My hunt for a convenient, comfortable, affordable and excellent sounding portable audio setup seems to be interminable. In the past year alone, I’ve gone trialed or bought more pairs of in-ear monitors, headphones and even cables 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.
With the iPhone - you either have to go wireless* or play musical dongles and factor in the cost (and bulk) of an external DAC/Amp. And then there’s the 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; I wanted 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.
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 signature and drop pricing slightly. Coming from the luxurious aluminum 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. The cable is a silver coated, oxygen free copper affair - 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 underwhelming from unboxing until you plug them in and put them on - 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 can be best described as a warm hug from a very plush soft toy. I just bloody wish the earpads were velour or alcantara - not crappy 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 bass - good attack and fade - and clear highs. 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 not fatiguing over extended periods 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 reader 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 frankly, I can’t recommend it at this price and luckily you probably will never have to pay it if you’re patient. 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 MYR609 incl. of shipping and taxes , which puts it at USD$145.
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.