Sony MDR-R10 Headphones Reviewed

Published On: February 13, 1989
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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Sony MDR-R10 Headphones Reviewed

Our reviewer was so impressed by the Sony MDR-R10 that he said they "make other limited items, gold-plated or otherwise, seem almost mundane." Sony spared no detail to make every aspect of this product special. It features lambskin pads and pure silk insulation and a linen-bound manual. Overall, "the MDR-10 is an absolutely sensational product"

Sony MDR-R10 Headphones Reviewed

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Lloyd G, a friend who thinks that #8 is about right for a pair of dress shoes, recently berated a friend for dropping a C-note on a Borsalino hat. 'A ton just to cover your head?!?' he cried. 'It
needs examining, not covering.'

To which one could reply, 'Well, if Borsalinos were good enough for Al Capone...'

Additional Resources
• Read over 100 headphone reviews from the likes of Sony, Stax, Etymotic Research, Grado, Ultimate Ears and many others at this Headphone Resource Page.
Read a review of Bowers and Wilkins' P5 Headphones.

Just whom the Sony MDR-R10 is good enough for shouldn't be hard
to determine: Japanese audio casualties. It's a limited edition
headphone -- 2000 only -- with a price tag equal to 25
Borsalinos. Yes, that's $2,499.95 for a set of cans, or over a
grand more than the previous record setter, an electrostatic with
separate energizer. As you'd expect, the rarity and the high
price tag will guarantee its success in Japan, where 'Ltd Ed'
status is the most desirable attribute a product can have. But
here in the cynical West, a bit more is needed if we're to be
parted with two-and-a-half big ones just for onanistic listening

Competition and Comparison
You can compare Sony's MDR-R10 headphones against other headphones by reading our reviews for the Grace M902 headphones and the Grado RS-1 Reference Series headphones. There is more information available in our Headphones section and on our Sony brand page.

Get ready for what is simply the most thorough example of image
overkill yet seen in the field of exotic hi-fi. By comparison, it
makes the inclusion of a white glove with the gold SME tonearm
seem normal practice. And nobody but nobody can match the
Japanese for presentation and attention to detail, especially
when it comes to creating a flagship wossname for building up the
cred. But does the MDR-R10 sound like 2.5 grand's worth of

Leave the sound for a minute; first I wanna tell you a tale of
rampant audiophilia. The MDR-R10s were delivered to me by hand --
not Securicor, not Fed Ex but by a Sony employee. This will be
reflected in actual sales, for it's alleged that Nicholas
Hopewell-Smith, the company's most posh employee, will
hand-deliver each pair sold in the UK. So don't expect to find a
set in every Sony dealer's cabinet; these are special order-only
and Sony UK will not be keeping large stocks.

What is handed over to you is a proper suitcase which makes a
Vuitton look like a rucksack. Measuring 8x11x15in, the black
valise comes with lock and key for those who don't want any other
ears touching the cushions. You lift the lid to find that the box
is lined with red velvet, said to be insect repelling. A small
clasp releases a tray in the lid which holds the hard-bound
owner's manual, a gorgeous full-colour publication clad in
natural linen. This tells the full story and contains the
numbered certificate of authenticity; the review sample was No.

Before removing the headphones from the case, you can't resist a
peek inside the little compartment at the bottom. In addition to
holding the coiled cable, it reveals number of small packets
including a general purpose cleaning cloth, a contact cleaner for
the metal bits and special headphone cushion cleaning tissues,
significantly dubbed 'KK-17'. Next to this compartment is another
empty cubby, probably for holding the owner's spare set of keys
for the Bristol, his coke stash or uncut diamonds. As far as I
can tell, there's only one optional extra, a headphone adaptor
for amplifiers without headphone sockets. This was not supplied
and I'm afraid to ask what one would cost.

Then you get to the real treasure, the MDR-R10 headphones.
Unrivalled in the annals of hi-fi hype, the MDR-R10 makes other
limited items, gold-plated or otherwise, seem almost mundane. The
most striking feature is the unique ear cup, a compound-curve
sculpture machined from 200-year-old Aizu zelkova wood. (This is
some distant and obviously snooty relative of the elm, native to
Japan and Korea.) The actual shape of the housing was determined
by and is machined with FRESDAM 3-D CAD technology, which allows
'speedy, precise designing and processing of three-dimensional
free forms with complex compound curves, both of which were once
nearly impossible'. The manual goes on to tell you that the wood
was chosen for its light weight, hardness, sound transferability
and timbre (timber?). A large quantity of the chunk is carved out
to create a cavity said to offer 'three-dimensional sound
expansion equivalent to a concert hall that gives you the feeling
that you are there'. Yeah, right.

Between the housings and your head are the large cushions covered
in Greek lambskin (which part of the body is not specified).
Whatever the pitch, the MDR-R10 is the most comfortable
sealed-back headphone I've ever worn, but the cushions are only
part of the story. The headband itself is made from a very light
carbon fibre composite which applies optimum inward pressure.
Sony points out that this composite has a specific gravity less
than a quarter of that of stainless steel, the preferred material
for plebeian headbands, and almost four times its elasticity. The
real capper is that Sony even found a sonic benefit: the carbon
fibre headband is 'superior in terms of vibration attenuation,
suppressing extraneous resonance'.

Let me stop for a second and point out to you what we're
witnessing here. Sony has taken the brave step of attributing
sonic qualities to every single molecule which goes into a
headphone. If this had come from a member of the fringe, say Enid
Lumley or Peter Belt, the establishment would dub it lunacy. Turn
it around and you've got: Sony staffers are tweaks!

Ahem. The rest of the support system is just as novel. Sony's
wizards have designed a 'no-adjust' mechanism which sets the
position of the earcups automatically by virtue of a shape memory
alloy used for the length adjustment mechanism and it cannot be
over-stretched or deformed in normal use. Even the holder/hanger
which connects the cups to the headband is an overengineered
display of excess. Sony opted for magnesium hangers and added a
housing insulator between the earpad and baffle plate to prevent
the intrusion of mechanical vibrations from the headband or
signal cable. This also serves to isolate acoustically the left
and right sections of the headset. Also part of the support
system is an inner band which actually retracts into the outer
headband. The mind boggles...

The cable is made from high-purity LC-OFC copper, insulated with
'durable and smooth soft silicon', and the outer wrap is --
honest! -- pure double-woven silk. The cable terminates in a
1/4in jack plated with rhodium and then gold. You expected
anything less?

All of the above is bizarre enough to ensure that they'll be
clamouring for these in Rodeo Drive, but what about the guts of
the R10? Don't worry: the Sony boffins haven't used just any old
driver for this 'statement', nosiree. Here we enter the realms of
science fiction, and it might mean an apology from all of those
who thought that Bedini was two cans short of a six-pack when he
announced a chip made from a living organism. Sony apparently
tried every conventional material used for forming diaphragms,
found nothing which would yield the 'broad, deep sound of a room
speaker system' and eventually stating that (and I quote):

'...After a frustrating stalemate, we discovered "bio-cellulose."
We found that when fed saccharides, a 2-micron-long bacterium,
called Acetobacter aceti, produces very fine cellulose fibres
200-400 angstroms in diameter which are called bio-cellulose.
With leading-edge biotechnology techniques, the bio-cellulose
culture becomes 2mm thick in about two days. It is then
dehydrated and compressed to a thickness of 20 microns in a
diaphragm die.'

Yeah, I know: if this were the April issue...but it isn't.
Apparently, this material, straight out of the cyberpunk epic
Neuromancer, provides the velocity of aluminium or titanium with
the 'warm, delicate sound' of paper. Whatever the stuff is, it's
the subject of a joint patent between Sony, the Ajinomoto Company
and the Research Institute for Polymers and Textiles of the
Agency for Industrial Science and Technology. (No, the author of
the brochure didn't see that the latter could be described by the
curious acronym RIPTAIST...)

The result is a 50mm dome-type diaphragm which I couldn't examine
because I was playing with the only set in the UK and it had to
make the rounds in perfect nick. Despite a desire to find out
what your #2500 paid for in addition to the structural niceties,
I was not about to tax HFN/RR's insurance coverage. It's situated
well into the cavity, which may be one of the reasons why this
oddly-shaped, larger-than-average closed-back headphone gave such
a wonderful impersonation of an open-back type. But that's
jumping the gun.

I used the MDR-R10 almost exclusively with the Marantz CD-12 CD
player because it was the highest quality source I could muster
with an onboard headphone socket. Also used were the
harman/kardon CD450 cassette deck and the AR system I use at home
as my budget reference. And no, you can't stop thinking about how
the headphones cost the same as the CD player or more than the
entire AR system.

Now I've given up on trying to figure out what makes you lot
tick. I'm certain that some of you are sitting there in pause
mode, just waiting for KK to launch into one of his big budget
freak-outs. 'Costs #2.5k? Sure, Kessler'll love it.' Then there
are those of you who just know I'm going to downrate it against
my chosen reference, the Stax' Lambda-series electrostatics. And
then there are those who think that maybe KK, on the brink of
middle age, is mature enough to admit that Sony, like Kiseki with
the Lapis Lazuli or Goldmund with the Reference, have gone too
far this time.

Heh, heh, heh. Sorry to disappoint you, but you're all right and
you're all wrong. Yes, I'm working hard at keeping the saliva
from dripping all over my laptop and yes, I still think that the
Staxes have the edge from the upper bass onward, and, yes, I
think that it's absolutely ridiculous to think that any set of
headphones can be worth #2500. To be perfectly blunt about it, I
think that some bean counter at Sony was inspired by the price
tags on loaves of bread in Germany in 1929. '10 billion DM for a
chunk of pumpernickel, comin' right up!'

But I hate to disappoint those who want to see an end to this
high-end price spiral. Leaving aside all of the non-sonic touches
which add to the price and image, forgetting about the lambskin
pads and pure silk insulation and linen-bound manual and
Halliburton-calibre flight case...the MDR-R10 is an absolutely
sensational product. And I'm wondering what dispensing with all
of the wrapping would do to the price...

First, the strengths. The MDR-R10 reveals, quite simply, the most
accurate, natural sounding and realistic lower registers I have
heard from any headphone regardless of type. It has weight,
control and extension so close to that of a 'room loudspeaker'
that you can forget all about the miniaturisation effect which is
part and parcel of headphone listening. Whether auditioning
powerful rock (try the frightening bass on Dr Feelgood's
'Roxette') or reggae or large scale orchestral, the R10 never
failed to convey the power. And you don't even have to focus on
it; you sense it as much as you hear it.

Read more on page 2


While wallowing in the glories of the lower registers, it's worth listening to the way these headphones create an acoustic in your head. All of that attention to detail, to killing spurious
resonances, really paid off because these headphones will not sacrifice a single shred of low level detail. No matter what music you feed them, you remain aware of an abundance of information and the ghostly, rustle-free silence which acts as
the music's backdrop. I swear I was hearing the bass reflections...

The midband and the upper registers are virtually
indistinguishable from a top-flight electrostatic as regards
speed, uniformity and coherence, but the R10 cannot match the
Stax Lambdas for openness and transparency. The Lambdas simply
excel in conveying 'air' and 'space' and there isn't any
argument. But hold on: the R10 comes so damned close that you
almost refuse to believe that you're auditioning a dynamic,
sealed back headphone.

And here's where the R10 pulls off its biggest coup, by emulating
the out-of-the-head effect of the Lambda so closely that a
certain type of audiophile's prayer has been answered. Yes, gang,
the R10 is that dream headphone which provides the isolationist
properties of a sealed unit with the out-of-the-head
'soundstage'. (What else do you call it?) In this respect, the
Sony copywriter wasn't writing fantasy in his description of the
quest for concert-hall recreation. I'm just sad that this
solution to a million music lovers' problems -- non-disruptive
headphone listening without the cuppy sound of a sealed system --
is only available to 2000 well-heeled, slightly mad R10 owners.

If there's any way to best encapsulate the R10, it would be to
describe it as a headphone equivalent to the delightful Sonus
Faber Electa Amator loudspeaker -- and not just because both
sport gorgeous woodwork. They're both capable of yielding bass
performance which you have no right to expect, the flaws --
though discernible -- are non-debilitating, and they're musical
to a fault. Oh, and they cost too much ever to have the impact
they genuinely deserve.

Before you turn the page, shaking your head at this latest
display of high-end madness, I ought to tell you that Sony UK has
already sold a pair of R10s. But I'm only telling you this
because it proves that I'm not the only high-end headcase in
Great Britain.

Additional Resources
• Read over 100 headphone reviews from the likes of Sony, Stax, Etymotic Research, Grado, Ultimate Ears and many others at this Headphone Resource Page
Read a review of Bowers and Wilkins' P5 Headphones

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