Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Headphones


Berlin the Bear says, “Body-Shaking Bass!!!”

This is the sixth (and final) installment in my series about choosing Pareto-Optimal equipment to make archival digital copies of vinyl LP (long-playing) phonograph records. The first part (an overview) is here. Part 2 (Rega’s Planar 3 turntable package) is here. Part 3 (Graham Slee’s Revelation M phono stage) is here. Part 4 (a USB computer interface to handle analog-to-digital conversion) is here. Part 5 (software to make and edit a digital transfer of an analog LP) is here. This installment is about choosing headphones and monitoring loudspeakers for digitizing legacy media formats.

In much the same way that one cannot go wrong buying paint from Benjamin Moore (there probably are “better” paints; but, for most people and most uses, Benjamin Moore is the Pareto-Optimal choice), one cannot go wrong buying Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x headphones. Their virtues include (as far as I know) class-leading sound in their very affordable price tier (in Basic Black, $149 with free shipping from B&H Photo); closed-back earcup design for two-way sound isolation; comfort; and robust construction.

Part of my calculus is that for the limited purposes of ripping and editing an LP, headphones (or monitoring loudspeakers) that are good enough, will be good enough. For an elaboration of that, and other headphone options and loudspeaker options, please click on the jump link.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones.

If all you are going to do is to make a digital archival copy of an LP, then the resolving power and tonal accuracy of whatever it is you use for monitoring are not mission-critical. That’s because the essential sound is baked into your previous choices of turntable setup (but predominantly, your choice of phono cartridge), phono stage, and analog-to-digital converter.

A digital archival copy is ideally a “flat” or non-re-equalized copy, so the headphones or loudspeakers serve only to let you know what is going on as you drop the needle and make the transfer; it is not as though you need to making fine judgments about tonal balances.

However, if you are making a digital transfer of a non-RIAA phonorecord, you might have to equalize the playback curve by ear; so headphones that are of better-than-giveaway quality will be required. The same is the case when, despite the fact that you do have a phono stage with selectable bass boost and treble cut (such as the Graham Slee Revelation), you cannot find published the proper playback curve. Playing back an obscure-label 78rpm recording of minority-enthusiasm music (such as Cantorial singing), one often has little choice other than to set the playback curve by ear.

Audio-Technica’s M50 series has been a pro-audio consensus choice for more than a decade. I used my own pair of original M50s for location-live recording monitoring (and also some of the editing) on two commercially-released CDs: the Rhode Island chapter of the American Guild of Organists’ Pipes Rhode Island, and the First Baptist Church in America’s God Makes a Path. Furthermore, I recommended M50s in an article I wrote for Early Music America on location-live recording for classical musicians.

Which is all fine and good; but, please don’t read too much into any such endorsements. A famous recording studio might have a clutch of M50s on hand… but that may be in large part because at $150 a pair, nobody is going to get hugely upset if a pair gets sat upon (which the M50s well might survive anyway), or goes astray. Don’t get me wrong—the M50s are great—but they aren’t the ne plus ultra. Were that the case, Audio-Technica would not make headphones that cost more; but they do, such as the $699.00 a pair ATH-W1000Zs, which look really cool. So here’s a picture:

Audio-Technica ATH-W1000Z headphones.

Unusually for a premium headphone, the ATH-W1000Zs are a closed-back design. If you would prefer an open-back design, my go-to recommendation for a headphone upgrade is Sennheiser’s HD-600, which, at $389 from B&H Photo, is admittedly pricey, but not as pricey as the W1000Zs. The HD-600s’ huge earcups and velvet contact surfaces make them excellent for long listening or working sessions. They just lack the two-way sound isolation of closed-back headphones.

BTW, Audio-Technica’s M50 series has been such a fixture on the pro-audio and audiophile landscapes for so long, that a cottage industry has arisen offering earpad upgrades. No, I am not making that up. Your options run from velour memory-foam earpads at $25/pr. up to lambskin-leather memory-foam earpads at $60/pr.

My mention above of “Basic Black” for the M-50x is because the M-50x is available in White for a $20 upcharge, and in an admittedly handsome Matte Gray limited-edition finish for a $40 upcharge.

Moving on to monitoring loudspeakers, if you have a lot of money to spend and you want fatigue-free sound with the cachet of genuine BBC provenance, you can’t go wrong with Harbeth’s P3-ESR “shoebox” monitoring loudspeakers… but at a price of about $2000 the pair. The P3-ESRs exude made-in-the-UK quality, with genuine wood veneers and a naturalness to the midrange, especially on voices, that is best-in-class. (Not being self-powered, the P3ESRs require a stereo amplifier.)

Back here on earth, my experience has been that most affordable “prosumer” powered loudspeakers that purport to be of monitoring quality are unrefined in tonal quality, ranging from the merely peaky to the downright shreiky. A viable option comes from Audioengine, whose A5+ self-powered monitors are very listenable, are available from B&H Photo for $469 the pair, and which look very handsome in Bamboo. If $469 is too much, the A5+ is available in painted finishes for $399. And if $399 is too much, Audioengine’s A2+ is rather tiny, but it can fill a room with listenable sound, and at $249 is an excellent bargain. The A2+, by the way, has a USB input so you don’t have to get sound from your computer via its headphone jack.

Audioengine A5+ self-powered loudspeakers in Bamboo.

So, that’s a wrap! Any questions, please start the conversation by leaving a comment, all of which are moderated, so your inquiry will not be public.

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