Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Audio Technica ATH-R70x vs. ATH-AD1000X Comparisons


I spent the night at my folks' place where I keep the AD1000x on standby, so I brought along my shiny new pair of R70Xs to make some comparisons. These photos were taken from my phone, so they're a bit sketchy.

The R70x is unmistakably a headphone from Audio Technica, but it also radically different from the open AD series headphones in many aspects of design and sound.



DESIGN

As I've mentioned before in a Youtube video, the 3D-wing headband design has been rejigged a little. The steel headband is now a single piece and more ovoid in shape. There's a stronger clamping force exerted by this new design. Personally I prefer it like that because the AD1000x can feel like it is sliding down the sides of your head. With the new low weight and the higher clamping force, this problem disappears.

If clamping force is too much, some people have suggested the headband can be bent to taste. Probably not for the faint of heart.



As you can see from the above image (with the R70x on the left), the R70x's earcups are smaller but the actual opening for the ear on the earpad seems larger. I can confirm that while the R70x earpads actually cup around my ear, part of the AD1000x's earpad rests on top of my ear.

Overall I find the R70x is a huge ergonomic improvement over the AD1000x, which is part of the reason why I've grown very fond of it in a very short period of time.


You'll note from the above image that the rear driver plate of the R70x has a segmented radial design rather than the curved turbine blade like pattern on the AD1000x. At the same time the baffle design of the R70x seems like it would be more rigid. Supposedly the turbine pattern is supposed to reduce turbulence for air leaving the earcup (and thus reducing resonances) so I was a little surprised to see its absence in the flagship R70x design. Maybe they are holding it back for an R90x one day.

SOUND

In my initial impressions review I said that the R70x was flavourless, and in off camera remarks to my friends at the time I remarked that it was the least 'Audio Technica' sounding headphone I have ever heard from Audio Technica. The Audio Technica house sound tends to be quite sculpted, with a emphasis on the upper mids and a de-emphasis on the bass, so that AT cans are considered by many to be masters at female vocal delivery and an open, airy kind of sound.

The R70x is definitely a departure from that sound, with a much more balanced presentation with no strong emphasis in any particular frequency region. If anything, it tilts towards the lower registers - not because it's a bassy can (again the key word is balanced) but simply because the treble is polite and doesn't really steal focus.

Over the past days I've had a really enjoyable time with the R70x because it's an excellent all rounder well suited for long listening periods. So I was pretty keen on seeing how it compared with my more exotic sounding AD1000x.

I don't have a dedicated amplifier back at my old place, so I was using my Sony NWZ-A15 Walkman. Remarkably, it's very possible to drive the 470 ohm R70x to listenable volumes with the A15. It needs to be at 22/30 volume steps (versus 12/30 volume steps for the less demanding AD1000x) and I have no idea about distortion or clipping from the A15 under this kind of load, but it sounded fine to me.

Here are my notes for some of the tracks I listened to.



"When I Remember This Life" - Kazumi Nikaido.

 This song from the soundtrack of the Studio Ghibli animation 'The Tale of the Princess Kaguya' is, like the film, beautiful and sedate. It's the kind of track that I know would probably showcase the strength of the AD1000x's female vocal presentation, but I wanted to see just how big the difference was.

While the R70x keeps the piano and vocals in relative balance and delivers them with sweet clarity, the AD1000x pushes the vocals forward, with a thinner sound overall and an enhanced feeling of space. In particular, the upper texture of the vocals (breathiness, the sense of air from the singer's mouth) is more emphasised.

It's probably only a few decibels of difference in the mids from the R70x, but it changes the emotional impact of the delivery quite a bit. While the R70x sounds real and grounded, the AD1000x sounds hyper-real in its delivery of female vocals. This is the kind of track where the AD1000x excels and why the entire AD series is prized for particular genres of music.

The R70x still sounds great on this track, but the AD1000x sounds gorgeous.

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"Be a Body" - Grimes

This is the other side of coin. While we still have female vocals here, Claire Boucher's vocals ghostly ethereal delivery works best because of their dynamic contrast with the bouncing electronic bass beats.

Here is where the R70x excels while the AD1000x stumbles badly. The AD1000x can convey the floaty, spectral vocals well enough, but the lower registers end up feeling relative anaemic, and the whole track sounds flat.

The R70x has a much more full bodied presentation. The vocals are still pristine (though with more lower mid-emphasis and therefore less echo-ey and expansive) but they are set up alongside a much more vibrant and rich bass section. The whole track ends up more enveloping and layered.

There's no comparison between the two on this track. I think the AD1000x simply sounds bad on this track compared to the R70x. By now you're probably getting a clear picture on their relative strengths and weaknesses.



"Long Nights" - Eddie Vedder

We'll finish on this lovely acoustic track from the 'Into the Wild' soundtrack. On this kind of track, the R70x is wonderfully complete. The bass guitar thrums and hums with energy, Vedder's vocals have a rich throatiness to them.

The AD1000x doesn't do badly on this track, but it's a bit more flat overall. The vocals pushed forward and the bass guitar not quite grounding everything. There's a bit more of a cupped hands sound to the vocals. There's also more of an emphasis on the upper registers of Vedder's voice, which results in a better sense of decay and spaciousness as his voice rings in the studio.

I think you could like either presentation, though I prefer the R70x.

CONCLUSION

In all my listening, I didn't think there was a incomprehensible gap between the R70x and the AD1000x. They certainly sound different, but different in a way that is easy to understand - you could guess at a few EQ tweaks on the R70x that would make it sound like the AD1000x.

In other words, they sound like they come from different suburbs, not different planets. Both are super clean, detailed sounding cans that still manage to avoid sounding lifeless or aggressive.

At the same time, I find it very hard to recommend the AD series now that the R70x exists. The R70x is easily the better all rounder that will sound fantastic with almost anything you throw at it. The AD1000x is much more specialised, but given the right kinds of tracks - female vocals, sparse tracks that really give the AD1000x room to showcase the air and space in a recording - it can sound magical. But on other tracks it will just sound downright unengaging and flat with some tracks, especially bassier, modern genres.

I've always liked Audio Technica headphones because they're a company that seems to pay careful attention to the tuning of a headphone and how they can bring out a certain emotional accent to vocals. At the same time this means that a lot of Audio Technica headphones are exotic sounding, or just plain weird and unnatural.

It surprises me then to see that when AT set out to make a reference headphone, they did just that with no particular flair. Even the closed M70x doesn't sound as inoffensive and balanced as the R70x.

It makes me wonder about the story behind the R70x's development. I'm going to start digging, but in the meantime, go out and have a listen. If you have heard AT's other open headphones, you may well be as surprised as I was.

Here's my earlier Youtube first impressions video which has some opinions from some friends as well: