The time has come. My experience with the much talked about Sony clones is now receiving an unprecedented part III on Subjective Reviews. Never before has a headphone received such bad publicity before it has been officially released. For the reasons why, we need to open our history books. Let me tell you a story….
Some 30 years ago, Sony was at it’s creative peak. It released a flagship Headphone. That headphone was the MD-R10. The launch date was 1989 and just 2000 were made. The limited numbers are just 1 of the elements that have combined to create an almost mythical status to these cans. The headphones had a distinctive appearance. The cups were extremely large. They were wooden. In fact, the wood was taken from a 200 year old tree, Japanese Selkova tree. The tree is revered in the Far East. There are some of these trees still with us after 1000 years. Arguably the first example of a headphone designed using predominantly computer based technology, they were uniquely angled. They start as a dome shape but are flat on the edges. A picture will be the best description here.
They had a closed back design, whereas their closest competition at the time considered open cup designs were the only suitable option for flagships. The AKG K1000, launched the same year, was an attempt to make the most open sounding headphones yet produced. 2 other flagships of the time, the Stax Sigma Pro (1987)and the Sennheiser HE-90 Orpheus(1991) were electrostatic headphones, although Stax felt their product so unique they called it an earspeaker.
No one else put a bio cellulose driver in their phones. At least at the time, Sony’s driver appeared in only a handful of their top designs. Perhaps the implementation of the drivers in this instance has established the MD-R10 firmly into the history books as one of the best headphones ever made. Sadly, to date, these are 1 of the few flagship’s I’ve never experienced. In all my travels I’ve never seen 1. I’m acquainted with 1 owner in England. Perhaps, after the Pandemic, I will finally get a chance.
Sony made their 2000 MD R-10’s, and sold them all for what was at the time a pretty steep $2500. The patent on the design expired a long time ago. The cup shape (near enough) made a welcome return with the launch, quite recently(2017) of the Sony MD-Z1R.
The conical shape certainly has overtures to it’s older cousin, don’t you think? This is the closest anyone has gone in recreating that highly unusual look. Until now….
The HiFiMan HE-R10
The wooden cups and the flattened ends are back! HiFiMan have taken a 1989 design ( which looked retro back then) and reintroduced it in 2020. It is a daring move. It has sparked an outcry. The alleged “blatent copying” of a cherished memory has caused a small contingent of headphone purists to turn on HiFiMan in an alarming turn of events. Notwithstanding the obvious allusions to their original counterparts, are there any further similarities?
HiFiMan have made 2 versions of the HE-R10. There were 2 iterations of the MD R-10, the bass light and the normal version. However, Sony produced the MD R-10, and not a version 1 or 2. It is only with careful research that either version would be differentiated. The driver, cup and tuning is the same as far as I can ascertain. It is only a subtle change in materials that have altered the sound signature.
The retail price remained unaffected by any changes made. HiFiMan have a “cut price” R-10, when released officially it is rumoured to be $1500. That model is the D. D standing for the implementation of a dynamic driver. The MD R-10’s bio cellulose driver was also a dynamic, but, it is entirely different from the HiFiMan dynamic. For reasons I have not been able to deduce thus far, these types of drivers were used by Sony from 1989 and into the 1990’s but have not been used since.
HiFiMan HE-R10D Review
The D has been with me for 2 weeks now. I received it and unboxed on exactly the same day, and at exactly the same time as the P version. I can show you that experience below.
You will quickly realise that I was a little underwhelmed by the HE-R10D. I listened to that having tried the £6000 HiFiMan Susvara as a base and then putting on the HE-R10P. The P model is $5500, $4000 more than the D version. Perhaps in hindsight, even though this was pretty much a live unboxing, a somewhat fairer match up could have been arranged.
Compared to it’s more illustrious brother, the R10D sounded compressed and boomy. Seduced by the Planar, and with much of the outside interest being generated by the more expensive model, it’s easy to see why the Dynamic had little air time for a week. With the pressure of a new release of this importance, and a sizeable number of eager ears from all corners of the globe anxious for me to complete my part, I simply had to spend proper time with it on week 2. And so here we are. I happen to have a dynamic headphone or 2 in the Subjective Review offices, (Sennheiser HD800 anyone?) and I’m not afraid to use them, if I have to!
To get a feel for how the D competes against its own kind, I happen to have a closed back Audio Technica ATH W1000Z. It has cups made from solid teak wood. It’s impedance is a reasonably low 43 ohms and it has a high sensitivity of 101 dB. The D and the Z share a lot in common, other than the price. The Z did retail at £1000 up until a year or 2 ago, but, where available, it’s £599, or even less. At the time I bought these, I had 1 closed back headphone, the Alpha Dog Prime. I sold the Primes in favour of these. I’ve yet to be enthralled by any other full sized closed back, so the Z has been with me since 2017. I have several other full sized closed phones, but these aren’t in the same league at the ATH.
I put the Z and the D to a duel. The Z has a thinner, more distant sound, with a less linear bass response and a less prominent sub bass. There was less visceral air being pushed against my ears compared to the D, which has a low bass presence that you’d kind of expect from a large cupped design. . Where the Z went slightly into harshness, the D was able to step back from the edge. Where synthetic bass sounds slightly annoying on the Z, the D was able to get some control. Taking the P and the Susvara away from the audition was a way to make me realise some of the qualities that the lesser model has.
Taking on the HD800 would be an altogether more difficult match. I have modded mine, and I’ve had the original pair, from new, for over 8 years. The famous wide sound stage is still there and I’ve managed to add slam and reduce much of the ringing around some of the frequency range. These are very much an open headphone but the retail price stands at £1099 which puts them in the same bracket, pretty much, as the RE-10D. The HD800 does outdo the RE-10D, it is simply a more capable headphone in terms of resolution, dynamics, sound stage, linearity. The D bested the bass response of the HD800. It has more bass presence and slam. Many of you reading this will not be surprised in the least at these findings. I should mention that the HD800 leaks quite a bit more than the RE-10, as we’re on the subject of the bleedin’ obvious!
What appears to be the conclusion from all this? I believe that the RE-10D performs well as a closed back, but…dont expect it to compete with a World Class Headphone. That challenge must be taken up by it’s bigger brother.
The Planar version of the HE-R10 looks pretty similar to the untrained eye. A darker colour to the cups and a lighter presentation box hardly give the game away. The clue lies in the weight. Wow! It’s weighs a ton! I feel sorry for the Knights of old in their armour with those helmets they had to wear. I know how they feel! If you can get round this; if you don’t possess a tiny head(c’est moi); then you may well be in for a treat….
The P can hold its own with the open back brigade. There, I’ve said it. So much so that I have used all my comparison time between the R10P and the Susvara. This is the league that I believe the R10P is in. You may disagree with me. You may be enraged by this statement. But, at the time of going to press, I am all you’ve got. Others will follow me and all opinions are needed to form some realistic evaluation of the R10P. These are mine alone, and are influenced by my time being pushed down by the vertical force of these monster cans.
The R10P has all the ingredients needed for a special headphone. As well as all the usual technical stuff that we reviewers bleat on about incessantly, I am looking for a personality. I am interested in what makes this thing different from other flagships. The video below feels like it was made months ago.
In fact, it’s less than a week old. I have spent many hours on these, both before, during, and since the Part II of my vlog. The P is a very nice sounding headphone. I hear visceral bass. It resonates just the right length of time for me. It doesn’t interfere with the rest of the mix. Those cups do not appear to adding additional reflection; if they are, it only seems to improve the feel of the music. The bass will, I hope, be what people notice about the R10P. The bass from a closed back should be a different sound than comes from an open back. The bass has something to properly push against with the seal from a closed back, and an open back can often be heard as having a tighter, faster low end. Quite how much the wooden cups have shaped the bass from the R10P remains a mystery; whether some of that weight has had an influence is entirely likely. The feeling of the sound stage being kept inside one’s head is a feature of these phones. The subliminal messages being sent by the clamping force and the downward pressure no doubt are contributing to this. But, is this a bad thing. The sound stage is precise. The image is really clean. That characteristic mid band thing that HiFiMan do, where even poorly recorded, loud, shouty music is tolerable, is present on these cans just the same as ever. Vocals are right in front of your face, and are distanced further away on the Susvara. I noticed when I swapped between the 2, that there was a subtle “squashing in” of the sound when I went to the R10P. It took a few A/B comparisons to understand what was happening. I’d describe it like a wind noise. The music’s all there, and once back in the groove, it’s not noticeable. The Susvara has that effortless delivery. Nothing is left out. The sound stage is wide but not surreally so. The bass is more preferable on the R10P, but the warmth and finesse of the Susvara does edge the R10P. I will say this; the R10P, being listened to, for an hour, beside the Wife while she was watching TV, and at that level of quality, was something I urge each and every one of you to get the chance to experience. Try that with a Susvara!