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The elite club of Sony MDR-V6 owners

I notice that a decent percentage of my coworkers have MDR-V6's. And, when a coworker who was smart, got things done, and pleasant to work with from my last job interviewed at my present job, I pondered saying "Oh, you'll like him! He's another member of the MDR-V6 club!"

Some years ago, I worked for a company that had offices and cubes. The offices were glass-walled, such that the office-dwellers had probably less privacy than the cube-dwellers, but they had the ability to play music on real speakers instead of using headphones. Or to not play music at all but also not get distracted by the noise. The neurology of things seems to suggest that listening to music, even without lyrics, actually hurts your ability to concentrate.

Eventually, I got upgraded to an office-dweller as the senior folk left. Unfortunately, there were other reasons that caused me to leave and so I ended up working for a company without offices, just cubes. Really, even if I'm the bright hacker I tend to see myself as, there's still plenty of bright hackers out there and I can only do so much to ensure my status as an office-dweller instead of a cube-dweller without being jobless because I'm too much of a prima donna.

I still view headphones as something to be avoided. I really hate to have things around my ears or on my ears or in my ears. No matter how you dice it, it's uncomfortable over time. I've been fairly successful at avoiding them. At some point, I realized that when you walk around with your iPod in your pocket and headphones on, you aren't all the way present. If you stand at the top of a mountain but can't hear the wind whispering by or the birds singing, you might as well look at pictures of the scene. So I don't actually own an iPod. And I also know that, even if you are using a headset to talk on your phone while driving, you aren't actually any safer than if you were holding the phone. So I don't own a bluetooth headset for my phone.

As all things audiophile, it's hard to know what the reality of the situation is in a world of oxygen-free copper gold-plated cables that make Monster Cable look reasonable that people sing the praises of, generally by well-to-do middle aged men who have generally lost the high range of their hearing and audiophile magazines who make a lot of money on advertising. Every time I'd look at the headphone review sites, I'd look at a sea of dedicated preamps, super-expensive headphones, and very little unquestionably reliable information.

When found myself in a cube farm again, I realized that my existing pair was really ratty and the pads were falling apart. So I ordered a pair of fairly inexpensive super-aural (atop the ear) headphones from Panasonic (RP-HT227) , taking advantage of a corporate discount program. They were nothing special, neither blocking out noise particularly well or having especially impressive audio quality. And I figured that eventually I'd figure out what a good pair of headphones ought to be.

I'm not sure I've got what you'd classify as "golden" ears, suitable for mastering albums or calibrating equipment. But I do have fairly good hearing, especially when it comes to music. It turns out that I haven't actually lost that much of the high end of my hearing. I can still hear The Mosquito (a 17.4 kHz tone used to discourage kids from loitering but not bothering adults). I think this is largely because I didn't blast music at any point in my youth. Furthermore, when I realized, in my twenties, that I still had a lot of my upper hearing range, I decided that I really wanted to keep as much of my hearing into old age as possible.

I should mention that a good way to not keep your hearing is to crank your music into your headphones to block out room noise.

I've got a mental model of what a good pair of headphones ought to be like. Ideally, they should grow on trees so I wouldn't have to buy them, but I'll accept that most things need to be purchased. The goal is something that's good at reducing external noise like you'd experience in a cube farm, is wireless, is comfortable, and is unflinchingly accurate.

I'm pretty sure that this is a jinx. Once you dive into the details, you realize this. Of the Bluetooth audio protocols, all of them limit the available audio formats you can use and most of them either abbreviate things by constraining the quality level of the audio or by using compression.... neither one is acceptable to audiophiles. Working around that requires an external box or a custom Bluetooth protocol, with a lot of ways to make that external transmitter expensive and quirky. So I can see why that's not working very well in the marketplace and most of the reviews for wireless headphones were not impressive.

Furthermore, active noise reduction sounds like a brilliant thing on paper. Except that the reality is a little different. See, it works excellently in things like aircraft where there's a continuous hiss or whine or other such high frequency noise. But if you are in a cube farm where people are having conversations and making short and sudden noises, active noise reduction doesn't do much. In fact, I quickly discovered that in a fairly quiet cube environment, the hiss that the noise reduction circuitry was creating was louder than the level of ambient noise... objectionably so.

So what you really want is something that you can jam into your ear canal... except I find those extremely uncomfortable. Or you want something that wraps around your ears, such that it seals against your skull... called circumaural headphones. And, if you go for circumaural headphones, they make open-back headphones that have better bass.. but you really want closed-back headphones that have some padding.

Eventually, I came upon a reddit thread about the Sony MDR-V6 headphones. I saved it in my ReadItLater list. The vague assertion made is that they are a good standard studio headphone, being inexpensive such that you can afford one for each person in the studio, durable so that your caveman of a drummer won't break them, and reasonably flat in frequency response and uncolored. Also, they haven't changed since the 80s, back when Sony actually made good stuff instead of crap.

When my Panasonic phones broke, I realized that, once you give up on noise reduction and wireless and if you really hate things that actually stick in your ear, circumaural (around-the-ear) headphones with a decent degree of padding and closed backs like the MDR-V6 was pretty much the only game in town.

So, after a few complications with shipping, I tried them on. It was a "wow" experience compared to just about anything I'd used in the past because the sound quality is greatly improved compared to cheap headphones. It's also a "wow" experience to take them off because, suddenly, the ambient noise sounds incredibly and earsplittingly loud.

A lot of reviewers mentioned that the headphones are heavily weighted to the high end. This doesn't bother me because I really like high-end. The bass might be a little better (I found that I liked EQing it up a bit) but I'm not unhappy about it. My overall feeling was one of reasonable accuracy, as opposed to the way that consumer-oriented gear, especially from Bose, has a seriously skewed frequency response to sound "cool". There are audio engineering reasons why headphones are never going to be truly accurate and there are audio engineering reasons why closed-back headphones are always going to have inferior bass.

The noise reduction is pretty impressive. I sometimes will just wear them without any audio going to block out external noise. And, like I said, they work better than headphones with active noise-reduction at silencing workplace noises, although I suspect that active noise-reduction would work better in situations like an airliner.

It's still not totally comfortable wearing them. I tend to be more touch-sensitive than your average person, so it still kinda bugs me to have them on. Apparently there are some spare pads for a different set of headphones that have Velour instead of pleather... and that makes them a bit more comfortable. I think this falls into the realm of "Your ears aren't meant to be covered or plugged and if you do it all the time, it'll suck."

Now, I've had them for a while now and, while the pads look a little worn, they otherwise sound and look the same as they did when I got them. Everything is metal, although there's a little bit of wire dangling out the sides, so I still use the included leather bag. The plug isn't a 1/8" with an adapter... it's a 1/8" with a 1/4" tip that screws on.

So... overall, well worth the money I spent.

Now, there are a few similar models you can buy. First, there's the MDR-V6. For a long time, you've been able to buy the MDR-7506, which is allegedly the same set but sold through different sales channels -- the V6 is a "consumer" headphone with "DIGITAL" written on the side and the 7506 is the straight-out professional version sold through pro channels. Also, allegedly, the new Audio Technica ATH-M35 is also the same thing and Audio Technica either shares the same underlying factory or Sony's been re-branding an Audio Technica design all these years.