My hunt for a convenient, comfortable, affordable and excellent sounding yet portable audio setup seems to be interminable. In the past year alone, I’ve tested and bought more gear than I (or my wallet) care to remember. Having fixed the iPhone + TIDAL HiFi as my input of choice a couple years ago, the challenge really was on the transducer side of things (and to a smaller extent, the DAC/Amp).
With the iPhone - I’ve either had to go wireless or play musical dongles and factor in the cost (and bulk) of an external DAC/Amp. There’s also been a change in personal preference from IEMs to headphones. I don’t have a daily commute these days, which means a headphone is a viable option but I am mobile enough that it still needs to fall within the realm of portable. This rules out anything that’s open-back or needs serious amping - so my requirement were for something closed back, affordable, easy to drive and a clear improvement on my current options*. This seemed like a wild goose chase until the Sony MDR-1AM2.
*Current options being the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless, a reshelled UE Triple-Fi 10 Pro+Linum BaX over Dragonfly Black+Apple CCK, the NuForce Primo 8 and Beyerdynamic BT Wireless.
The Sony 1AM2, is the new and improved version of the, you guessed it, Sony 1A. While I have no experience with the predecessor, it seems that Sony’s objective was to make the 1AM2 more disposable (lot more plastic, far fewer replaceable components) but improve the sound quality while dropping price slightly. Coming from the luxurious aluminium and leather on the Bowers P7 Wireless, the 1AM2 can feel underwhelming and I particularly dislike the pleather earpads but within the context of what I paid for it, I can’t complain at all.
The 1AM2 is equipped with 40mm drivers and while I can’t confirm this, I suspect they’re the same drivers found in the WH1000XM3 - Sony’s flagship wireless cans. The 1AM2 also has a new Fibonacci patterned grill which is supposed to minimise damping of the trebles and giving it more headroom - I have no way of objectively verifying these claims. The cable is a silver coated, oxygen free copper affair which is par for the course on a product like this. They also ship with a balanced cable but I’ve never used it and can’t comment.
These headphones will be an underwhelming experience from unboxing until you plug them in - especially if you paid full retail (more on this later). The first thing you’ll notice once they’re on your head is how comfortable and light they are. They make my Bowers P7 Wireless feel like a vice and the experience can be best described as a warm hug from a very plush soft toy. I just wish the earpads were velour or alcantara - not pleather which gets sticky and annoying if you’re using it in warm or humid environments.
The soundstage is surprisingly open for a closed-back which I think is the result of a port at the top of each cup. I haven’t had any complaints of sound leak so you should be fine using these in the office or on public transport. Overall sound signature is neutral with crisp but light bass and a bias to the mids and trebles. I would consider the Bowers P7W to be a warm, intimate sounding set of cans while the 1AM2s are cooler, have more attack and much more capable of resolving the trebles. I have sensitive ears, so I did initially find them borderline sibilant with certain tracks but that seems to have disappeared after burn in.
The 1AM2 is great for extended listening thanks to its lightweight construction and is very easy to drive off the iPhone. In fact, I use the stock Apple adaptor as this seems to warm sound up slightly (which is to my preference) and keeps the overall system portable and light. While it does sound better off the Audioquest Dragonfly Black, you don’t need additional amping and there isn’t another DAC solution that’s as tiny as Apple’s implementation.
I’ve conspicuously avoided discussing the cost of entry until now. This is partly because I didn’t want the price to skew expectations or introduce bias but mostly because we’re talking about Sony, where price seems to be as predictable as the weather. The Sony MDR-1AM2 is listed at USD$299 retail and I can’t recommend it at this price. Luckily you probably will never have to pay full retail as Sony seems to enjoy slashing prices indiscriminately and having a sale at least once a month. This means that I picked up the 1AM2 in Malaysia for around USD$150.
At that price, this becomes a steal. By premium head-fi standards, this is affordable and borderline disposable pricing; its cheap enough that you might want to buy a pair as a beater or backup or even for modding (there’s a couple mods already up on Head-Fi). I can even live with the pleather ear pads for now. If you were really masochistic (or curious), you could also experiment with making these wireless by using any number of Bluetooth adaptors from China but I wouldn’t recommend it.