Pros: Audio-Technica's bright house sound, quality bass, clarity, comfort, versatility, Anniversary exclusivity and design
Cons: Slightly recessed low-mids, slightly harsh upper-mids,
Saddle up - this is actually pretty long now that i've read it myself
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50, and its variations, is a pair of headphones I acknowledge%r0to be simultaneously loved and hated around here on Head-Fi, for their sound-for-money and hype, respectively. I'm new to Head-Fi (having just joined to leave this review), but I have been lurking about as a guest from time to time, especially on that one thread that's a collection of IEM reviews, as well as a few discussions on the output quality of various superphones. I finally decided to buy the ATH-M50s/LE after some deliberation over whether I ought to buy headphones at all, given that I liked their audio signature and their limited edition status, at the price of S$241.20, which comes to the tidy sum of US$189.98 - which, from what I know, is a bit of a stretch from the M50's release price of just about $100.
And, apparently, more than the $169 ($10 premium over the standard M50) that it seems to be going for at Head-Fi's advertisers
I'm going to put it straight to the front that I am, traditionally, a speakers and IEMs person, having worked my way through various Altec Lansing speakers, up to the FX-4021 I still use today. My time with IEMs has been with, at first, some Motorola headset that came with a E398 that I can't even remember what sounded like (nor do I think I had the ability to judge at the time), followed by an upgrade to Sony Ericsson's W850i and its corresponding in-ears. Following that was an upgrade to some actual retail earphones, Sony's MDR-NC33 (as far as I know, they're the essentially the same 13.5mm EX dyn-drives used in the EX500LP, which I was intending to buy at the time till I decided to get noise cancellation instead). And, earlier this year, again, from Sony, the XBA-3.
As such, I'm a fan of the intimate sound and generally better perception of detail one can get from earphones.
On the headphone side, I have two, that I rarely use. Neither are explicitly marketed for audiophiles. Simply put, they're both gaming headphones, one was a freebie with another purchase (the steelseries Siberia) while the other (CM Storm SIRUS 5.1) is a gift from the company.
Moving on, I'm not too sure I classify as a pure audiophile (I don't have too much gear - I don't have an amp yet, or know the entire glossary), nor am I perfectly familiar with the concept of 'genres' (that is, I, um, for example, still don't know what dub step is supposed to be). But for the purpose of this, and future reviewing, or trying any kinds of audio gear, I've made a video of a number of songs I like to throw at the things, which can be heard in this here:
(For a full tracklist, check the description on the video's YouTube page itself.
I understand my choice of music is likely far from the norm, as I'm a VOCALOID listener mainly, with my preferences gravitating towards electronic. However, I mainly go on a song by song basis, being more if I like the song rather than I like the artist.
I personally appreciate a slightly V-shaped sound and definitely like an enhancement of the upper frequencies (mainly 8kHz and 16kHz).
Back to the ATH-M50s/LE, then. These are, in commemoration of Audio-Technica's Anniversary 50th (as they put it), a special edition of their widely acclaimed M50 monitor headphones. There are no obvious deviation in specifications, besides the special color scheme; they still have "proprietary" 45mm neodymium magnet dynamic drivers, 38 ohms of impedence, 99dB/mW sensitivity and a frequency response of 15-28,000Hz.
What they do have, however, are the collectors' value of a limited edition run (apparently, there are just 5,200 produced worldwide!), compounded by their status as one of Audio-Technica's choices for a commerative product for half-a-decade of audio excellence. They even include a special card within an cardboard envelope thanking you for purchasing a piece of their history.
On the other hand, the M50s/LE, as its model name suggests, is a straight-cable model - unlike the standard M50, but rather like the M50s.
This brings the M50s/LE a little bit of debate as it has been varyingly described as being far superior to the standard M50, whilst others say it has no audible differences. The store I bought it from on the other hand claims its sound stage is wider.
I'd like to be able to put these arguments to rest, but the last time I heard a standard black M50 (white box) was months ago, nor do I own them.
With all of this info out of the way, I'll get to the reviewing. Sorry, if I've made you wait!
Build and Construction
We can start with their build and construction - something that can be judged upon immediately, rather than over years. As of the point I'm writing this, the M50s have only been in the air for about six hours.
For starters, they're definitely well made. Sure, they're mostly of plastic with a rough, shiny silver sheen, but they're definitely tough, heavier (and heavier-duty) plastic. The texture of the plastic reminds me of that on the Mystic Silver PSP-3000 I have, it's not piano-gloss smooth, but it's not rough either. It's a very nice to the touch.
It's still pretty rigid at the moment (probably due to being rather fresh out of the box) and its hinges offer resistance. But its headband is more flexible than it looks, while still being rigid.
No visible screws, but there are metal elements which appear mainly cosmetic.
Certainly built to last, as most will testify.
The folding system is a bit difficult to master at first if you don't understand how they work, but it feels tough and I doubt these will break even though I keep confusing myself about which way they fold.
The earcups also flip 180 degrees vertically to accomodate the folding system.
The extension system also feels rigid, so I think it'll take a long time to get them loose.
The cable is far from fancy, feeling simply rubber coated and quoted as being copper-coated aluminum. It does terminate in a gold-coated jack that looks sturdy and has a metal case, with a spring tension-relief.
The M50s isn't exactly very small, but the aforementioned folding system helps them reduce their footprint by some 60%, to fit into the included leather drawstring pouch. This makes them reasonably portable for bringing about to gigs.
The standard ATH-M50 strikes a good balance between stylish and professionalism - its earcups have a flat surface with the audio-technica logo and doesn't seem like something that would be strange on a DJ.
That given, the Limited Edition 50th Anniversary ATH-M50s/LE is, physically in design, just about exactly the same. I've not had the opportunity to scrutinize the black M50s or even seen the white one in person, though.
The key difference is the use of a gorgeous silver sheen, with the badges being a darker, shinier finish that feels like metal. The rest of the earcups feel otherwise like plastic.
The most discerning feature however would be the vibrantly beautiful, metallic light sky blue ring circling the audio-technica badge. The ring has a very fine ridge-repeating-ring look and texture, too.
The remaining features on the cups are the model number (ATH-M50s/LE) and a proud declaration of audio-technica's "Anniversary 50th", "since 1962".
Moving up the headband, they have more of the blue in the circular L/R marks. These inserts feel like slightly brushed metal.
The audio-techinica logotype is emblazoned across the top of the leather headband, which is a bit loud for me, but otherwise nice.
All screws are hidden on the inner side of the headphones, which helps add to a cleaner look on the outside. The relevant consumer-electronics logos are also on the left side of the inner-headband.
Definitely very attractive headphones in my opinion.
Earcups' leather material feels a bit rough on the ear, but they are fresh. Probably will soften up as things go. After six hours, they do feel better.
Clamping force is moderate, comfortable. Headband's soft and comfortable. Said headband also doesn't feel too bad resting on your neck if you need to take a break from listening. However I don't think I could leave these on my neck for too long.
Isolation is definitely great, I can't hear my keyboard, or most anything outside with these on and playing sound.
However, I do think the leather-cups could be bigger, but overall comfort is subjective. But, I don't think I'd call these uncomfortable at all. I just think they need some time to loosen up.
Okay, the very important bit. I'd like to explain my sources first. Up to this point, I had auditioned a demonstration M50s/LE in the store over at least a couple of hours, mainly competing against the Shure SRH840 (which I felt has a far more 'correct' sound, closer to my definition of perfect), on my Walkman S-series (specifically, NWZ-S739F). I don't have any other headphones I feel the M50 can be directly compared to, so the SRH840 will be my main comparison for this.
With the M50s/LE I've actually bought, I started out with the front-panel port of my computer, which is connected to the internal sound card - an ASUS XONAR DX. Right away this struck me as a bad idea since I was constantly hearing interference, in addition to what felt like a severe need for an amplifier. I ought to check the cables inside.
Following this, I attempted connecting to the headphone out of my FX-4021 speakers. This didn't last long, as, it did with my other gear, the FX-4021 introduced an unpleasant constant noise when no sound was playing.
After that, I tried my RealTek ALC898 output (the integrated audio). Much better.
So let's get that on with - at first play;
Its bright highs, and appreciable mid range were immediately noticeable. The bass wasn't too strong, and delivered more of a punch as I like, as opposed to being boomy.
Sound stage was a little wide, but still somewhat close. Still feels quite intimate at the same time. I reckon it might open up with burn-in.
Overall, compared to the SRH840, the M50s/LE feels like a wider room to me, but with a further stage, whereas the SRH840 feels like a longer, larger, padded hall but with the stage very close.
intro+'s low volume electronic sounds (in the midrange) are audible. Previously inaudible in the auditions, likely a result of being in a quiet listening environment.
Personally, the frequencies around 2k strike me as slighty strong, a little forward. A slight reduction with the drivers' equalizer to 1k (-3), 2k (-1) and 4k (-1) sounds more pleasing to me, reducing what I felt was a bit of harshness to those frequencies.
High frequencies (>8kHz) are very pleasant and not harsh. Clarity overall throughout the range is pretty good while the bass doesn't feel too overpowered - there's no sense of muddiness at all. Less 'boom' than expected, more 'punch', something I found rather unexpected given the reviews of the M50 I've read. It could be a source thing, or just maybe they'll get stronger with burn-in.
Bass overall doesn't actually feel very strong at the moment, mainly like the 60Hz isn't well powered. Using an equalizer to buff 62Hz kind of backs this theory.
Sounds that go 'tsss' like the hi-hats are just beautiful, which is a testimony to audio-technica's bright and sparkly house-sound. Separation is good.
Detailing is quite surprising, now that I've gotten to try them in a quiet environment.
The headphones are 'emotional' too. Especially in Gentle Jena ~Extended Version~ - back with the SRH840, too, I found both to make me want to cry a little with that song...
After a while, I decided to try just connecting the M50s/LE directly to my XONAR DX (which is configured to 8-channels, 2 speakers, PCM-192kHz, which is, as you might imagine, a bit difficult with long, full tower with its rear to the wall. The XONAR DX is, mind you, an entry level dedicated audio card, targeted more at HTPCs or gaming. The so-called AV100 processor is, however, the very popular CMedia Oxygen HD which is teamed with a 24-bit Cirrus-Logic CS4398*1 DAC (for a 120dB SNR) in the front-out and lower end CS4362A*1 for the other channels. Unfortunately, I don't think it actually has a headphone amplifier.
But, once plugged into the XONAR directly, the ATH-M50s/LE really felt better, enough to justify my expenditure - whilst most of the positive traits they exhibited on the RealTek ALC898 (which is a very good integrated audio codec, but still an IAC nontheless) remained, they felt like they'd been opened up, warmer and wider.
While I still found it more appreciable with a slight de-tuning of the 1kHz, 2kHz and 4kHz sliders, that upper midrange no longer felt as harsh as they did on the ALC898.
On the XONAR DX, the M50s/LE came more into line with what I expected based upon M50 reviews thus far - displaying Audio-Technica's lushly bright house sound (which I love), good bass and a slightly recessed low-midrange.
The bass, interestingly, is able to deliver a 'punch' on songs that have that sort of beat, whereas on songs like the studio version of whiteout (as in, electric love), they go more 'boom'. This is good.
The treble range, especially upwards of 8kHz, is absolutely beautiful. The hi-hats as in 歌に形はないけれど are wonderfully bright, with a satisfyingly forward 'tss'. The electronic sounds in whiteout and the quiet ones in intro+ are also very pleasant on the XONAR DX. So far, I've never really found any high frequencies to be shrill, harsh or tiring to listen to. Although, there is a tiny bit of metallic tinge present, but so far this is something I feel to be the case for all headphones I've listened to that aren't IEMs. The quality of the treble helps accent the midrange too, helping the M50s attain their perceived clarity.
The lower midrange, as most people complain about, is definitely a little recessed. But in my opinion, it's just a decibel or two short, which can be easily rectified with an equalizer. It's not a deal-breaker - far from it. Conversely, the upper-midrange does feel a little stronger than I'd like, but as I've listened to this more and more on the XONAR DX, I've come to very much like their natural signature, without messing around with my equalizer - I have it set to flat again.
Relative to the ALC898, the XONAR DX appears to deliver a far superior sound stage and environment - wider, but thus also further away. It could, however, just be a bit of burn-in over the last few hours...
However, the bass feels more forward than before. The treble also feels a little further away, but hasn't lost its sparkle. Overall however, the M50s/LE still delivers an interestingly wide sound stage. Vocalists feel a little further away, but overall the sound also manages to feel intimate at the same time, as you can still feel low-volume elements fading away at the ends of songs for example.
It'll be interesting to note whether the sound stage will have expanded more in time, with burn-in. Some people report this to be the case with standard M50s.
The sound of these are pretty great even out of the box and not yet even twenty-four hours, so I reason they'll get even better. I'll probably update this with that soon, like, after a few days. But, from what I know, burn-in doesn't actually change the sound too drastically, so I may not even notice it. >_>
Compared to the SRH840, I find the M50s/LE to be a wider, yet further staging experience, with a more fun, lively sound. It's definitely got more boom than the SRH840, which had mroe of the cold-punch I like. But both headphones are definitely very good sounding, with unique strengths. If I could have bought both, I would've.
I definitely like the M50's sound, it's lively and fun, with its mild-V shape appealing to me. I've always been a treble-freak, and Audio-Technica is famous for catering to such. Its stage is certainly appreciable, while at the pricepoint it is now, it's clearly one of the cheaper audiophile-capable options available, even if it's no longer the stunning deal it used to be (I think I just bought it at what, 180% the price of the original M50?). They're a bit more colored and warm, rather than cold and very analytical - they don't exactly strike me as perfect monitors, but they're wonderful if you just want to be listening. As a portable pair of headphones, they didn't seem to difficult to drive from either my Galaxy SII or the Walkman, and sounded fairly good with both. However, the Galaxy SII benefitted enormously from the addition of either of the portable amps I tried at the store - the iBasso D-Zero and digiZoid ZO2 (which just goes to prove my theory of the SII having a weak output [well, it proves it to me anyway]), whereas the Walkman didn't. That said, the M50's impedence rating of 38 ohms is far from my XBA-3's rated 12 ohms, but it's hardly an absurdly high number. Their folding design and comfortable headband makes them portable enough as well. The powder-finished plastic build also looks well designed to survive the out-and-about.
The ATH-M50 is definitely worth its cult status, and even more as the M50s/LE anniversary edition. That said, I wonder how much I can sell them for? I'm getting pushed to try out the V-MODA M100s and I just spent my cans-money, so...
...Anyway, you got through all of that? Thanks for reading! I definitely recommend the ATH-M50s/LE, and, if they actually sound like this too, the standard ATH-M50. On that hand, if you're looking for something more analytical within the price-range, the Shure SRH840 as well. If, a bit more upmarket, I also very much liked the Sennheiser HD598.