26
Nov
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I can't claim to have a solid grasp of what exactly makes dubstep appealling, nor can I understand Bieber Fever. I don't get swag. I do, though, know what the kids are into putting on their ears these days: Beats.

Let's not beat around the bush: the Sony MDR-X10's are ridiculously overwrought, flashy, made out of plastic, and endorsed by Simon Cowell. The Beats market is squarely in Sony's crosshairs with this headphone. Even the price point ($300 - street and MSRP) matches up with Dr. Dre's previously top-of-the-line Studio model.

I'm not being particularly fair to Sony here, though, by immediately lumping the X10's unceremoniously into the "designer headphone" pile - they're certainly not without their own points of distinction. In fact, Sony has long been renowned for its over-the-ear cans, making some of the best on the market in terms of value for money. Just hit up Amazon, and you'll see glowing review upon glowing review - many for products under $100.

But most of those reviews are from A/V pros, DJs, audiophiles, and, well, older people. Sony's headphones don't send a young, vital image - they look more like tools than fashion statements. The X10's are Sony's attempt to tap into a growing market for designer personal audio gear, a market that is quickly becoming the only one of importance when it comes to headphone sales in the US. Just think about this: Beats controls over half of the US headphone market by revenue.

So, while my gut's aesthetic sense is immediately tempted to toss the X10's aside as flashy toys, my heart desperately wants Sony to show Dr. Dre that headphones are still about the science of sound - even the absurdly gaudy and tasteless ones.

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Sony MDR-X10

  • What are they? On-ear headphones. Shiny ones.
  • How much? $300.
  • What's so special about them? BOOM BASS EXPLOSION! Oh, and they come in a really classy, minimalist white box.
  • Do I want them? Eh, if you're in the target audience (read: you like the styling), maybe - there's no doubt they're overpriced, though.

The Look / The Fit

The look is... not my cup of tea. I'm trying to be nice here, but really, these are catered to an audience with a fashion sense that I will never be able to understand. There is absolutely nothing redeeming to me about the appearance of the X10's, aside from their potential value as reflectors while walking across unlit streets at night. Which is sort of a good thing, considering how deaf-to-the-world they'll make you. But that'd also mean I'd have to be wearing them in public. Which I wouldn't.

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I do admit, these red ones are especially offensive to me. The black edition (available here) is a little less in-your-face. Of course, if they're you're sort of thing, then take everything I just said and forget it, and try to resist the urge to nail me to the wall in the comments.

Moving on, in terms of quality, the X10's are made of plastic (mostly), but they feel quite sturdy. The plastic does make a lot of noise when you're handling them, though, and that's a major turn-off for me at times. However, at the end of the day, that's hard to avoid when you're building folding headphones out of anything but metal or wood.

The oversized swivels holding the ear cups in place are at least aluminum on the exterior, though I assume their innards are plastic through and through. The ear cups themselves have textured aluminum center caps that lend a decided feeling of quality not found elsewhere on the X10's.

Functionally, the X10's show off Sony's decades of headphone engineering experience. The headband adjustment action is smooth, but solid, and inspires confidence in quality. The headband itself is amply padded, and even fits over my large noggin very comfortably. The folding mechanism and included carrying case bundle up the X10's to a manageable size for backpack or messenger bag travel, and the detachable locking cord (which is flat, to avoid tangling) adds yet more flexibility.

In terms of fit, once again, I can't complain. While initially I found the X10's a little uncomfortable, they eased up pretty quickly as the memory-foam cushions lining the earpads broke in, and now they're absurdly cozy - a comment you'll often hear about Sony cans. Despite their heft, I could wear the X10's for hours with little fatigue. Make no mistake about the over-the-ear classification, by the way - the X10's merely look like on-ear headphones, the memory foam forms an amazing seal around your entire ear that absolutely mutes the outside world.

The Sound

Once again, the X10's leave me at an impasse: part of me hates the sound, and part of me loves it. As you might have guessed, the X10's are very much catered to the "too much bass isn't a thing" crowd. The sense I get is that Sony took their MDR-XB800 headphones, styled them up with some slightly-more-premium materials, re-tuned the drivers, and (maybe, maybe) upped the quality of the voice coil. I don't have a pair of XB800's to compare, so I can't comment definitively.

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Anyway, the sound is basically a low-frequency explosion in your face. Listening to any latter-day Beatles track, for example, it sounds like Paul is a on a perpetual bass guitar solo. It just isn't right. That said, I doubt people buying the X10's will be doing much Beatles listening, these headphones simply aren't made for a wide variety of genres. Pop, electronic, and hip-hop are far more suited to the exceedingly skewed sound curve Sony's implemented here.

At the same time, though, even those tracks don't sound quite right. The bass is so dominant that it begins to muddle up the mid-range and overpower the treble. Songs that sound balanced, but still bass-heavy, on my big set of Klipsch loudspeakers become less clean, and while details are more fairly represented (as is generally the case with headphones), the booming low-end can just make listening unpleasant. Kavinsky's Nightcall, for example, becomes an utter mess, with the bass-line overpowering the beautiful medley of synth and voice elements that make it one of my favorites.

Even adjusting EQ down to compensate really doesn't fix the problem, the effect is simply too persistent across too wide a range of frequencies, you'll end up destroying detail long before you find aural balance. I can't - and don't want to - imagine what listening to a movie or TV on these would be like.

At the same time, the X10's have two very redeeming qualities that shine through this decided shortcoming (if you consider it a shortcoming): soundstage and separation. Stereo delineation (sense of left / right / center) is simply fantastic. The X10's create a wide soundstage that can make tracks sound dynamic in a way many headphones simply fail to. Couple this with an uncanny ability to pull out the subtle details in a dense arrangement, and you get an amazing sense of place in a song. Listening to The Beach Boys' "I Know There's An Answer" stereo mix brings Brian Wilson's complex horn, keyboard, and percussion sections alive.

However, it's not all roses: detail on the high-end of the spectrum isn't anything to write home about. Some listeners may confuse the fantastic presence I described above for fidelity, when in reality that's far more about dynamic range. Mid-range is also fairly weak, probably owing to the bass drowning it out.

The Verdict

At this point, I'm practically considering heading down to a Sony store to see if they have a pair of MDR-XB800's I can try out and compare the X10's against. I really want to know how much that extra $150 (yes, double the price) is buying, because I strongly suspect it's less than Sony would like consumers to think.

That said, while the bass and style may be unbearably loud for a person like me, someone putting the X10's up against a comparably-priced pair of Beats (or other designer headphones) may find that there's a little bit of Sony magic here. If you have to make your high-end headphones $300 and flashier than the trim section of a Pep Boys in order to have today's buyers take them seriously, so be it.

Sony makes great headphones, and the X10's aren't by any means bad. They're just too much for me.

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David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • RajivSK

    Just go out and buy some firecrackers for in your ears instead. They're a lot cheaper, and you don't even have to wait a whole month before your eardrums give out.

    • Sean

      Even as a member of the aforementioned "too much bass isn't a thing" crowd, I almost just spit iced tea all over my keyboard due to uncontrollable laughter. Thank you.

  • ReasonableBloke

    That looks garish, I have no idea what's with this whole affection to sharp lines styling like the one you would see on a supercar, it looks good on a car but cheesy on everything else.

  • Shaun McCarthy

    Audiotechnica blows away pretty much anything you've heard of for much cheaper. They just don't have any flair so people don't think they're good by looking at them. aka they're actually professional level lol

    • skirmich

      To be fair right now the Sony X10s are 99 bucks new and at that Price Point it completely obliterates the Audiotechnica M50s which you are comparing... The M50s have a lightly better sound (Mids) but make no Mistake the X10 have the Best BASS in the market, The M50s sound flat in comparison and that is good for Audiophiles but for people looking for Bassy headphones the M50s cannot even match the X10 when tuned let alone if you tune the X10s.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/SuperElvisfreshlyATT Freshly_Snipes

    I wonder how these will work with my mixing? Going to research these. I hate mixing music (I'm a recording engineer) with muddy, unrealistically sound oriented ear muffs.

    • RajivSK

      Why are you mixing on headphones in the first place? Let alone "muddy, unrealistically sound oriented ear muffs"? Looks to me like you've bought your last pair on looks as well..

      • http://www.youtube.com/user/SuperElvisfreshlyATT Freshly_Snipes

        I do a premix on headphones. I use speakers. Why are you undermining what I do and imagining what I must record on from a vague comment on a tech site? No offense but unless you've engineered Grammy winning sessions I would stop. Maybe I'm reading out of context but you get what I mean. Don't assume I bought off looks. That's basically insulting my work. Blessings to you.

        • RajivSK

          I shouldn't even reply but I feel like you took my post way too personally. The only assumption in my post was *jokingly* the criteria on which you've based your last purchasing decision. No 'imagining what you must record on' was going on. Neither was there any 'undermining' of what you do. You did that last one perfectly well on your own. Simplified for the rationally challenged: Stating you hate mixing on unrealistic, muddy headphones implies you mix on unrealistic, muddy headphones (at least some of the time). Combine that with the fact your looking at a pair of overpriced designer headphones for WORK purposes and, well I guess you can see what I mean about the whole undermining part.. If you must mix on headphones though, look at some of @twitter-433009261:disqus's recommendations, or a pair of AKG's (the none fancy professional ones).

    • http://twitter.com/dark_funk dark_funk

      These will work poorly for mixing - they'll distort your sense of how the mix really sounds. Get a set of MDR-V6s or similar Audio Technica or Sennheiser headphones which are designed for accuracy. Better yet, get a decent set of monitor speakers.

  • http://profiles.google.com/zandmstudios Steven Zang

    Skullcandy Aviators are the best "designer headphone" for the money IMO. They're cheaper than most and deliver VERY balanced and detailed sound quality with an absolutely wonderful soundstage. Cons: Little to no isolation. So listening on the bus/plane? Difficult, as the bass frequencies essentially drop out of existence. But they're great for at-home use.

  • Sootie

    I always thought I was a too much bass isnt a think kinda guy but my car stereo has gone beyond silly lately and even with bass at -5 the full range speakers still cant keep up with the sub and it does rather wreck it.

    As far as headphones no matter how many sets I try not much comes close to the sennheiser HD280's as far as a reasonable price and unbelievable sound

  • Justin Rogers

    Pure overpriced crap.. but so are beats..

  • http://twitter.com/dark_funk dark_funk

    Headphones (and audio equipment in general) should be flat, with the ability to get loud at all frequencies and extend as low and high as the content demands. These things have the drivers to deliver great sound, but are tuned to inundate the listener with bass and treble. If you're gonna EQ, the time to do that is before the amp, so you can turn it off if you need to. I know Sony has the ability to make great headphones, so these just seem like a waste of time. But the market demands this ish now, I guess.

  • MistiXF

    Umm, $300 is around £190. For this, you can get Audio-Technica ATH-M50, V-Moda M-80, Sennheiser HD25-1-II and HD598, Ultrasone HFI-580 and HFI-780, Grado SR80i, and if you're a basshead you can even get the Audio-Technika ATH-Pro700mk2. All of them will embarrass those X-10 and are just a couple examples of the quality builds you can get for that price. Couple $$ more and you can get the K 702 or DT 880. I will never understand why would anyone buy such headphones as those overpriced X-10 or any Beats for that matter, if you can get some really, really good cans instead. Cheaper. Is it just for the sake of having "designer" cans at the expense of sound quality?

    • Gabriel

      After testing the M50s I can say this comment is completely retarded.

      • skirmich

        Agree seems the OP never auditioned the X10s... The M50s don't even stand in the same universe...

  • Don Magic Juan

    spot on review. traded for a pair yesterday, logged 4 hours in. I have a pair of $40 on ear cheapo cans that have crisper highs, and bass almost as loud. That said, the detail on the lows with these headphones blows my mind. All-in-all i'm happy to have them and will get a lot of use from them, but I definitely need a pair of less bassy cans.

  • Gabriel

    If you EQ and with a FiiO E11 this things sound amazing unless you like really bright sounding headphones.
    Anyone passing on them for $99 as they are now is MISSING.