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Some Great Deals in Headphones: the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 and ATH-M35

03.30.11 @ 5:36PM Tags : , , , ,

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?

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  • Adrian Jans on 03.30.11 @ 6:25PM

    My favorite monitoring cans (and even general purpose too) are the Sennheiser HD-25 1′s (not the SP version, big difference in SQ despite similar look and name).
    They’re closed supra aural headphones (covers your ears, but don’t completely encase them). They are excellent at blocking outside sound. They have great separation and a very upfront sound, so its easy to isolate unwanted noise. The sound is overall pretty balanced, but they do lean towards the lower and mid ranges. They claim an impedance of 70 ohms, but they drive wonderfully with low power devices.
    Possibly best of all, they are as rugged as headphones get, I’ve had the same pair for just under 10 years, they have seen every kind of abuse, including having a car door slammed on the cable with cans themselves dragging along (not too far though) and they are only recently starting to give. $150 when I bought them, not always an easy find.

  • I can back you up on those M50′s. I’ve bought several pairs and recommended them to friends. I’m a composer/sound designer, and I appreciate the bass extension and precise detail. I use both the coiled version (I have them on my ears as I type this) and the straight-cable (for the recording booth). I mix through them a lot, and the isolation is great (especially for vocalists I’m recording who like to have their monitor mix really loud, which can create a lot of unwanted noise on recordings). Only downside is the leather pads on them can become brittle and cracked if exposed to moisture (which can be the case if the environment is warmer, since people are more likely to sweat).

    Either way, though, buy these headphones.

    ~Stu

  • You should also throw up this link as well.

    http://cgi.ebay.com/New-Sony-MDR-7506-7506-Studio-Monitor-Series-Headphones-/180636784234?pt=Other_MP3_Player_Accessories&hash=item2a0eca966a#ht_1615wt_907

    These are industry standard headphones that have been used for years, and a company in Hong Kong sells them for a great price. I have bought 3 pairs from this company for my Recording Studio/Audio Video Needs!

  • It’s a good thing that the used ones are so cheap…. lol.

  • Try the headphones from Superlux. http://www.superlux.com.tw/productKind.do?pdkid=3a182f85-9464-41bf-b4c7-d618102f84ac&level=2&lv0=1
    I bought the HD681 and for less the $20 I’m pretty excited about it

  • I own the Sennheiser HD 212Pro headphones. They are inexpensive (sort of) and I think they are pretty handy in studio but also in travel (it cuts out a lot of the ambient noise). Good headphones, I definitely recommend these headphones

  • I’ve got a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M40fs headphones and absolutely LOVE them. It seems like that $50-$60 price range is the sweet spot between cost and value; beyond that, you really start to see diminishing returns for the price you’re paying.

    IMO, anything over $100 on some cans is a little ridiculous, unless you’re recording professionally in a studio.

  • I don’t think the MDR7506 have a too high impedance for portable devices. They are comfortable and sound better than headphones costing 10 times more. and you can get them for $50 in ebay.

  • I have a pair of the M50s. I bought them after listening to several phones that were recommended by the audio guys at DVinfo and DVXuser. The M50s are comfortable and sound great. I use them from my MixPre, as well as my iPod, my macbook and occassionally my home theater amp.

  • dan jenkins on 03.31.11 @ 3:27PM

    I’ve had my M50′s for just about a year now and I love them. I bought them on a recommendation from one of the audio guys here at Disney and I love them. I am not an audiophile but these are the first piece of gear that have made me at all picky about sound. They are very comfortable to wear for long periods. I regularly have them on for hours at a time and have no complaints. The sound wonderful out of my desktop as well as my eee Slate. Well worth the money.

  • One headphone brand often overlooked when it comes to video applications is Grado. For the budget filmmater, a pair of SR-60i’s are great! At 32ohms, they can also be powered by most portable devices quite well. I originally got into Grado for music listening purposes, but have found them to be excellent for monitoring audio in the field as well as for mastering audio in post. One of my best purchases to date. Plus, they are quite easy to mod, if you want/need a special cord.

    Check ‘em out!
    http://www.amazon.com/Grado-Prestige-SR-60i-Padded-Headphones/dp/B0006DPMU4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1301600002&sr=8-1

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