The high-end IEM (in-ear monitor) market has blown up the past couple years, and Sony (that also happens to be a hard-hitter in high-end headphones) has finally rolled out its answer to the ultimate earphone utilizing today’s cutting-edge technology. This comes in the form of a hybrid driver configuration of two dynamic drivers (large 12mm covering the lows/mids and 5mm “super tweeter” covering the highs) and one balanced armature (BA) covering everything in between. It’s certainly an interesting setup, where most manufacturers choose to stuff their earpieces with as many BA drivers as possible.
There are plentiful general impressions/reviews out there for the IER-Z1R, so our focus here is on getting to the point of this purchase option. This synopsis fires through key particularities and criticism that are likely to go unaddressed. Let’s get right to it….
> We don’t usually comment much on unboxing but the IER-Z1R’s presentation is an exception. Suffice to say, the unpacking matches the luxuriousness of the glimmery earpieces, which are presented like opulent jewelry themselves. Certainly set up to put a smile on the buyer’s face even before listening, which we agree is how it should be for $2K on a set of earphones. Well done, Sony.
> There’s a lot to say about these earpieces. They’re striking in person, in both a good and bad way. Good is that they look and feel as expensive they are, but bad in that their girthy and heft make it seem like a nightmare when it comes to ergonomics. The fit with earpieces is one of those make-it-or-break-it factors with earphones. Another trade-off with their build you may not think about until you have them is that the burly shells tend to want to “clank” together when carrying the unit around or rolling up when you’re done listening, which could quickly lead to scratches. So you have to treat these with extra care. This also goes for being mindful on how you package them in a case.
> Indeed, we had no idea the orientation these are meant to don. Not a good start. But after some fiddling figured out that they slip in pretty easily if you tilt the MMCX connection point forward and line up the notch on the earpiece’s opposite side (bonus fact: the BA driver is stuffed under here) with the ear’s Intertragic Notch. After a while donning the earpieces became second nature.
> So how’s the fit? Surprisingly pretty adequate after figuring out the correct orientation. The earpieces go further in than you’d expect for this size, so they’re plentiful supported by the outer ear. Sure, you feel like you have quite the earplug filling out your ear, but that doesn’t necessarily mean discomfort. We had no problems wearing these for extended periods of time. Of course, all ears are different, but make sure you have them seated in the right orientation before writing them off as uncomfortable/unusable.
> Tip seal is the other part of the fit equation. Sony does an above average job in this department, thanks to our previous point about the earpieces (and nozzles) going deep in the ear canal. On top of that, Sony does the right thing and not just include in-between S, M, and L size tips, but short or long ones. And, they include a similar selection but in a foam/silicone hybrid type, which improves isolation. Well done again, Sony. It’s super nice when the user is gets to shuffle among tips to find the best kind of seal rather than trying to find one that just works, which happens more often than it should even with expensive IEMs.
> We’re pretty critical on cable routing, something of which is neglected on a lot of reviews. Sony’s memory wire (the thicker section that circles around the ear) is pleasantly supple than stiff (such as that of Shure’s offerings). So contact-wise, you barely feel it, but in this case that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t notice it. Because the earpieces are so large (and the orientation they sit in the ear), the point at which the memory wire goes around the ear is further outward and upward. They feel like they’re at the limit of slipping off the ear (to our ears) but fortunately don’t. Still, it’s worth noting as it may bug some people.
> Furthermore on the cable, it has a lightweight and bouncy nature. The rubber sheathing doesn’t have the most expensive feel to it, but the fact that it is transparent and the underlining braided wire is silver and shimmery makes up for it very well. This whole package is aesthetically eye-candy. One last thing we must mention is that the Y-split goes down unnecessarily far. We prefer a tighter/tidier feel here.
> But a headphone can’t just look good. Straight to the point (because that’s how we do it here), the IER-Z1R unfortunately looks better than it sounds. This doesn’t mean it sounds bad. We’re holding it to the high-priced standard that Sony pegged it in. This earphone looks like a million bucks but we just can’t say sounds like it.
> Firstly, the consensus that the mids exhibit a clear dip is very real. Even though it’s not as drastic as say something like Sennheiser’s flagship IE 800, it’s still definitely a U-shape sound signature. The result (and our problem with dips in this range) is that a large percentage of instruments (i.e. guitars) and vocals are noticeably subdued. There’s a lot of action in the mid-range, and such a recess can take away from impact, fun, and the largeness of a sound (if you can imagine some of the sound getting pushed back into a farther and smaller space compared to the rest). Mind you, it’s in no way drastic (U-shaped not V-shaped), but without a doubt noticeable and can be distracting if you’re used to a more balanced frequency response.
> However, what helps is the IER-Z1R’s seamless smoothness and coherency. The transition from the mid-bass to mid-range is done very fluently. If you look at any curve measurement of the IER-Z1R, you’ll see that the shifts are easy and drawn-out. This makes the large bass response (more on this in a sec) not be disjointed from the dipped mids. It melds in the middle and sounds like one in the end, like it should. Sony did an outstanding job tieing everything together seamlessly, unlike what we saw in a cheaper hybrid driver.
> The bass is easily the part of the IER-Z1R, and this is the first comment/praise you’ll get from people that demo it. Like we’d expect from a large 12mm dynamic driver and a company that takes bass very seriously, the sub-bass through the mid-bass is all large/energetic, hard-hitting (but not overly-so), tight, punchy, and deep and rumbly – basically any positive adjective that you can give to bass. It is that good. This is the ultimate headphone for a portable audiophile who’s also a basshead. And somehow (magically) it all stays in its proper frequency region, not overstepping its bounds in the mids.
> On that last point, sound separation is up there. There’s no muddiness to speak of, like we’d expect at this price-point. The clarity exquisitely enables the listener to effortlessly pin-point the different sounds. It’s not to the crystal-clear level of an electrostatic, but not too far off. Like we noted in our initial impressions of the IER-Z1R, soundstage is strikingly wide for a closed-back. Fantastic imaging (different placements of the sounds in the simulated space) goes along with that, but it unfortunately isn’t exactly realistic. The soundstage of the IER-Z1R is wider than tall, so the sounds extend outward more than they do up and down. It’s a particularity you get used to with time, though.
> The next best thing about the IER-Z1R is the treble response. We’re most impressed with how clean, micro-detailed, and extended it is while absolutely avoiding being fatiguing. In fact, it sounds a lot like the IE 800 S (basically, post Sennheiser’s correction to make the original IE 800’s treble more listenable/not piercing). But we’re inclined to say that the IER-Z1R has more treble extension than the IE 800 S. With all that said, another $2K earphone, the KSE 1200, has more treble presence and clarity (granted, being an electrostatic earphone). In other words, the treble of the IER-Z1R has a hint of recess or slightly laid-back quality compared to some of its competition.
- Luxurious, robust build to match high price
- Deep insertion and good isolation
- Awesome selection of ear tips
- High quality balanced and unbalanced cables
- Powerful, refined, and expansive sound
- Heavy and bulky earpieces won’t suit everyone
- Have to treat earpieces with extra care to avoid blemishes
- Cable ergonomics could use a little tidying
- MMCX jack shape won’t work with all alternative cables
- Costs more than the sound is worth
Sony is in a dangerous “mixed bag” territory with the IER-Z1R. An IEM so expensive needs to have less ambiguity with it and more that’s nailed. This high-end of a headphone market is small, and Sony is targeting an even smaller group that would think the IER-Z1R is the best portable headphone package for $2K. There’s so much competition in this space that all the pieces need to be as “perfect” as possible if you’re going to have a success.
But to be fair, this is a stand-out earphone in several ways. There’s no others that look and feel quite like it, nor have a build that matches their high cost. We’ve never had IEMs that felt so expensive and were such a joy to handle. The sound, while it has its peculiarities, must be recognized for its powerhouse and refined qualities. If that does it for you, bass and impact are your most important factors, and you have the funds to spare, then this might be the TOTL earphones for you.