Review: Living with the ATH W100
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shivohum

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It's been several months since my last review of the Audio Technica W100 (it's in the full reviews section). Although I haven't looked at the review since, I concluded in that review that I preferred my Sennheiser HD600, which I also still own, to the W100.

That review was written with a couple of hundred of hundred hours on the headphone. Since then I've burnt it in with well in excess of 500 or 600 hours more, and undoubtedly many more hours in listening with my trust JMT amp, Stan Warren modded Pioneer DV-333, and Music Hall MMF-2.1 turntable.

I've decided to write this review because, as I've owned the headphone, and considered its not-insignificant flaws, still there was something in me that didn't want to let go. I've also noticed in my listening patterns that although I have access to two excellent full-size headphones, I've wanted to spend the vast majority of my listening time on the W100s.

The fact is that since the headphone reached its 200-hour mark, I think it has changed appreciably. But much more significantly, I have changed. I have learned to better appreciate it, to place its flaws in context, and to savor its many subtle strengths. Unfortunately, it is quite tricky to distinguish between these two categories of change, so excuse me if I don't even bother, though I'll give my guesses.


In what ways has the W100 changed since the 200-hour mark?

First, it is a little mellower now than it was then. The slight edge it had then is reduced. That edge is still there, but I now blame 90% of any serious harshness or screechiness to the recording, and only fault the W100 10%. On some recordings the W100 seemed so screechy that I was getting a headache. At first I thought this was the headphone's fault. It was only when I tried the HD600 on the same recording and I found the same results that I saw where the problem really was.

Second, the wooden texture/resonance the headphone bestows on everything is again a difficult subject. There is no question that the effect is still there. In comparison to the HD600, the W100's sound is more diffuse, fuzzier, and has a certain slight sameness of texture. Of course some of this can be blamed on the positions in which each headphone places the listener. The W100 puts you closer to the stage than the HD600, so it's only natural that images should appear somewhat bigger and less focused. However, I still think that the wooden headcups contribute to an artificiality of texture. For example, in some orchestral passages the W100 can appear to be muddier

However, a big change is that I don't see this texture as nearly as big of a deal as I saw it before. It is there, but its significance is much smaller than I first thought. The coloration exists, yes, but I don't mind it anymore.

Third, the W100's macrodynamics have improved enormously since a few months ago. Listening to some nice musical soundtracks, like that of Ragtime, I see now that the powerful vocals that that seemed lame and deficient before now soar. The W100 is also very good with symphonic music now.

Fourth, and this is the important point: the W100s have developed an extraordinary eloquence of expression. What I mean by this is that notes flow into each other. I remember from one of Tomcat's comments that he compared it to a good SET amplifier. I can only agree. There is a certain space that leads from one note to another that good tube amplifier highlight and communicate. I think the W100 has genuinely phenomenal naturalness, microdynamics, and liquidity. I didn't see this before, but I see it clearly now.

At this point I am going to go through my favorite Chesky Ultimate Demonstration Disc (I think it's all I really listen to...
again and describe how the W100 sounds as compared to the Sennheiser 600.

For your information, I haven't looked at my previous review in at least two or three months, so it should be interesting. I will only examine my former review after I've written the following descriptions. I suspect that they will eviscerate my credibility on the merciless blade of inconsistency
.

System Used:
ATH W100
Sennheiser HD600
Stan Warren modded Pioneer DV-333 DVD player
Music Hall MMF-2.1 turntable

As for volume matching, I did the best I could, but if there was doubt I gave the HD600 the benefit of the volume.

Chesky Demonstration Disc

Track #1: Narrator's Voice

W100: Narrator's voice sounds close, dry. Can hear all nuances of pitch, pauses, and small variations in vocal volume well.

HD600: Voice sounds clearer, more focused, and also deeper. But the lower range of the voice sounds somehow separate from the mid-range of the voice, as if the lower part were some kind of artificial vibration. Excellent vocal variations in pauses and microdynamics, but tone sounds compressed.

The W100 voice is smoother and more flowing, and sounds "freer" somehow. Perhaps this is the result of superb microdynamics? However, the HD600 voice seems to be more tonally neutral.

Track #3: Rebecca Pidgeon "Spanish Harlem"

HD600: Deep bass at first, but a little fuzzy. Can clearly hear ambience and space around Rebecca's voice. Rebecca's voice is clear and sweet. Voice seems to me somewhat small and constricted. Superb imaging of instruments. Nice laid-back rhythm of music conveyed well. Shaker quite detailed; can hear seeds within shake well. Piano a little plasticky. Music on whole seems to lack a certain necessary edge, the edge, the zest of live music.

W100: Bass pluck much clearer than with HD600. Rebecca's voice seems barer, more exposed, more intimate, compelling. However, ambiance around voice not communicated as well. Violin has proper sheen. Shaker in fact more detailed than HD600. Piano transients better than HD600. Music seems more like individual instruments than with HD600 where it's more like a seamless continuum. Voice seems to get unnaturally loud near the end of song. Near the end of the track the loud, high-pitched piano notes are much cruder and less finessed than with the HD600.

Track #5: Sara K. "If I Could Sing Your Blues"

W100: Trumpet quite a good distance away. Voice three-dimensional; close your eyes and it pops out at you--effortless realism. Sara's voice aches with the pain and longing of the music. Clear, mellow guitar. Imaging and stage setup of instruments excellent. Drums seem to be a little weaker than they should be relative to the voice.

HD600: Trumpet stronger, more metallic, also excellent distances. Guitar is more blubbery. Sara's voice is plainer, lacks the solidity of the W100 voice. Sara's vocal tones don't seem to vary as freely as on the W100; gone are the beautiful tiny variations in pitch and that aching quality. Drums seem to be in better balance, though. Whole presentation seems a little watery and bland.

Track #9: Livingston Taylor "Grandma's Hands"

HD600: Snap of the fingers near the beginning has a good flesh and bone quality. The FEEL of the snap is FELT, as it should be. Livingston's voice properly deep. His accompaniment singers are arranged very well next to him. Livingston's voice soars when it should. But there's that watery blandness again. Am I sure this is not still track #5?

W100: Snap much more flesh and bone. I don't want to really write because the music compels my attention. Livingston's voice is perhaps not quite as consistently deep as the HD600, but he and the voices of his accompanists are absolutely barer and more natural, more tuneful, more soulful.

Track #11: Ana Caram "Correnteza"

W100: In this atmospheric piece, I feel like the instruments are a bit too close and this leads to the music being a little tenser than it should be. Chimes done beautifully. Violin very elegant, suggestive. Guitar decay could be a little better. Ana's voice is intimate.

HD600: Guitar is a more three-dimensional, and the entire ambiance is set better. Music is more relaxed, as it should be. Chimes done well. Ana's voice is clear and beautiful and more engaging than with the W100. Bird whistle sounds excellent. Overall song is richer, fresher, and clearer than with W100.

Track #15: Tyner McCoy "Ask Me Now"

HD600: Sax is clear, transients excellent. Edges of notes are a little fuzzy though, if that makes any sense. Sax carries tune beautifully. Conveys reverberation against back wall well.

W100: Sax seems to come out, is more transparent than with HD600. Notes are much more deliberate and sharper, background is blacker. You can hear the musician's mental effort. Keystrokes on sax are clearer. Reverberation against back wall is easily heard. Sheer character of instrument comes out better. Tune is sharp and very real.

Track #17: Monty Alexander "Sweet Georgia Brown" (I played this track louder than the others, because the narrator so recommended)

W100: Very exciting, flowing track. There is an openness to the sound, and an intensity. Piano notes are colorful. Drums all have proper texture. Trumpets are powerful but a little too edgy for my liking (although I'm not a trumpeter and am not sure just how edgy they are supposed to be!).

HD600: Sound is more focused; all the instruments are laid out better than with the W100. The music also sounds better controlled. Sound however is tamer and blander, but still pretty exciting and beautiful in absolute terms.

Track #19: Johnny Frigo "I Love Paris" (I also played this track louder than the others)

HD600: Drums sound a little chaotic, but violin melodies come out superb. Music flows well and is compelling. There is a simplicity and elegance to the sound.

W100: Violin sounds earthy and more nuanced. Drums sound very real. All the instruments are far closer so the whole picture is a little harder to sort out. The whole music has a human presence to it, and has an unprocessed feel to it, in a good way. There is an anarchy to the sound, but in exchange one feels like one is looking more deeply into the heart of the music and musicians. The excitement is raw here.

Track #21: Vivaldi "Flute Concerto in D"

W100: Flute is sweet, instruments are pretty well focused. Can easily hear air blowing through flute. Can imagine the smile on the face of the flute player as his flute sings the playful tune. Instruments have a lean, toned character. Instrument separation could be better.

HD600: Flute sounds colder, straighter, more rigid. A frosty breeze compared to the warm afternoon sunshine of the W100. Instruments are separated better here but seem a little metallic. Overall the notes do not flow as well here as with the W100

Track #23: Benjamin Britten "Festival Te Deum"

HD600: Can sense the vast and three-dimensional space; beautifully conveyed. Voices are solid and feel full of strength in reserve. But they do sound a bit fuzzy. Organ is melodic but I thought it would be more visceral. Voices are sweeping but lack some delicacy.

W100: Organ more visceral. Vast space also well portrayed. Voices immediately strike me as warmer, more flowing, more heart: one senses the bodies beneath the voices. Female voices are more female and male voices more male. More character all around. Choir sounds more like a set of distinct voices, and not just one voice. Definitely lacking some of the atmosphere and air of the HD600 though that gives the song the more ethereal quality appropriate to the venue (a cathedral).

Track #25: Igor Stravinsky "The Royal March" from "The Soldier's Tale"

W100: Horns clear and have bite as they should. Instruments clear and well-placed. Sound is open. Instruments have distinct character. Drums tight. Music flows and the music is beautiful.

HD600: Horns seem to have a little tighter bite. Instruments better separated. Sound is exceptionally clear. Cannot follow melody as easily as with W100, but still the song overall is excellent.

Conclusions:

I just looked over my former review, and, interestingly, my thoughts haven't really changed that much overall. Most of the qualities that I ascribed to each headphone stand, with the exception that I now think that the W100 is the generally more insightful headphone. Hrm.

At bottom, the W100 is an inconsistent headphone. It simply is! It has lots of ups and downs. It has tons of blemishes. It's as far from perfect as Hebrew is from Swahili. It's more colored than the HD600. But damn it, it's more fun to listen to than the HD600. What does that ultimately make it?
 
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Nick Dangerous

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Once again, I'd like to publicly thank you for lending these headphones to the attendees of the recent Dallas Head-Fi meeting. You de man!
 
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Shivohum: great review; very well composed and informative!!

I, too, have had my many, many caveats and ins and outs with the W100; it's a mysterious headphone. At one time I was sure that I wanted to sell it, but I soon realized that though with some music (rock songs particularly) it was deplorable, with the right genre of music it was unbelievable- and simply for the reason that it would be unbelievable with the right music was more than enough rationale for me to keep it.

Another thing that many take for granted (myself included) when they own this headphone is the great amount of detail it possesses (while still maintaining its smoothness). Tomcat mentioned this. The RS-1 in comparison seemed to be missing a bit of something; later I discovered it was detail.

One thing that your review has done is affirm my theory that it is truly psychological break-in that is most important with this headphone, probably having much less to do with the break-in of the headphone itself. And I wouldn't be surprised if you begin to dislike this headphone again for a while, then begin to like it again. 'Tis the mysterious nature of the W100 that accounts for such things . . .


Again, great review!
 
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Tomcat

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Quote:

Originally posted by shivohum
Music flows and the music is beautiful.


shivohum,
In the end, that's all that matters, isn't it? I am glad that the W100 has changed enough that you can enjoy your music with it. Or that you have learned to listen around its flaws. Who cares whether the girl speaks Hebrew or Swahili - as long as she speaks to you.
 
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taipeileviathan

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Quote:

Originally posted by Tomcat
shivohum,
... Who cares whether the girl speaks Hebrew or Swahili - as long as she speaks to you.


tomcat, that was beautiful. *sniff*...

i need a girl.

shivohum, that was truly an excellent review. i totally agree with everything u said, and i think the reason why i so fell in love with the w100's when i auditioned them at a hifi exhibit was cuz the music that was playing on them so complemented the quirks of the w100's. they gave out free demo cds at the door of the exhibit which included the track that they had played on the w100's, and even now when i hear that track thru my stax rig (tho now played on sb audigy, they were played on a quality sony source back in taipei), i shake my head softly as i reminisce on the soft intimacy of the w100's, like a beautiful swahili girl gently caressing ur ears.

i still need a girl.
and i also need w100's.
too bad chances for either are equally slim.
*sigh*
 
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