Review: Audio-Technica ATH-M Series Headphones

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Audio-Technica has taken their successful line of ATH-M headphones and revamped the lot with minimal tweaks on the formula. Across a wide range of features, performances and prices, these four models cover the market’s needs for variety and options in headphones.

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ATH-M20x

The line starts with the most affordable model, the M20X. It is all black with soft and plush oval earpads that surround the ear (circumaural), featuring steel adjustment bands and a padded headband. The ATH-M20x is pretty slim in features; it offers a permanent 10-foot straight cord only, terminated in a stereo eighth-inch mini-plug and a quarter-inch adapter is included.

Performance-wise they sound pretty darn good, almost great. Bass response is adequate and thorough (not too peaky at certain frequencies), not as extended as the higher models, and not crazily frequency-hyped like so many stylish consumer models are these days. Highs are crisp and a bit strident (mostly due to some hot 10-12 kHz) and the mids are less than linear but pleasant. Isolation, dynamics and imaging are all good. It’s a fine headphone for the money at a mere $49 street and way better than most.

ATH-M30x

The ATH-M30x ($69 street) ups the ante in comfort with plusher earpads, plus they fold into a more compact form. There's still a straight permanent cord, but this quarter-inch adapter screws onto the eighth-inch plug.

Sonically, the ATH-M30x had my least favorite voicing, similar to the ATH-M20x but with deeper bass, a smoother top end, and a midrange that's more barky and kind of papery. Definitely not so good for mixing or accuracy, but the accent on mids is better for tracking vocals and many instrument overdubs. They do offer better isolation and response than the ATH-M20x—out to 22 kHz.

ATH-M40x

Here's where things start to get interesting. The ATH-M40x brings plusher earpads, the additional fold-up joint and a carrying pouch plus 90-degree swiveling cups, all for better comfort, fit and portability. Picky engineers will delight in the ATH-M40x’s coiled and straight cables, both removable/replaceable, employing the screw-on quarter-inch adapter.

Sonically, the ATH-M40x is quite professional with a thick, warm sound—deep bass, the flattest mids in the ATH line and an understated top end. They’re good for long listening periods or loud instrument overdubs, but perhaps a bit chunky for singing or vocal work; I find singers stay on pitch better without prominent bass clouding up their lower register. The ATH-M40x will go very loud very cleanly (and probably louder than you ought to). My clients liked the ATH-M40x a lot and they didn't realize they are only $99 street.

ATH-M50x

Yes, I saved the best for last and my admiration of these cans is no secret. The older ATH-M50 is my main headphone for drummers and bassists as well as my personal third point of reference for mixing (right behind midfields and Avantone minis). My clients loved the new ATH-M50x just the same as I did; they provide great extended bass, not too strong of a top-end and mostly flat mids (except for a little 400 Hz scoop) and 99 dB efficiency/38 ohms.

The new ATH-M50x seemed to be voiced the same as the original with its 45mm drivers (the biggest in the line) but they add three removable cables (10-foot straight, half-coiled and, my favorite, the 4' straight, which is ideal for non-tangling personal use). They're comfy, isolated, snug, durable, plenty loud and plenty deep. The ATH-M50x remains my absolute favorite studio headphone at $169 street.

Audio-Technica took an already good product line and made it better, with no drawbacks that I can see (or hear). The whole line offers efficiency at 96 dB (or more) as well response from 15 Hz to 20 kHz and beyond. I recently surveyed the variety of headphones used by students in my audio class and the results were pretty bad: shorted and finicky cables, damaged earcups, very inaccurate bass response and so much high-mid/high-end hype that their work understandably suffers as a result. How I wish they would all get a set of these A-T phones—any of them—and move up in the world as far as comfort, longevity and reasonably flat frequency response is concerned.

Rob Tavaglione is the owner/proprietor of Charlotte NC's Cataylst Recording and a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review magazine.