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Hardware Review Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Circumaural Studio Monitor Headphones

Discussion in 'Speakers' started by Doug Hess, Mar 25, 2013.

  1. Doug Hess

    Doug Hess HW Reviewer
    HW Reviewer

    Feb 11, 2013
    Likes Received:
    Doug: Hi, my name is Doug.
    Support group: Hi, Doug.
    Doug: I’ve been trying really hard to not buy any new headphones this year. I did really well for a few months, but then I fell off the wagon and bought two within a few weeks of each other. My therapist says I’m looking for openness and clarity in my life. I don’t know, but I always think that this time will be the last. This time I’ll get the perfect ones that will stop this obsession.

    Like so many people these days, my day job involves working in a cube farm. There are days I feel like so much corporate veal. There are some advantages to this kind of work environment, like having a conversation anytime, and disadvantages, like hearing other peoples’ conversations all the time. In an environment like this, the next best thing to an office door is a good pair of headphones.

    Most of the people around me are perfectly content to use the earbuds that came with their iPods or free with a fill-up at the 7-11, but not us. You and I can’t do that, and we understand that it’s both a gift and a curse that we can tell the difference and that we care about that difference.

    But shopping for headphones poses problems shopping for other audio components doesn’t. There’s no store near me that has a wide variety of headphones I can try on and evaluate with my music before I buy. And besides, if you had the opportunity to try out a communal set of earbuds, would you do it? I’m going to go with no.

    So, this has led me to buy a number of headphones over the years. Those sound good but they’re uncomfortable. These are comfortable but they don’t sound very good and they give you “headband hair.” There’s always a tradeoff, it seems, and so the quest for the perfect headphones becomes a Sisyphean task.

    Oh, and did I mention that I’m cheap?

    I’ve heard some of the best headphones made, and I appreciate them all, but as with most of us, price is a factor. Sure, one could (very convincingly) argue that in the long run I would have spent less money if I’d just gone ahead and bought the Grado PS1000s to start. But where’s the fun in that?

    My latest throw at perfection-on-a-budget comes in the form of the Audio-Technica ATH-M50s, a pair of large, around-the-ear monitors that make you look like you should be doing something very important and very technical while wearing them. These have made lots and lots of “Best Headphones for Under $XXX” lists, so I guess it was just a matter of time till they found their way to my head.

    The release
    First, let’s unbox them. They really do come in a box, not a clamshell, which is actually kind of refreshing. That I didn’t have to use the Jaws of Life to free the headphones from some impenetrable packaging was a classy touch.

    Second, these things are big. Sure, I have a noggin large enough to keep several satellites in orbit around it, but not everyone does. I’ve included a picture of everyone’s favorite death-metal rocker Justin Bieber wearing a set so you can see how ridiculous these cans look on small mammals.

    The second thing you’ll notice is that they have a really long cord. It’s great for use at a console or plugging into a computer under your desk … or in another room. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the cord is 9.8 feet long. That makes them less than ideal for portable use. But would you really want to wear these while jogging anyway?

    When you buy a set of these, you’ll have a choice between a coiled cord or a straight one (the “S” in ATH-M50S). I chose the straight cord mainly because I know what happens to coiled cords with use and time.

    Finally there’s build quality and comfort, both of which are excellent. They don’t feel quite as sturdy (or as rigid) as the Dre Beats, but they don’t feel at all delicate, which is nice. They also fold up into a fairly compact package that fits into a genuine Naugahyde pouch, made from the hides of several adorable little naugas, presumably.

    If I’m being honest, which does happen occasionally, I was a tiny bit disappointed that these only came with a pouch. My Klipsch Image One headphones came in a semi-rigid zipper case that I’ve found very usable and very handy.

    However, it’s hard to argue with the comfort. The pads are soft, the headband is secure, but not tight, and the ear cups fit nicely around my ears and, I suspect, the ears of anyone not Vulcan or from the Royal Family. My only concern is that you may find the headphones a tad warm with prolonged use.

    Sound quality
    The good news is that they do indeed sound good.

    [*]The midrange, the main course of the meal, is well represented and reasonably open--more open than in most closed-back headphones I’ve heard. Vocals, like my reference Jennifer Warnes track “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a lushly recorded number with forward and open vocals (and a slappy upright bass), hit all the marks and checked all the boxes.

    [*]The highs are clear but never harsh. Some might find them a bit soft and rolled off, but I think they strike a nice balance and are forgiving on less-than-perfect recordings. Pianist David Benoit’s Letters to Evan has a song called “Waiting for Love” with some of the most delicate cymbal work I’ve ever heard, and the ATH-M50s were appropriately delicate if not exactly sparkly.

    [*]The bass is … well, it’s powerful and deep. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s not omnipresent. The bass is there when it should be, not there when it shouldn’t, and vision-blurring when necessary. The worst thing I can say about it is that it is a tad exaggerated and not uber-tight. If we’re equating these to speakers, think 15-inch woofer, not a tight, clean mass-loaded 10-incher.

    In other words, they do pretty much everything competently. For the price--I paid $115--it’s pretty darned hard to argue.

    So why am I not thrilled? Why am I not out on a street corner with my Audio Steals sandwich board recommending these to every passerby? What do the very best headphones have that these don’t? Airiness. Space. A sense that you’re in a room listening to a great set of speakers.

    It’s not that these don’t do a great impression of a good set of speakers, they do. But they sound like you’re listening to them in a closet. A walk-in, perhaps, but a closet nonetheless. All of the ingredients are there, but the sum is somehow less than its components because it feels like Audio-Technica really wanted to cram big-speaker sound into a pair of headphones. Mission accomplished.

    But to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

    If all of this over-the-topness sounds great to you, I’ve found your next headphones, and they’re a bargain. They’re the stadium speakers in your bedroom you’ve always wanted.

    If you’re looking for something a little more balanced, and you’re okay with earbuds, I’d recommend the Klipsch* Image S4s or X1s, both of which are a steal at twice the price and give the sound a bit more room to breathe. They’re a little light on the bass compared to the Audio-Technicas, which is to say that they can’t loosen your fillings, but they’re so open I doubt you’ll notice for a couple months.

    If you want on-the-ear headphones, and you’re not corporate veal like me. I’d strongly recommend the Grado SR80s. They don’t block sound well--or at all, actually--but they’re comfortable, balanced, and oh-so airy.

    Look, it may sound like I’m not recommending the ATH-M50s, or even that I don’t like them. Not at all. But I’m a critic and this is a critique. If even no-compromise cars like Ferraris are imperfect, clearly more value-oriented cars like the Subaru BRZ have room for improvement. That doesn’t mean the Subaru isn’t a heck of a deal, and one hell of a fun ride.

    Am I returning the Audio-Technica ATH-M50s? Um, no. Frankly, there are times, when a pair of Altec Lansing Voice of the Theater speakers in a walk-in is just what the doctor ordered. ;-)



    Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Specs.png

    * For the record, I’ve never heard a pair of Klipsch speakers I liked, but their earbuds are a different story.

    Brand/Model: Audio-Technica ATH-M50
    List price: $199.00
    Street price: $120-$170
    Variations: Available with straight cord or coiled; colors: white, silver, black, red


    [*]Decent sound isolation for use at work
    [*]POWERFUL bass
    [*]Fairly balanced sound
    [*]Very good build quality
    [*]Pretty comfortable for a full-size headphone
    [*]Good value


    [*]Bass, while certainly competent, isn’t as tight as the best
    [*]The sound is a bit “canned” and not as airy as some alternatives
    [*]Sound isolation isn’t as good as some earbuds
    [*]Can get hot with long-term use


    [*]Do NOT eat pretzels while wearing these! It sounds like termites are eating your brain.
    [*]The substantial and very well padded headband WILL do some very interesting things to your hair. Just know that.
  2. Dave Upton

    Dave Upton Owner

    May 16, 2012
    Likes Received:
    Houston, TX
    Real Name:
    Dave Upton
    Thanks for the review Doug, good to see these looked at. My oldest pair of cans is a pair of ATH-A500's. Today - well I just upgraded to Beyerdynamic T 90's.
    Doug Hess likes this.
  3. mpompey

    mpompey HW Reviewer
    HW Reviewer

    Mar 17, 2009
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    Have you ever worn the Beats Studio Pros? How do these compare to those?

    I tried to wear those but their clamping force actually hurt my ears after about 30 mins. Not to mention the bass was WAY over powering. No granted for my Dubstep tracks, it was great. But when I'm trying to listen to Sade it was a bit much. I returned them. I tried a pair of Shure SRH940s, but they were lacking a bit in the low end so I returned them too. But man they were comfortable.
  4. Doug Hess

    Doug Hess HW Reviewer
    HW Reviewer

    Feb 11, 2013
    Likes Received:
    Thanks for the comment, M. I've listened to the Beats and was not impressed with the comfort, as you mentioned, or the sound. I found them to be muddy and . . . well, it's pretty hard to hear much beyond that. Like you, I found the bass to be just too much, by my 14-year-old nephew loves his as much as I loved my Izod shirts in the '80s, and probably for the same reason.

    Based on what it sounds like you're looking for, I'm willing to bet you'd like the ATH-M50s. They're a great value, and sound better than most in the price range. I'll leave all my other caveats in place. :)

  5. david rosen

    david rosen Guest

    an overview of the headphones!
  6. Clinton McClure

    Clinton McClure Casual Enthusiast

    Jun 28, 1999
    Likes Received:
    Central Arkansas
    Real Name:
    I'm a bit late to this thread but I have to mention the Audio Technica ATH-M30 headphones. Slightly less expensive than the M50s and sound about as good. I demoed a pair last fall at Guitar Center and loved them. Guitar Center listed the MSRP somewhere north of $100 but had them on sale for $60. I had looked at their website earlier in the day and saw the M30s as being on sale for $35. A quick check of the website still had them priced as such. When the clerk rang them up, they came up to a bit over $70 after tax so I had him look at their website. He called over his boss who looked at it, did some math in his head and decided the website was selling them for less money than they actually paid for them but he would go ahead and honor the online sale price of $35. I bought two pair. :D

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