A fan of the original ATH-M50s, Alistair McGhee was understandably keen to get his hands on Audio-Technica’s brand new flagship M-Series headphones. And, as it turns out, he wasn’t disappointed...
Some gear is born great – Neumann microphones, say, or Nagra recorders. You expect great things of a new Neumann mic or a 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 it’s 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 A-T logo. Inside you’ll find your cans with the ear pieces rotated through 90º 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 4ft cable terminating in 3.5mm jack; the classic 9ft coily cable complete with 3.5mm to quarter-inch jack screw on converter; and finally a mighty 9ft 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 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 in which 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 you’re 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. A-T claims the drivers work up to 40kHz. This is 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 reasons 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 A-T’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 technical 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, enjoy the hiss under Cropper’s intro, feel the insistence 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 even 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 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 A-T hit.
Tom Harrold, marketing manager EMEA at Audio-Technica, outlines some of the company’s main considerations when designing the ATH-M70x headphones...
How does the ATH-M70x provide a step up in terms of sound quality compared to the existing models in the M Series?
The M70x is an exceptionally accurate pair of headphones, designed for high-level, critical monitoring duties and so one of the areas Audio-Technica has worked hard on is the reproduction of extreme low and high frequencies.
The frequency response of the M70x is wider than any of the other M Series models, at 5-40,000Hz, to reveal all the details of a mix, while also remaining well-balanced and ‘listenable’.
What about build quality and comfort? How important were these factors during the design phase?
These are pro-oriented headphones, so obviously they need to stand up to the rigours of a working life – either out on the road or in the studio – and also offer great comfort over long tracking sessions etc.
The M70x features metal for key components to ensure longevity – and design touches like the robust, well-padded headband, generous ‘around the ear’ pads (which are detachable), 90º swiveling earcups and detachable cables all contribute to excellent wearability and durability.
What sort of feedback have you had from professional users so far?
The reception has been really great so far – we’ve been delighted with the response. Obviously a lot of our pro users are fans of the M50x and the M70x’s super-accurate sound has gone down very well with them. There’s always some pressure when launching a product that has to uphold (and extend) the reputation of something so well loved as the M50x, but I’m very happy with the reception they’ve had.
We’ve seen quite a number of new headphones from Audio-Technica released recently. Can we expect any further additions in the near future or is the company satisfied with its current offering?
Audio-Technica is very driven by design innovation and as a company we’re constantly looking to improve products and offer better solutions for customers.
So while we’re very happy with the new ATH-M70x – and indeed the new open-back R70x which launched at NAMM 2015 in January too – I can confidently predict there will be developments in the future. Although you’ll understand I can’t say more than that at this point!
Alistair McGhee began audio life in Hi-Fi before joining the BBC as an audio engineer. After 10 years in radio and TV, he moved to production. When BBC Choice started, he pioneered personal digital production in television. Most recently, Alistair was assistant editor, BBC Radio Wales and has been helping the UN with broadcast operations in Juba.