Warm on-ears that you can take on the go or savor at home

A Review On: Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9 Sovereign Wood Headphones

Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9 Sovereign Wood Headphones

Rated # 11 in On-Ear
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Review Details:
Audio Quality
Comfort
Design
Value
Purchased on:
Price paid: $137.00
bjmr
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Pros: Warm but still punchy tone, large soundstage, lightweight, subtle good looks, comfortable

Cons: No accessories, disappointing cable, delicate brackets, don't fold for travel

I purchased the Audio Technica ESW9a. These have African Paduak shells rather than the cherry of the Japanese release. The ESW9a is made in Japan.
    
Physical:
        First, these are most definitely not circumaural headphones. The pads have a slope, the outside edge of which extends to the tops and bottoms of my ears (medium size) if positioned just so. The pads to press your ears down. I don't find the clamping intense or uncomfortable, but I became used to the vise-grip of the Senn HD280 Pro after a couple years of use. YMMV. I would call these on-ears and warn that they fit and feel like large on-ears. I usually despise on-ears but am pleased with these and wear them for hour+ stints over the course of my workday. Between the closed-back, the leather ear pads and being on-ears, they are warmer to wear than some over-ear but nothing like the sweat-boxes of the HD280 Pro's and overall comfortable.
        
        The wood shell is nice, but due to the smaller than expected diameter and very tame grain (on mine at least) not especially striking. They are definitely classier than a pair of silver HD 25's but the black plastic, subtle decals and lack of any garish garnishment they don't call attention to themselves.
        
        The construction quality could be a sticking point for many and is certainly the area that has me questioning the original MSRP. Most of the important bits are plastic and thin. The hinges and yoke feel delicate but not inherently weak. The z-axis swivel for each can is somewhat stiff. This may seem like a flaw, especially given the hardware's lack of robustness, but there is a very good reason for this. They hold the slant of your ears when removed. There's almost no 'settling in' necessary when an ear-cup is removed. The minimalistic use of material continues through the headband. The adjusters are thin sheet metal stamped with stops. The actual band is very soft leather & foam over a thin and very light solid band. From what I can tell there are two steel bands connecting the socket where the adjustable band slides. It should be somewhat easy to bend them different sizes of head. The whole of the headphones is very light given the actual size of the earcups. Another disapointment is the cable. It's thin and short and neither sturdy or attractive. It's also a Y cable, which would be less of an issue if the length of the Y wasn't fixed by a molded rubber strain relief. The cord is also short and would have been better if an extension was included in the box. I'd also gripe about the lack of a 1/4" adapter. I've come to expect one with headphones and was surprised to find such an inexpensive accessory missing. The strain reliefs on the earcups are sufficient but look cheap protruding from the otherwise pleasing Paduak cups. The pads are comfortable but not unnoticeable. The leather feels sturdy and I don't expect tears or flaking. The foam inside is somewhat soft and I've resolved to rotate the pads around from time to time to prevent them flattening too much.
 
General Sound:
        Warm. More emphasized bass than another staple of warm 'phones: the HD598. I was surprised to find they have a large sound stage (See comment on 311 - Great Divide below). The attenuation of outside sound is ok and somewhat even across frequency ranges. They are not isolating phones though, so you will have to boost the volume to drown out the world, especially crowds and noisy commutes. I used them at the DMV for an hour to stave off boredom and felt nither lost from or irritated by the crowd. I'm a bit confused by the DR on these cans. While all the sounds come through clearly, the levels sound slightly compressed (dynamically). This is not a bad thing but could explain my observations about certain groups below. Please understand this is subtle and it took me some time to conclude this is what I'm hearing.
        
        I played these from my home computer (with a nice onboard audio processor), my work machine (less than ideal signal flow) and through my phone (HTC One with Beats Audio OFF). Nothing fancy but my home machine and phone have surprisinly good playback quality.
 
Listening to Female vocals to get a sense of that AT magic:
        Bat for Lashes: Laura is one of my favorite songs hands-down. It almost elicits tears, but isn't a sad song so I can't bring myself to do so. This song was mixed somewhat 'warmly' to begin with and has plenty of reverberance to sustain subtler details. This comes across remarkably with the esw9a's. I can't go as far as claim that the results are 'magical' as some have claimed, but the result is quite good. Moon and Moon is a similar track to Laura, being keys and vocal. This too comes across well, with nothing missing, nothing emphasized but rather a whole unique color. Other tracks from this artist: Sarah, I saw a light, Glass, I'm on Fire, What's a Girl to do. Many of BFL's tracks have an ethereal sound and the strengths of these phones certainly play to the advantage of the songs.
        Cat Powers & Goldfrapp: similar to the above but adjusted for their variances. Many of Goldfrapp's track are so well produced and mastered it's nice to hear them shine through these cans.
        Sharon Von Etten: There's quite a range of production quality in the three albums currently out, but all sounded good. The later recordings from Tramp really popped. Because the bass is gently boosted it balances out the upper-mids of the vocals. This may be the trick across the whole female vocal genere: a balance of present bass, smooth mids, and just a little bite in the highs.
        
Listening to other styles:
        311 - Great Divide: I could clearly hear the placement of the crash and ride cymbals. Crash is 'high' right and ride is 'mid' (chest height) left. Good soundstage not far from, and perhaps occasionally exceeding my HD598s. (Stereolithic is a pretty good album).
        Band of Skulls came across nicely, with lush guitar riffs, bass lines and vocals.
        Foals: While the sound is pleasing, these phones loose the percussiveness present in almost every instrument and every song. I prefer the crispness of the HD598 for this group.
        Type O -: While I wouldn't describe these as 'metal' headphones, this group comes across well. There is plenty of punch in the bass drums, all the melodic instruments are balanced, and vocals well defined.
        Metallica: Just to test my perception above with a metal group of different style and production/mixing. They sound fine but lack the agressive character I prefer when listening to metal. The sounds get a rounded out and is more pleasant & listenable but not 'correct'.
        I found these very suitable for hard-rock style groups like: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Tame Impala, The Black Angels, Dead Weather and so on.
        Electronic/Electro-Pop: Really hits the bass and a little sub-bass nicely. These ranges almost take you by surprise because they seem far more relaxed with other styles. However these don't sound great with lo-fi recording like those of Sleigh Bells. The EQ of the ESW9a doesn't compliment their made-for-earbuds mixing either. Surprisingly this group sounds fine through my HD598s.
        James Blake - We Might Feel Unsound: Bass & sub-bass patterns are surprisingly well defined but don't come across as boomy.
        
Overall conclusion: These are nice headphones and definitely worthy of a head-fier. An on-ear enthusiast could certainly find a place for this in their collection. Someone looking for a practical on-ear headphone should consider this as well. Not truly 'portable' beacase it doesn't fold and may not be rugged enough for regular knocks. I picked these up from a deals thread post on Cowboom for ~$137 shipped and feel that was a great price. I can't justify paying over $200 for these which may explain the regular price hovering around that mark. To some they'd be worth a bit more.

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