You have to know that Sony is feeling the pinch from companies like Beats and Bose, and now that the black basic headphone is no longer the big deal, Sony has to reinvent itself, starting with a pair of cans that might just get to do that.
Features and performance
Sony is no stranger to sound products and has been building headphones and speakers for ages, but this year we’re seeing a renewed sense of design in its range.
The first inkling you get of this comes from the name of Sony’s new headphones. Forget about model numbers because while they’re there, the brand wants you to focus on a word instead: hear.
Because the world is very web focused, Sony has added a dot, so these are now the “h.ear” headphones, a name which probably makes these headphones a little more modern just from the get go, but so too does the design, with a basic colour applied to a metal casing for the cans which is cool to the touch, while the headband remains plastic with a vinyl headband.
We do like the colour, and it’s nice to see a style that is both basic and pleasing, with the mediocre black headphones disappearing and replaced with something that is both eye-catching and different.
There’s also no major nod to the brand like there is with Beats or Bose, though you do get a Sony printed on each side of the band.
They’re comfy, though, and that matters, with a design that will fill snug and circumaural, even if the cans are technically marketed as supra-aural on-ear cans, hence “h.ear on”.
They’re also relatively portable, with a hinge at the cup that allows you to collapse the cans inwards and situate the cups on top of each other. Granted, they don’t pivot or face upwards, so DJs won’t be interested, but they still fold up nicely, and given the h.ear on headphones are meant for portability, this makes sense.
The inclusion of a small colour-coded pouch is also nice, something not all headphones gets.
As usual, we’re testing these headphones with the GadgetGuy 2016 Sound Test, a playlist you can listen to with either a Google Play Music, Spotify, or Apple Music account, and we get started with electronica, and Imogen Heap is surprisingly deep in the bottom end with bright highs and mids.
The bass isn’t overwhelming in Heap’s “Headlock”, nor is the thwack of the bass too much to handle in Demi Lovato’s “Cool For The Summer” or Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, though it is clear from these modern tracks that the bass offers the biggest response out of the spectrums offered, though the mids aren’t far behind.
Overall, it’s a surprisingly warm sound for the size of the cans, with the lows delivering a nice round bass sound as the mids and highs of the vocals and instruments ring out over the rest of the track.
Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” offers just as much bass kick, but the vocals aren’t far behind, and Sony has given the h.ear on MDR-100AAP cans a nice warm personality which doesn’t look like it should match the colourful style.
In fact, looking at these cans, you get the feeling that they should be bright and cheerful and overly poppy, but they deliver a surprisingly round and relatively balanced sound.
Soul is the next area, and whether it’s Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain” or Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, the excellent mastering of each can be heard, with no instrument or minor sound lost, and a solid separation. In fact, when bass isn’t pushed hard by the track, the balance is pretty much on target, even if the volume needs a little more oomph.
That’s something we picked up in our playback, and testing with the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, we found we needed around 70 percent of maximum volume for a comfortable listening experience, above the 50 to 60 that we see on other headphones.
That might be because Sony has made these compatible with high-definition audio (supporting 24-bit and 192kHz), but whatever the issue, the line volume could be a little louder.
Over to rock, and that bottom end is still making its presence known, overwhelming slightly when it kicks in, though still giving the mids and highs a bit of room when needed, something we felt in Ben Folds’ “Phone In A Pool”, as well as Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and Muse’s “Psycho”.
In fact, the heavier the rock, the more pronounced that separation between the bottom end of the repeating bass line is against the vocals.
It’s still a good sound, though, with surprisingly warm and clear tonality offered in the instruments, even if that bottom end can push a little further than you might expect.
Jazz and classical ends the test, and with no excess mixing, the Sony h.ear on MDR-100AAP headphones work well with these styles of music, the emphasis on the bottom end pushed in a way where you can feel the double bass in the background, while still focus on the horns, keys, and drum lines.
Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” was soft and lovely, but with enough bottom end to immerse yourself in the sound and not feel like it was shallow, while Nigel Kennedy’s “To Shiver, Frozen” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was all-encompassing, with the bottom creeping up on you as the highs of the strings provided harsh attack.
All up, a surprising effort from Sony, with detail in these cans we didn’t expect and a bottom end that isn’t just booming, but rounded and detailed. To put it simply, Sony’s h.ear on headphones produce a sound not unlike a great pair of speakers, even if we want the bass curbed a little.
If you like it booming, you’ll be happy, and otherwise, you may want to fiddle with the EQ on your media player or phone to get it perfect. Sony hasn’t done badly with these cans, though.
Make them wireless and noise cancelling and we’d probably be happier.
Long-term durability is one area we will admit to being a little concerned by, and it’s not because the construction of the MDR-100 cans feel cheap, but rather elements of the construction.
Take the hinge where you fold the headphones up, because that gives us serious pause. Even after two weeks of use, we can see the hinge is a touch floppy, telling us which part of these headphones is likely going to fail first.
We hope we’re wrong — it would be great if these lasted over a year — but experience with hinges that loose rigidity quickly tend to concern us, and that’s kind of what it feels like would happen here.
The remote is another area that feels a little lacklustre, and we suspect that is because Sony is trying to speak to every smartphone and media player user out there, rather than the one.
You see there’s no such thing as a generic media playing headphone remote control, and that’s partly because of Apple. While the maker of the iPhone didn’t create the headphone-line corded remote — the one to three button plastic block so many headphones feature for controlling audio without taking your media player or phone out — it did create a standard that only its phones and media players could control.
Called “MFi” or “Made for iPhone”, it’s often the standard that headphone cables respond to, which is why if you plug a three button remote into an iPhone or iPad, you get volume control on the top and bottom buttons, while if you plug the same cord into an Android device, they do nothing.
MFi is, unfortunately, only compatible with Apple devices, and so you need a special cable if you want the same sort of compatibility on an Android device, or a Windows device, or pretty much anything that isn’t made by Apple.
This puts headphone makers in a rather sticky situation, and so the path of least resistance is often to cut the remote back to one button. Specifically, the remote has the only button that will work between every device: the pause and play button which will also work for skipping tracks when double- or triple-tapped.
This is the route Sony has taken with the h.ear on MDR-100AAP headphones, and while we get it and more or less expected it, we half expected a combination of cables, with one made for iPhone owners — an MFi remote — and one made for Android owners — with an Android-compatible cable, because they exist — especially since Sony makes Android phones.
Instead Sony has opted for the cheap way out with a singular button, and while it works, we can’t help but feel that a $300 pair of headphones should arrive with a more mobile-friendly cable than the basic one Sony has supplied here.
At least the sound quality is good.
If there’s one message we’ve heard from listening and playing with Sony’s h.ear on headphones, it’s that the company is fully aware of the threat that is Beats and Bose and a bunch of other brands that have been building momentum.
The headphone is now more than something that just sounds good, it’s also the fashion accessory, and while it bodes well for a company to build something that resonates with the music of the day and time, that same headphone needs to look good as well, and it needs to be compact enough to take on the go, since all of our music is pretty much heard on the go these days.
In the past, Sony hasn’t been amazing with this, and the majority of headphones we’ve seen and heard from the company have either been unattractive and not portable at all yet offering great sound, or pretty with pretty awful sound.
But not the h.ear on cans we’ve checked out in this review.
Sony has surprised us with these, as while they lack the future proofing that is wireless connectivity, they also look and sound great, something Sony’s headphones rarely achieve simultaneously.
We’re still not sure if the price is totally warranted, and Sony is playing against some other fashionable and similarly tagged brands, but if neither Beats nor Bose does it for you and you’re looking for a decent balance, Sony’s h.ear on MDR-100AAP are definitely worth a look. Recommended.