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Audio-Technica ATH-M50S Headphone Review

by March 31, 2010
Audio-Technica ATH-M50S Headphone

Audio-Technica ATH-M50S Headphone

  • Product Name: ATH-M50S
  • Manufacturer: Audio-Technica
  • Performance Rating: StarStarStarStar
  • Value Rating: StarStarStarStar
  • Review Date: March 31, 2010 05:05
  • MSRP: $ 199
  • Buy Now
Type Closed-back dynamic
Driver Diameter 45 mm
Magnet Neodymium
Voice Coil CCAW (Copper-clad aluminum wire)
Frequency Response 15 - 28,000 Hz
Maximum Input Power 1,600 mW at 1 kHz
Sensitivity 99 dB
Impedance 38 ohms
Weight 284 g (10 oz) without cable and connector
Cable 3.5 m (11.0'), OFC litz wire
Connector Gold-plated stereo 1/8" (3.5 mm) connector with strain relief and professional screw-on 1/4" (6.3 mm) adapter
Accessory Included Protective pouch

Pros

  • Good isolation
  • Linear bass response

Cons

  • Tight fit

 

ATH-M50s First Impressions and Build Quality

As you might imagine, a reviewer gets to experience a lot of different products. Speakers, displays, gadgets, you name it. But you don't always get to pick when you get access to certain gear. Instead you are at the mercy of the editorial schedule and to a larger part on the availability of products from manufacturers. So, you may need a specific piece of gear and if you have infinite time, you may get someone to send it to you (at least for a limited time). But if you don't have unlimited time, you may need to pony up for it yourself.

The fact is that since the Denon AH-D1000 review, I've had a very nice set of cans (headphones for the uninitiated) at my disposal. My wife, on the other hand, has been forced to use some hand-me-down cans that I've owned since long before I even knew that Audioholics existed. The pleather surrounds are practically gone, they are of the "on-ear" type and frankly, they weren't ever really all that comfortable. I remember when I first got them I couldn't watch an entire movie on my laptop without taking a break from the headphone hurting my ears. The sound was OK, but the comfort just wasn't there.

Thus, I was on the market for a new set of headphones.

I had a few requirements. First, I use my cans for a number of things, but most importantly I use them for podcasting. This means that whatever I got had to be of a closed (surrounding-the-ear) design. There a number of different design options for headphones including open, closed, and in-ear. I'm generally opposed to in-ear as they are either highly personal (i.e. built for you) or highly uncomfortable. I know others that have purchased off-the-shelf in-ears with good luck, but for me they have never worked. The open design, while it is a design that appeals to me on a number of levels, logistically won't work as the podcast mic would pick up the other side of the conversation more readily. Thus, closed was my only option.

Personally, the Denon AH-D1000 cans I reviewed were on-ear (though large enough to be considered over-ear for smaller ears) and were very comfortable. But I was interested in checking out something over-ear. I just felt (without any real systematic testing) that an over-ear solution would be more comfortable. I've tried out a few of my fellow Audioholics' cans and some of them have been over-ear and I've liked them.

AHT-M50s_measureHeadArmed with these prerequisites, I was out to do some research. My first stop was over at HeadRoom. While I find that many of the forum comments are filled with esoteric drivel, the fact is that they measure a whole lot of headphones. Not only that, but they have a learning center that allows you to compare the different graphs of different headphones. Since I knew basically what I wanted and what I liked (the Denon's) I decided to do a little objective research first. I went through the list of headphones that fit the requirements and compared their frequency responses. That helped me narrow my list down by raw performance. I then compared prices (both MSRP and street) to see what was in the budget - eliminating a few of the competitors. I lastly looked at the Professional (when available) and Customer reviews. I ignored any comments about break-in and chocolatey midranges, and instead focused on comfort, durability, and other aspects that even an esoteric reviewer can get right. To a lesser extent, I also noted comments about how easy the headphone were to drive as I don't plan on getting an amp. After all of that, I ended up with the Audio-Technica ATH-M50s.

Build Quality

The Audio-Technica ATH-M50S differ from the ATH-M50 in the cable alone. The M50's have a coiled cable and the M50s' have a straight cable (hence the "s" designation). I opted for the straight cable even through it cost me an extra $10 at the register because a coiled cable would have done little more than pull my gear/computer off the table long before I got to the end of the coil. The coiled wire extends to a max of 3.0 meters (just under 10 feet) while the straight wire is 3.5 meters (11 feet) which is a bit of a difference. There is a "strain relief" system near the plug (a spring) which helps soften any extremely sharp bends. The cable is single ended and terminates in the left headphone.

The ATH-M50s headphones came in an attractive box showing off half of the headphone. You can pull back the front flap to see the rest of the headphone which has been folded up to it's travel configuration (more on that in a bit). Inside the box is the headphone with the 1/4" adapter connected, a travel pouch, and a registration card. There is no instruction manual which, honestly, if you need one you need a lot more than just that. Cue mental picture of someone trying to wear their headphones on their foot.

ATH-M50s_inbox1     ATH-M50s_inbox2

ATH-M50s_canThe ATH-M50s' are constructed of high quality plastic with chrome highlights. There headband and ear covers are padded and covered in pleather. The cans sit easily over the ears and are held securely. Some might say a bit too securely. I don't have the largest head on the planet (thankfully head size is not proportional with ego) but I felt when I first put on the ATH-M50s' that they were a little snug. Honestly, I was worried that they'd give me a headache after a while. During my testing I didn't find this to be the case but if you feel you have a large head (or larger than mine) you should take this into account. For reference, I measured my head and I wear a 7-1/2 to 7-3/8 hat. 

If the side that the cable is on isn't enough of a hint, each of the cans are marked L or R at the main hinge. This hinge allows the can to bend up into the arc of the head strap. The cans themselves can be rotated 180 degrees so that you can create a very compact package. Using the travel pouch (made out of the same pleather used on the padding on the earphones and the headstrap), the ATH-M50s' are ready to go whenever you are. The 180 degree swivel of the cans is also helpful when you are mixing and want to hear both the music you are cuing up and what is currently playing.

ATH-M50s Listening Tests and Conclusion

As I mentioned, I did take objective data from HeadRoom into consideration. What I was looking for was the most linear headphone I could get for the money that was closed back, over the ear, and affordable. The M50s' stood out among the pack in the value department receiving universally rave reviews and high value ratings. Since I knew I was pleased with my Denon AH-D1000 headphones, I compared the two to see what I could expect.

As you can see, the Denon's drop off a bit more on the high end than the Audio-Technica but they also have a less accentuated bass response. I examined many more headphones which I rejected because of their frequency response, price, type, and more. For the price, these were a very close match to the Denon's while having the additional features I wanted.

Listening Tests

ATH-M50s_groupIt behooves me to discuss bias. This particular review is fraught with it. While for most reviews, I receive the product without getting a say in which I get. I often don't know the MSRP (purposefully) until well into the writing of the review. I don't look at any other comments/reviews until the review is completed from my end. Even then, I only look at other reviews/comments to see if there is anything I missed or maybe overlooked (when reviewing such complex devices like receivers, this is imperative). I work under the (usually correct) assumption that the product will be returned so that I have no emotional attachment to it.

In this case, I did everything against my normal review process. Not only did I research these headphones extensively before I bought them, but I bought them. I wouldn't have done so if I didn't think I was making a good purchase. When reviewing speakers I conduct my listening tests before I run my measurements so as to not skew my perceptions. In this case, I had well researched the objective measures long before I ever laid hands much less ears on the ATH-M50s. So, if you are worried about bias, you can stop reading right now. I wouldn't but you can.

I did some extensive listening tests and comparisons with the Denon AH-D1000's. Using a splitter between the two headphones and my M-Audio Fast Track Pro Mobile USB Audio/MIDI Interface, I checked the levels between the two headphones using an SPL meter. Sending pink noise through the two, I was able to verify that the levels were within 1/2 a dB. I was fortunate because level matching the two would have been difficult without an external amp (which I don't have on hand). I then plugged them both in and switched as quickly as possible between the two.

I have burned my entire music library to an external hard drive in lossless format. This gives me access to all of my music on any of my computers or networked devices without compression. I've even burned discs like Rives and other test discs so that I can test speakers and even network streaming devices. One thing I also did was set up a playlist with some of my favorite test songs. This playlist has everything from Bruce Guthro to Morcheeba, to Yello, to Michael Buble to Natalie Merchant on it. There are songs that test imaging, vocals, soundstage, pans, bass response, and much more. In fact, just listening to the playlist will reveal problems in speakers or rooms without you listening for them. You'll find yourself saying, "Hmm... that sounded weird," or "Wow, that was really cool," and you'll know.

The next step was to compare the two headphones. holding both against my head at the same time, I was able to slide one off and the other on in under a second. For comparison purposes, that's about as good as it gets. Overall, I found the experiences with both of the headphones to be very similar. This is to be expected from the frequency response. The bass extension was comparable as was linearity. As you might expect, the Denon AH-D1000's were a bit more linear but in actual practice the differences were fairly indistinguishable. On the top end, I found the ATH-M50s to be slightly less forgiving than the Denon's especially with compressed music (specifically Pandora.com channels). Neither one really forgave compression which, honestly, I appreciate. A good speaker or headphone shouldn't be forgiving, it should play you what you ask, even if what you ask is highly compressed crap.

The added bass response of the ATH-M50s wasn't really all that evident over the long haul but in quick comparisons it made the Denon AH-D1000's sound a bit anemic at times. This had the unintended consequence of making the ATH-M50s sound a bit more congested in comparison. These are the design compromises that manufacturers have to make when designing any piece of gear that doesn't reside in the stratospheric "price is no object" land.

ATH-M50s_cable

From a comfort standpoint, while the ATH-M50s felt very snug, they didn't hurt even over long listening sessions. The ability to flip one can out so that you can hear what is going on outside is a great bonus for those that are looking to hear what is going on around them (even if you are just listening to see if the kids are killing each other). The single cable connected to the headphones is infinitely preferable to the double cable of the Denon and others (unless you believe that cables all need to be the same length, which I don't). From an aesthetics standpoint, the ATH-M50s are very, very good. While I would have preferred metal over all the plastic, they look very industrial and professional. They are definitely heavier than the Denon's but not uncomfortably so. Outside isolation was excellent (at least as good as the Denon's) and the ability to pack them up into a smaller configuration means you might be able to fit them in your carry-on (I took the Denon's with me on a plane once - it was a nightmare). 

Personally, I really enjoyed the ATH-M50s'. While they are very similar to the Denon's overall, I felt the slight differences in their frequency response gave them a slightly different character. While after long listening sessions, the two are pretty much a wash, between quick listening tests, the ATH-M50s felt slightly more engaging and energetic. While the Denon's might be a bit more accurate overall, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50s headphones sounded more lively.

Imaging was about the same for both the headphones. I've heard well set up electrostats and I know how good imaging can get. While I don't often hold normal speakers to the same standard, headphones should be able to image excellently because of the lack of room interactions. Well, imaging was very good but it was not in the range of electrostats for either headphone. Where I noticed the largest difference between the two was on the high end. The Denon's were definitely more rolled off. I've heard all of these songs in a room with some very high end speakers and know how detailed the top end can be on a few tracks. Neither one really performed up to expectations. While the Audio-Technica had a bit more extension, it seemed to be inaccurate at times and even compressed. I'm guessing that in order to get a really accurate high end you're going to have to spend a bit more than two bones.

Conclusion

While I don't believe in long break-in periods, I'm thinking that the comfort of the ATH-M50s will only improve as the headstrap loosens up. Overall, the Audio-Technica M50s headphones represent a very good value for what they offer - an accurate, if lively, presentation of music. Uncompromising in their musical reproduction, don't expect that basement recorded podcast to sound good on them but your uncompressed music will come through with all the clarity and impact of the original masters. While the price might be outside the realm of the casual buyer, the $200 price point is probably considered by the hardcore as an entry level purchase. If you compare what you'll have to spend to get a considerable bump in performance, you can consider the Audio-Technica ATH-M50s' to be quite the value.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50s Headphones

$199

Audio-Technica
www.audio-technica.com

About Audio-Technica
Established in 1962, Audio-Technica is a worldwide group of companies devoted to the design, manufacture, marketing and distribution of problem-solving audio equipment. Initially known for state-of-the-art phonograph cartridges, A-T now creates high-performance microphones, headphones, wireless systems, mixers and electronic products for home and professional use.

The Score Card

The scoring below is based on each piece of equipment doing the duty it is designed for. The numbers are weighed heavily with respect to the individual cost of each unit, thus giving a rating roughly equal to:

Performance × Price Factor/Value = Rating

Audioholics.com note: The ratings indicated below are based on subjective listening and objective testing of the product in question. The rating scale is based on performance/value ratio. If you notice better performing products in future reviews that have lower numbers in certain areas, be aware that the value factor is most likely the culprit. Other Audioholics reviewers may rate products solely based on performance, and each reviewer has his/her own system for ratings.

Audioholics Rating Scale

  • StarStarStarStarStar — Excellent
  • StarStarStarStar — Very Good
  • StarStarStar — Good
  • StarStar — Fair
  • Star — Poor
MetricRating
Build QualityStarStarStarStar
AppearanceStarStarStarStar
Treble ExtensionStarStarStarStar
Treble SmoothnessStarStarStarStar
Midrange AccuracyStarStarStarStar
Bass ExtensionStarStarStarStarStar
Bass AccuracyStarStarStarStar
ImagingStarStarStarStar
SoundstageStarStarStarStar
Dynamic RangeStarStarStarStar
Fit and FinishStarStarStarStar
PerformanceStarStarStarStar
ValueStarStarStarStar
About the author:
author portrait

As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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