Audio Technica ATH-W100 first impressions
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halcyon

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READER BEWARE:

1. I'm not a headphone guru. I don't have wide and extensive knowledge of various headphones nor am I a golden eared audiophile (at least not yet >) )

2. What I describe is my personal experience with ATH-W100 headphones and reflects my opinion as of the time of writing. My opinions may and will quite probably change at least slightly as I gain in experience.

That being said, let's get to my review...

I had the distinct pleasure of auditioning Audio Technica ATH-W100 headphones for one and a half hours today at Staffhorst (Utrect) in the Netherlands. The pair in question was about two years old and from the looks of it used (i.e. demoed), but not beaten, scratched or overly used looking.

The associated gear was Arcam CD72 cd player and Arcam A75 amplifier, the headphone section of which I used to drive the aforementioned headphones. The headphone output impedance is rated at below 3 Ohms for the Arcam amp.

First the looks. They are quite beautiful and very big, almost colossal. They have swiveling headphone cups that turn c. 15 degrees to accomodate different headshapes.

The outer wood finishing is nice, wood grain clearly visible and wood parts matched between the cups.

The drivers are slightly angled so that they are not perfectly parallel to ears, but disperse sound slightly from in front of your ears.

Putting the headphones on is a much more pleasant experience than I anticipated. They feel quite light and do not press on my head and the self adjusting headband works almost perfectly on my head.

They exert no great pressure around the side of my ears and I could feel them dragging ever so slightly lower than my actual ear level, but this feeling was lost after couple of minutes of wearing them.

In short, they feel nice and comfortable. After 1,5 hours I felt slight hotness and I would not probably prefer to wear these (nor other closed headphones) for very long periods under hot and humid conditions.

Ok, how do they sound?

The first comment in my notes is: detail.

They sound as if they have a lot of detail in micro (texture, tonality changes) and macrodynamics (transient attacks).

However after a couple of minutes I feel as if they compress the sound a bit at certain frequencies. To be precise compression is not the right word, but lets say that the audible effect is somewhat akin to that.

The sense of some frequencies being more louder than 'natural' (we all have our reference for this, mine is good loudspeakers and live unamplified performance) is probably partially due to the phones NOT being diffuse field equalized.

Closely miked recording will not necessarily feel most at home with these cans, but recordings done from far with mics gearing more towards omnidirectionality fare much better.

This is a philosophical point and I don't think there is an exact right or wrong, but I think that at this stage I prefer diffuse field phones more _in general_. Keep that in mind with rest of my comments.

So, nothing bad to say about the phone yet, just the fact that it does not sound like DF equalized.

The next on my list is soundstage. The soundstage feels quite natural, although there seems to be (to me) a slight gap when transitioning from far left to center and then back to far right again.

In this sense the soundstage is not totally coherent, but still remarkably good.

The actual stage forms quite a lot inside my head and even the angled drivers cannot give me personally a great sense of outside my head directionality.

What the headspace does however is separate phase problems remarkably well. Out of absolute phase recordings will sound like coming slightly behind your ears, while the best in-phase recordings will sound like coming slightly from in front of you (only very slightly so). The rest of the recordings fall in between, so usually you'd have a soundstage inside your head.

In soundstage I feel there is another factor that feels a tad artificial and not quite there, although sometimes pleasantly euphonic: increased reverbation.

A very dry and close miked recording feels like it was recorded in a less dry room. A normal in-room acoustic recording feels as if recorded in a room that was a bit more live than it originally was (or so I feel). The notes will decay slower and give you more sense of surrounding space, which can feel pleasant. However, even thought this effect is slight, I feel it was a bit unnatural, although not unpleasant during my short audition. Like I said, euphonic.

Then the dynamics. These phones are quite dynamic and even scary on some good recordings (you can strike out all hyper-compressed 3 dB-worth-of-headroom-crap-pop-recordings out of your test list if you want to test their dynamics).

Good acoustic orchestral recordings can be scary at times. Modern hyper-compressed (as in dynamic, not psychoacoustic compression) music will sound hard and tiresome. At least to me personally. Of course it may sound energetic and groovy to others, but I don't think I could listen to badly recorded stuff on these headphones for longer periods at a time.

How about the highs and the bass, I hear you cry?

Well, to put it simply, the highs are glorious and airy.

Absolutely not fatigue to me personally, no stingy or grainy flavour with the equipment used, just highs that seem to go on forever and play very sweetly.

Triangles sound like triangles and hi-hats will have a distinct and correct natural attack.

No complaints about the highs from me.

The bass however, I must say, was lacking in one attribute: lowest extension.

The bass did NOT feel overbearing, nor did it feel overly mid-bass emphasized.

It was accurate, I could hear textures and it would decay fast enough for me not to sound smeared or boomy. Good bass until about 50 Hz.

After c. 50 Hz however, nothing much happens.

Of course, one should not expect much from a set of heaphones, even close ones (unless in-the-ear-canal type). Regardless, the lack of low extension was a disappointment.

I could turn up the volume just about as high as I could and not feel/hear a tiny amount of sound from the headphone with a bass note that had a center frequency of 40 Hz.

Other than that, the bass was good and good enough even for monitoring purpose (IMHO of course). Not overemphasized, not bloated, boomy or inaccurate. Pretty well-defined and in quite correct amount.

In summary I could say that I feel these phones are a tad hyperreal. Real, because they feel natural to wear and quite natural in their presentation, BUT still hyper so, because the way they are equalized. Some frequencies will be more emphasized than usual.

This will result in the "I'm getting much more detail from my records than ever before" effect for some people. This combined with the exceptional highs might even make some people's jaws drop. The bass will not do that though.

Taking off the phones about one and a half hours later I notice that the comfort level is still quite high, but the last compilation record of mostly badly recorded pop music (Aimee Mann, Massive Attack, Snuff, Primal Scream, MJ Blige, Radiohead, Talk Talk, etc) has caused my slight irritation of ears. I feel like not listening to anything but silence for a while.

Also, I find my notes say "trying to find that elusive 'correct' playback volume on many recordings". I kept going for louder volume and for lower volume on some tracks and not being fully content with what I heard.

Again, I think this is due to trying to find the correct volume (and hence the appropriate Fletcher-Munson loudness equalization curve) that would make these phones sound most balanced. With all tracks this was not possible, but this is IMHO a common failing of many headphones (and even many loudspeakers). As such, it's not a great minus in my list nor is any other nitpick on this long reviewish commentary of mine.

Would I have plunked down the 714 euros asked for this pair of headphones?

Only if the bass extension was a tiny bit lower, the reverbation a tad less evident and the sounstage slightly improved.

Would I buy these for 350 euros? Probably yes.

Am I interested in the upcoming W1000 with the advertised improved bass? Very much so.

As they are now, this is a very interesting, remarkably performing even if slightly peculiar set of headphones that is overpriced in most places in Europe for what I think I would get.

Please don't ask for direct comparisons to other headphones as I could not demo other phones with the same gear nor is my knowledge of other headphones very extensive.

EDIT:

The following music was used to audition these headphones:

Riley Lee: Moon Shadows (shakuhachi flute player with accompaniment, good harmonics test)

Eva Cassidy: Fields of Gold (female vocals with rawness, bad recording)

Urna: Chiwgaiin Shili (female vocals with really wide range, closely/dry miked with no processing)

Rebecca Pidgeon: Spanish Harlem (jazz/pop female vocals, excellent although a tad hyperreal recording)

Talk Talk: Ascension day (early 90's acoustic pop with studio processing)

Air: Lucky and unhappy (almost completely synthetic music, good bass test with the basslines)

Kodo: Bird Island (for pacing, dynamics and transients)

Zbigniew Presiner: Jardin D'Hiver (for acoustic space feeling, miked from far, triangles for note decay, very nice recording)

Murray Perahia: II Larghetto (piano reproduction, good recording)

Aaron Copland: Fanfare for the common man - Polytechnic Orchestra of HUT (overall church ambiance and soundstaging)

Aimee Mann: How Am I (badly recorded beautiful pop with lots of harmonic distortion from the guitar amplifier)

Lemon Jelly: In the Bath (electronic simplistic music with pure tones)

Massive Attack: Protection (decently recorded pop)

Radiohead: Everything in its right place (extremely harsh/digital and compressed and processed pop)

Primal Scream: Higher than the Sun (processed fake space soundstage from early 90's)

Snuff: untitled track (compressed melodic punk with shabby recording, but excellent energy)

Mary J Blige: I Love You (sample driven ascetic r'n'b with a decent bassline test)

Jonathan Elias: Movement I - Mery (acoustic space, male vocals)

Cantus: Let your Voice be heard (choir music with accompaniment, excellent recording, soundstage litmus test)

Sheffield Labs 'My Disc' (several test tones)

XLO recordings 'Test & Burn-in CD) (phase, soundstage gap, dynamics and acoustic music tests)


 
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puck

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nice review. damn!!! they are selling for 714 euro?! i got mine here in japan, after a few discounts, for around $200 u.s.!
 
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shivohum

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Quote:


The sense of some frequencies being more louder than 'natural'
...


Then the dynamics. These phones are quite dynamic and even scary on some good recordings
...

In soundstage I feel there is another factor that feels a tad artificial and not quite there, although sometimes pleasantly euphonic: increased reverbation.
...

The bass however, I must say, was lacking in one attribute: lowest extension.
...

...but the last compilation record of mostly badly recorded pop music (Aimee Mann, Massive Attack, Snuff, Primal Scream, MJ Blige, Radiohead, Talk Talk, etc) has caused my slight irritation of ears. I feel like not listening to anything but silence for a while.

Also, I find my notes say "trying to find that elusive 'correct' playback volume on many recordings". I kept going for louder volume and for lower volume on some tracks and not being fully content with what I heard.


This is one of the most insightful reviews of these headphones I've read. And all these bullseye comments after just one and a half hours... bravo!

Interesting that you were auditioning a two-year-old pair. They probably were broken in.
 
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Quote:

Originally posted by halcyon
In soundstage I feel there is another factor that feels a tad artificial and not quite there, although sometimes pleasantly euphonic: increased reverbation.


I noticed the "reverberation effect" as well, though I couldn't quite decide whether it was truly there. However, I think this reverberation, if it truly was there, did quite well for jazz and vocals, as I found this headphone very enjoyable for such genres of music. Symphonic music was also excellent. But I also attribute the reverberation effect to the fact that rock/pop music and some complicated passages sometimes lost coherence.
 
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Calanctus

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Nice review. I too admired the detail and dynamics but was a little less than satisfied with the bass extension of the W100. But for me the main problem was that there only seemed to be a very narrow range of acceptable volumes--a little too loud and the music was painful, too soft and it was DULL. That may have been because I listened to lots of electronic music with them--it may not have been well recorded, or maybe it had really compressed dynamics.
 
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Quite well done Halcyon!! Well written insighful review. Your experience with live recordings seems to have paid off when listening for things most of us never pay attention to.

I for one am now more interested in what changes AT made to their W1000. Hopefully they learned from the past and improved upon an already good product. Far too often someone comes out with a new release and it is the same or worse than the one prior. Let's hope for our sake that this is not the case.


Lord Bless Halcyon
 
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Quote:

I feel as if they compress the sound a bit at certain frequencies


i wonder if this isn't due to wood grain or "sound deadening" due to resonance at a certain frequency. i would think that they will sound better as they break in.

"...increased reverbation..." is this the "typical" closed can sound? perhaps the round cup is attributing to it.

"... I don't think I could listen to badly recorded stuff on these headphones for longer periods at a time." i would think that this is a sign of an accurate headphone. since it doesn't mask, veil, or overlap frequencies, the sound will come across as 'analytically' harsh. this is the bane we must live with. instead of "fuzzy" it is "sharp"; instead of "dull colour" it is "vibrant". instead of "out of focus" it is "pinpoint sharp".

what gendre of music do you think they do best with? you state that 'closed mike' recordings (vocals, violins?) may not sound good, while 'open mike' recordings (chamber, symphony, live?) should sound better.
 
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halcyon

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wallijonn: "i would think that they will sound better as they break in."

I think the pair was quite broken in. It had been played for two years in the shop already.


wallijonn: ' "...increased reverbation..." is this the "typical" closed can sound? perhaps the round cup is attributing to it.'

Well, reverbation is common to many closed cans according to reviews, so it could well be attributable to that. I don't have enough of experience with so many closed cans to comment further.

wallijonn: "i would think that this is a sign of an accurate headphone. since it doesn't mask, veil, or overlap frequencies, the sound will come across as 'analytically' harsh."

That is one way of looking at it and I'd tend to agree with you.

However, as the phone is not (AFAIK) diffuse field equalized you must understand that studio recordings will sound very different from when compared to listening the via loudspeakers.

As almost all recordings are mixed and mastered using either loudspeakers and/or diffuse field studio type headphones, one could go as far as to argue that the presentation these phones give is not what the mixer intended.

wallijonn: ' this is the bane we must live with. instead of "fuzzy" it is "sharp"; instead of "dull colour" it is "vibrant". instead of "out of focus" it is "pinpoint sharp".'

You are now using my exact textbook definition for hyperreal


In my experience, real life concerts are not pin point sharp, transients don't drill through your brain nor is the placement of instruments accurate to a millimeter.

That's hyperreal presentation that gives you that kind of information. Some really live and tonally certain way equalized phones do that (IMHO).

Is it real? Is it natural? Well, who cares if the person enjoys it


I'm not convinced that I'm a hyperreal person myself. Some people are and I think both sides are equally right.


wallijonn: "what gendre of music do you think they do best with? you state that 'closed mike' recordings (vocals, violins?) may not sound good, while 'open mike' recordings (chamber, symphony, live?) should sound better."

Yes. With dry studio recordings that do not have any sort of performance room equalization (i.e reverbation caused by the room) the sound can become artificially hard in tone (equalisation) and oddly reverbant in its timber (i.e. reverbation). But this is a minor nit-pick and I don't think it's bad enough to cause people not to consider these phones. It's just a personal preference of mine.

With best regards,
Halcyon
 
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shivohum

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Halcyon, how do you compare the W100 to your 590s? Which would you prefer? Have you heard the 600, by the way? If so, what did you think?
 
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halcyon

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shivohum,

you ask a hard question. Again HD590 (and HD600) are diffuse field equalized and sound more "natural" to me. HD590 just has more treble energy and to some, less emphasis on mid-bass. They are not very much apart according to many, but I've yet to audition them extensively on the same gear head-to-head, so I'll refrain from further comments.

I also couldn't audition HD600/HD590 vs W100 on the same gear so I'm going out on a limb here. In general I'd repeat what others have said here earlier: W100 is more lievely (more akin to my Grado SR-60 sound) than the aforementioned HDs, but more refined IMHO. Both HDs have better bass and to me, more natural upper mid frequency balance. W100 highs are best of the bunch as I've heard them.

To put that in more words than that is beyond my current experience and way to express the differences.

I really suggest you hear any Audio Technica W-series phone for yourself and similarly HD600 or HD590. It'll tell much more than any rambling I manage to do.

cheers,
Halcy

PS If I could only own one... I don't know... perhaps HD600. At least at the moment. Changing the amp and source (and HD600 cables) might change or reinforce my views.
 
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Nice job, halcyon.

Much of what you said is very consistent with what I hear from my W100. But keep in mind that a demo unit has possibly lived a hard and inscrutable life. While it might have been sitting in the shop for the past two years, it has as much chance of being overdriven as it has to have been sitting unconnected. The ARCAM stuff is not readily available in the US, and some of what you heard might be from the source and amp I wish you could have been able to listen via several sources and amps.

But all in all, as I've said before, anyone contemplating spending about $300 USD should listen to these and the Senns. Both imperfect, of course, but both very nice in their own ways.
 
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any head-fi'ers in the phoenix area who have the senn600 or a100ti, or a900 or w100? i'd like to compare the ad10's to it. and then write up a review.
 
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Quote:

Originally posted by halcyon
Is it real? Is it natural? Well, who cares if the person enjoys it


I'm not convinced that I'm a hyperreal person myself. Some people are and I think both sides are equally right.



Halcyon,

I find your attitude quite refreshing here on this site. Far too often someone emotionally attached to thier cans/amp/cables or whatever reacts negatively to everything negative said about their favorite piece of gear and never stops to think that the other persons' opinion is valid. Far too ofter the synergy between gear is just not there, and therefore comes out sounding bad in the cans of choice the person has. Even peope who own 10+ cans, several amps, and different cables will tell you that certain cans sound better in certain system.

I own some Senn 600s that I want to sell and give the ATs a chance, and I would like to say thanks for this forthright review and your impressions of these cans!!! It is a help for me, and I'm sure others, in making a good decision in buying our next set of cans.
 
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