[REVIEW/COMPARISON] AUDIO TECHNICA ATH-AD900X vs ATH-AD1000X vs SONY MDR-MA900 - It's [still] over 900!!!!
AD1000X Impressions added 12 May 2013. Check the bottom of the post!
I love open headphones, although I don’t own many pairs. They have a sense of scale that I really can’t find in any other audio source (outside of actual speakers of course). In the past, things like the LCD-2 and the HD650 have set my heart aflutter. Good open headphones are fantastically comfortable, great for hot weather, wearable for hours and hours at a time - something you can come home to and depend.
No matter how much I like some of my other gear, I keep a good open headphone on my head most of the time when I’m at home because they are just easy to live with for long periods of time. In other words they are my workhorse headphones.
So in this review / comparison I’m going to compare two open headphones that I think are prime candidates for long term comfort and practicality as much as good sound quality: the Audio Technica ATH-AD900X and the Sony MDR-MA900.
I got the MA900 a while back. I’ve always been disappointed that it’s not more popular on Head Fi. I’ve enjoyed its great wearing comfort and forgiving sound for many an hour. It’s easily one of my favourite headphones.
I used to have a pair of AD900’s and AD2000’s. While I loved AT’s designs I found that overtime the coloration of the sound and lack of low-end response meant that I couldn’t really live with them for a broad range of music. They’ve gone to better homes. I got the AD900X because I was curious to see what improvements were made in the ADx series and how it compares to the MA900.
They’re both relatively recent designs (the AD900X is VERY recent), both from Japanese headphone juggernauts, both have single entry cables, both retail for a similar price on Amazon.co.jp - and both of them have 900 in the name!
They’re probably the same headphone, you can stop reading this review.
* Note: I’m making Youtube reviews of headphones now, and they are embedded later in the review. They are individual reviews in their own right but will give you a better sense of how the headphones look and feel than simple photos. The most detailed descriptions of the sound and how they compare will be found here though, where I’m not talking off the top of my head.
The specs might not tell us too much, but they will give us a broad overview of some of the major points of difference between these models.
Amazon.co.jp price at time of writing: ¥ 15,010 / ~ $160 USD
- TYPE Open-air Dynamic
- DRIVER DIAMETER 53 mm
- FREQUENCY RESPONSE 5 – 35,000 Hz
- MAXIMUM INPUT POWER 1,000 mW
- SENSITIVITY 100 dB/mW
- IMPEDANCE 38 ohms
- WEIGHT 265 g
- CABLE 3.0 m
- CONNECTOR 3.5 mm(1/8") mini stereo, gold-plated
Specs quoted from http://www.audio-technica.com/cms/headphones/996daf096c12ea16/index.html
The ATH-AD900X is made in China.
Amazon.co.jp price at time of writing: ¥ 18,182 / ~ $195 USD
- TYPE Open circum-aural, Dynamic
- DRIVE DIAMETER 70 mm
- FREQUENCY RESPONSE 5 - 40,000 Hz
- MAXIMUM INPUT POWER 700 mW
- IMPEDANCE 12 ohms at 1 kHz
- SENSITIVITY 104 dB/mW
- WEIGHT 195 g without cord
- CABLE 3.0m
- CONNECTOR 3.5 mm(1/8") mini stereo, gold-plated
Specs quoted from http://store.sony.com/p/Over-the-Ear,-Premium-Headphones,-70mm-Driver,-Acoustic-Bass-,-Open-Air/en/p/MDRMA900#specifications
The MDR-MA900 is made in Thailand.
The most interesting things to note here are the relative driver sizes between the two headphones (53mm vs 70mm), the insanely low quoted impedance figure / high sensitivity of the MA900, and the relative weights (265g vs 195g) which become pretty significant later.
DESIGN / BUILD
As mentioned before, I’m making Youtube video reviews now (all the cool kids are doing it?) and honestly it’s probably easier to just watch the videos if you want to get a sense of how these two headphones look and feel.
If you like the videos check out my channel, as I do have some more comparisons and reviews there.
There’s a summary below for those who don’t want to go anywhere near that cat video cesspit.
The AD900X is beautifully built. Nice, solid ear cups with a beautiful metal grille, the Audio Technica logo proudly in gold. Thick substantial cable and plug.The whole design exudes a premium feel that belies its price. Like all AT headphones with the 3D-Wing system, it looks elegant and intricate, though the thick plastic headbands detract a little from the beauty.
The MA900 is quite literally one of the most dismally uninspiring builds I’ve ever seen on a headphone. The super light weight, the flimsy way the earcups flop around in their cradles, the all plastic design (apparently there is actually some metal hiding the headband), the ill-proportion of the massive driver size to the tiny headband. The cable is thin but the plug is okay. Almost everything about it seems flimsy and cheap.
It is not literally a badly built headphone, but the actual way the MA900 is physically constructed means that it’s impossible not to hold it in your hands and feel disappointed. You know those rimless eyeglasses that consist entirely of two lenses and bendy metal arms? This is the equivalent feel.
If this comparison was based on build quality alone, we could all pack up and go home because the AD900X truly executes a magnificent head stomping on it’s Sony counterpart.
On the other hand, the MA900 is so light and non-rigid that I feel completely confident about it’s chance of survival after being repeatedly dropped on the floor as all my headphones occasionally are. I would not feel the same confidence about the AD900X (and more remorse too!).
I know I’m going on a lot about the build, but quite honestly I think the initial reports of MA900’s poor build were the single biggest factor that scared away the initial hype on Head-Fi, which is a sad thing really as we get into the rest of the review.
One thing to note is that both the AD900X and MA900 have steeply angled drivers, and the MA900 has a peculiar cup design based on the F1 that means it features a very large open section. It’s sorta neat.
The MA900 also features a ‘bass lens’ (basically a giant cardboard egg-carton like ring) around the driver supposedly to tune it for a more substantial low end. You can feel the bass lens by giving the baffle ear pad a poke. This also means that it is conceivably possible to accidentally crush the bass lens if you were to press the ear pad against something hard.
COMFORT / ERGONOMICS
The ATH-AD900X features AT’s ‘3D wing’ support system which means that it requires no adjustment of the headband. It just sits on top of your head with clamping pressure and two articulated pads that look a bit like something out of a lunar lander.
Initially I had trouble with feeling like the AD900X wanted to slide down my head, but I worked out that wearing them angled slightly backwards rather than plopping them straight down was more comfortable and secure. The thicker cable is heavier and also contributes slightly towards the ‘pulling down’ feeling.
The velour earpads are soft and comfortable, but clamping pressure is actually higher than I remember on the AD900X. They feel like they could get stuffy after a few hours. Overall I remember the AD900 being more comfortable but perhaps I’ve just been spoilt by time and the MA900.
The MDR-MA900 is much, much more comfortable than the AD900X - and this is saying something because the AD900X is one of the more comfortable headphones I’ve worn. The super-light weight means it feels like I’m wearing nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all… (stupid sexy Flanders) and the cloth / fabric ear pad material is soft and breathable. There is almost zero clamping pressure on the MA900 but the design is simple and feels secure.
Immediately upon wearing the MA900 you understand why they are seemingly built so badly - an absolute priority was placed on minimising the headphone’s weight and maximising wearing comfort. It’s a beautifully comfortable headphone, and the comfort is ALMOST, ALMOST enough to completely excuse the poor build. Honestly though, I would have still liked to see some more metal. Cmon Sony - you made the SA5000 and the Z1000 out of magnesium alloy! Where’s that old Sony ultra-premium feel? :(
SOUND - OVERALL SIGNATURES
All listening done on an Objective 2 / ODAC combo with a mix of lossless and high quality lossy files.
A note on placement: Because of the angled drivers, it’s possible to change the signature of both the AD900X and MA900 by moving the headphone back or forward on your ears. This makes for a less or more diffuse / wide soundstage. It’s more comfortable to do this on the MA900’s.
The AD900X is a transparent sounding headphone, leaning towards the dry side with a extended, whispery treble section. On slower, simpler tracks, it sounds quite effortless, with a crystalline clarity that renders everything from the bass to the treble with this kind of papery precision. While it’s not a super aggressive sounding or cold sounding (it has a touch of mid-warmth) it’s by no means a laid back listen. It has an airy sound that absolutely demands attention in terms of treble energy. The AD900X eats up strings and female vocals - classic Audio Technica.
The MA900 is very much a mellower headphone than the AD900X, similar in overall signature to something like the HD600. The sound has noticeably more depth than the AD900X, particularly because there is more emphasis on bass / lower mids and less emphasis on treble. While the AD900X has a sparkly kind of clarity, the MA900 has more of a bell-tone clarity - detailed without calling any particular attention to itself. The MA900 does not sound as refreshing as the AD900, with a blunter sound that is less immediately engaging. By the same token the MA900 is easy to listen to for hours because of this laid back character. Like the AD900X and other Sony cans it does still seem to have a peak that makes female vocals stand out a bit more, but it’s a fair bit more subtle than its AT counterpart. It loves pianos and electronic tones.
SOUND - BASS
The AD900X’s bass is well defined and tight, extending quite deep. Using the http://www.audiocheck.net/audiotests_frequencychecklow.php test I hear driver action start at about 25hz, with something audible at about 30hz and reaching a substantial volume at about 70hz. In other words, a pretty decent bass response out of an open headphone. There is no strong mid-bass emphasis, so male vocals sound clear but not particularly interesting.
The MA900 is rounded and well defined. Using the same test as before, the MA900 seems to have ever so slightly more extended bass - driver action starting at 20hz, audibility at 30hz, substantial volume at 50hz. This gives the MA900 a little more visceral gravel in the bass. Because the MA900 has more of a mid-bass emphasis, male vocals have more authority than the AD900X.
SOUND - MIDS / VOCALS
This is where the AD900X shines. It has that classic Audio Technica penchant of taking vocals and emphasising their breathiness and sparkle, which works particularly well for female vocals and strings. Unlike the AD2000, it’s not so exaggerated so as to sound shouty.
The MA900 has more mellow depth to the vocals that has its own particular charm. While not as dazzling as the AD900X, the MA900 gives vocals that are detailed and clear, while having a more liquid quality than the whispery AD900X. It really depends on your preferences which one renders vocals better - the AD900X is arguably more showy, the MA900 more natural.
SOUND - TREBLE
The AD900X seems to have a treble section that goes on forever. It emphasises the quiet atmospherics of a sound - the way things echo around a studio, reverb, everything seems to hang in the air with the AD900X. It’s really quite enchanting on slow music. Unfortunately, on complex or more aggressive passages, the AD900X begins to sound very fatiguing. It doesn’t deal well at all with hot recordings, and starts to sound a little harsh or spitty.
The MA900’s treble section is probably the least interesting part of the sound. It’s there, you can hear it, but there’s no particular character to it. Compared to the AD900X it sounds positively blunted. On the flip-side, it means the MA900 never sounds strident like the AD900X and deals with different genres of music far more forgivingly. Again, you could wear the MA900 for hours.
SOUND - SOUNDSTAGE / IMAGING
Here’s where the comparison gets super interesting. Because the AD900X has that treble atmosphere, it produces a great big sense of space in the sound. However, imaging (like with the AD900 and AD2000) isn’t actually all that great. I get the sense, particularly in faster passages, that the sound is only artificially spacious - it’s slightly smeared across a wide space with a lack of articulation in instrument placement and definition. The whole “apparent detail vs transient detail” issue comes to mind.
The MA900 sounds more intimate than the AD900. The headspace is smaller, closer to your ears because you lose that illusion of space the treble in the AD900X creates. However, everything sounds more concrete and grounded in the MA900. Transient detail seems to be better, with instruments popping in and out of a darker background, particularly on faster passages. For me this is the biggest advantage the MA900 has over the AD900X - I actually get the sense that the MA900 is the technically more competent, if more conservative, headphone than the AD900X. Keep in mind that I have a strong preference for darker sounds though.
SOUND - CONCLUSION
This is an interesting comparison. I can say very easily that while the AD900X has a gorgeous signature, I prefer the MA900 because it’s simply easier to listen, has better genre bandwidth and seemingly better technical ability. However, they are on a similar enough level of quality that I think it really comes down to preferences and the kind of music you listen to.
Like how I concluded my XBA-4 vs EX1000 review, I’d like to post a couple of tracks which I really felt worked better on the AD900X than the MA900, and vice-versa. Hopefully this illustrative of their relative strengths.
The Canadian alternative chamber pop artist Owen Pallett covers The Strokes’ “Hard To Explain”, with lots and lots of looped strings. The AD900X really brings out the lilting, insistent quality of the strings in this track, and everything seems to shimmer and hang. Really beautiful. (Unfortunately the Youtube link even at 720p doesn’t quite do it justice, so if you like the song please try and hunt down the original :3)
The MA900 delivers this track well, but it isn’t anything particularly magical. The piano stands out more in the mix on the MA900.
Passion Pit’s “I’ll Be Alright”. Wild erratic synth-pop. This video is a weird and maybe NSFW. The MA900 has so much fun with this - it’s bouncy, poppy, with instruments jumping in and out of the mix and the fast, thumpy bass propelling the music along.
The AD900X doesn’t even sound aggressive on this track. It just sounds flat because the instruments bleed into each other far more.
‘VCR’ from The xx’s breakthrough album. The AD900 does the quiet atmosphere of this track very nicely, bringing out the fragility in the vocals with the light touch of the instrumentation.
The MA900 is again conservative. It sounds good but doesn’t really shine here.
Gil Scott-Heron’s track, “New York Is Killing Me’. Again, apologies; this was the best version of this track I could find. I absolutely love this track, but it’s mastered very, very hot. On the MA900, the vocals are gravelly, deep and tired, and the way the other sounds of the track dip in out of the periphery is magical.
On the AD900X, this track just sounds painful and super-aggressive, and loses some of it’s three dimensional quality.
I hope this has helped anyone looking for an open pair of workhorse cans at a reasonable budget. At the Amazon.co.jp prices with Tenso.com forwarding, both these headphones are undeniably bargains. In the end I personally prefer the MA900; it’s more comfortable, sounds more focused and I have a preference for the signature. I can just as easily see why anyone would go for the magical sound and premium build of the AD900X.
Thanks for reading the review, and I look forward to your comments :)
ADDENDUM: AD1000X Impressions [12 May 2013]
I was impressed enough by the AD900X (and memories of the AD2000X) that soon after completing my review of the AD900X I ordered a pair of the step-up AD1000X’s from Amazon Japan. Actually, more this: I got the AD900X and then was absolutely floored to see the price of the AD1000X was only around $100 more. If that extra $100 bought great improvements over the AD900X, I would be seriously impressed.
Amazon.co.jp price at time of purchase: ¥ 27,051 / ~ $266 USD
TYPE Open-air Dynamic
DRIVER DIAMETER 53 mm
FREQUENCY RESPONSE 5 – 40,000 Hz
MAXIMUM INPUT POWER 2,000 mW
SENSITIVITY 100 dB/mW
IMPEDANCE 40 ohms
WEIGHT 265 g
CABLE 3.0 m
CONNECTOR 3.5 mm(1/8") mini stereo, gold-plated
The ATH-AD1000X is made in Japan and at this point is officially only available in the Japanese domestic market.
Differences from the AD900X
Design, build and ergonomics are almost identical to the AD900X. They are as well built and as comfortable as the AD900X. Again, for a closer look you can have a gander at my video review:
Although the same 53mm diameter, the AD1000X supposedly has a different driver from the AD900X. The diaphragm construction is specific to the AD1000X and may be shared with the AD2000X. This is evidenced by my poor understanding of the Google translation of this AV Watch article here: http://av.watch.impress.co.jp/docs/news/20121016_566105.html as well as the observation of the much higher input power capacity of the AD1000X and the similar specs with the AD2000X.
On the AD1000X and AD2000X, the diffuser visible through the rear grille radiates outwards from the centre in an angled radial pattern, unlike the straight line pattern found in the AD900X. The diffuser vents through the baffle with a thin layer of white gauze like material. I do not know if this updated pattern truly does anything for the sound quality of the AD1000X / AD2000X, but it was introduced as one of the innovations of the series. Presumably the angled pattern reduces potentially audible air turbulence in much the same way as angled blades on a fan changes air flow.
In the AD1000X, the earpads are angled rather than the driver. In the above video I make reference to the ear pads themselves actually being thicker on one side than on the other. This is a mistake; the earpads are a constant thickness but the actual segment that the ear pads attach to on the baffle is thicker on one side. While the earpad angle appears to be less than the angle of the driver in the AD900X, I find the earpads are slightly more comfortable on the AD1000X because the thicker side conforms to the way the skull curves.
The AD1000X has a double entry cable as opposed to the AD900X’s single entry. I actually prefer single entry cables as they are more convenient, but I supposed from a balanced channel design standpoint a double entry cable is ideal.
I am not absolutely sure about this one, but supposedly the AD1000X is a full magnesium alloy body whereas the AD900X is aluminium. Certainly the AD1000X is as well built and solid as the AD900X, but it isn’t any particular leap forward. In particular, the headbands are still the thick AD900X style as opposed to the thinner and more elegant AD2000 / X style. I actually did not confirm this with the AD900X but it appears that every part of the AD1000X, including the baffle and diffuser plates, are made of metal. The AD1000X is built in Japan and that seems spiffy.
SOUND - OVERALL SIGNATURE
When reading these impressions, please keep in mind that I do not still have the AD900X on hand to do direct comparisons. Please take the comparisons with a pinch of salt, as I am comparing against my memory and my notes of what the AD900X sounds like.
All listening done on an Objective 2 / ODAC combo with a mix of lossless and high quality lossy files.
The AD1000X is actually quite different in signature from the AD900X, and in many ways reminds me of a less extreme version of the AD2000 (which was beautiful but could sound honky and grainy at times). First off, the AD1000X does not have the same sense of transparency that the AD900X has. It sounds immediately like a headphone that has been tweaked for a particular signature, with particular emphasis on two sections: an upper bass peak that gives everything a sense of solidity and punch, as well as a lower treble peak that emphasises the breathiness of female vocals and gives everything an engaging and exciting tone. To me the AD1000X has a beautiful and engaging tuning, and actually sounds a little less clinical and dry than the AD900X. It’s liquid and extended (but never harsh).
What is also very immediately obvious is that the AD1000X does not have the same incoherency that the AD900X could have at times. The AD1000X sounds laser beam clean, and things just pop and burst on the soundstage.
SOUND - BASS
The AD1000X has tight, fast and punchy bass like the AD900X. While I don’t think that the AD1000X actually extends much deeper than the AD900X or MA900, the AD1000X has a particular upper bass emphasis which like in the AD2000 and the Sony SA5000 creates an impression of solid beats and punchy timing. The impression I think is even stronger on the AD1000X because compared to the AD2000 and especially the SA5000, the AD1000X has slightly lower levels of treble.
This is no hint of mid-bass bleed and the AD1000X is not a warm sounding headphone. Nor is it a basshead can by any stretch of the imagination. However, it can certainly keep up with those phat beats without any embarrassment.
SOUND - MIDS / VOCALS
If the AD900X shines in vocals, then the AD1000X takes the AD900X’s performance and does it with a particular flair. Like the AD2000, there is a particular emphasis in the lower treble of the AD1000X which emphasises the sense of breath in vocals. It’s not a brash S-note sibilance, but something a little lower down. Imagine the slight huskiness of a female jazz singer’s breathing if you will. Unlike the AD2000 though, the emphasis is more understated. While it comes close to emulating the AD2000’s way of taking a female vocalist and conveying all the nuance and weight, its never so mid-forward as to sound unnatural or wonky on other tracks. In this respect it actually seems like a more mature version of the AD2000; a headphone that refined the parlour trick mids into a quiet flourish for every occasion.
SOUND - TREBLE
The AD1000X has a dry and extended treble section, though it doesn’t seem as whispery or hard as the AD900X’s. However this just might be because the AD1000X conveys a stronger sense of solidity than the AD900X in the bass and mids. The AD1000X carry a tremendous amount of detail but never sound harsh, and I found them less fatiguing than the AD900X for aggressive tracks. That said, the AD1000X still has the characteristically airy highs of the rest of the AD line and still is not well suited for hot recordings.
SOUND - SOUNDSTAGING
Because of the particular tuning of the AD1000X, or maybe in the way its ear pads are angled, its soundstage actually sounds a little more intimate compared to the atmospherics of the AD900X. This is much the same way that the AD2000 sounded more intimate compared to the AD900. However, just as with the AD2000, the AD1000X easily sounds more defined and has a much, much better sense of instrument placement compared to the AD900X. Compared to the AD900X, which could sound incoherent or diffuse in faster tracks, the AD1000X sounds fast and composed in layered music - and is a thrilling companion for fast electronic music.
This is easily an area where the AD1000X outshines the AD900X. (The signature differences in the bass and mids may be a preference thing after all).
Compared to the MA900 the AD1000X has equal capability in terms of imaging and instrument placement, but oddly I still do not get the same sense of naturalness to the placement that I get with the earspeaker design of the MA900.
I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I really like the AD1000X. It’s a case where spending about 30% more really does yield a return of at least 30% in sound quality improvements over the AD900X. You may say that the signature differences may be a preference thing, but honestly the AD1000X is not so flagrantly tuned so as to sound unnatural or unbalanced - it just has a particular flavour applied to a neutral sound that speaks really strongly to how Audio Technica believes things should be voiced. In other respects of technical performance - how clean it sounds, how defined, etc - I feel like the AD1000X is a clear step up from the AD900X.
HOWEVER I still cannot say that the AD1000X is better than the Sony MA900. On a technical level, they are similar. In terms of signature the AD1000X is vivacious and exciting but the MA900 strikes me as more balanced and relaxing. The MA900 is still the more comfortable headphone, though the AD1000X is built stunningly and is something that you can really be proud to own. Even though the MA900 is significantly cheaper than the AD1000X, if I was shopping around for a nice Japanese open back headphone I would be very comfortable narrowing the choice between the MA900 and AD1000X. I can’t decide between them and so I’m keeping both.
The AD1000X is a beautiful headphone and at the current Japanese price a veritable bargain to my ears.
Again, I’ll leave you with two tracks I find stunning on the AD1000X. Thanks for your comments and please check out my videos! :)
Roisin Murphy - 'Primitive' from the album Overpowered.
Trentemoller vs Royskopp, 'What Else Is there? (Trentemoller remix)' from 'What Else Is There - EP'
- If you liked my videos, check out my channel :)
- My XBA-4 / XBA-40 / EX1000 / 7550 comparison
- Read my comparison of the Momentum, MDR-1R, Z1000, TMA-1S, M50 and UE6000
- Talk to me about gear on twitter @lachlikesathing
Edited by a_recording - 5/12/13 at 5:27am