Terrible fit and comfort
Bass can be too much for some
Disclaimer: This unit was sent to me on a loan by Igor0203. I would like to thank him one last time for surprising me with these and letting me cross them off my bucket list. It is people like him that keep me going and that I can easily call friends.
I did not receive the full packaging so that part won’t be covered in this take. The words you are about to read are my own opinions and thoughts.
Table of Contents
- Introduction and non-sound aspects of the Z1R
Driver setup: 12mm full range Dynamic Driver + 1 Sony BA + 5mm DD super tweet
Price: 1700 USD (Discontinued)
Product link: Sony
Comfort, fit and isolation: Terrible fit and comfort, great isolation.
Source used: Topping E30 + L30 stack, Singxer SA-1, Qudelix5k, ES100 Mk2, Questyle M15
Tips used: Final E
Test playlist with some of the songs used: Tidal
Introduction and non-sound aspects of the Z1R
By now, most people – especially the older crowd – have seen, at least once and if not their entire life, one of the most legendary four letters somewhere: Sony needs no introduction as it is one well known, respected and acclaimed brand in several areas, including audio.
Regarding this sector, Sony has been quieter the last few years, turning even more into mainstream markets (TWS) and leaving most of its cult fans left in the cold without showing new releases for a while.
Following that line of thought, most people that researched the depths of the IEM world have at least heard once about the myth, the legend and the controversial IER-Z1R (Z1R).
Let’s dissect the word controversial and the reason behind that fame: most people will preach the Z1R as one of the best IEMs money can buy, but that doesn’t come without a trade-off: almost as legendary as this monitor is, the reputation behind the fit is twice as big.
And, let me tell you, there is truth to that. I am one of the lucky ones that can fit the Z1R without much hassle (maybe due to how much praying I did while waiting for the box to arrive), but MOST won’t be. There’s two main reasons for this problem which I will summarize as shell size, sharp metal build and heavy weight, with the last one being my nemesis.
The shell size is obnoxiously big and people with small ears and deep canals (deep fit) will have major problems due the second point, the sharp metal edges of the build. If these edges touch your concha to a point it pushes it to fit, you’re gonna get pain and fatigue after a while. If you top that out with the extremely heavy weight for a monitor, you have a recipe for crying at night and asking the world why you deserve this because, spoiler alert, they sound that good.
If we look through a half-full glass perspective, that also gives Z1R awesome isolation and incredible build quality, to a point that you feel that if you drop them on the ground, you’re going to need to replace the floor. I also found the included cable to be nice and never the urge to replace it, which is a good thing, seeing that Z1R uses proprietary Sony MMCX connectors so, if you ever feel the urge to change it be ready to dig very deep as regular MMCX cables won’t work.
To finish this round, a word on tip rolling must be done. If you ever try these make sure to get a great fit and look for pieces that help you bring up the mids. I’ve also tried Final E tips and they work perfectly for me, bringing that extra bass texture to the table, but as always and forever, YMMV.
Let’s cut the grass short and dive right into how it really sounds if you can pass the fit.
Right off the bat, it’s time to quickly rip the band-aid off so we can put this behind our backs: the mid-range. The second thing anyone who heard Z1R will tell you about – after warning you about the fit, – is the mid-range, or should I say the lack of.
I am a mid centric, vocal lover and instrument aficionado, despite my electronic roots. At first I was very okay with the Z1R mid-range, but after taking a forced week break and then coming back to it, I have to say I can’t approve of it. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t at all bad for a V-shaped IEM, but they are still very south of neutral. This started to cause me a problem regarding listening volume, as I found myself keep raising it for the sake of getting that mid-range musical information.
In sum, the mid-range still has some detail, is warm and thick, but gets pushed into the background, tearing up instruments like keyboards, pianos or any fundamental harmonics that are positioned there.
As to be expected, the trend follows into vocals, with female’s getting the bigger hit and leaving a mediocre presentation for the price with the male counterpart feeling a hair better but nothing to write home about.
In sum there is not much else regarding the mids, so now that we shook all that off, let’s turn the engine and go up the hill on the performance lane and for that we have to take a step back and analyze the lower tail.
The bass region is the IER-Z1R signature stamp and if I had to describe it with one word, I would probably fall into the fallacy of something that means actually nothing, and I would call it big. The word big comes in the sense of the occupied space it simulates, filling the whole room with an authoritative and thunderous roar.
If we leave the metaphors and get into the sound itself, it’s easy to spot the controlled mid over sub bass shelf that doesn’t look that huge on paper, but sounds like it has double the actual frequency elevation. For those who are familiar with the acclaimed Sony house tuning, the Z1R bass is no exception and turns the whole frequency range into a warm replay but keeping the best of both worlds: the tuning and the intangibles.
Regarding those, they are the creme de la creme as far as any DD I’ve heard and the above track shows it without restraints: the texture and rumble, the impact it has, the speed and the control it shows are truly the best in class and one of the main reasons you pay for this set. I have no problems to even go further and say this is the best overall bass presentation I’ve ever heard, only rivaled by 64Audio’s Trió (which has a different tuning, being more sidegrade than anything).
Regarding the speed and tightness, it’s one of the best replays of genres like Hip-Hop/Rap I’ve heard, with Backstreet Freestyle showing it without hesitation: if you don’t mind the recessed mids and all your library revolves around this genres, this is it for you.
During the course of the track I look not just into the bass, but other features like Kendrick’s position and, as expected, he is not as forward as it should be, changing the pace a bit of your regular non-recessed mids replay, but thunderous nonetheless.
The last thing I analyze on this track is the higher pitch sounds (bells) and its relative positioning compared to the rest of the frequency. If the treble is too elevated, those sounds will mask the rest of the frequency range and Z1R did it just great, and that will segway into our next segment.
What better way to check treble than with a Vivaldi’s piece reassembled by Max Ritcher?
The Z1R’s treble is one of the best I’ve heard so far and to be fair, it screams out TOTL. The super tweeter gives you a sense that is hard to find on single dynamic driver IEMs and let alone compared to most balanced armateurs. Despite looking peaky, it is well controlled and everything from violins to cymbal strikes are greatly represented without any excess or cutoff in the decay department.
Due to its sudden rise after the recessed pinna gain region, the fundamental region of the instruments presented is a bit recessed in comparison to its harmonics, and for that it slightly skips away from perfection, but leaving its mark on me regardless of this fact.
The texture is there without feeling overcooked, showing sharp transients without ever being too sharp, as Sony has proven able to do many times before.
In terms of treble extension, it is tastefully done without excessive smearing but still leaving no information behind. A true masterpiece in this department, and done by a dynamic driver, so let’s just rest on that.
There’s no way to research about the IER-Z1R without seeing something mentioned over and over: its “cathedral-like” soundstage. And yes, I will mention it once again. The sheer amount of width and height is probably as good as it gets. It just feels really tall and wide, giving that cathedral sensation you can’t really put into words other than hearing it. In my mind, the recessed mid presentation and elevated frequency ends help to this factor, complementing with the bass sounding fuller and tall – like feeling in a room.
The imaging department is also top of the shelf, despite it not perpetuating a center imaging as good as offers like the 64 Audio IEMs or earbuds like Serratus, but it’s a close runner up in my books and according to my HRTF.
Now, as slightly spoiled before, comes the timbre – and oh my is it good. The combination of speed and tastefully done decay just shimmer a great instrumental replay, as seen on its baby version Sony N3, but even better. This doesn’t come out to me without a bitter-sweet sensation given its recessed mid-range making the Z1R not-so-apt for most instrumental genres in my books, so tell me about a lost chance to put this timbre and also its great coherency to work.
Sheer detail and macro dynamics are good, but there are better IEMs around this price range or even less – these aspects are still great, just fall short compared to out-of-this-world Z1R’s other intangible characteristics.
Overview and Technicalities
As soon as the track starts to play, the difference is very evident on the stereoimaging department. The Z1R shows a more common IEM stage presentation, showing incredible width and height. The U12T comes in closer to a 2-way speaker system, showing better center imaging, stage depth and better pin-pointing capability.
Since we started by talking about technical aspects, we might as well continue on it. As some would expect, it goes both ways, depending on what you’re looking for. Resolving power is better on the 64 audio prodigy, together with its layering, separation and macro dynamics, while the Z1R exhibits a better overall timbre/decay.
The above can’t be said with a major disclaimer: we are not just splitting hairs here, we are splitting Mustang hairs. Both are “TOTL” for a reason and don’t expect night and day differences between the two or even thinking about one of them being bad – as they are just different, especially given the driver configurations.
Now, into what truly matters: the tuning. Overall, the Z1R is a V-shaped IEM while I’d consider the U12T to be neutral with a bass boost, so I will spoil it right away: The U12T has much better mid-range while the Z1R shows it’s absolute class on the bass department. The treble area goes in favor of the Z1R, but I can see it going the other way, depending on who you ask.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Z1R tactitality is one of a kind: the microdynamics on this set is the best I’ve heard, only rivaled by 64a Trió. The amount of texture and air pushed out on every bass blass across the track is stellar and, despite U12T stellar bass performance for a BA set, it’s still a step down in this department.
Tuning wise, it is a whole different story and preferences kick in: I do prefer the U12T bass shelf (my target was that obvious, right?) over the elevation shown on the Z1R – but that’s my preference. Thanks to different bass tuning, they will also match different libraries. I would match Z1R with heavier bass genres like Hip-hop, EDM or R’n’b.
64a U12T does show its advantage on its correction slope into the mid-range, that we will see below, turning into a more relaxed and less fatiguing replay, better suited for more mid-centric genres.
This is the frequency region where the tables turn: While U12T comes out with one of the best mid-range replays I have ever heard, Z1R comes out as mediocre, which is something I can’t really approve at this price range.
Tuning wise, U12T falls into the neutral category, or just north of that, while the Z1R’s is recessed. When technicalities tag along, it’s even a bigger bloodbath: the level of detail and layering in the U12T blows Z1R out of the water on heavy mid-range songs like the one above.
The level of detail on Hania’s piano is lackluster on the Z1R, when compared to the U12T. Z1R has a heavier note weight and extra warmth, while the U12T feels more natural and realistic.
Z1R ressed vocals are also no match to the U12T, both female and male, feeling distant and unclear in comparison.
Unlike the bass, the treble between the two comes out closer, while falling into the same differences of a driver setup: the Z1R has better timbre but the U12T is no slouch and wins on extension by a hair. While both are great, I have to give the splitting coin into Z1R mostly due to the timbre and decay part, but honestly I could live with both and I do enjoy both.
For U12T, the lower/mid treble is the weakest part of its overall tuning, but coming out ahead of the Z1R in the upper region, having a more noticeable sparkle uptop due to its TIA driver while also being clear due to bass differences.
Overall, I feel the two trebles could go either way depending on the listener and his preferences.
It is very fair to assume that the Z1R is a terrific upgrade to the N3 on pretty much all aspects, especially the technical ones.
On tonality, I prefer Z1R due to its more tamed bass shelf, freeing up the other frequencies and paired with a more prominent treble response. This treble is a toss for me and I might tilt towards preferring the N3 one on paper, but it’s very hard to pick one as the Z1R has the technical performance to back it up and then it is a bloodbath.
Still in the tonality note and due to its pinna gain region, I do prefer the mid-range section of the N3, turning it closer to the listener and closer to my preferences, even though this effect is slightly canceled by its bass elevation.
To end on an objective note, both sets share the same DNA and don’t let the price tag fool you, as you will get the same pedigree, not the same performance but not by the price multiplier as some would expect. And don’t forget the cursed fit – as an IEM is only as good as if you can use it. Now, if none of this are a problem for your and you don’t mind letting a bit of the mid-range presence go, you know what to look for.
Given all the above, I can confidently say that the legend lives up to its name – and fame goes both ways.
I’m not the one to usually recommend anything that is in the kilobuck range or above, and I won’t, but the Sony IER-Z1R sure is impressive. With its “cathedral” like stage and backing off on impressive dynamic drivers to convolve into a stellar bass and treble presentation.
The shells sum it all and just like any shiny mirror, Z1R’s great attributes are also staggered by some ugly ones like its fit and a mid-range I just can’t approve of at this price point.
Nonetheless, Z1R greatly matches some genres and will keep your head spinning if you are blessed to be able to fit it. If you are one to love V-Shaped IEMs, this is your end of the line, as it would be mine – but keep in mind this set is now discontinued.
Long live the legend. Long live the bass king.
Personal Ranking: S.
Thanks for reading!
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