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By now, you may have heard a bit of buzz around spatial audio and seen the commercial with The Weeknd, narrating to a Dolby Atmos mix. In fact, many people have already made the leap into consuming spatial audio with immersive mixes from Apple iTunes, TIDAL, or Amazon Music Unlimited that play in the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) earbuds or the Sonos Era 300 multidirectional speaker, among other components. At the 2023 NAMM trade show, held April 13-15 in Anaheim, Calif., Sony announced new gear to address the needs of people creating the actual multidimensional content. The company—which has a proprietary spatial format, 360 Reality Audio, that it uses for demos—launched a $399 pair of headphones, the MDR-MV1, which allows content creators, musicians, recording artists, podcasters, and producers to mix spatial audio versions of projects alongside high-resolution stereo masters.
Professionals typically rely on full-blown commercial multichannel monitoring systems to get you into the ballpark of a studio-grade immersive audio mix. While this $400 pair of headphones won’t wholly replace those elaborate setups, its ability to emulate them does represent an exciting development for amateurs or on-the-go pros who want to start dabbling through the sound field or need a portable, reliable reference.
We’re already a fan of the Sony MDR-7506, a venerable workhorse of a headphone that has graced the tracking and mix sessions of many musicians and DJs. Compared to that affordable closed-back model, the new Sony headphones embrace an open-back design to open the soundstage and prevent sound from bouncing around the inside of the acoustic structure and spoiling the sound design. While the style of the earcup solves resonance issues, it can also inhibit low-frequency performance. To combat this, Sony reworked the diaphragm’s shape to achieve the MDR-MV1’s ultra-wideband 5Hz – 80kHz frequency response.
Mike Piacentini is a Grammy-nominated mastering engineer for Battery Studio at Sony Music Entertainment, and he helped develop the MDR-MV1 headphones. He noted that most people are consuming music over headphones nowadays and that it’s important to use headphones during the mixing process. “In my personal opinion, on a lot of this personal audio in general, you have to find the wise mixes on headphones with some capacity,” Piacentini told PopSci on the NAMM show floor. “Because that’s how like 99 percent of the people are consuming mixes.”
When asked about his perspective as to why Sony had set out to serve object-based audio mixers better, he stated: “You try to take flat transparent headphone design and make it so that you could hear localization of the immersive audio data better than other production headphones on the market right now. And so, we did a lot of listening in our immersive mixing room. We really tried to make it so that if I say an object or an instrument is 180 degrees or 90 degrees or wherever you put it in the space, it sounds like it’s there.”
Donna Kloepfer, general manager at Battery Studio, Sony Music Entertainment, suggests this isn’t just a one-off or a novelty for the company. “This is such a revolutionary thing, as far as I’m concerned, because of the fact that we’re developing physical products to support the software and the technology,” she explains.