Some Great Deals in Headphones: the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 and ATH-M35
I would be called an "audiophile" if I'd ever had enough money to actually buy top-quality audio equipment. In lieu of such funds, however, I'm often on the lookout for good deals in the audio world. And while I'm never going to spend $2,700 on a pair of headphones, if it were possible to get 50% as good sound for 5% of the price, I'd jump at that opportunity. So I went to B&H Photo to listen to dozens upon dozens of sets (unlike a lot of stores, B&H has many headphones -- maybe 50 in all -- plugged into the same source, with individual volume controls for each). After hours spent listening, here's what I discovered: the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 ($120) and ATH-M35 ($55) sound as good as headphones costing several times as much.
After listening to all of the headphones on display, I kept finding myself coming back to the ATs. I have a pretty critical ear, but to make sure I wasn't hearing things I also googled them on my phone and found nothing but overwhelmingly positive reviews. I also found that the headphones are cheaper at B&H than other stores, for whatever reason (current prices below).
Important specification: impedance
The M50 costs twice as much as the M35, so what separates the two? Listening to the two back-to-back, I couldn't tell much of a difference. I was ready, in fact, to buy the cheaper M35 until I looked at the specs: the M50 has a lower impedance than the M35 (38 vs 65 ohms), which means it's much better suited to listening to music from a portable player (iPod, iPhone, iPad, other kind of phone) or laptop. Portable sources don't have much power, and unless you're planning on attaching a separate headphone amp, you'll want some very sensitive headphones. A higher impedence means less sensitivity; my venerable Sony MDR-7506 headphones (which are somewhat of a standard on film sets), for example, sound pretty good plugged into my M-Audio Fast Track Pro, but sound lifeless when plugged into an iPod. This is because their impedence is 63 ohms, which in the world of full-size headphones is actually pretty sensitive -- but not sensitive enough for a mobile device. What this means is, if you go to a place like B&H and listen to a number of headphones, what you're hearing isn't necessarily what you'll get. B&H feeds the same audio signal to every headphone, which is great, but in order to so they're using multi-jack headphone amps, and as a result every headphone is getting plenty of power. This is why I liked the M35 in the store -- they were being fed plenty of power, and I wasn't able to discern the better sensitivity of the M50. Once you plug them into a portable player, however, you can hear the difference. This means the M50 is a better all-around headphone, with slightly better specs across the board (in addition to better sensitivity). However, if you're only planning on using your headphones with a powerful source, the M35 is hard to beat from a price/performance perspective.
You'll notice that the M50 comes in two versions: coiled cable and straight cable. It's a matter of personal preference, but as someone who gets annoyed by the extra weight of my coiled Sony cable constantly tugging at one side of my head, I went with the straight cable version. If you're going to be using these on set, however, you may want to think about the coiled version, as the straight cable is 10' long (which makes it great for being able to walk around a room, but not so great if that room is full of other people).
These ATs are definitely headphones that can be used for studio monitoring and audio mixing. While you shouldn't use a pair of headphones to do a final audio mix -- a pair of studio monitor speakers is almost always better -- headphones are helpful to use as one step of many while checking levels. But unlike some other professional headphones, I've found the ATs are very enjoyable to listen to music with (which is what I bought the M50 for, after reading a bunch of reviews from folks raving about their accurate music reproduction).
Closed vs. open headphones
These ATs "closed" headphones, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Advantages: there is little to no sound leakage, so other people in the room can't hear what you're listening to. Closed headphones do a much better job of sealing off outside noise, so if you're going to be listening in an environment with ambient noise, they're better for that. Disadvantages: the sound stage is smaller, making music sound a bit more "claustrophobic" as a result. Open headphones give a more dynamic, "open" sound (shockingly), which is great if you're listening in your own room or don't care if other people are forced to listen to the same thing as you. Also, you're less likely to get hit by a truck while listening to open headphones, though we're talking about full-size headphones here, not earbuds (which are generally more appropriate for travel/sports/commuting).
After listening to a number of open headphones, my pick was the Beyerdynamic DT990. They have a wonderfully musical sound to them, and for $300, they should. Beyerdynamic also make some "semi-open" and closed version that might sound equally as great (scroll down on the Amazon listing and you'll see them compared in a table), but I didn't get a chance to listen to the variants. The DTs sound terrific, but aren't as portable as the Audio-Technicas, and given I needed to be able to fold and pack headphones, the ATs won out. Plus the ATs cost a fraction of the price.
If you spring for any of these headphones, beware that headphones have a "burn-in" period, wherein their drivers are getting broken in. The sound of the headphones will often change over the first hundred hours of listening; many audiophiles will leave a pair of 'phones plugged in with constant music for a week before doing any sound analysis. So if you get yourself a pair and aren't blown away immediately by the sound quality, give it a month (or slightly less, depending on the return policy). I can say when first listening to my new pair of M50s that I found them to be a bit deficient in the midrange -- but after a few weeks they "opened up" and now they sound wonderful. Especially for the price.
Anyone have any experience with these Audio-Technica headphones, or have favorites of your own to share?