Quick Review: Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBL Limited Edition Professional Monitor Headphones

When it comes to audio, I have an unashamed preference for Audio-Technica products. While some people criticize their sound signature as being overly analytic and cold (as opposed to warm), I find them generally nice to listen to. There’s no excess of bass, and while the midrange can be considered a little recessed in comparison to others, it’s still clear and the treble is present. In contrast, I find some other popular brands a little too warm and lacking treble definition.

It’s almost universally accepted by audiophiles that open headphones are the preferable type for the best sound. Unfortunately, most of my usage scenarios involve loud noises nearby, and cannot tolerate the sound-leakage of open headphones, so I have to resort to the closed type.

My long-time favourite was the ATH-A900‘s (since discontinued). Part of the ART Monitor series, for audiophiles, the headphones set me back about AU$280 five years ago. While it was a large and chunky headphone with 53mm drivers, its weight was no problem and it was very comfortable to wear. I was plenty happy with the presence of the highs, and a sufficient although not overwhelming amount of bass. The relatively low 40 ohm impedance allowed it to be used with most devices without necessitating a headphone amp. It was my daily headphone, used with my computer, and the benchmark by which most of my other headphones would be judged.

It worked well for the first three and a half years and by then, the included thin-pleather earpads had been reduced to shreds. After  replacing them with aftermarket “thick” pleather type earpads, a more serious problem emerged where I lost the audio in one side entirely.

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Unfortunately, due to the way the swivel joint was designed, the internal cable that links the earcups had slowly been worn through. A quick hack with some hook-up wire, solder, hot glue and electrical tape was devised and kept it going for a few more years, until one of the supporting wings had snapped off. By now, it was struggling to keep itself on my head – it was well and truly tired.

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Looking for a replacement, and taking advantage of the end of financial year sales all around the place, one of my friends alerted me to a sale at StoreDJ where the Audio-Technica M50x Limited Edition Blue headphones were on sale for AU$159.20. It was a good price, so I immediately pounced. The previous M50’s were coveted by many reviewers and users, and the M50x was a refresh of those with the main difference of swappable detachable cables.

As it featured smaller 45mm drivers, smaller cups and a lower price than my old A900’s, I was skeptical that it would impress me, but I remained open to persuasion. In just a few days, it arrived … so here are my quick unboxing pictures and thoughts.

Unboxing

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The Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBL headphones are packaged in a fairly large box that folds open, with the rear of the box covered in text which describes the features of the headphones and inclusions.

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Opening up the clam shows a protective piece of cardboard with the Audio-Technica logo … no need to worry about damage it seems.

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Underneath the piece of cardboard are the headphones themselves. Also look out for the included pouch and leaflets folded inside this piece of cardboard as well.

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The limited edition has a deep navy blue coloured body, offset with tan coloured synthetic pleather pads and headband and “bronze” accents on the earcups. It’s not a colour scheme that would appeal to all, but I find it a very welcome departure from the ordinary, and I quite like it. That being said, ordering a Black or White edition should give you the same performance.

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The big difference to the M50 is the inclusion of switchable, detachable twist-locking colour-matched cables. If you ordered the M50 previously, you were saddled with a 3m coiled cable. If you made it to order a special M50S, straight cable edition, you’re still somewhat stuck with the unwieldy 3.6m cable. This is perfectly fine when you’re using it at home for its intended purpose (i.e. monitoring or listening) but is a bit of a problem if you’re choosing to use it for portable audio.

The supply of different cables really helps – you have a 1.2m “regular length” straight cable to attach the headphones for portable audio use. Even the plug end is slightly “thinned” to get into cases and recessed jacks on consumer equipment. The coiled cable is 1.2m to 3.0m and is suitable for use when moving around to prevent slack cable lying about and is fitted with a twist lock 6.35mm gold-plated adapter. The adapter can be screwed onto the other 3.0m straight cable if you wish.

It’s a good thing all around – although chances are, you’ll probably like to use one cable as your favourite. The spares would come in handy in case you do manage to damage any of them. Interestingly, the headphone end of the connector terminates in a 2.5mm stereo jack, which is probably slightly less durable (so I wouldn’t recommend too much swapping leads).

The cables themselves are decently thick PVC covered cable, although it seems like they do remember their “coiled” position, making “straightening” them out a bit of a challenge.

The pleather pouch is a nice addition for those who like to travel with their headphones, and is a nice bonus for the price.

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There are a few leaflets included, most of which aren’t really important to consumers maybe except for the locking audio connector leaflet on the left. It’s imperative you insert the connectors the right way so that they mate properly, although locking them in is optional. You could theoretically benefit from the connector “unlocked” in case of a cable snag, thus saving the headphones from being ripped off your head towards the ground … but I’m not going to test that out.

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The cups on the headphones are rather impressive in the way the joints swivel. They can turn pretty much any way you can imagine, and it seems to be able to contort to angles which I can’t honestly find a good use for. There isn’t any noticeable creaking in the joints, which would be my major concern, but longevity will have to be tested the old fashioned way. The headband is a bit interesting – it has the brand printed on the outside in a hard material, while the inside part facing your head is nice and plushy. Interesting choice.

The two cups can extend outward from the headband to accommodate bigger heads. Even my big head was no issue for it, with room to spare. The clamping force isn’t anything too special – it felt comfortable, although a little less than snug. I wouldn’t want to go running with this on, although for home listening, it felt comfortable enough for extended listening sessions.

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The earcups themselves feature a nice durable-feeling thick pleather material. The depth of the earcups is not as deep as I expected, and the tip of my ears just makes light contact with the fine fabric inside. It doesn’t detract from the comfort, however. The earpads are circumaural and seals around the ears quite nicely. It’s shaped better for use as it’s not ridiculously round like the A900’s were or excessively bulky.

Subjective Thoughts

I suppose the important part of the headphones is how it sounds. After a few hours of listening to the headphones driven by my Asus Xonar Essence STX, I’d have to say that I absolutely love the way it sounds. After all, specs are just numbers on a page, and it’s quite common that specs for audio products are entirely meaningless.

Compared to my A900’s, the M50x has a much more pronounced bass presence without being bass heavy. It’s well balanced and extends a little lower than the A900’s where the bass is much less pronounced.

The biggest star is the highs. I thought the A900 had a decent amount of highs, but the M50x is unexpectedly better. Swapping between the two, it was chalk and cheese. The M50x has a sharpness to the highs that the A900 didn’t. Sounds of the strumming of guitar strings and fretboard sounds were sharp and clear, whereas they sounded a little hazier and subdued with the A900 (but still there). This is likely because the smaller driver (45mm vs 53mm) works better at reproducing highs, although you would expect the 53mm drivers to be better with the bass (although from my perspective, it was probably tuned back somewhat with the A900).

As a result, there is a drawback with some music where the sibilant sounds become enhanced to the point of being a little annoying. For example, Len – Steal my Sunshine is filled with a tonne of “esses” which jump out at you compared to most other headphones. However, listening to a variety of music proved this to be a minor issue, I enjoyed listening to my collection quite a lot – even attempting to sing along with it at one stage.

Like the other Audio-Technica headphones, the midrange does seem a little “recessed” compared to the highs and lows, in this one, it seems the transition between bass and mids is not as smooth as some others. However, this is purely from a subjective standpoint, and depending on your “expectations” and prior headphone experience, your opinions might differ. The vocals aren’t really obscured in any sense, and are still very clean.

After a two hour listening session, I didn’t have any feelings of wanting to take it off, however, it isn’t quite as comfortable as the A900s were. It felt a little warmer inside, but it did seal quite nicely and excluded the background noise to some extent.

Conclusion

While the colour scheme of the M50xBL might not appeal to all, the quality of the audio is nothing to complain about, especially when the price is considered. For audiophile gear, it’s not exactly pricey. In fact, this might become my new benchmark.

It’s a much sharper headphone with the highs than I could have imagined, and as a result, sibilant noises might become a little annoying, but it does let you clearly listen to the sound of the instruments. The lows are quite nicely extended and not overpowering, and although the mids are a little recessed, there’s no complaints overall and vocals come through nicely. It makes it easily recommendable as a headphone for those who want to listen to music in a noisy home, and have a budget of about AU$200. I can definitely understand why the M50’s had such a vocal fanbase after having owned the M50x.

There are no complaints about the comfort, and the low impedance also makes it suitable for portable players and less-beefy devices. If you don’t like the colour … maybe the Black or White edition would work better.

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One Response to Quick Review: Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBL Limited Edition Professional Monitor Headphones

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