audio-technica Portable headphones ATH-A1000Z - Reviews
Pros: Imaging, Speed, Micro-dynamics
Cons: Last octave of bass
Summary:
 
All-around excellent ‘phones that, while lacking in the bottom octave of bass, ably make up for it with excellent microdynamics and imaging (when supplied with a good signal and competent amplification).
 
Long version:
 
I received these 'phones as a christmas gift from my in-laws, who live in the same town as A-T's US headquarters. Having never had a pair of A-T headphones from anywhere in their range above the M50, I was quite excited to give them a workout. Here's what I can report:
 
Build Quality and Packaging:
 
Packaging is nothing about which to write home, nor is it lacking in any particular way. Fairly typical box, protects the headphones well enough. The A100Z's come with a non-detachable 3m cable. It appears to be of respectable and sufficient quality and shielding and is terminated in a gold plated 3.5mm/1/8" plug. A similarly plated 1/4" adapter is included in the box. Aside from a small instruction sheet, that's all you get.
 
The "all you get" comment is relevant insofar as these are a sizeable pair of headphones that do not fold in any way and there is no included case. As I write this, I am seated in an airport club lounge and the 1000Zs are not along for the ride - while they are not particularly or conspicuously fragile, their sheer size makes them ill-suited to travel. Make no mistake, these are full-sized headphones, closer in size to a pair of Audeze LCDs than to Senn 600s. My assumption is that this is due to the (impressively sized) 53 mm dynamic driver. This cone is pushed about by a hand-wound voice coil of oxygen free copper and is angled slightly toward the rear of the head (as in most headphones of this size). The back of each side is a shell of thin but stiff aluminum. Color options appear to be red, or any other color you want (provided you want red).
 
The most conspicuous feature of the 1000Zs is the "improved 3D wing-support system," much maligned by many other reviewers here on head-fi and in other spaces. As this was my first experience with this 'headband' (and they were a gift that couldn't be returned), I approached these wings with an open mind. To my surprise, they are not nearly as bad as others have seemed to suggest. This may be due to the 'improvements' made by A-T in the 2016 models or some peculiarity in regard to my particular noggin, but I find them to be immensely comfortable: the foam padding on the wings strikes the right balance between soft and squishy, and the spring tension is just enough to stop the headphones from sliding down. The metal bands that provide the clamping pressure don't create anything vise-like and allow enough space for good airflow, increasing comfort compared to a more traditional leather or padded band. Earcup padding is unremarkable, in the good way whereby it isn't noticeable or annoying at all.
 
Sound Quality and Listening:
 
A word about specifications is probably in order. While impedance is a very reasonable 44 ohms, efficiency is (surprisingly) listed at 101 dB/mW. It is surprising at two levels: first, because I don't think that I've ever seen efficiency spec'd in dB/mW (typically dB/V); second, that's kind of inefficient, such that I suspect that I am either misreading the specs somehow. In any event, this much is clear based on my listening - these cans play respectably with nearly any amplification (including iPhone), but really come alive when fed by an amplifier that can supply more current. More on that as I discuss my subjective listening impressions...
 
The first music I fired up are some 24/96 downloads from HD Tracks of the David Bowie compilation "Five Years (1969-1974). I own the LP versions of these remasters and a familiar with some of their highlights as well as tough moments for some systems to reproduce naturally. For instance, when the first major dynamic piano chord is struck on "Life on Mars?", are each of the piano notes distinct (albeit harmonious), or do they smear together into something more aptly described as a "sound" than a "chord?" If you turn it up, is there any harshness or compression, or does it still maintain the sonic signature of an honest-to-god grand piano? Along the same lines, does your system allow you to listen to "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" in accordance with the instructions that are printed on the back of the record jacket ("TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME")?
 
The short version is that the ATH-A1000Z answers these questions with a decisive "mostly," with an asterisk and post-script of "they do it well enough." The asterisk, as is typical, has a lot to do with one's source components and amplification. As tired a phrase as "garbage in/garbage out" has become, it's just plainly true and becomes more and more the case as one moves up the ladder from iSkullBeatsbyMonsterDre into legitimate mid-fi and hi-fi cans. I am one of those folks who is firmly of the mind that the ultimate transducer is one that uncompromisingly reveals exactly what comes down the wire and absolutely nothing else, warts and all. Perhaps the best compliment I can give the A1000Z is that it reveals, with little excess coloration, precisely how wart-laden the amplification and DAC sections of my iPhone 6 are. Midrange and presence region are sucked out, sibiliance is an issue, the piano chord from "Life on Mars?" is mashed together, and the difference between "Moonage Daydream" at low and high volumes is more one of discomfort and tinitis than of energy and pacing.
 
But...put an amplifier as meager as a Fiio A1 into the chain, and the ATH-A1000Zs leap into action (after a solid break-in period). Transients start to...um, transit? Strings have an appropriate attack and decay, and increases in volume start to MOVE those 2" drivers in ways that are distinctly musical. Ditch the A1 for an E12, and the pacing starts to really pick up. Your toes start to tap during the chorus of "Star" because the guitars and piano that are playing the staccato rhythm that moves the song are all there - discernable as distinct instruments, but playing in lock-step. Plug them into an even beefier amp (a single ended class-A triode custom built by my sound-engineer brother) and something remarkable happens - one starts to hear hints of the micro-dynamics so prized in giga-buck stereo systems coming from a pair of headphones that list at $399.99.
 
Continuing with some digital tracks, I cued up a newly downloaded 24/96 copy of Nine Inch Nails’
The Downward Spiral,” an album that made a pretty significant splash when it dropped my first year of college and, to its credit, has remained quite relevant. I think that this album reveals two things quite well in any reproduction system: the ability to render subtle background noise and effects below the major instrumentation and the ability to play loud without smearing all of the notes and noises together. The ATH-A100Z passes both tests admirably.
 
I next traveled a little bit farther into electronica, giving multiple listens to a CD rip of Jamie XX’s outstanding 2015 album, “In Colour.” This might the record for which the A-T cans where most revelatory and where honest-to-god microdynamic detail started to make itself clearly apparent. There is an awful lot going on at the same time in tracks such as “Gosh,” “Loud Places,” and “The Rest Is Noise,” such that it is easy for subtle shadings and details in the music to fade into the background or ‘get smushed’ under the major dynamic excursions of a kick drum or deep synth bass line. It is perhaps the case that the missing last bit of deep bass response in these headphones might make these details more apparent, but my impression is that most audiophile listeners will be more than satisfied with the trade-off (if it is, in fact, a trade in the first place). What was most surprising was the impressive amount of ambient cues and wide soundstage that was produced by these closed back ‘phones. While it is admittedly unreasonable to compare them with similarly priced open back headphones in this regard, I think that the ATH-A1000Zs acquitted themselves quite well, alerting me to different shadings and placements of sound in “The Rest Is Noise” that I had not previously noticed, despite an awful lot of listens on any number of different systems.
 
At this point the reader might be asking themselves: “that’s all well and good and I’m glad you like rock and electronic pop, but what about us classical and jazz listeners?” My answer: that’s what the vinyl is for, silly…
 
Once I was able to sit down with my records, I decided to dispense with the warm-up records and head directly to the monsters that many audiophiles know and love and this is where I really started to admire these headphones.
 
First up was the Reiner/CSO performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Just for fun, I queued up both a vintage Shaded Dog pressing and the recent Analogue Productions repressing. Both sounded spectacular. Extreme audiophiliacs out there likely already know the story of the three-track recordings of Chicago and the absolutely magnificent imaging that they produce. The bassoon and oboe solos of “The Kalendar Prince” are most impressive - not only do the ATH-A1000Zs produce a wonderful tone to these winds, but they locate them with incredible precision. While the soundstage “depth” of these headphones presents itself more vertically than linearly, it is nonetheless clear that the oboist is sitting in front of the bassoonist and that the celli and double bass accompaniment is seated to the right and forward-right of the stage. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” is often a good test of the macrodynamic capabilities of a system – played through the Audio-Technicas, the movement’s crescendo is not only emotionally more intense, but plainly more loud, a feat that lesser transducers simple cannot replicate.
 
Next, I cued up “Masterpieces by Ellington,” interested in hearing how mono recordings would sound through the A100Zs. Given that the main upside that I had noticed for the headphones was their surprisingly good imaging (for closed back cans), I thought that this wonderful record might offer some insight into their tonality and ability to make instruments sounds like, well, instruments. They did not disappoint. Their liveliness did well by Jimmy Hamilton’s clarinet on “Mood Indigo” and they were up to the task of conveying a piano that sounded like an instrument with strings, not a well-constructed electric simulacrum of one, as too many mid-fi and consumer-oriented headphone often do.
 
Sticking with jazz piano, two recordings will eternally hold my attention. The first, Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie,” has all the right pacing, attack, and decay when heard through the ATH-A100Zs. Moreover, the ability of these headphones to subtly render the background conversations, clanking dishes, and glasses in the Village Vanguard on that Sunday night in 1961 contributes immensely to the ambience and demonstrates how good they are at resolving minor details. While the chatter is a famous and unmistakable part of this recording, it is typically resolved as a sort of subtle hum. In this case, I could make out most of the words being uttered.
 
The second recording is John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” McCoy Tyner’s piano solo on the title track might well be my favorite two minutes of music. The sound from the 45rpm ORG repressing was outstanding and involving. There is an occasional moment when Tyner’s right hand strikes a note with enough force that the top end sounds as though it’s on the verge of breaking apart into distortion, but never quite gets there. This is not, in my memory, uncommon at all (even on two channel stereo systems costing tens of thousands more than these headphones) and is likely as much an artifact of the recording as it is the reproduction. That being said, the speed and brightness of the A-Ts may well call a bit too much attention to it. Curiously, Coltrane’s soprano sax shows none of that same tendency, even though he goes very, very high with some notes.
 
My final spin was an early stamper of Carlos Kleiber and the Wiener Philharmonic’s rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I can’t add anything that hasn’t already been said about this record, so I’ll just say that the Audio-Technicas get it pretty right. As I have suggested earlier, they are not the last-last-word in broad soundstaging nor in bass extension, but they also gracefully avoid any sins of commission far too common in headphones that appear in this price range (and to be fair, this performance would be thoroughly engrossing though stock Apple earbuds). 
Dobrescu George
Dobrescu George
Interesting!

Curious why there are so very few reviews on them though...
Rhamnetin
Rhamnetin
@Dobrescu George this lineup has never been particularly popular around here. I'm guessing they are only popular in Japan, save for the lower end models (namely the 700s and 900s) and wooden versions which gain traction around these parts.
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