Sunday, 4 January 2015

Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 vs. Sony MDR-1A First Impressions Review

So I got a pair of Audio Technica MSR7's, and I thought I would share with you some of my written first impressions of the MSR7 vs. the Sony MDR-1A. These first impressions are based on two days of listening, so as always, grains of salt are in demand.

The ATH-MSR7 and the Sony MDR-1A are very similar in visual design, but there are a few differences here and there that actually make them feel like quite different headphones despite the shared appearance.
The MSR7 is noticeably heavier than the 1A, and in contrast to the pillowy soft comfort of the 1A, the MSR7 has a much stronger clamping force. This means that despite the MSR7 having thicker ear pads than the 1A, it’s significantly less comfortable, at least out of the box. I noticed after many many hours of wear (While editing a video), a hot spot of discomfort on the top of my head from the headband. Hopefully comfort improves as I spend more time with these.

There are also little spots where there seems to be less attention to detail on the Audio Technica compared to the Sony. For one thing, the cable on the MSR7 is quite stiff and pretty poor compared to the supple cables on the 1A, and this is a real disappointment considering that the cables on the M50X and other recent Audio Technica headphones have been quite good. The MSR7 also doesn’t copy the Sony’s angled detachable cable connector, which is a shame because the straight angle on the MSR7 results in the cable brushing the shoulder a bit more. Finally, the joints on the MSR7 are all a bit more squeaky and not as well damped as the nice moving parts on the 1A. Overall, it feels like Audio Technica still doesn’t quite *get* some of the luxury niceties of the higher end portable market. Even looking at the typeface on the left / right ear cup markings on the Audio Technica speak volumes about how old school a company Audio Technica really is - for better or for worse.

In terms of sound, I think Audio Technica’s old school approach is mostly for the better. Despite looking so much like it’s hip Sony cousin, the MSR7 actually sounds completely different. The Sony has a thick, mid-bassy sound, with a bass line that can very often sound a little bloated and congested, and a laid-back high end response. The Audio Technica sticks with the house sound: a rich, forward, upper midrange, a tight but somewhat restrained low end, and a nice detailed treble response. It doesn’t seem to have the M50X’s shimmery (and somewhat artificial sounding) treble, which is going to be good news for a lot of people.

Bass on the MSR7 is super punchy and reaches down nice and low, but there isn’t a great deal of quantity. Probably a bit less than say, the M50, and much less than the 1A. I think it’s a good amount of bass for home listening but it feels a little underdone when in noisier environments.

While I couldn’t imagine using the 1A for any kind of studio monitoring because of its highly tuned sound, I’d actually be pretty happy to use the MSR7. This isn’t to say that the MSR7 seems completely neutral - the midrange is forward and at times even a bit strident or harsh - but everything sounds nice and clear on the Audio Technica. It really is a wonderful sounding headphone that will please a lot of people who want a portable around-ear headphone but are tired of overly warm or polite sounding headphones on the market. I think most people would agree that the MSR7 sounds noticeably clearer, more natural and more articulate than the 1A.

That said, these are first impressions, and one thing I have to consider is whether or not the MSR7 actually has a more appropriate sound signature for portable listening. I think the MSR7 sounds great, and hands down in a quiet room it has a great balanced signature and a wonderfully spacious soundstage. Out and about though, the slightly subdued bass response and the forward midrange on the MSR7 makes it a slightly uncomfortable experience on some tracks, especially at higher volumes. Even though isolation is better on the MSR7 than on the 1A, the 1A has the kind of signature that really preserves the low end oomph of content even in noisy environments. So as always, it seems to depend on what kind of music you are listening to and where you are listening to it. Trying these two headphones in basically the most densely populated area on earth (Mong Kok) throws this into sharp relief.

Of course this is something of a false dilemma, considering that there are other headphones besides the MSR7 and 1A that bridge the gap - or avoid it entirely. But it's always interesting to compare two direct competitors, especially when they look so similar! I am looking forward to getting this beast back to Australia to compare with my other gear.

I think it’s nice to see Audio Technica finally tackle the high end around-ear portable market with a convincing entry. I think the headphone is going to be an easy recommendation for people who basically want a fancier, less in your face M50X. It remains to be seen though whether or not the more classic approach to the tuning is going to work for the people the design of the MSR7 seems to be targeting.