Sony MDR-EX1000 Review: The Crippled Giant

Introduction


Hi everyone, this is part 2 of a 3-part review series on the legendary Etymotic ER4SR and the Sony MDR-EX1000. This part will focus on the Sony MDR-EX1000.

The Sony MDR-EX1000 was first released in 2011 along with its siblings the MDR-EX800st and the MDR-EX600. While the EX600 and EX1000 are now discontinued, you can still find the EX800st as the Sony MDR-7550 being sold as a studio monitor. Used prices for the EX1000 run about $350 for a set in good condition. It's close to impossible to find them new now although if you're willing to search and gamble on Taobao that option is available. Personally, I've owned a set of the EX1000 for over two years and it currently serves as my daily driver.

The EX1000 and EX800st gained quite the reputation over the years for its host of quirks. For those who are newer to the IEM scene, here's a short list of them with some of my thoughts on the matter:
  • 16 mm dynamic driver. It is the essentially biggest DD in an IEM you can get. The EX1000 has a LCP (liquid crystal polymer) coated driver while the EX800st uses a ML (multiple layer) diaphragm. What are LCP and ML you may ask? Good question, only Sony knows. LCP and ML describe how the drivers are built but not what it is built out of. Likely it is some kind of proprietary material. You can see term LCP being used to describe the driver of other Sony headphones.
  • Very little isolation. Both the EX1000 and EX800st are vented IEMs. There's some confusion over whether they are open back or not but I believe they are better categorized as vented. The large vents on these IEMs means they effectively have among the lowest isolation of any IEM. Wind noise a serious problem when walking down the street with these.
  • Awkward build and fit. These IEMs are constructed with a side-firing mechanism to accommodate their massive driver. This leads to a strange shell shape and awkward fit. Despite that, it's rather comfy. The over-ear cable style lets the IEM kinda hang and float in your ears. I like to describe it as the comfiest non-ergonomic IEM I've tried.
  • Speaking of the cable, it uses a proprietary connector pin with a screw-in locking mechanism. Many people get MMCX or 2-pin adapters at some point as cables with their connector pins are both expensive and rare. The cable itself is subtly awesome and one of the best stock cables implementations I've seen. Their earhooks are seriously great: they are readily moldable and retain their shape like wired hooks but are significantly softer and easier to handle. The cable has effectively no cable noise or memory and is very supple. Accessories wise, you get a ludicrous 10 sets of tips and a case.
  • The shell of these IEMs is made from magnesium but many people report theirs of paint chipping especially in humid conditions. I don't really have this issue but it's common to see it on used EX1000's on sale.
  • Last but not least is the infamous 5.5 kHz treble spike. I'll get to this in my review but for many people, this will be the killer.

Overall Sound Thoughts:

I bought the EX1000 blind as my first mid-fi IEM without knowing what to expect other than its cult-like reputation. The night I got them, I listened to it for about 10 minutes before going to sleep. I was not too impressed. Coming from the Tin Audio T2 which has a tuning that I greatly enjoy, the EX1000 felt like a step back. Tonality was not ideal. Overall resolution and clarity were a definite step up but lacked the "wow" factor the ER4SR had for me. The soundstage felt wide but I didn't pay much attention to it. I went to bed disappointed. But over the next week of listening, the EX1000 rapidly earned its place as my daily driver.

The EX1000's tuning is competent but not stellar. Despite other reviewers describing the EX1000 as bright, I think it's closer to balanced that leans warm. It also has an awful 5.5 kHz spike that just does not play nicely with certain tracks. Its strength lies in its one-of-a-kind presentation through its massive soundstage and sense of openness. And while the EX1000 does fine enough for low-level listening, it begs to be turned up thanks to a lack of shoutiness and its diffuse, open sound.

Accordingly, how good the EX1000 sounds greatly depends on the quality of the recording/mastering of the track you listen to. Badly mastered tracks often seen in rock and metal will sound mediocre. On the other hand, well recorded tracks, especially orchestral or jazz works, are absolutely stunning. If you listen to a lot of instrumental music, the EX1000 is a must try.

Bass:

While the bass quantity is relatively tame ("neutral flat") and the frequency response does lightly roll off around 30 Hz, the quality of the bass is the star of the show. As they say in certain circles: there's no replacement for displacement. The 16 mm DD on the EX1000 delivers an outstanding bass response that few, if any, other IEMs are able to match. The bass is full bodied and meaty and has a certain sort of texture to it. What this texture is exactly is unclear to me; it may be from some kind of distortion (despite a <1% THD) or resonance or something. I don't know. Regardless of what it is, the bass feels satisfyingly visceral, especially when it comes to subbass rumble. It's a significant upgrade compared to almost everything else. It's deliciously addictive.

That's not to say it's perfect. Compared the other "best-of-the-best" DD in the Sony IER-Z1R, the EX1000 doesn't hit as hard or as authoritatively enough. Despite its large 16 mm size, the EX1000's driver is by no means slow but does lack a sense of speed and finesse compared to BAs. Instead, it strikes a very careful balance between preserving the weighty impact and realistic decay of a massive dynamic driver while preventing it from sounding sloppy and slow. It balances between boomy and punchy, with enough refinement to cut cleanly through bass lines. The timbre of bass focused instruments feels realistic, especially when it comes to instruments that want to sound large such as the floor tom and bass drum. 

Overall, the EX1000 embodies the idea of quality over quantity when it comes to the bass. Despite a lack of subbass elevation or midbass bump, the quality of its bass is clearly heard. Really, it's on another level compared to anything but other TOTL dynamic drivers. And for those who have yet to hear the difference between a BA and DD when it comes to timbre in the bass, give the EX1000 a try.


Mids:

The low mids and mids continue the same excellence found in the bass. Once again, it has that lovely textured feeling, this time, with a touch of warmth. Acoustic stringed instruments sound especially good here while the gritty tone of electric guitars are rendered beautifully. 

The upper mids is where the EX1000 starts to run into trouble. FR wise, it has a relatively small pinna comp at 2 kHz while dipping around 3-4 kHz. Ideally, I'd like to see this peak at about 2.5-3 kHz and for it to continue with a minor decrease up to about 5 kHz. As it is, the 2 kHz peak gives the EX1000 a slightly nasally tone for vocals and worsened by 3-4 kHz dip which makes them sound partially recessed. The somewhat recessed vocals are a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand it contributes to the spacious, more open type of sound the EX1000 is known for. On the other, the lack of vocal energy can diminish the overall tone of certain vocalists, especially female artists. 

I mentioned earlier that I consider the EX1000 to be a warm leaning IEM. It's this relatively small pinna gain and the lack of upper 3-4 kHz mids that allow the lower mids to have more presence than other IEMs with larger pinna comps. While the EX1000 is commonly referred to as bright by many people, compared to something that I would consider to truly be neutral-bright such as the T2, the EX1000 is definitely a lot warmer. Generally speaking, the tonality of the mids is quite good. It's when you compare to it to something extremely good that its flaws become exposed.

Treble:

Ah the dreaded 5.5 kHz spike. This is likely what others refer to when they speak of the EX1000 being painfully bright. Admittedly, it is probably one of the worst treble spikes in any IEM. The bad news is that if your music has a natural peak around this area, this spike will simply amplify that and, depending on how loud you listen, it can be sharp to listen to. The good news is a lot of music doesn't actually interact too badly with the spike. About a 3-4 songs in my library hit this spike badly but that's it. If you're unlucky, vocals can be affected by this and you'll get a painfully sibilant sound.
 
The EX1000's upper treble starts to roll off pretty quick. This means there is a slight lack of air to the IEM despite how open it feels. Combined with the 5.5 kHz peak, this leads to issues with cymbals reproduction. There's a sort of metallic glare to crashing cymbals as 5.5 kHz lands right in key frequencies for the cymbals while the lack of treble extension kills its upper harmonics. Once again, this is highly track dependent and better recorded/mastered tracks avoid this issue. 

If your music isn't affected by these two flaws, the treble is clean. Notes are crisp, the tone of bell-like instruments are crystal clear, and there is a rather nice lingering decay to ring out the hats/cymbals with a realistic shimmer. I don't find it particularly bright either; other than the peak, the EX1000's treble is just enough to add a hint of brilliance to the overall sound. 

If you want to know what a 5.5 kHz peak sounds like, you can EQ it into your own gear. Give it a try! +6 dB at 5.5 kHz with Q of 8 using PEQ. It likely won't be as offensive as you would initially think from a graph.



Presentation:

The presentation of the EX1000 is among the most unique on the market, with a huge soundstage being its claim to fame. Personally, I find that the stage has an extremely large horizontal width with a solid height and depth. Think the shape and size of a football (rugby ball) centered around your head. While I haven't heard any other IEMs with a larger overall soundstage, the price for the EX1000 pays is its vented nature and no isolation. Another point I appreciate is that despite how wide the stage is, it never sounds exaggerated or artificially large. There's a sense of realism to its openness that feels inviting.

Imaging is very good but I would not call it pin-point accurate. This slight vagueness to the imaging works to provide a life-like effect. Unlike the 3-point blob of imaging from in the vast majority of IEMs, the EX1000 makes full use of its wide soundstage and images with a great amount of nuance. One way I can try to describe its level of nuance is to think of three 3x3 grids lined up side by side horizontally for left, center, and right stereo imaging. Sound images from the 9 points in each grid. This gives an idea of height (top/bottom of grid) as well as the width. To add on that is another layer or two of depth.

Resolution with the EX1000 is better on a macro level than on a micro level. Instrument separation is outstanding as the EX1000 reliably distinguishes between overlapping instruments are hitting the same notes at the same time; layering, if you will. It has a superb sense of spacing between instruments that keeps them cleanly distinct and separate from one another. Detail retrieval is good considering its dated nature but simply cannot compete with current TOTL BA IEMs where you can clearly hear the missing notes the EX1000 fails to capture.

The EX1000 is also a highly dynamic IEM. The 16 mm DD allows a track to feel alive as it moves through its passages. This is best demonstrated in orchestral music where rising crescendos are beautifully contrasted with delicately quiet segments. There is a sense of musicality as the EX1000 engages the listener in the overarching story of each song.

The presentation of the EX1000 gives it its X-factor. The sense of openness, slightly vague imaging, great instrument separation and spacing, and high dynamism invites the listener to appreciate and enjoy the music. I find myself imagining like I'm standing in front of a live band and listening to  music wash over me. Whenever I try a new IEM, I still find comfort when coming back to the EX1000. I can't overstate how much its presentation does to endear me to its sound.


EQ:

Some of the EX1000's biggest flaws are in its tuning. Fortunately, the EX1000 responds to EQ extremely well and a simple EQ can eliminate any tuning complaints I have about it.

Here is a 6-band PEQ I set up for it using UAPP. It could use a bit of refinement as I made it in about 10 mins but I'm quite satisfied with the sound I get from it. 



Here is the explanation for each band:
  1. Low shelf provides the more subbass quantity. I mentioned above that the EX1000 is about bass quality than quantity, but why not both? 
  2. Midbass band to maintain bass energy past the shelf. The idea is to give a nice, sloping curve as we transition into the mids.
  3. A cut at 125 Hz is important to avoid muddiness or bloat into the mids. Bands 1-3 create a nice low-end bump that provides bass quantity without sacrificing clarity.
  4. 3.2 kHz with 3 dB at 1.5 Q took a bit of experimentation but helps me around the vocal tone I want. The natural 2 kHz pinna comp isn't too bad but could be better. Filling in some gain past the peak helps diminish the slightly nasally tone. It's important that not too much gain is added. We want to retain the sense of openness and non-shouty nature of the EX1000.
  5. This is the most important band. The 5.5 kHz dip with a high Q is important to cut out the lower treble spike. This single cut does a lot to help improve the sound of the EX1000. No longer do cymbals sound metallic or overly strident. 
  6. The high shelf in the treble is mostly to accommodate for the treble roll-off. While it doesn't fix the inherent lack of upper treble, it helps give a bit of air and provide a more natural ring out decay for instruments.

Conclusion:

The Sony MDR-EX1000 represents a dying breed: great single dynamic driver IEMs. Admittedly, it has major flaws in both its tuning and practicality. While its tuning flaws may be fixed with EQ, nothing will change the fact that it has next to no isolation and the somewhat awkward fit. The real strength of the EX1000 lies in its phenomenal presentation. Regardless of how much technical ability improves and tuning is perfected over the years, the EX1000 proudly stands as one of the most unique IEMs ever made.

As mentioned earlier, I didn't fall in love with the EX1000 on first listen. I think some IEMs impress immediately from the start while others take some time before I appreciate them. The EX1000 is the latter. Maybe familiarity breeds fondness but I would be hard pressed to let go of these. Even after having demo'd other TOTL gear, I am still quite content with the EX1000 despite its host of flaws and aging technical ability. In the ever-increasing sea of IEMs claiming to the next best thing, the EX1000 has the X-factor that elevates it from a fading relic to an IEM worthy of lengthy praise a decade later.

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