I’ll happily return to CES once again in 2020.