Thursday, 19 February 2015

Audio Technica ATH-M70x First Impressions Review



The following review is a text version of my first impressions review video of the ATH-M70x, though this text version has a slightly different focus. You may find either more useful.

Oooh boy. The ATH-M70x. When I heard that there was going to be a new M-series flagship from Audio Technica, I was pretty excited. I've been exchanging emails with Wing from Minidisc Australia for a while now just waiting for them to come in.

And now they have, and now I have listened to them.

Here are my first impressions, based on around 4 days of listening time. The headphones were purchased from Minidisc Australia for $369 AUD.

So in this review I'm going to try and address three questions:
  1. How does the M70x compare to the M50x or its cousin the ATH-MSR7? 
  2. Does the M70x sound flat?
  3. Is the M70x good for studio monitoring and is it appropriate for casual listening?

DESIGN / COMFORT

Let me just start with some comments on the physical design of this headphone.

Right off the bat I can say that this is a durable feeling headphone, and the metal earcups feel really nice in the hand with a nice textured finish to them.  The design seems solid, like you would expect given the M50x’s solid build.

HOWEVER. I am really disappointed with several aspects of this headphone.

First of all: the material finish on some of the  parts of this headphone is surprisingly poor. I don’t know if this shows up well on camera, but there are rough edges on some of the metal and plastic parts on this headphone. In terms of fit and finish it actually seems worse than the M50x and the MSR7 despite being a more expensive headphone.

For instance, there are spots of glue from the headband assembly, and the mould lines on various plastic parts of the headphone are quite obvious. It makes the headphone seem oddly cheap for the price. It’s a big letdown for what is sort of a flagship product.

Secondly, I find the headband design itself a bit baffling. It’s been divided into several sections of translucent plastic and pleather, like it was a folding headband, except that it doesn't fold. It might be engineered this way to allow the headband to stretch further, but to me it looks clumsy compared to the headbands of the MSR7 and M50x which are both fully enclosed in pleather. 

Even more bizarrely for a professional product, the M70x does not have adjustment markings on the headband sliders! The M50X and the MSR7 both have markings for adjustment, but with the M70x you have to visually judge if the left and right side are balanced. This isn’t going to kill anyone but it is a really strange oversight for, again, an expensive product.

On a minor note, the M70X folds flat, but not in a way that allows the earcups to rest against your chest driver side down when hanging off your neck. Slightly frustrating.

So those are my disappointments with the physical design. Here are the good things I have to say about it:

I find the M70X more comfortable than both the M50x and the MSR7. It doesn’t have the very strong clamping force of the MSR7, and the earpads are softer and more comfortable than the M50X’s. I especially like the new fabric on the inside of the earpads.

Note that the earcups are still quite shallow, so if you have issues with your ears touching the driver with the M50x or the MSR7, you will have the same problem with the M70X.

I also find that the headband of the M70X, as strange as it is, makes a broader point of contact with the top of my skull than the M50X and the MSR7. Although I haven’t tried wearing these for several consecutive hours yet, my impression is that they aren’t going to form a hotspot on the top of my head like the MSR7 due to the broader pressure distribution.

The M70X is apparently a fully sealed design like the M50X, and possibly because of the use of denser metals, the M70x seems to have higher noise isolation than the M50X.

So better comfort and better noise isolation are really welcome improvements, and the cables on the M70x are the nice style of M50x cables instead of the subpar MSR7 cables, so that’s cool as well.

SOUND

Now, let’s talk about the sound of this headphone, and we’ll return to the first of the three questions we started this video with.

NOTE: When I first began my listening tests with the 70X, I found that it was incredibly thin and harsh sounding. After some testing I realised this was because the earpads of the M70X were not properly sealing around the arms of my glasses. The glasses I wear usually allowed for a decent seal with the M50X and the MSR7, but for some reason simply don't agree with the M70X. 

When the M70X loses its seal, the bass disappears completely and it sounds like a different headphone. It seems particularly more sensitive to a loss of seal, which may be an acoustic impedance characteristic of this model. In any case, if you want to try the M70X and you wear glasses, keep this in mind. My glasses have thicker arms than many other types, so I'd expect some pairs to work better than others.

1) How does the sound of the M70x compare to the M50x or its cousin the ATH-MSR7?

Let’s really quickly remind ourselves what the M50X and the MSR7 sound like.

The M50X is a studio monitoring headphone which is surprisingly enough, not a particularly balanced sounding headphone. It is a headphone that has an emphasis on the bass and lower-mid tones, as well as a forward high frequency treble section. The bass is big and bombastic, but has a tendency to sound boomy or wooly. Likewise the treble is detailed but can sometimes sound thin and metallic. It’s a really aggressive, really forward sounding headphone. Some people hate it and some people love it. I think it’s a solid headphone with a punchy sound and a lot of detail, but I agree that it does sound compressed and somewhat unnatural, and the treble at times can sound unnatural.

The MSR7 is apparently Audio Technica’s answer to the Sony MDR-1A, but in terms of sound it is a lot better balanced. The MSR7 sounds like you took the M50x and flattened out the bass and treble, and you emphasised the mids so that vocals stood out. It’s a really clean, balanced sounding headphone, and I think it has a really good all rounder sound that works with most genres. At times I think the vocals can just be a little bit too forward and there is some vocal sibilance around the 'S' notes. When you’re listening in noisy environments and have to turn the volume up, the MSR7 can get a bit uncomfortable because of these forward mids. Even though the MSR7 isn’t advertised as a studio monitor, I’d be happy to use it as a monitor because I think it’s clean and accurate.

I expected the M70X to sound like the MSR7, but in actuality the M70X sounds like a mixture of the MSR7 and the M50X, plus it has it's own particularly characteristic. If the M50X can be considered a bass dominant headphone, and the MSR7 a mid-dominant headphone, than the M70X's most dominant feature is the treble. It's a bright, detailed and fast sounding can. Even with good extension at the lower end, the sheer amount of treble energy sticks out easily on the 70X.

The M70X actually sounds a lot like a slightly more extreme version of the VSonic GR07 or the AKG K612, with even more treble energy and less mids. For some people this description will instantly help you decide if the M70X is right for you. The K612 and the GR07 are both popular, well balanced pieces of gear in their categories - but for some people the treble on the GR07 is too much and the mids on the K612 are too forward. The M70X is a decidedly less comfortable headphone than even those two.

Going between something like the Beyerdynamic T51P or Sennheiser Amperior and the M70X gives you the aural equivalent of whiplash. There is a huge contrast between the thick mid-bassy sound of the two on-ears and the much thinner overall signature of the M70X. Technically, all three of these products are considered 'monitors', which tells you things aren't that simple.

This makes the M70X a really solid, fast and detailed sounding headphone with excellent detail retrieval and separation. It sounds cleaner and less uneven than the M50X, but it is still a very in your face headphone.

SIGNATURE BREAK-DOWN

The M70X is definitely a brighter sounding headphone than the M50X, but the peak in the high frequencies seems broader than the peak on the M50X. So rather than having the thin metallic shimmer the M70X has a broader high frequency emphasis that emphasises the entire high frequency section and makes things sound detailed and spacious. It it has a lot of treble energy, and if you are sensitive to forward cymbal hits or high frequency effects in electronic music, etc., you will probably find the M70X too extreme. If you didn’t like the treble on the M50X I still don’t think you’ll like the treble on the M70X.

The M70X doesn’t actually seem to have as sibilant a peak as the MSR7 around 8kHz, so it seems primarily the upper treble where the M70X is forward. If like me you are particularly sensitive to 'S' note sibilants but not so much to the higher frequency shimmery ranges above 8kHz, you might be safe with the M70X.

The mids are more subdued than they are on the MSR7, and I would say they take a backseat in the whole signature. They aren’t recessed and are perfectly clear, but vocals and particularly male vocals in particular aren’t emphasised. This is where the MSR7 is much fuller in sound.

The bass is interesting. Again, without glasses, the bass sounds very tight and actually somewhat warm and rich to my ears. It’s very tight, and it seems there is a bit more mid-bass than sub-bass. Again it’s nothing boomy like how the M50X, and overall there is less bass on the M70X than on the M50X. It’s definitely more punchy than the M50X. I like the amount of bass on the M70X, but this is still not a headphone you would recommend to bassheads. For most people though, this headphone will have the right amount of bass. 

2) So this leads to the second question. Does this headphone sound flat?

I think arguing about whether a headphone is flat or not is really silly. It’s like arguing about which of the 50 shades of gray are most gray. But if you put a gun to my head and asked me, do I think the M70x is flat? I would say, no. Flat means to me that on a headphone, no particular part of the frequency range is strongly emphasised. So for me the GR07 is a headphone that is closer to flat, or the AKG K612, or the Sony MDR-7550

The M70X is a little more extreme at the ends, particularly in regard to the treble. The M70x is detailed, clean, and spacious sounding. It is a signature that easily allows you to pick out details, and brutally tears apart poor recordings. But it's not flat.

3) So this brings us to our third question. If the M70x sounds like this, then is it a good studio monitor and is it good for casual listening? Well, I’m not a musician or an audio engineer, but I do use studio monitors to make these videos among other things, and I can give you my opinion based on that and suggestions I have taken from other musicians.

A lot of people seem to think that all you really want in a studio monitor is something that sounds flat, because it won’t emphasise any part of the frequency range and you won’t end up mixing something that sounds wonky because your reference point is wrong. But it’s not as simple as that. People prefer different kinds of monitors for different sorts of situations.

A recording artist will use a different monitor for vocal tracking than a editor uses for monitoring audio, and a DJ will use a different monitor than say, a sports commentator. You use different monitors for different situations because they will allow you to hear things that you are looking for specifically in your application: for instance, when I edit videos it is really important to me that I can hear the high frequencies just to check if there is any background noise or hum that I’m missing, and that’s different from a singer who might want a headphone that lets them hear the inflections in their own voice, different again from a DJ who needs to mix in a noisy environment, different again from a producer who mixes in an acoustically treated studio.

When people suggest that you want a flat headphone for studio monitoring, they mean you want something that is reasonably true to life. But in the end you are still going to have to keep in mind how a given monitor relates in sound to other headphones and speakers that will be used to play back the material you are monitoring, and you have to keep in mind the particular characteristics of any given monitor and compensate for that.

The M70X is an excellent studio monitor in that it allows you to hear specific details that you might not hear on other headphones. It gives you a laser focus on recording flaws and tends to sound pretty miserable when things are over-bright or otherwise badly compressed.

Just as an experiment I tried doing the Philips 'Golden Ear' challenge with the M70X and found I could easily get up to the Silver level with these headphones, and with enough training I am pretty sure I could achieve the Gold with enough training. The limit seems to be my own ears, not these headphones - that's how confident I am in the combination of detail and noise isolation on the M70X.

But given how dramatically different the M70X sounds to most other headphones or speakers out there, I would sound a note of caution. If you blindly tried to EQ something based on how the M70X sounds without understanding that it is more treble forward than many other headphones and speakers, I think you would end up with something that sounded very wonky. The M70X is a somewhat extreme reference point that may make you overcompensate for the treble brightness. As with all monitors, you must be aware of its particular character and use a few references.

I would also hesitate about using these headphones in noisy environments for long periods of time even though noise isolation is good, because there is still a lot of treble energy in these headphones. It may not be so healthy for your ears to use these for too long while travelling, and I certainly can't imagine using these in noisy clubs.

Now let me finish with a bonus fourth question.

4) Do I like the M70X? 

Glasses non-withstanding, at this early point I can say I like the M70X. It has some amazing detail retrieval. It's definitely one of the better closed back portable headphones I have heard, and for $369 I'm happy with the reference point it forms in my collection.

However, it's not the kind of headphone that plays nice with everyone. It's got a bright, and possibly fatiguing signature. It's more of a 'sit up and listen' rather than 'lie down and enjoy' kind of headphone. It's detailed and insightful, but no one is ever going to say it sounds mellow or euphonic.

If bass was more important to you, I'd steer you towards the M50X or the V-Moda M100. If mids were your thing and you love your female vocalists, I think the ATH-MSR7 might be just up your alley. But if you wanted something uncompromisingly treble focused, and a bit more comfortable and isolating to boot - the M70X is your go'er.

Even if after all these caveats you think the M70X sounds like the perfect headphone for you, I do strongly urge you to give it a demo before purchasing. It's been a long time since I've heard a portable headphone with this signature - you might find the sound slightly shocking like I have. Just give it an hour or two of listening time with your favourite tracks - and maybe take off your glasses.

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