Review: Sony MDR-10RBT Bluetooth Headphones

Sony adds MDR-10 series to its expanding premium headphone portfolio (January 5th, 2014)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Sony

Price: $250

The Good


  • - Excellent audio qualilty
    - Great battery life
    - Lightweight, comfortable design
    - Support for aptX
    - Support for High-Res Audio

The Bad


  • - No S-Master Amp
    - Not as luxurious as Sony's MDR1-RBTs
    - aptX support on smartphones limited

With the rise of the premium headphone market over the past few years, Sony has been quietly ramping up its headphone range to meet the increased demand for a high quality audio experience. The latest addition to its high-end audio range is its new MDR-10 series that sits just below its superb MDR-1 range. We have previously reviewed the Sony MDR-1RBT headphones (which have recently been updated to the Mk II version) and found them to be the best Bluetooth headphone experience we have heard. At $150 less than the MDR-1RBT and more in line with competing products, how do the MDR-10RBT's stack up?


Design and build quality

Sony has hit upon a winning formula with its design for the MDR range of headphones. They convey a high-end, yet understated appearance, but still manage to look unique and interesting in what is becoming a flooded market. The three tone combination of black and silver with red banding on the MDR-10RBT looks contemporary without being too loud, which will suit those who want a more sophisticated look. Although the finish looks metallic, like the MDR-1 range, the external components of the MDR-10s are also made largely from plastic. However, in the flesh, this does not detract too much in reality from what the set looks like on the packaging.



The biggest advantage that the MDR-10RBT has over the MDR-1RBT is its reduced weight. It comes in at 180g, which is substantially lighter than the MDR1-RBTs, which weigh in at 297g (as a sidenote, the new Mk II version of the MDR1-RBTs gets this weight down to just 240g). For road warriors who carry a lot of gear with them when they travel, this will be appealing, particularly for those who prefer an optimal listening experience on the go that over ear designs like the MDR-10RBTs offer. However, despite the weight reduction, the build quality of the MDR-10RBTs has not suffered and they still feel sturdy and robust. The adjustable headband mechanism has a reassuring 'click' for each adjustment that will help to ensure that you can enjoy a hassle free listening experience. They come with a pouch for protection between uses.



Comfort

Sony's over ear designs are very comfortable to wear for long periods of time. The company has clearly invested considerable time and energy into ensuring that the MDR-10RBT fit a wide range of different listeners. It has achieved this by developing an ergonomic design with slightly curved arms that ensures the ear cups fit comfortably around your ears and seal correctly around the point of your jaw line. As Sony has been able to trim the bulk off the MDR-10RBTs, it has been able to reduce the amount of padding around the headband and the ear cups (which in turn also helps to reduce weight further). However, this in no way compromises the overall fit and comfort of the MDR-10RBTs, although it is probably somewhat less sumptuous than the MDR-1 range.



Connectivity and battery life

The MDR-10RBT uses the Bluetooth 3.0 specification and supports several profiles including A2DP, AVRCP, HFP and HSP. Supported codecs include SBC, AAC and aptX. It utilizes the 2.4GHz band and has a maximum communication range of 30ft (10m) meaning that you should be able to retain a very stable connection the closer your two paired devices are. The set also includes NFC for 'one-touch' pairing with NFC-equipped devices that certainly helps to speed up and simplify the pairing process. Charging time over the micro-USB connection is 2.5 hours, but this will deliver up to 17 hours of wireless listening; yet, you still have the fall back option of using the wired connection should you run out of charge on the go. Standby time is a whopping 450 hours.



Sound quality

The MDR-10RBT headphones use a pair of 40mm drivers paired with neodymium magnets and a super rigid multilayer diaphragm, which is a relatively standard configuration for quality headphones. However, the set utilized in the MDR-10RBTs feature what Sony is calling wideband audio performance supporting an impressive frequency range of 5Hz to 40,000Hz. Sony is calling its devices that boast this level of performance High-Res Audio-capable. Given that the human hearing range is typically considered to be 20Hz to 20,000Hz, this might be considered superfluous, but it is aimed at audiophiles who like to listen to lossless formats including FLAC and ALAC. In the MDR-10RBT, this capability is only enabled when listening to music over the supplied cable and is not supported over the Bluetooth connection.



The MDR-10RBTs supports Bluetooth A2DP, which are quite common, and Bluetooth devices that also support aptX, which are not quite as common depending on how you look at it. For audiophiles, the difference is important. For most people, A2DP support is sufficient and will provide a very good listening experience when pairing a good device with good headphones. The bandwidth is about half that of listening to an uncompressed audio CD, which means that it is quite adequate for supporting standard MP3 and AAC files. Devices that support aptX are able to support music streaming at CD quality and will therefore produce a much better sound. To take advantage of this on with aptX-enabled headphones on an aptX-enabled device, you are best to listen to files in one of the uncompressed digital audio formats.



Mainstream smartphones that support the aptX real-time streaming codecs include Samsung Galaxy S and Note models, the HTC One line, the Motorola Droid RAZR range, BlackBerry 10 devices and the Sony Xperia Z Ultra. We used the Sony Xperia Z Ultra for our testing with aptX, while for our standard Bluetooth streaming tests using A2DP, we used a Nexus 5 and a Retina iPad mini. Let's not forget that another important component in the overall listening experience is also the DAC (digital-to-analog converter) built into the chipset of each device, which will also influence the overall quality of your listening experience with any set of decent headphones. Current smartphones and tablets incorporate relatively high-quality audio chipsets, although purists will still prefer listening to dedicated devices with the audio circuitry properly isolated from interference. Traditionally, we have found Apple's devices to provide an excellent wired listening experience, so were particularly interested to see how the Retina iPad mini (which uses the same A7 chipset as the iPhone 5s) stacked up compared to wireless listening experience provided by the aptX-enabled Xperia Z Ultra. (As a sidenote, Apple Mac OS X supports aptX, but Apple has not included it in iOS as it requires real-time encoding, which is an additional drain on battery life).



In our standard tests listening to both 320kbps MP3 files and 256kpbs AAC files over the A2DP profile, I found that the Sony MDR-10RBTs performed very well with both the Nexus 5 and the Retina iPad mini. The tone of the MDR-10RBTs is very neutral and almost identical to the tone of the MDR-1RBTs. The only difference between the two is that the higher-end MDR-1RBTs incorporate an on-board version of Sony S-Master amplification technology. It provides a slightly more rounded and fuller listening experience, but it is only detectable when listening to the two headphones back-to-back. In isolation, there is very little wanting in the sound produced by the MDR-10RTBs, which we are confident will please fussy listeners. The Retina iPad mini was very impressive and performed slightly better than the Nexus 5. It is actually quite comparable to the listening experience of the Xperia Z Ultra over aptX even when listening to uncompressed audio files. Overall, the bass produced by the MDR-10RBTs is full and has punch without being overpowering, while the midrange is present but rolls off nicely. The treble ranges are crystal clear, but manage to avoid sounding harsh.



To get a sense of how the MDR-10RBTs sound with Sony's High-Res Audio enabled, we connected the MDR-10RBTs to our Sony Xperia Z Ultra with the supplied 3.5mm cable and listened to tracks in recorded in the FLAC format. What it highlights is just how good the MDR-10RBTs sound over Bluetooth. While it produces a slightly more satisfying listening experience, it is not dramatically different to the listening experience over Bluetooth, at least to our ears. While most audiophiles would prefer to listen to music over a wired connection and preferably through a headphone amplifier, most users will find that the Sony MDR-10RBTs provide a completely satisfying listening experience when on the go. Only the most discerning listeners would prefer the wired connection, and even then likely only when listening to classical music or genres with greater dynamic range than contemporary pop and rock recordings.



Wrapping up

Sony's engineers have done a remarkable job of achieving a very high quality wireless listening experience with the MDR-10RBTs. While the MDR-1RBTs are the company's range topping over hear Bluetooth headphones, the $150 difference in price of the MDR-10RBTs makes them a tempting proposition. The weight reduction and added portability this provides also works in its favor. As an added bonus, you can also make and receive Bluetooth calls over the device as well as it includes a built-in microphone. It may not be as sumptuous as wearing the more heavily padded MDR-1RBTs, while missing out on the S-Master amplification and liquid crystal polymer diaphragm with an even wider dynamic range, but it still represents an very good buy for users looking for an excellent wireless listening experience on the go.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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