You're looking at the new face of Sony headphones, MDR-1. Three models are available: the standard MDR-1R, the noise-canceling MDR-1RNC, and the Bluetooth-compatible MDR-1RBT.
Iijima: The high-end headphone market has experienced rapid growth in Europe and North America in recent years. It's a segment where audio manufacturers prove what they're really capable of, and one where we wanted to enhance our presence. Instead of being slaves to fashion and over branding, we would need to focus on the basics of sound quality, fit, and design, so that's where our story begins.
Morimoto: MDR-1 is for headphone lovers looking for better sound quality. We knew that to develop them, all of us would need to be on the same page from the start, sharing the same information, imagining the same users, and working toward the same product vision.
We decided to hold preliminary workshops, with all project members from internationally-based designers to European marketing specialists, Japanese product planners and acoustic sound engineers. So, hoping to coordinate our work by conducting market research and brainstorming together, we all headed to London.
Iijima: Why London? Because it's where a lot of the music and fashion loved worldwide originates. For market research, nowhere else can compare. After setting up a temporary office with members from Design Centre Europe, we called in dozens of headphone enthusiasts and heard what they had to say.
Iijima: Music and audio industry pros were not the only ones to share their opinions with us. Part-time DJs, website developers, fashion magazine editors, and other trend leaders were involved in the process. They showed that London is ahead of the curve in headphone ownership. Everyone had opinions about sound quality, fit, and other details, which helped us to brainstorm the ideal model.
Morimoto: One comment was interesting: "As a headphone pioneer, Sony should stick to proven methods." These trend leaders who helped in our market research didn't seem to crave "trendy" things. This convinced us that what would resonate with discerning listeners was headphones that simply did their job much better than the others.
With headphones, it all comes down to sound quality and fit. The trick is to achieve the right balance. After the workshops, we kept this in mind as each of us began exploring the design.
Yashiro: Headphone technology is one thing Sony excels at. We've developed it over a period of almost half a century. Meanwhile, we have presented this technology with straightforward styling, instead of relying on embellishment. This solid, down-to-earth approach is fundamental to Sony headphones, and it yields intrinsically high-quality products.
But this project also called for something special—forging a new icon to represent the Sony brand in this category. To me, it seemed important to build on our existing resources as we formed a new identity. The concept I ultimately arrived at was the ideal embodiment of a balance between legendary Sony technical expertise and modern design elements we haven't seen before.
Where could we update the headphone styling? I decided to focus on the arms. In MDR-1, the arms arc around the housings and trace out a flowing contour that integrates the cord. Here, a key point is how the cord extends naturally toward the front, which reduces the distraction of the cord touching your shoulder. The fresh styling differs from how cords of other headphones drop straight down from the housing, and is a result of seeking a more comfortable listening experience.
The housings themselves are traditionally styled, with round driver units. Oval earpads cover your ears efficiently and create a better seal to enhance sound quality. This basic arrangement has existed for decades as the traditional, quintessential form of headphones.
But together, the housings and distinctive arms blend tradition with innovation.
Yashiro: Another interesting touch is that we showed the air ducts instead of concealing them. Ducts are a technical requirement, for better bass response. In closed type headphones, they're usually hidden between the housing and earpads, or in other positions. Manufacturers tend to view them as an unavoidable requirement, inherent in the technology. But when you realize that ducts are a feature optimized through careful acoustic engineering, surely you can see them as a sign of discerning audio quality instead. Shouldn't we view them as a powerful, integral element of design, backed by solid engineering?
For wider ducts, we made the base of the arms curved, but designing just the right curvature was difficult. The slightest difference would make the arms look weak, or awkwardly inverted. The curvature was something that couldn't be defined mathematically. It called for a good eye for design. Seeking the perfect shape, we fine-tuned it in model after model, adjusting it by a hair's breadth each time.
To describe my goal for the arms, imagine an animal skeleton—the core that remains after all the extra flesh and muscle is removed. This form is compelling because everything supports a function, with nothing extra, nothing missing. In the same way, the natural shape of the headphone arms would become clear once we had found optimal solutions for many technical details supporting sound quality, fit, and so on. And the fact that this itself would be the iconic design we sought was a key point in this project.