I've had Audio Technica's latest offering in their M-X line for the past month, or so. After much analytical listening, I've come to the conclusion that these serve as a wonderful replacement for the M50X, straying much closer to true neutral, as their monitor designation should imply.
Fit and Form
The headphones themselves are mainly made of plastic, which is fitting, given the price-range. The plastic is almost entirely matte, and I don't foresee any problems with longevity, as the design is simple enough in the parts the do move that I wouldn't assume them to break, assuming care is taken. The headphones adjust with a simple click system, and they've stayed well in place in my use. There seems to be enough diversity in available sizes as to accommodate most any head-size, and the adjustment is fine enough to fit absolutely anything between its minimum and maximum adjustments.
The design itself, beyond materials, is tasteful, with reflective accents on the logos on the earcups, and a silver colored-plastic being used for the arms that attach to the earcups, as well as those that insert into the size adjustment system. The cavity for the concha is relatively tight, but not to the point that I experienced issues with comfort. The driver is protected by a foam insert, attached to the pads, such that there isn't any unwanted rubbing. My ears have, in the past, been particularly sensitive to pain from over-ears, and I didn't experience any here.
The cable inserts into the left earcup with the same locking mechanism that was used with past members of the M-X line, with a 2.5mm TRS connector inserting, then locking with a twist. As stated in previous reviews, I am not one to yank headphones off of my head frequently, so this locking wasn't an issue for me. Three cables are included in the packaging, a 1.2 meter straight cable, a 3 meter straight cable, and a coiled cable which extends to 3 meters fully. All terminate in 1/8" TRS connectors, with an included screw-on 1/4" TRS connector adapter, for use with desktop equipment.
The earpads detach from the headphone via a plastic ring which surrounds the pads on the inner-side. This could be a potential long-term weakness, as the cut-outs in this plastic ring seem like they could be prone to breaking. However, unless you're very carelessly removing the earpads every single week, this likely wouldn't present a problem.
Included is a faux leather, semi-hard carrying case which fits the headphones and all of the included cables in a separate leatherette soft-pouch.
These headphones offer a very nearly flat sound signature. Where in the past of this line, it seems that Audio Technica has kept with the V-shaped sound signature of today, they reigned back in the bass and treble in order to keep with what a monitor should be: flat. There is a slight mid-bass hump, which I felt served to add a little bit of musicality, such that the headphones don't come across as boring, but it doesn't take the general sound signature so far from flat as to make them unusable as studio monitors.
In fact, I felt that these would do very well in a studio. The isolation offered is very good, there is very little bleed, and although they don't have an incredibly expansive soundstage (as a result of being closed-back), they still offer good imaging and separation, such that they could fare very well in a studio setting. Even though they don't rival something like the HD 700 in terms of soundstage, they actually aren't quite as closed off as I would expect them to be. When necessary, they can convey distance and spacing very well, even if they are still more confined than something with an open-back design.
These headphones offer very good detail and, again, separation, which I found to come through particularly in acoustic recordings. The sounds of other strings harmonically resonating, picks striking a guitar, and the tips of drumsticks scraping across cymbals all came across as they should.
As an aside, I appreciated that these headphones are of reasonably low impedance, without such a low sensitivity as to require amplification. There were minor differences that I encountered between phone output and a desktop, but they can be very competently powered by anything from a phone to an iCan.
Songs used: Never be Like You by Flume feat. Kai, Mask Off by Future, and I Never Woke Up in Handcuffs Before by Hans Zimmer
The flat sound signature of these headphones was a change for me, coming from what I have been listening to recently. The reduced bass, comparatively, took a little bit of time to adjust to, but once I had, it was very appreciable. It certainly is not anemic, by any means. Although the quantity is nearly true to neutral, its quality is very good. Fast, responsive, and punchy when called for, this headphone renders bass very well, partially on behalf of its proprietary 45mm driver. It did a facile job keeping up with the fast bassline of Han Zimmer's I Never Woke Up in Handcuffs Before, something that many headphones cannot succeed in doing.
Key descriptors: accurate, fast, and detailed
Songs used: Tick Tick Boom by The Hives, Essentielles by Ibrahim Maalouf, and Spottie by The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
The mids are where this headphones shines, in my opinion. They are detailed, lush, and accurate, without conceding many details, especially those that I would expect to be lost on a $299 headphone. The present complicated drum fills, vocal lines of both genders, and subtle quirks of individual instruments tremendously well. The imaging and separation that the headphones have also help with this, as they keep each line in the mix well-separated, with the appropriate amount of breathing room.
Key descriptors: lush, rich, and precise
Songs used: When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin, You Go Down Smooth (Live at WFUV) by Lake Street Dive, and Somersault by Zero 7
Something that immediately struck me about the treble in these headphones was the precision. Thankfully, without losing accuracy, Audio Technica avoided sibilance almost entirely. I could count on one hand the number of time in my month with these that I encountered sibilance, and even then, it wasn't grating or abrasive to the point that I had to switch the song. Otherwise, the treble is airy and light, completely avoiding being overbearing or overly intense. Over the course of this review period, I was continually struck by the neutrality of these, partly because I had heard the M50X, and was fairly competent with its sound signature, and this seemed such a notable departure from that.
Key descriptors: light, airy, and accurate
Minutia and Miscellaneous
I had pretty much no qualms with this headphone, particularly given their intended use-case. Funnily enough, in a very amateur sense, I actually used them for their intended function, putting together a recording of a track that a couple friends and I put together for a performance. They served their role well there, and it offered an extra level of appreciation to my analysis.
For those that are looking for a good pair of studio monitors, I would be hard-pressed not to recommend these, especially given their $299 price tag. They are accurate, near flat, and have great imaging and separation, coupled with a larger-than-expected soundstage that, in my experience, would be very conducive to use in a studio environment.
Additionally, for those not in a studio, I think these could fare very well for anyone in need of a portable set of cans. If you're a basshead, you'll have to look elsewhere, but for those listeners with an eye for neutrality who can't lug a set of open-backs around, annoying everyone sharing their space, I would recommend these, as they offer a pleasurable sound signature for general listening, with a number of analytically appreciable benefits that other headphones in this price range may lack.
These feel much more like a prosumer-level product, designed with fans of audio and music in mind, than a consumer set of headphones with a V-shaped sound signature, sloppy bass, disappearing mids, and congested treble, and I commend Audio Technica for taking that route. They're powerable from your phone, but just as at home on a desk with a proper amplifier, and were enjoyable in both scenarios.
These headphones were provided to me for review by Audio Technica. I am not being paid by anyone to write this review, to endorse the product reviewed, or for the content that I put in the review.
These headphones were powered by an Astell&Kern AK Junior, a Google Pixel, a Neurochrome HP-1, an iFi Pro iCan, and by whatever soundcard is in the motherboard of my computer.
I have had these headphones for about a month, and I have put about 80 hours of analytical listening through them during that period.