To start out, I'd like to invite you to locate a dictionary and search for the term: "Audio Technica Wings". If you ever find it, notice how there is no text definition, but instead, just a picture of a very large object labeled, "head". Didn't think there would be prerequisites to wearing a headphone did you? Well, there are. But I realize that despite a number of you now turning your backs looking for other options, there are still a few stragglers remaining that fit the bill regarding the picture. And myself? Guilty as charged. But lucky for our tribe, we've cleared the first preliminary obstacle. All that's really left now is to read up on how they sound and make a final decision!
Not so fast. To make a long story even longer, I'd love to elaborate on the design and comfort.
Unfortunately, it simply does not work. No, really, the design, does-not-work. And the thing is, it's not merely a single aspect that promotes a crappy design either. There are actually multiple factors that work together in unison against you, synergizing perfectly to maximize the chances of the most distracting listening session ever. In the upcoming paragraphs, I'll describe each problem I've found, in detail. Hopefully you'll get a better understanding on AT's seemingly "hit-or-miss" wing system after reading, and make a decision as to whether or not you think it will effect you.
1) Wings + Weight -- Yes, I realize the dictionary already provided you with a very scientific definition, but there are also other things worth mentioning. The wings combined with the weight of the headphone don't work together too well, and in fact, have a very negative effect. Since the wings are naturally loose and cannot be adjusted, the weight of the headphone tends to make it constantly sink on your head. Fortunately, there is absolutely zero you can do about it. Due to this, you may get as paranoid as I was while they were sitting (I mean, slipping) on my head. So, unless you plan to instigate the modding process, I recommend you think twice before you pick these up, or at least try for an audition. Yet, there is something that you can possibly attempt that may help...
2) Clamping Force -- It's actually not all that terrible, but combined with the fact that you cannot stretch the headband to provide an even more comfortable fit is disheartening. Basically, there's a rule. You 'must' have at least an above average clamp for two reasons: to stay on your darn head and to maintain a decent seal. But I'd guesstimate a good handful of users would actually need to 'increase' the clamping force. And that's not only to reduce the wing plus weight issue, but also to help remedy an even bigger issue...
3) Maintaining a Seal -- Throughout this comparison, I actually found I had to lightly press on the bottom of the earcups so I could maintain a seal and accurately judge the sound. No amount of stretching, tightening, adjusting, or balling my eyes out would fix the issue I had with getting a seal. The biggest problem area is the bottom most part of the earpads where it meets your jaw. It just doesn't conform to the human skull very well (headphone.com has a perfect picture example with the W1000X on the dummy head). Like mentioned, that's partially an issue because of the wings, weight, and clamp all put together. But, there is something that's an even bigger contribution to the failure of getting a good seal...
4) Earpads + Earcups -- Now the trinity is finally complete! Because what Triforce is complete without the hidden triangle in the middle? I'd say the most complaints I read regarding these deals with the earpads. While they have an okay amount of squishy-squashness to them, they tend to feel entirely differently when clamped to your head. Combine that with the awkward and very restrictive angle of the earcups in relation to one's head and you've got a genuine problem without any possible solution. Well, there are indeed a few solutions, but they involve getting rid of the headphone all together...
Anyway, here's a simpler and more effective version:
The combination of loose wings, weight, 'required' clamping force, earpad design, and earcup angle, all create a relatively unpleasant and unnatural experience that would most likely impact a handful of users in a negative way; diminishing the enjoyment of the listeners' choice of material and worth of dollar. While not particularly dreadful to use, they are simply too awkward to wear and enjoy to the maximum extent intended.
The end. Well, of the ergonomics at least. What about construction quality?
The A900X is essentially an overweight toy, manufactured by Fischer Price's sister company, Phisher Pryce. Speaking of toys, examine the wings. Audio Technica's older style wings were of shockingly higher quality, while these ones honestly set the benchmark for the cheapest component I've ever examined on a headphone. The bar is so low, it's actually underground. On a "surfacing" note, the cloth cable is definitely good enough and will most likely satisfy most users, but gets tangled very easily. Other than that, well, nothing really.
Wow, where to start? Can I just call them perfectly crafted so we can move on?
"Exquisitely luxurious" is the first thing that comes to mind. The weight, feel, and materials used are all extremely impressive. The headband adjusters are the best I've come across, dethroning the D2000. Numbered increments are a really nice touch, and make it much easier for people like me, that have to have it equal. Moving on, the cable is definitely one of the better ones I've seen. It's got a great texture to it and is quite thick. And as for everything else? Looking at pictures will explain it faster and more effectively than I can. So let's hit comfort before the storm arrives.
Initially, I had doubts about the K550's comfort. Then, I realized it was made in China, so my doubts instantly dissolved as I knew I would be wearing something made with comfort in mind. And actually, these are quite comfy! The earpads are super plush and actually feel really great when worn, with the cups being deep enough to cause minimal irritation on the ears. And while the headband looks like it skimped out on the padding, I find it's no big deal. Take Ultrasone for example. They've got a nice brick of padding, yet after the exact same amount of time of me wearing the HFI-2400 and the K550, they both started to irritate me on the same spot on my head, yet easily fixed by a slight adjustment. So really, the headband isn't an issue. It aids in keeping its sleek appearance anyway.
One last thing real quick. I hear getting a seal requires extreme patience with some users. But in my experience, never once have I had a problem with getting a seal within the first seconds of wearing them. But then again, head sizes differ, and I can imagine some struggling to maintain a seal. Just as a note, after gathering information both online and from those who've tried my K550; it seems the larger the head you have, the easier to achieve and maintain a seal. So, smaller heads may have more difficulty achieving what's required. And basically, that's because of the relatively light clamp, which is great for comfort, but not so great for getting a seal with specific head sizes. So it seems both of these headphones require a larger than average head for best results.
Okay awesome, we're through with the boring stuff. If you're still awake, we're about to dive into the most important section of the review.
We've finally arrived at the desired station. Wondering how these stack up?
Now, I realize there are such things as apples and oranges. The HD650 and DT880 are a good example, in which it may be difficult to classify as one being "better" due to the fact they differ in their own unique ways. That said, this definitely isn't the case for the K550 and A900X. These two share a very similar sonic signature, so comparisons can be made quite easily. And that also means if someone were to like one, they'd probably like the other. With that said, I tested these with an enormous variety of music, including: nature sounds, thunderstorms, ocean waves, crackling fire, and of course, windchimes. I ran mostly unamped, although put them through their paces with the very able P650 (won't even get started on that). And just because I'm impatient and want to get it out of the way, they both run perfectly fine unamped. Your mileage may vary, obviously.
Alright, so let's begin! Individual aspects first, then sound as a whole.
1) Bass - Both the K550 and A900X have similar sounding bass and both achieve a very similar overall effect. But, there is a very specific difference between them. The K550's bass is focused lower than that of the A900X. The bass extends surprisingly well on the K550, while the A900X can't quite match it. But not just that, the A900X's bass focus creeps up more toward the midrange. By no means does the bass shroud and interfere with the midrange, but it's definitely a step up on the spectrum past where the K550 is situated. And since I probably make no sense, I'll rephrase. Imagine a ruler. 1 is bass, 6 is midrange, 12 is treble. Let's say the K550's bass floats mainly around a 2 or 3. If that's the case then the A900X is around a 3 or 4 respectively. Now, don't interpret that like I took it from a graph. Rough guesstimate. Past that, the K550's bass has a little more presence and overall feel than the A900X, despite it already extending lower. Overall, I find the K550 to possess a bit higher quality and fuller low end than the A900X; which is actually more qualified to be low end in the first place. This round goes to AKG.
2) Midrange - Excellent, my favorite aspect of sound! Ever since the HE-500 bewitched me, I've been a midrange fanatic. Anyway, reading up on the K550 and A900X, I notice that both are dubbed as having excellent midranges. But again, there is a fine line between the two, and the line is much bigger and bolder here than it was with the bass. In short, the midrange is fantastic. And while the A900X has a very present midrange as well, it simply cannot match the K550. Nothing else to it. With the K550, the vocals are very distinct and upfront. With the A900X, the vocals sound wooly and distant in comparison. But before it sounds like I'm saying the A900X's midrange is recessed or isn't decent enough, I need to clarify. It's more present than a large chunk of headphones out there. But just like I felt with the DT880 vs Q701, while the DT880's midrange was good, the Q701's was simply better in my opinion. Same goes for the A900X vs K550. So as far as midrange goes, there really isn't any redeeming quality to take from the A900X when you have the K550 sitting right next to it. By itself, it's definitely pretty good. But I liked my midrange served with that 'wow' factor, and the K550 gives that more so than the A900X. And since I feel this section contains the most significant difference in sound between the two, I think the K550 deserves bonus points.
3) Treble - I admit, this is probably my weakest link. While my ears definitely know what sounds good and what doesn't regarding my preferences, I have a hard time really detailing and reviewing the specifics of treble. That said, while I find the K550 to have more zing to it, I find the A900X to sound more fatiguing overall. The A900X's treble sounds thinner and possess less sparkle, but it tires me quicker than the K550 does. The K550 on the other hand I find sounds really, well, nice. I've read up on it not quite having as much treble detail as other headphones similarly priced, and honestly cannot judge that. But to me, it unifies with the bass and midrange very well and maintains a clear, entertaining tonality, yet doesn't fatigue. I don't desire more, and I don't wish for less.
4) Soundstage - Starting off, its worth mentioning the A900X does in fact have angled drivers, while the K550 does not. It's also worth mentioning, the K550 has a bigger soundstage. And yes, I actually thought the A900X might beat it in that regard, but that's just not the case. While the A900X sounds pretty wide especially for a closed headphone, it seems too tethered to L and R channels in comparison. Meaning, it presents the sound pretty wide left and right, but not so much in regards to a more enveloping, or 3D, sense. I definitely wouldn't classify it as forward either. The K550 sounds to have more of a three dimensional aspect. It sounds significantly more forward than the A900X, not to mention all around more spacious. But as a whole, the K550 simply sounds bigger. And I will admit, when comparing to the average closed headphone, the K550 at times sounds 'too' unique. The soundstage can periodically sound somewhat artificial due to how big it is, but it has never really bothered me. I actually really, really enjoy it.
5) Overall - Here's my take on the sound as a whole, since that is how we preserve it after all. Knowing how well the K550 did with everything else, you'd expect it to do good here. Well, news for you. It does fabulous. The K550's sound is simply on another level than the A900X. Everything just sounds better and more accurate, except when against the A900X's signature genre, white noise. The K550 is a natural upgrade from the A900X, and then some. It's more natural, more balanced, and more sophisticated. Struggling to keep this sub-section alive, I'll just admit there really isn't much more to say. And while I've made it seem the A900X is a bad sounding headphone, it isn't, and I'm sure many would appreciate it. But, if you have a choice, the K550 would be the wise route to take.
And that's that. What's done is done. A900X, you are excused.
The Shure SRH840 and SRH940 are two of my higher ranked closed headphones, with another obviously being the K550. Recently, I've been comparing the two Shures back and forth trying to determine which I like better. But, I've hit a stalemate, kind of like what happened with the HD600 and HD650. Truth is, I love them both! But interesting things start happening when I throw in the K550 for good measure. Turns out, I think the K550 is the perfect balance between the SRH840 and the SRH940, but with higher comfort and more soundstage. Loved the SRH940's crystalline detail and awesome midrange, but sometimes I preferred the lesser treble of the SRH840, not to mention the thicker note presentation, heftier bass, and overall balance. Lucky for me, the K550 hit dead center giving me the best balance of each strength, yet still brought another attribute to the table: soundstage. Delicious, especially when it's from a closed headphone.
I also see the D2000 and K550 compared quite a bit as well. Having owned the D2000 three times, I've formed a pretty good opinion around it. And while I realize there is a slightly revised 2012 model, I assume any change in sound is not significant enough as to alter my opinion too substantially. With that, I'd easily take the K550 over the D2000, but the D2000 before the A900X. Personally, I wasn't a fan of the slightly bloated bass and the mediocre midrange. Not to mention, it doesn't even behave like a proper closed headphone, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It doesn't isolate well and leaks sound, unlike the K550. For some, I understand the D2000 would fit the bill better than the K550, but I think the K550 is more versatile. Comfort can be debated, but the K550 is lighter. And it's also nice to know that my K550's cup isn't going to fall off...
After hearing the K550 straight up next to the A900X, I personally think the A900X has no place. And yes, I expect there to be people that prefer the sound or ergonomics of the A900X more so than the K550, but as far as perhaps most, the K550 is simply a better candidate across every board. So what about value? I'd personally still take the K550 even if it was $100 more than the A900X. There's just so much more it gives you for the dollar spent. That said, do I find the A900X a bad value? Um, let's just say I wouldn't ever buy it, regardless of price. Meaning, since I'm not too fond of the sound or ergonomics, I wouldn't waste any more time with it.
Question is, if the K550 switched sounds with the A900X but retained the body, which would I take? K550 any day. I'd mess around with the EQ if I had to, but I simply refuse to settle with the A900X's design, no matter how amazing the sound. Luckily, I don't have to, as the K550 has the better sound, so I lucked out. Okay, so is there anything going for the A900X? Well, besides the 'X' in its model name, no, not really. Hate to say that after loving multiple Audio Technica headphones in the past (AD900 specifically), but I'm not going to sugar-coating something I simply don't agree with. So, for those who have tried and don't like, or are unable to get the K550, I'd simply suggest looking elsewhere. Too many chances are taken when purchasing the A900X. But for those of you who still wish to invest in a pair, go ahead and jump the fence. But don't say I didn't warn you about the cliff on the other side. Safe travels.
(Grammar Edit: 2/12/13)
Edited by Katun - 2/12/13 at 4:21pm