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Ever since I discovered the original AD2000 in 2006 (which I still own & love), I’ve owned or otherwise heard a variety of Audio-Technica’s headphones over the years—some great (like the AD2000, and more recently the MSR7), and some not-so-great (the FC7 comes to mind). When the R70x was released last year, I was curious enough for an impulse purchase back in June 2015. However, that first purchase left me underwhelmed & disappointed, and I promptly sold that set after a few weeks. But when Black Friday 2015 came around (that’d be the retail madness that was November 27-30, for the non-Americans), and Amazon offered a surprising discount, I thought: why not, maybe I’ll give it a second chance with some better equipment this time! So I proceeded to not only try out the R70x for a second time, but I also bought some better equipment to use it with, along with two of its biggest headphone competitors to compare it to, the Sennheiser HD600 and AKG K712.
This review is based on approximately 6 months of ownership (3 weeks from the first purchase + 23 weeks from the second purchase).
Handling & Fit
The first thing that most people will probably notice about the R70x—before even putting it on, I mean—is its weight, or actually the lack thereof. It was downright amazing how light-weight it was, and certainly by far the lightest full-size headphones that I’ve ever gotten my hands on!
One of the next things that most people are likely to notice will be either Audio-Technica’s distinctive “3D wing” suspension system or the non-labeled detachable cable. As far as the wings, I’ve personally had zero issues with them on every Audio-Technica headphone that I’ve ever used, so I’m not sure why it’s an issue for so many others. I guess that just comes down to everyone’s individual head size & shape. As for the non-labeled cable, it will almost certainly be confusing for anyone looking at it for the first time because Audio-Technica didn’t label the Right headphone connector from the Left one. How are you supposed to know which connector goes to which side? As I discovered, it doesn’t matter how they’re plugged in—either way, somehow the cable is wired to always send the left channel to the left ear and the right channel to the right ear.
And now for an admission: the first time I bought the headphones, I didn’t realize that the ear pads were actually circumaural (around-the-ear) and not supra-aural (on-ear). I mistakenly wore the headphones supra-aurally the first time around and found the ear pads to be quite uncomfortable for long periods of time, despite the material being plushy velour, and the sound wasn’t very clear either, especially in the bass. But the second time I bought the headphones, I realized that I could actually fit my ears completely inside the pads, which greatly improved long-term comfort and also improved the sonic clarity.
To start with the sonics, the below diagram is my attempt to help show the “big picture” of how I viewed the R70x and K712 versus the HD600, using the HD600 as a baseline. The plus (+) and minus (-) symbols are solely meant to indicate “more” and “less” respectively, not any kind of quantifiable amount. This diagram is extremely simplified and is not meant to include any sub-ranges in the bass, mid-range, or treble—bass is meant to span 30 to 200 Hz, mid-range is meant to span 200 Hz to 2 kHz, and treble is meant to span 2 kHz to my audible threshold (which was ~16-17 kHz on a recent check). Finally, the bass levels on the R70x and K712 are only level with each other in the diagram for simplicity and are not meant to be the same as each other. As the title on the diagram indicates, it’s intended to show the deviations for the R70x and K712 solely from the HD600, and not against each other.
- HD600 (both amped by Valhalla 2 and Solstice)
The R70x had a general similarity to the HD600 but was also crucially different in several areas. First, the similarity: the R70x was just about as natural-sounding as the HD600, which was particularly noticeable with classical & jazz. Both headphones sounded very realistic in tone and conveyed very natural-sounding timbres on all of the key instruments in the symphony orchestra. Strings, brass, woodwinds, and piano all simply sounded “authentic” to my ears, based on my experience from performing in orchestras.
That’s about all the R70x and HD600 had in common though, as they were very different in other aspects. The R70x sounded like a more “full-range” HD600 and actually had quite the amount of audible bass/mid-bass from 30 Hz up to 200 Hz, while the HD600 didn’t have anywhere close to the same quantity and almost sounded like it had a hole in its bass/mid-bass in comparison. Basically, this translated to the R70x being more capable of reproducing low cello notes with more tonal depth and giving other instruments like bass guitars a thick, almost fat sound that was incredibly direct and engaging. Additionally, this made the R70x much better able to play electronica that relied on bass-driven beats or rhythms otherwise, a genre which the HD600 just didn’t manage well at all. So while both headphones sounded great with classical & jazz, the R70x also sounded great with rock/metal and electronica, which made it much more versatile.
The two headphones also presented very different soundstages with the HD600 projecting more of a traditional concert hall-like stage, but the R70x projected virtually no stage at all. It sounded more like a headphone without a soundstage, and was a prime example of the classic “throwing you in with the band” kind of presentation. I’d imagine that most listeners of classical music likely won’t sit well with the R70x’s presentation, but it still worked great for me personally and would likely work for anyone who wouldn’t mind an intimate chamber music-sized feel on all of their classical music. And with other kinds of music, the R70x’s direct straight-up style was just awesomely engaging—that “throwing you in with the band” presentation worked equally great with jazz, rock, metal, & electronica, and almost perfectly replicated the feel of a tiny club or recording studio.
Although the R70x and HD600 weren’t exactly complementary, I ended up concluding that they sort of went well together as a pair, as each of them played certain genres for me better than the other (classical & jazz coming across better on the HD600, and metal & electronica sounding better on the R70x). However, with that said, I don’t think it makes all that much sense for anyone to own both of them, as they effectively canceled each other out on the natural tonality and relative neutrality. The HD600 would make more sense for those who listen solely to classical & jazz and very little else; the R70x would better serve those who also listen to contemporary rock, metal, and electronica.
- K712 (amped by Solstice w/ 6SN7 | R70x amped by Valhalla 2)
That above 3-way diagram may not exactly show it, but the R70x as a whole felt several shades “darker” than the K712. The difference was substantial enough that I almost felt like the two headphones were on nearly opposite ends of the spectrum at times, with the R70x as the bassy headphone and the K712 as the trebly headphone. Not that the two were really polar opposites though, because they weren’t, but they could easily be considered sonic complements to each other, as the R70x had a deep mid-bass & lower mid-range that the K712 didn’t. The K712, on the other hand, had more upper mid-range (specifically in the area of female vocals), audible harmonics, and stronger treble highlights, which almost made it feel like a breath of fresh air coming right after the R70x.
Despite the somewhat large tonal shift between the two, both headphones seemed to have roughly the same amount of sub-bass (30-60 Hz), but the R70x had a mid-bass that made it sound heavy & thick, almost “fat,” while the K712’s mid-bass was recessed in comparison and sounded lean & taut. As a result, the R70x sounded way more appropriate for music containing low-pitched male vocals and/or bass guitar, like rock and metal. Not that the K712 was bad with that kind of music, but it was clearly out of its element with those genres.
However, despite their differences in the lower frequencies, both the K712 and R70x were surprisingly “natural-sounding” with classical and jazz. They were shockingly natural-sounding actually, which convinced me of the sonically complementary nature of the two headphones—it was almost like the R70x simply conveyed the lower frequencies, and the K712 conveyed the upper frequencies. Strings (particularly violins) sounded more brilliant and flashy on the K712, while the R70x provided richer, deeper tones that reflected the natural resonance of the instruments. Yet, although both headphones were missing something critical when it came to classical music (string instrument bow-movement inflections on the R70x, and tonal depth on the K712), somehow each of them ended up sounding really quite amazing in their own way.
The two headphones contrasted quite a bit from each other spatially as well, with the K712 sounding significantly more airy and spread-out than the R70x, which felt very up-close & intimate in comparison. Additionally, the K712 separated the left and right channels by quite a bit to generate quite a wide stereo image, which the R70x didn’t do nearly as well and sounded very narrow in comparison.
In short, for anyone who can afford both headphones (along with a proper amp for each, because no single amp can drive both of them equally well due to their electrical characteristics), I recommend buying both. They were very sonically complementary and filled in for each other’s weaknesses nicely.
- DT990 (both amped by Valhalla 2 and Solstice)
I felt the DT990 was more similar to the K712 than any other headphones that I had, and thus the K712 comparison to the R70x applies for it as well. It was another case of near polar opposites, and it too could be considered sonically complementary to the R70x in the same kind of way. Not that the DT990 and K712 were identical, because they weren’t, but their sonic signatures were loosely similar and can probably be considered somewhat equivalent for the purposes of this review.
In fact, for those who already have an OTL tube amp and don’t want to get another amp, the DT990 may be a better choice as a second headphone as opposed to the K712, which would require a non-OTL tube amp for optimal results.
- AD2000 (amped by Gilmore Lite | R70x amped by Valhalla 2)
Although the R70x and AD2K looked similar visually, they had almost nothing in common sonically. The AD2K was substantially more agile- & faster-sounding and was much lighter on bass quantity—in fact, it almost felt like it was tuned “higher” towards the treble than the R70x, while the R70x felt tuned “lower” towards the bass. There was also a dramatic difference in the soundstage presentation between the two—the R70x did have a small-scale soundstage that felt relatively intimate, but it wasn’t nearly as intimate as the “I’m all up in your face!” style of the AD2K. In a sense, the R70x was more “polite” with its more distant and outwards placement of the musical elements, while the AD2K was “rude” and made everything sound way too close for comfort.
But the AD2K ended up being way more fun-sounding, especially with fast aggressive metal and other music that involved a lot of percussion, where it just dialed up the percussive impacts to 11. Granted, I enjoyed both the R70x and AD2K with metal and electronica, but the R70x simply wasn’t as much fun for me to listen with for those genres. On the flip side, the R70x was more versatile as it played classical & jazz quite well, which I’ve never bothered to listen to with the AD2K due to its unnatural-sounding mid-range.
- MSR7 (amped by Gilmore Lite | R70x amped by Valhalla 2)
As with the AD2K, the R70x had very little in common with the MSR7, Audio-Technica’s new portable closed headphones from last year. If anything, I found the MSR7 to have more in common with the AD2K—they were both upfront-sounding with very similar soundstaging, and their shared low-impedance high-sensitivity electrical characteristics allowed me to optimally use them out of the same amp, the Gilmore Lite.
Unlike the R70x, I found the MSR7 quite suitable as a “monitor”-type headphone due to its high amount of clarity throughout the spectrum allowing everything in the mix to be easily & distinctly heard. Clarity was simply something that the R70x consistently failed at delivering, as it just didn’t sound clear on any amp, amp settings, or tubes that I tried. And despite the MSR7 not sounding neutral (due to emphasized treble relative to a lightly-recessed lower mid-range & mid-bass), I actually found it to be even more versatile-sounding for my musical preferences. Not only was it incredibly enjoyable for me with metal and electronica in general, I was able to reliably use it for ambient electronica (which has unique sonic requirements and just didn’t play well on the R70x at all) and folk/bluegrass (which didn’t go all that well with the R70x for my tastes, due to not enough treble to highlight guitar-string actions).
- MT220 (amped by Gilmore Lite | R70x amped by Valhalla 2)
The R70x was shockingly similar-sounding to the MT220, so much so that I couldn’t believe it at first. I had to compare them again and again and was blown away every time! The two headphones were so close to each other sonically that I could say that the R70x is like an open version of the MT220, or vice versa (that the MT220 is a closed version of the R70x). Not that they were completely identical of course, but their overall signatures were extremely close to each other that it almost didn’t matter.
What were the differences? The MT220 had just a bit more welcome clarity throughout the spectrum, which made everything simply sound clearer and more distinct. It also sounded just a bit closer to neutral to my ears, as it had more treble quantity and less-boosted mid-bass. Finally, the MT220 also exuded a more powerful sub-bass (30 to 50 Hz), which ultimately made it sound more authoritative.
- TH-X00 (amped by Solstice and Gilmore Lite | R70x amped by Valhalla 2)
In response to a question asked by another Head-Fier, I wrote a TH-X00 versus R70x comparison in one of the large R70x threads on Head-Fi: http://www.head-fi.org/t/765004/audio-technica-ath-r70x-in-depth-review-impressions/840#post_12412738
For those who haven’t heard any of the above headphones, I’d describe the R70x as a headphone that sounds like a headphone—that is, it doesn’t try to pull off anything like a speaker-like soundstage, and the music is simply placed directly around you, close enough that you could virtually reach out and almost grab it if it were live, but not so close that it’d be uncomfortable (like the AD2K). I consider it firmly a headphone for either of two camps: (1) the camp seeking a supremely natural-sounding tonality and relative neutrality for use with predominantly acoustic instrumental music such as classical & jazz, or (2) the camp seeking a supremely headbang-worthy headphone for rocking out to rock, metal, and/or electronica. To that point, Tool’s “Parabola,” Porcupine Tree’s “.3,” and Megadeth’s new “Fatal Illusion” all sounded absolutely awesome on the R70x, mostly because of how it drove the bass guitar.
To list what I view as the primary pros & cons, in as best order as I can place them (with the major ones at the top and the minor ones at the bottom):
+ Extremely light-weight
+ Comfortable to wear for long listening sessions and during the summer months due to the velour pads
+ Powerful and thick bass/mid-bass extremely capable of giving a hefty & heavy-handed presence to instruments like bass guitar and synthesized bass
+ High amount of instrumental texture & tactility
+ Very cohesive, integrated imaging that doesn’t lose the proverbial forest for the trees (in contrast to something like the Sennheiser HD800, for example, which IMO does lose the forest for the trees)
+ Sonic spectrum that nicely covers the full range from treble to low bass
+ Sort of a modern spiritual successor to the Grado HP1000 for fans of that headphone
- Severe lack of clarity throughout the spectrum
- High lack of distinction between multiple instruments/elements operating in the same frequency band
- Tendency to merge musical elements on increasingly-complex music
- Moderate lack of upper treble quantity
- Excessive blunting of percussive impacts to the point that impacts sound rounded-off and not sharp
- Moderate lack of musical dynamics—constrained from mezzo-piano (mp) to forte (f)
- Masking of low-level background noise like analog tape hiss (like on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”)
- Unable to accurately capture variance in room acoustics
- Unable to capture a sense of reverberation
Based on the amps that I was able to try with the R70x, I’d highly recommend using it with a high-voltage amp with a high output impedance setting, like an OTL tube amp. The Schiit Valhalla 2 was the best amp pairing by far, as it maximized the R70x’s pros and minimized its cons. The biggest positive differences the Valhalla 2 made for the R70x included solidifying the bass and making it feel truly “earthmoving” and hard-hitting, enhancing texture & tactility, and adding some clarity throughout the spectrum. However, not even the Valhalla 2 really made any of the R70x’s cons go away, and although it did improve the clarity, it didn’t improve it enough for the R70x to sound acceptably clear and distinct.
The Garage1217 amps weren’t bad, but I wouldn’t really call any of them ideal, even with their adjustable output resistance. They were good at propping up the R70x’s pros but none of them minimized the cons as much as the Valhalla 2 did, and unlike the Valhalla 2, did nothing to help with improving the clarity. While the Garage1217 amps would be acceptable solutions for those who need a versatile amp to handle a variety of headphones that includes the R70x, I recommend another amp specifically for the R70x if budget allows, or specifically an OTL tube amp for those whose collections consist of solely high-impedance headphones.
Gaming & Movies
Equipment setup for gaming & movies varied according to the headphones being used. The Schiit Bifrost 4490 was connected via USB to bypass the internal sound card and then to the listed amp as needed:
- Garage1217 Project Solstice w/ 6SN7 for the K712
- HeadAmp Gilmore Lite for the TH-X00 and MT220
- Schiit Valhalla 2 (high gain to enable high output impedance) for the R70x
Game audio on the R70x sounded acceptably ok, but it was also fairly obviously not at the level of the other headphones that I also had. In the FPS games I played, gunfire sounded considerably muffled compared to the MT220, TH-X00, and K712, and lacked a sharp & quick report as well, which made machine guns and sniper-type rifles sound especially dull. On top of that, explosions didn’t sound very boomy on the R70x, and it also lacked the capability to make thuds and other impact booms sound convincingly heavy. In contrast, this “boom factor” wasn’t a problem on any of the other three headphones (note that the K712 needs to be properly amped for full bass response, though).
The R70x further negatively affected game audio by effectively making every virtual environment sound like a small soundproofed room spatially & acoustically. Of course this wasn’t a problem with indoor environments, but in outdoor environments, the background ambient effects (like wind noise, bird tweets, chirping insects, etc.) weren’t spaced far away enough to sound like background ambience. Only the TH-X00 and K712 were able to make outdoor environments convincingly sound like being outside.
Finally, the R70x wasn’t very good at positioning either and was really only able to separate left enemy positions versus right, as it lacked the ability to position sound sources like they were directly in front of you. All three of the other headphones provided a better sense of direction on the left and right sides, as well as the front.
As far as movies went, the R70x’s best sonic trait was providing a very cohesive mix of the dialog, sound effects, and musical soundtrack so that none of them stuck out. But the spatial imaging on the K712 and TH-X00 allowed both of them to provide a more cinematic presentation and their clarity worked great to better hear everything going on in the mix, and the MT220 (my usual headphones) simply allowed me to hear more detail in background noises that went missing on the R70x.
The R70x certainly brought something new to the table when considered alongside the HD600 and K712, but I have to clarify that as being “new as in different,” and not really “new as in better.” Because unfortunately for the R70x, I ended up quite disappointed and unimpressed by it overall, as not only did the cons simply outweigh the pros for me, my cheaper Yamaha MT220 ended up being a near sonic equivalent.
I’m left somewhat hesitant to recommend the R70x even for those seeking either natural tonality or a headbang-worthy experience due to the various caveats, which is why I give it 2.5 stars. I feel like Audio-Technica could have made it sound so much better, and as it is, I don’t consider it an especially good value at its $350 MSRP. I think it would be a much better value at $250 or less.
- Source component: NAD T533 (DVD player) and Windows 7 desktop & laptop PCs as transports to Schiit Modi 2 Uber and Bifrost 4490 (via coaxial & USB, respectively)
- Analog interconnects: Emotiva X-Series RCA
- Headphone amplifiers: HeadAmp Gilmore Lite w/ DPS; Garage1217 Project Ember v2, Project Polaris, and Project Solstice; Schiit Audio Valhalla 2
- Comparison headphones: AKG K712; Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000 and ATH-MSR7; Beyerdynamic DT990 600 Ohm; Massdrop/Fostex TH-X00; Sennheiser HD600; Yamaha MT220
Evaluation Music CDs
Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
Dave Brubeck - Time Out [50th Anniversary Legacy Edition]
Devour the Day - S.O.A.R
In Flames - The Jester Race
Infected Mushroom - Vicious Delicious
Julia Fischer - Bach Concertos
Lucius - Good Grief
Machine Head - Through The Ashes Of Empires
Massive Attack - Mezzanine
Medeski Martin & Wood - Uninvisible
Megadeth - Dystopia
Nickel Creek - A Dotted Line
Olafur Arnalds & Alice Sara Ott - The Chopin Project
Porcupine Tree - In Absentia
Periphery - Juggernaut: Alpha
Sierra Hull - Weighted Mind
The Crystal Method -Tweekend
Tool - Lateralus
Trifonic - Emergence
Evaluation PC Games
Black Hawk Down (DVD)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Blu-Ray)
Mad Max: Fury Road (Blu-Ray)