Sony MDR-ZX700 / 701ip Headphones Review
Sony’s forgotten big mistake?
For decades now, Sony has had quiet and tremendous success with the MDR-V6/7506 headphones. They’re a staple of the production world, and not bad for home listening either if you don’t mind some intensity in the treble.
Sony left these headphones alone for years…but in 2010, they took another stab at it. They launched a whole new consumer and studio product line that was meant to take on their classics. The ZX700(home)/7510(pro) was the mainstream competitor, and the ZX1000/7520 was for the most discerning of home and studio users.
The home versions of these headphones were only on the market for a couple of years before they were completely killed off. The 7510 and 7520 pro versions technically still exist…but Sony would really rather pretend that they didn’t, and they hope you’ll just buy the 7506’s instead like you’ve been doing for years.
What went wrong?
I was able to acquire a brand-new pair of ZX700’s thanks to the magic of the internet. These originally went for around $120 and I got mine for just $21.
Actually, the model I got is the ZX701ip, which is the exact same headphone but with an in-line remote and mic designed for iPhones. The cable is about 4 feet long, and the headphones didn’t come with any other features or extras.
I see these pop up online from time to time, and it’s probably because there were a bunch of unsold models still kicking around when Sony killed the product line.
Unfortunately, five years in a box was not kind to the ear pads of my unit.
They were wrapped up and boxed at a slight angle, meaning the pads were slightly crushed together for the last half decade. I did my best to let the pads bounce back a little, and gave them some nice massages and resting periods on my desk…but the stock pads on my unit are a little bit rumpled in spots. They’re usable and I think they more or less represent the headphones well…but they’re maybe at a 6/10, quality wise. Fortunately the rest of my headphones were completely pristine.
So, during this review, I’ll be talking about them both with the Stock Pads, and with some Brainwavz HM5 third-party pads. I’m not normally a pad swapping guy, but it’s quite difficult to come by the original pads. The pads that Sony makes for the pro models are a bit different in design…and also hard to come by.
Before I dive in here, I want to mention the 50mm drivers. They are barely covered by the foam of the pads, and when you remove the pads, they have only a basic plastic grill over them.
They look glorious.
I don’t normally talk about how drivers look, but just like on the newer MDR-1A and the MDR-100AAP…I always love how Sony’s drivers look.
But how do they sound?
The ZX701 has a sound signature that’s totally the opposite of most popular consumer headphones today, and indeed, most consumer headphones that Sony sells in their current lineup.
It has a sound that’s almost entirely focused on the mid and high frequencies, with a clean, sharp, almost too-bright tone that reminds me a bit of Audio-Technica’s house sound, but a bit thinner.
The bass is present…but super laid back, and rolled off quite obviously in the sub bass frequencies. There’s no significant punch or thump to these headphones. I don’t feel like I’m missing sound necessarily, but the bass is very recessed. Kick drums are lacking in punch. Electronica isn’t very exciting. Low end information in general comes off as a little thin, withdrawn, flabby, and distant, no matter what I’m listening to.
That’s fine for certain things. The bass is too low for mixing/mastering work in my opinion. They’re great for podcasts, acoustic music, and anything that’s designed to sound a little more airy than, say, club music.
But I think most listeners will find the sound a little too bright and the bass underwhelming. The treble gets a bit too sharp even for me at times, and I often like a bit of energy in the upper mids and highs.
The MDR-1R and 1A, which took a few design cues from these headphones, have a much more robust low-end, so clearly Sony was looking at feedback from the ZX700 when designing those. Even the MDR-7506 has a more present and enjoyable low-end response than the 700.
I don’t hate the way these sound. Not at all! They render vocals and most acoustic instruments with good clarity, detail, and musicality. But the bass is nowhere near as good as other headphones with similar strengths, like the M50X. I’d rather listen to the M50X any day of the week, without question, as far as frequency response goes.
The one sonic category where the ZX700’s do beat the M50’s is in the soundstage department. Thanks to the large and extremely well-placed and angled drivers, the soundstage is lovely for a closed-back headphone. They feel about 75 percent as roomy as the DT770’s, which is great.
The Brainwavz pads don’t change the sound signature of these all that much. Just like the stock pads, they have a very thin foam cover on the ear cup side. The treble isn’t impacted all that much by the new pads, and still sings out just as cleanly as with the originals.
Unfortunately, the sub bass also doesn’t really improve all that much in spite of the better seal that I got with the Brainwavz pads. You can tell that the sub bass is down there, somewhere, but it’s still quite recessed in the mix.
The soundstage is a little more expansive with the Brainwavz pads thanks to their increased size, which is great.
I think the HM5 pads are a good fit overall for the ZX700 because they don’t totally mess with the sound signature. On some other headphones, the Brainwavz pads make a huge difference in the sound, but the change here was very subtle. I was hoping for a little more oomph in the lowest bass frequencies, but what I got was a pretty accurate representation of the original tuning.
In the Sound Quality category, I can sort of see why Sony decided to quietly get rid of this line and go in a different direction.
In every other category, the death of this headphone just really bums me out.
Comfort is great with the stock pads, even in the slightly messed up state mine are in. The padding isn’t the thickest, but the pad openings are wonderfully large and ear-shaped. The drivers inside the cups are angled aggressively, meaning there’s plenty of room inside the cups for my ears to float.
The headband is softly padded across the entire length. A very similar headband appears on Sony’s MDR-1A headphones, which are still some of the comfiest I’ve ever worn.
Compared to the likes of the M50X, the comfort of the ZX700 is better. These fit really well and manage to disappear on my head even though my padding is a little wonky.
Isolation is okay. The soft leatherette does a good job of sealing to my head even with the slightly flattened padding, but each ear cup has a huge port on the back of it which hampers isolation performance a bit.
I have four extra clicks of adjustment range on the headband on my large head, so the range of adjustments here is exceptional.
It’s funny, with the leatherette pads, huge drivers, and bass ports…I would have expected these to me more bass-heavy, just looking at them. Oh well!
The Brainwavz pads are known for their extreme comfort, and they work well in concert with the ZX700’s headband. They warm up my ears a little bit more than the stock pads do, but they’re exceptionally comfy for long sessions.
Surprisingly, the HM5 pads don’t improve the isolation by that much…so once again, those darn ports on the back of the ear cups are working their “magic.”
The ZX700 has a clean, classic design that looks like a pair of Sony headphones. It’s subtle, curvy, and fits my head well even when I’m using the larger pads.
The cable is permanently attached, but it’s made out of nice material that reminds me of Beyerdynamic’s cables.
I particularly enjoy the large, angled ear cups. They are like the MDR-7506 cups but about 33 percent bigger. They have the same “racetrack” shape that the older pair has, and I just really enjoy that look.
The only weird thing in the design is the giant bass port on the back of each ear cup that I keep mentioning. It’s a large and complicated port design, and it seems like it should be doing more to enhance the bass response than it does.
I like that the plastic L and R indicators on the outsides of the headband are angled up, so that when you want to close down the adjustments your fingers can easily sit there and push down on each side.
Build is pretty darn great, even for the original retail price of the headphones. Most of the material is a good thick ABS plastic, and it feels really sturdy and nice in the hands, while not being too heavy. The leatherette material and padding on the headband is nice too. It feels like there’s a single strip of metal running through the headband to reinforce it…but I didn’t rip open my pair to check for sure.
At the current rock-bottom retail prices, you can’t beat this build quality (as long as your pads aren’t dead), and even at full price this competes well with other headphones like the M50X, even though it uses a bit less metal.
Since I got the iPhone model, it comes with a three button in-line remote and mic. These work fine and don’t feel that cheap.
It would have been nice if these came with a simple bag like other Sony headphones. Even other models Sony produced back in 2010 came with a bag.
I’m a little bummed that Sony killed these off, but with their mid/high centric sound signature and basic styling, I can totally see why they didn’t hit with consumers.
Still, at their current price of $20 or so, they’re a complete steal! Adding new pads took my price up to a little over $40. If you’re a fan of acoustic/jazz/vocal material, and don’t need crushing bass, these are an incredibly comfy and clean-sounding headphone.
And you can have fun owning a piece of audio’s past before it disappears forever!
I hope that Sony takes another crack at re-designing the 7506. With this same chassis, comfort, and a better sub-bass response…they’d have a giant-killer level of headphone on their hands.
They’re probably just going to keep selling the 7506 and their expensive wireless ANC headphones and not try this again, though, so don’t get your hopes up unless you’re weird like me!