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.
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.
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. ;-)
* 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
[*]Fairly balanced sound
[*]Very good build quality
[*]Pretty comfortable for a full-size headphone
[*]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.