Some gear is born great, Neumann microphones say or Nagra recorders. You expect great things of a new Neumann mic or Nagra recorder. But other gear from maybe less fashionable manufacturers has to fight tooth and nail to establish the credentials required for a seat at the top table. The Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones belong very firmly in the latter category. I reviewed them first in 2009 and was immediately struck by their all round brilliance. Accurate, comfortable, solidly made and reliable, foldable and their closed back design meant a wide range of applications. And all that audio goodness at a price that was a steal. I used the M50s for mixing, recording and location work as well as the general day to day duty of leisure listening. My original pair is still doing sterling service at my son’s house, my only criticism was that I wore out the headband, well the cover, which now adds interesting flakes of black to your coiffure — it looks fine on him, with hair like a badger, but not a look that works for balding middle aged men.
The M50s of course are still available now in the M50x guise and some 50x features have made it over to the new kings of the Audio Technica headphone hill. Yes, having established themselves as headphone gurus Audio Technica have come back to the table with a new top of the range model. Well, actually a new pair of top of the range models. The ATH-R70x is the open backed offering, while I’m reviewing the closed back ATH-M70x which is very much in the lineage of the M50. But does the new model cut it at a higher price with such stiff competition coming from the in house M50x not to mention the rest of the high end headphone world?
Opening the ATH-M70x box reveals a very jolly, media black neoprene case, emblazoned with the AT logo. Inside you’ll find your cans with the ear pieces rotated through 90 degrees for storage and a mysterious little black plastic case.
Physically if you are familiar with the M50 then there are no surprises, or maybe just a couple. The look is black and silver (no fancy colour versions available at the moment) But the yokes that hold the earpieces are now metal as are the headband end pieces. A pair of my favourite Sennheisers died of broken yoke so I’m all in favour of more ruggedness at this point.
Unlike the M50s the M70x cannot do the neat hinged folding thing that reduces their footprint by about half. On the other hand you do get a nice travel case.
One thing I nearly forgot to mention was that the promotional literature claims that the headband and the earpads are easily replaceable — so if in five years you do get headband shed — it should be fixable. Nice touch.
The mysterious smaller bag is home to three locking cables for your new headphones. One four foot cable terminating in 3.5mm jack, the classic nine foot coily cable complete with 3.5mm to quarter inch jack screw on converter. And finally a mighty nine foot straight cable to 3.5mm jack. All the cables feel good in the hand and are well made. Joy of joys, these cables mate with the left hand earpiece of the M70x with a reassuringly firm bayonet twist lock, a design borrowed from the 50x. Cable management then is excellent in terms of ease of use and security. But you won’t be able to use your custom headphone cables if you are into that sort of thing.
The new design hosts some new 45mm drivers, with all the usual stuff about copper clad cabling and rare earth magnets. Actually I don’t think ordinary earth magnets would work! The point is there’s some clever stuff inside.
Now the listening. The first thing that struck me was something rather odd — the M70x dries up acoustics. Listening carefully I think this reflects the underlying accuracy of the headphones. Where you might get a pleasant warmth or bloom on a recording with lesser transducers the M70x is going to get you that bit closer to what is on the record. Remember records?
The second thing I noticed was the nimble bass, tuneful, well controlled and cleanly defined. This is an area where manufacturers really walk the line. I’m willing to bet that shoving a nice bass boost shelf into the response will make a pair of headphones more instantly appealing, especially easy to do with a closed back design. Reviews full of descriptions of bass slam and low end authority have to be good for business. But of course what works when impressing your friends with a Decaf mix after six pints of lager and a chicken bhuna, might lead to terrible mixing errors when your trying to establish your rhythm section with a degree of accuracy that transcends bombay bass.
Looking back at my very first notes I can see I wrote ‘hf – bright?’ Well having lived with the Audio Technicas for a solid week I would say, I don’t think so. I’m usually pretty sensitive to over egged top ends and any shoutiness in the mid range. Even though, again, this can make an audio product stand out in the short term. AT claim the drivers work up to 40kHz. Not a claim I’m in a position to refute, but I found the top end detailed and delicate but certainly not backward in coming forward.
One of the main reasions you spend more money on headphones is to get more! More detail, more dynamics, more bandwidth, more of everything really. If you spend twice the money — you’ll be wise enough to know that you won’t get twice as much of everything but there should be clear audible advantages. So where’s the extra with the M70x?
Well how about more vocals? Not more level on vocals but more tracks. With the M70x I could distinguish double tracked vocals where on lesser cans there was a vocal ‘smear’ – now resolved and the mix revealed. One step closer to the master tape. Remember tape? Well if you don’t beware the M70x, the extended top end will not hide the tape hiss, or mic amp hiss for that matter. You have been warned. I even picked some hum on recordings that I hadn’t really been aware of before.
All of these are the technical aspect of the M70x’s performance and they are important and you might buy a pair just based on the AT’s strengths in these areas. However, there is a different but surely related quality which for want of a better word I’ll call musicality. That is the ability of equipment to allow insight into the original musical intention of the artists. Obviously gross failings in the techincal performance will probably render musicality moot but good gear provides access to the inner logic of the art of music.
For example – and one that is available in every good record collection – spin up a great Stax classic like Private Number – enoy the hiss under Cropper’s intro, feel the insistance of the bass and the boldness of the brass – tumble, swoop and fall with the strings, maybe a tear wells up with the swell of Judy Clay’s vocal and a smile at the conversation between Cropper and Duck. And we haven’t mentioned Al Jackson, Jr. or William Bell. If it sounds like a record, even a good one – you need better gear, gear with musicality.
A bit of perspective – my work day headphones (in the absence of the M50s!) are Sennheiser HD 25s, the Audio Technicas are over twice the price and are comfortably worth the extra. My reference headphones are Ultrasone Signature Pros – they are over the twice the price of the M70xs and they’re better again. But value at that point is a deal struck between your ears and your wallet. Listen and reckon.
In conclusion the Audio Technica ATH-M70x are a fine pair of headphones – an excellent combination of monitor neutrality and insightful musicality. And a bit of a bargain. Another AT hit.