IRL Review: Sony MDR-SA5000 headphones

The Sony MDR-SA5000 headphone was their flagship headphone for a number of years, and fought for that title with several headphones that overlapped its release including the MDR-CD3000 (biocellulose diaphragms like the MDR-R10 legend), and the Qualia 010 (which honestly appears quite similar in design, but with some material changes, and tuning changes). It was discounted suddenly in several years ago with no clear replacement (something in the hundreds, vs. nearly a thousand dollars). They were the absolute darlings of my envious eyes for ages, and still are to this day. When they were at their original MSRP, they had a lot of competition and it was difficult for Sony to battle it out with heavy hitters like the Sennheisser HD800, and later the masses from everyone else like Audeze. When they were put on clearance, they had little fanfare except people jumping on the discount. Unfortunately at that time I was not huge in the audiophile market and was not aware of the massive discounts (like 70% off the MSRP). Years later, after discovering the SA3000, I became very curious about these cans. I had seen the entry SA1000 on sale for 120 bucks before in my undergrad years, and although they had an interesting design, I was not big into spending anything more than an EX71 (ha!). So when I finally became intrigued in them, so had everyone else- they had become collector’s items. Currently, they command similar to MSRP original prices, far from the fire sale prices. This seems to be the trend with many of their flagships- the MDR-F1 and MDR-MA900 both sell for quite a bit more than their original MSRP (argh! passed on a few low prices on these before). Due to the inflated prices, and the issues with their age (the pads break down and the cable is quirky), I mostly just longed for them with little hope of landing them. My quest for them was temporarily quenched when I landed the MDR-Z7, but the SA5000’s unique design and my SA3000 left me with yearnings still. I managed to follow a pair for sale in Calgary for months on Kijiji, but nobody snagged it (good for me, knowing that kijiji was not the right market for audiophile stuff- it would have sold much more readily on Head-Fi). When I managed to save up enough, I made the kill and my buddy S went down to meet the dude. After an interesting transaction (audiophiles are a quirky bunch!), I now had a fully working, mostly mint SA5000, and some spare parts (extra housing/spare driver). Since then I have been listening to these bad boys for about a year. The following is my In Real Life (IRL) review of the this aging beast.

Design and Build Quality– honestly this is one of my biggest selling points- its incredibly intricate, and stands out amongst a sea of me-too audiophile cans.  I think I read the review from Lachlanlikesathing, HiFiGuy528, Battle of the Flagships Head-Fi thread a billion times because I loved the design so much. I love the headband- some people have complained it being uncomfortable due to the rubber pad on the magnesium, but I have been cool with it. It is wide and rests delicately on my head. Its like a giant cloth hammock for your head. The pads are huge and envelope my ears easily. The ear cup design really looks super cool, almost steam punk like (Lachlanlikesathing noted this in his review, which I agree). I really like the premium materials used in its design- genuine leather on the pads (but not connector material that is protein leather), and metal everywhere (magnesium I believe), with a cloth cord and meaty connector. I really wish they had disconnectable cables, but alas they do not- the y-splitter is quite frail and usually a point of repair- so far my pair has been spared, and I am very gentle with the wire when taking them off the stand. The protein leather breaks down over time (although it is quite a small area of the pad), and looks ugz- but not as bad as the CD3000 that is majority protein leather and looks absolutely horrendous. The headphone is solid built- no creaks like the SA3000 at all- it feels like a premium can. However, its more of a premium delicate can, like a well made piece of jewel vs. the MDR-Z7 which is also very premium but like a well made handbag. Both are premium, but one is more solid in build like the handbag. When you pick this headphone up, you know its not a entry or even mid tier headphone, and its of higher tier than a typical 300-400 dollar headphone.  For example, picking up the WH1000Xm2 makes me think Beats Studio- which is not necessarily a bad thing- but I think it means that the headphone is indistinguishable from that price bracket/target audience. Its a solid build no problems at all, but its nothing remarkable. I need to point out here its not just the materials used either. The Nixon Master Blaster is a metal and genuine leather build that feels quite cheap- the metal is heavy and stiff, and the parts are loose and move around a lot. This is not the case with the SA5000. If it was not for the pleather falling apart due to age, this would have been a solid headphone through and through. Its quite unfortunate they did not use real leather in that part of the earcup- where the real leather pads connect to the headphone housing. As well, there are no microphonics or creaks in the housing at all- a super bad part of the MDR-7520/MDR-Z1000 headphone that makes the headphone feel really cheap. Even the SA3000 feels clumsy/cheap because of creaking/materials/build quality- the SA3000 feels like a questionable under 200 dollar headphone, and not at all in the same family as the SA5000 (subsequently that is why I have been so eager to get the SA5000 despite owning the SA3000 already, and also not wanting to bother with the entry SA1000).  I do wish they used a different color diaphragm inside- I LOVE Technic’s EAH-T700’s oil slick color. The white diaphragm looks a bit meh.

The above image taken by Astroid on Head-Fi shows a very cool picture of the linearity between Sony’s big cans at the time- SA3000, SA5000, and Qualia 010. According to David Mahler on Head-Fi, the Qualia has quite a similar sound (despite minor nuances) and was a big let down relatively stratospheric high price he paid for the 010. I still would love to try the Qualia 010 anyways one day. The SA5000 meanwhile gives me enough satisfaction with build quality, design, comfort, and sound quality that I don’t feel I am missing out too much (which was not the case despite me having the Z7/SA3000/7520/PFR-V1 before).

Comfort and Usability: The SA5000 is a very very comfortable headphone. Its not quite like the Z7 that fits like a snug but well fitted sweater, or the MDR-1R that is just really really soft everywhere. Rather, I find it fits very much like the SA3000- its so freaking wide, that there is no pressure at any major points of headphone/body junctions. Its just very very light on the head, and I can wear it for hours with no fatigue. Being an open ear monster sized headphone also means that it doesn’t get too warm at all. In comparison, the Z7 is a bit of an oven, and more useful on cold winter nights. Which Edmonton has had for about 10 months this winter. Usability wise, I really wish they put replaceable cords on this can- knowing the Y splitter is delicate, and the pleather is cracking makes me a bit more methodical when putting them on. However, once they are on, I forget about all of that and they just work great. I have heard the rubber joint on the big headband feels less comfortable than the puffy soft pleathery material on the SA3000, but I don’t really notice any difference.

Sound Quality- these are tuned so so so much like the LA500ED speakers. They are a compliment to the Z7 headphones- where that one is meaty and a bit sloppy, this is a delicate masterpiece of details. Its a headphone that is very different from the Z7- whereas that one can pair with many genres and sound good/fun, the SA5000 can only pair with certain genres/quality recordings and will sound amazing. Currently I have the SA5000 paired to my UDA-1 Sony headphone amplifier/DAC and its a stellar combination. I am really really impressed with acoustic recordings. I would say that it really impresses me with detail and soundstage. It does not have the fun factor of the Z7 (that I would likely say would be an evolved/better detailed Beats sound signature which sound insulting but really is indicative of listening and enjoying music vs. listening to music and analyzing the music). These are easily the most detailed cans in my line up- which is good in comparison to some more analytical reference cans like the MDR-7520, Shure SRH840 and Beyerdynamic DT1350. Are they like the SA3000? A few reviewers have stated concerns that the SA3000 is the same sound for a lot cheaper. I would say the sound signature is quite similar and they obviously have similar levels of tuning- they are also very similar to the Extended Definition speakers LA500ED. You can tell that Sony had a certain sound signature when it was tuning this group of audio products. I have also read that the Qualia 010 also is tuned similarily and there is an even greater disparity in price to performance ratio with that can. With the SA3000 I do think the SA5000 provides a greater level of detail but I am not sure if I would get the SA5000 solely for its sound if I already owned the SA3000. Its definitely a refined sound and if you like the SA3000 sound, its an upgrade. But its not a huge upgrade/sidegrade. I think the Z7 provides a unique sound signature that compliments the delicate and detailed sound of the SA5000 with a fun meaty thick sound. The SA3000 and SA5000 are both picky headphones that work best with high bit rate recordings, and particular genres including classic rock, acoustic rock, and classical. I love the details a lot. I can hear instrument separation clearly. I get kind of grossed out when I listen to Top 40 with this headphone because it kind of wrecks the song- I think the Z7 fits that genre better. Do you need an amplifier for these headphones? I think they seem quite easy to drive- however, for the sake of getting the most detail out of my source, I typically use a DAC/amp anyways- I just don’t think plugging into an iPod does this justice. My favorite combo right now is listening to Amanda Marshall through the UDA-1 and SA5000. Its a potent combo and feels really really powerful. I can get completely lost in the music here. I want to emphasize that I differentiate clinical vs. musical headphones. The former being for analyzing the sound, and the latter for enjoying the music. I think the SA5000 can be the latter, as much as I emphasize its detail oriented tuning. Its not like a flat response like the Beyerdynamic DT1350  or Shure SRH840 that I do not find very enjoyable to listen to. I don’t really know how to describe it, but the instruments, especially in acoustic guitar, are just so clear. The instruments are distinguishable and separate. ITS SO GOOD. Its so good, I haven’t been chasing any serious audiophile cans in some time. I think I still would like to land the Z1R (I mean its a given being a Sony fanboy), and I would die to try the Qualia 010 and R10 (but cannot afford either!), but generally I am very much satisfied with the sound the SA5000 makes when paired with my UDA-1.  You can see in the above picture, the SA5000 with Sony’s other previous big headphones (hilariously the MDR-1R was Sony’s flagship for awhile and clearly competes with the Beats Studio and nothing more). I honestly only listen to the Z7 and SA5000 these days because I just love their overall package so much. The 7520 is a big disappointment- compared to the SA5000, it does not have the overall flagship package at all (sound quality, build quality, comfort, design).

Conclusion- these cans were well worth the wait. They deifnitely rocked my headphone brain exactly as I imagined them to- the sound quality is stellar and complimentary to the Z7 and clearly displays Sony’s tuning ethos at the time (relative to their other flagships like the LA500ED speakers); the build quality is superb and feels very much premium aside from the stupid pleather and questionable Y splitter; the design is so frekaing unique and stands out among a sea of me-toos in the audiophile headphone world- and still stands out today despite being more than a decade old; the comfort is supreme and just feels so great on the head. All in all, I just love these so much. I think a major part of me loving them is that the sound signature is what I find pleasing, and like all things in TOTL headphone land, you really need to try them to see if that is the sound signature you like, as it is not a sound signature for everyone. If this is the sound signature you like, it really jumps into the deep end. I wish I could compare it to other more modern TOTL cans but I don’t have any experience with any modern cans in that range (not to mention TOTL headphones have blown up in price point, well beyond the SA5000’s initial MSRP even with inflation). This is a headphone that I think really showcases Sony being able to deliver in the audiophile world despite being a “mainstream” company and I am quite proud to own them. I would get them again in a heartbeat, although their continuously rising prices in the used market would make that difficult.

Pros-sound quality, build quality, design, comfort; Cons- questionable y-splitter/pleather flaking

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