Pros: Incredible mid-range presentation, gentle treble presentation, tight snappy bass. Intoxicating vocal presentation.
Cons: Weak in the bass, very narrow sound stage.
I count myself fortunate to be an owner of a pair of old Audio-Technica ATH-A9X. These cans were once a legend of their own, and I feel they deserve a proper review (since so few people own them in Europe and the United States).
The Audio-Technica ATH-A9X was a part of the first-generation "Art Monitor" headphone series that surfaced during the mid-90's (it was produced between 1997-2002), and the direct precursor to the famous ATH-A900 (which I unfortunately never owned). As such, I cannot do a direct comparison between the A9X and its younger sibling, the A900 - however, I did just order a pair of the newest child in the series, the A900X, and will be happy to do a full review on that as well as a comparison with the A9X when it arrives (should be about 2 weeks - I am having it shipped over from Japan).
*Disclaimer: I did not take any of the photos used in this review, since I am too lazy to do that when there are plenty of old photos of them on the net, AND the pleather on my earpads are long-gone.
Build Quality & Presentation
The ATH-A9X was part of the old A-XX series, and was never sold in the United States; I purchased it during a trip to Taiwan back in 2001 or 2002 (don't remember the exact year). It is a VERY unique-looking and attention-catching pair of headphones. Personally, I like them within the privacy of my home - but you may look a bit weird if you sat out in the public wearing these...
As you can see, the cups are made of ultra-polished aluminum alloy. They literally look like mirrors.
The earpads on the ATH-A9X were very high-quality pleather - which made me really sad when I saw the kind of cheap pleather Audio-Technica chose to ship the ATH-A900 with. The pleather is extremely soft, supple, and textured - when I first bought them, they totally fooled me into thinking they were real leather (until they started flaking off after two years, of course... )
As is trademark of Audio-Technica full-sized headphones, the ATH-A9X came with the famous "wing-support" system, and sits very comfortably on my head. If I have any complaints, it would actually have to be just how heavy these cans are - I am very certain the aluminum housing on these is a lot thicker than the ones on the ATH-A900. You seriously can break a toe if you ever dropped the ATH-A9X on your foot.
Several physical traits of the ATH-A9X that are worth noting:
- The plastic bits of the A9X are not black, but an elegant, deep "metallic" brown (it has coating of reflective, metallic bits), which really adds something to the stylish appearance.
- The signal cord, wrapped in fabric (like on the A900) is also a beautiful, silky brown that complements the plastic frame. This looks a LOT classier than the black cords on the A900, in my opinion.
- The padding on the "wings" are actually encased in high-quality pleather, as opposed to fabric. This is a very nice stylistic touch in my opinion, as the wings complement the earpads very well when the headphones are not in use.
In terms of styling, materials, and construction quality, I consider the ATH-A9X far superior to the ATH-A900. I for one always thought the A900 looked fairly bland: The way the cups are shaped, the tacky "left" and "right" stickers (in ugly red, nonetheless!), the sharp angular edges of the pivot joints on the headbands, etc... and not to mention the cheap earpads.
Again, since I do not own the ATH-A900, I cannot make a direct comparison. But it is to my understanding that the A900 has greater bass response than the A9X due to the Double-Air Damping System (D.A.D.S.). The A9X does feature a sound-damping mechanism (P.A.T.) on the housing, but I believe it is for reducing resonance/echoes and tightening bass rather than increasing bass.
The overall sound signature of the ATH-A9X is the very classic definition of "Old School" Audio-Technica headphones - warm, pleasant, smooth, and "musical". There's absolutely nothing cold or analytical about these headphones - which means you probably don't want to use them for professional sound mixing and mastering - but it also means classical/vocal music sounds absolutely fantastic. As far as I can tell, the A9X doesn't have any sharp peaks within its frequency range - everything blends smoothly into everything else. Based on what I can hear, I believe there is a treble roll-off above 10K; add that to the light bass, I suspect the frequency response is a reversed U shape (can't find any measurement graphs... these cans are too old). This is not to say the headphones lack detail - but the way it presents detail in the treble region is very pleasant and non-sibilant.
One thing I would like to point out is the extremely beautiful and natural timbre by which the A9X presents musical instruments. If you've ever listened to a live classical concert that's unamplified, you would know that without the aid of microphones, musical instruments do not sound that sharp and detailed. The soft treble presentation on the A9X recreates this "live performance" sound signature very well - close your eyes and listen to some orchestral pieces, and you won't have any problem believing you are sitting in the same room with the musicians. The small sound stage contributes to this effect (see below for details).
Technical Specification: (From Japanese)
- Mirror-polished, high-strength aluminum alloy housing.
- Special coating completely absorbs unwanted vibrations and provides superior isolation.
- Employs same φ53mm high-quality drivers from flagship model A10ANV.
- Frequency Response: 5 - 30,000Hz
- Sensitivity: 103dB/mW
- Maximum Output: 2,000mW
- P.A.T. anti-resonance mechanism.
- High-quality cloth-wrapped PCOCC signal cord.
- Specially-formulated pleather earpads.
*According to the specification sheet, the aluminum housing, the A10ANV-class drivers, the PCOCC signal cord, and the "special" pleather earpads are all unique to the A9X (not shared by the cheaper A7X and A5X).
Treble: The treble presentation on the ATH-A9X is very gentle and pleasant. This was actually very surprising to me because I had expected a sharp, "metallic" kind of quality to the treble due to the aluminum housing, but this was not the case at all. The treble roll-off is just right to maintain crispness without making instruments sound sharp. I can enjoy chimes and cymbals without fatigue. Personally, I like it - though detail and extension isn't quite as good as those of newer headphones.
Mid-Range: I did extensive reading on the ATH-A9X at Taiwanese audiophile forums back when I bought it, and the mid-range (especially human vocal) presentation on this thing is, quite simply, an experience to behold. Listening to music on the A9X that has any kind of singing involved is like having pure honey poured into your ears - and I am not exaggerating this effect (see Sound Stage section below). The mid-range on the A9X is warm, sweet, and intoxicating - it's not so pronounced as to feel artificial or unnatural (which is the case for me on the ATH-EW9), nor so gentle as to compromise on detail. Instruments like violins, flutes, and bagpipes sound realistic, convincing, and above all - intimate. Detail and clarity is very good, though once again, not as good as those on newer generation of headphones.
Bass: The ATH-A9X is fairly light on bass presence; but the quality of bass is good. It is fast and tight, and extents well (though it doesn't reach as deep as newer headphones). It's just enough bass to give drums and cellos body, presence, and proper impact without intruding on the lower-mids. Very pleasant and natural presentation.
Sound Stage: Probably the most unique aspect of the A9X, and considered its biggest weakness by most. The sound stage is extremely narrow on these cans! This often produces the effect that vocalists are singing right next to yours ears. This serves well in some songs but not in others. On small pieces it enhances the intimacy, but on large orchestral pieces, the sense of "airiness" or "openess" often has trouble achieving its intended effect.
Instrument Separation: Instrument separation is good considering its narrow sound stage and soft treble, but it's definitely weak compared to newer headphones. I don't think the drivers can compete in terms of resolution with their modern counterparts.
Sound Isolation: Isolation on the ATH-A9X is very good - these cans seal very well and the housing material is very dense.
The Audio-Technica ATH-A9X is a very unique-looking pair of headphones with an unique sound presentation. Fans of that classic "Audio-Technica sound" will love them - others probably won't. Audio-Technica has been making their headphones more balanced and neutral in recent years, so the likes of ATH-A9X will probably fade away. But it did earn itself a place in headphone history, and for good reasons. Short of the long is: If you are in love the voice of Irish ladies, these headphones are a must-try!