Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Along with the growth of portable audio since the emergence of the iPod, there's been a surge in the number of "high end" headphones brands and ranges in the hi-fi world. Home audio systems is another growth area where people living in smaller homes or apartments just can't or won't give up precious living space to conventional loudspeakers. The latter will always be negatively affected by room acoustics unless bulky and sometimes unsightly room treatment is invested in to negate these issues. Because of this, headphone only based systems are and have been becoming a viable alternative to boxy loudspeakers, particularly higher quality ones.
When it comes to high end headphones, names like HiFiMan, Audeze, Fostex, and Mr. Speakers spring to mind, along with some 'great pretenders' like Beats. There's also a few emerging from established loudspeaker manufacturers getting in on the act too, like Focal Utopias at £3,500. But what of the manufacturers who have been in audio since the year dot? These guys have a wealth of experience and have probably done much more research over time in order to create genuinely better products. Headphones seem a little like the trainer market nowadays - some names are cool, others not so, and you have to have the right headphones to appear cool. Cool is more synonymous with market share rather than quality though.
Audio Technica may not be a name one instantly thinks of when considering headphones, but they've been in the audio industry since 1962 producing phono cartridges, leading to the current state of the art ART-1000 moving coil cartridge. They've been making headphones since 1974, and microphones since 1985, so they know a thing or two about the intricate complexities of capturing and reproducing audio. The subject of this review is the £1,990 ATH-ADX5000 headphones, which so far have only seen the light of day at trade shows. I have the extremely fortunate and honourable pleasure of being able to review the only pair outside of Japan right now.
Despite a fair bit of metalwork being present, these bad boys are surprisingly light, which is mainly due to the main frame being constructed of magnesium. Weighing in at only 270 grams, they're quite light compared to many other high end headphones, which surprised me when I first picked them up at the Indulgence Show.
One aspect of the headphone's construction that differs to many others is that the driver unit is an integral part of the baffle that is then secured directly to the frame. This cuts down on multiple parts that introduce the possibility of unwanted vibrations that can change or colour the resulting sound. This certainly seems to have a benefit on the speed and attack they're capable of.
In fact, unlike many headphones, there's very little plastic to see - externally, everything is some type of metal or plush material, which give the headphones their deservedly luxury status. The baffle is glass fibre, which leaves very little than can be.
You can keep your carry pouches, wooden boxes, and soft cases, the ATH-ADX5000s come complete with a luxurious carry case - quite literally. I suppose it's only fitting that a luxury pair of headphones should come with their own luxury case, after all, you're going to want to look after them and keep them safe from harm. This case will certainly achieve that.
First up was Peace Orchestra's self titled album. The bassline on the second track, Meister Petz, is usually a bit here and there on virtually any speaker you care to listen to, but on the X5000s every single note, including the pretty low ones, was of the same volume and intensity. This is no doubt helped by the oversize 58mm driver, plus the the absence of room acoustics has its benefits too of course. In fact, I put them through their paces with several tracks I use for testing bass on large loudspeakers, and their depth and control was extremely impressive - something you'd have to pay a fortune for if trying to recreate with a loudspeaker based system.
I wanted to try something a little noisier and not so well produced, so out comes Audioslave's self titled album. I don't think I've ever heard so much detail in Cochise before. Ever. I don't know all the lyrics as they're usually quite hard to follow, but I was hearing virtually every single word Chris Cornell was singing through the X5000s, and this was at the same time as being able to hear everything else going on in the track. It's almost like the Audio Technica's are able to dissect the incoming music, separate out every single nuance, and present it in a way that I suppose is a little like a three or four way speaker is able to due to having dedicated drivers for specific frequency ranges. Despite this, they don't sound cold or sterile. They're highly analytical, but retain the "music". They have the positive characteristics that I hear in single driver, full range loudspeakers like the excellent Eclipse TD510Z.
With the Beastie Boys' jazz-funk instrumental album The In Sound From Way Out from 1996, the ADX5000s threw up a load of detail I've never heard before, in an acoustic space that I've not really heard from headphones before. It almost felt like I was in the room with them, able to "hear" the space, if you know what I mean. They have the transparency of any planar magnetic or electrostatic headphone I've ever heard, but with more attack and leading edge detail. On the track Pow, there's a short, quiet gap in the music where I've just heard the drummer Mike Diamond tapping his foot! The star of the Beastie Boys' show though is Son Of Neckbone, which really shows not only the level of detail on offer from the ATH-ADX5000s, but also their attack on the leading edge of instruments like drums and percussion. In fact, this is the album so far to show what they're capable of. This is just making me want to go through my whole digital collection, and I haven't even started on the hi-res stuff yet...
Dead Weather's album Sea Of Cowards is a rough and messy sounding album in typical Jack White/White Stripes fashion - fuzzy basslines, distorted guitars and vocals, but the combination of the Moon Neo 230HAD headphone amp and Audio Technica ATH-ADX5000s make sense of it all. This was one of the albums I enjoyed listening to the most, and before I knew it, the album had finished. I'm now intrigued to see how these sound with the Moon Neo 430HAD...
When we all think of a sound in our head that we want our music to sound like, this is the sort of sound I think of. Tight, dynamic, detailed, balanced, and a bit of aggression where it's needed. There's no tizziness to the treble, which is perfectly demonstrated by Bjork's Crystalline, from the album Biophilia, which also shows off their bass depth. There's no bass bloom, just control and texture. These headphones also passed my Boards Of Canada test with flying colours, which means they'll be coming home with me this weekend!
Neil Finn's first solo album, Try Whistling This is an album I usually use for assessing loudspeakers and systems in that it sounds quite messy and congested on lesser systems, but clear and precise on higher quality ones. Again, I'm hearing detail here I've never heard before, particularly the intricacies of bass lines and extra notes which I always thought were one when listening to most loudspeakers, and indeed, many headphones too. In fact, I'd struggle to justify many headphones around the £1,000-1,300 mark knowing these are available for a little more. I don't usually play the track Dream Date (on anything) off this album, but I was suckered in with what these headphones were doing, so much so that I just couldn't take them off to make the cup of tea that I so desperately needed.
As these headphones have a real sense of weight and impact, I thought I'd move along to a recording to test not only that, but also something that in places is ear piercingly harsh - one of my regular demo albums, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, something I've played to death via headphones. Don't get me wrong, I love Rick Rubin's production on this album as it feels quite raw and not sugar coated, but there are parts where you just have to turn the bugger down. The main offending track is Give It Away. I'm in love! Whilst it doesn't tame the inherent harshness in the guitars on this track (nothing can really), the track sounds fantastic - the snare drum sounds beautiful. It was with this album that I was able to sum up what I was hearing quite nicely - whatever I listen to on these sounds like it's been very well 'remastered'. You're able to follow layers of the music, particularly intricate cymbal work and bass lines, and quite a few times hear the size of the space in which the vocals were recorded, which was occasionally apparent on Rage Against The Machine's self titled album.
I was keen to move onto some hi-res material, so started off with Nine Inch Nails. Flicking through a few of their albums, the ADX5000s showed the production on Hesitation Marks to be nothing short of stunning, with nothing is left to your imagination. Hearing some of the tracks on this album just took me back to the live gig I attended a couple of years ago. I don't usually listen to this album very much as I find it a little "pale" compared to NIN's earlier catalogue, but hearing it on the Audio Technicas just made me want to listen to it - that's not something I've wanted to do so much since the initial anticipation for the album.
Since my review of the KEF LS50 Wireless loudspeakers, I've been able to get my hands on a 24/192 copy of Roger Waters' 2105 remaster of Amused To Death. The remastered CD sounds fantastic, but this hi-res copy is virtually perfect, and resulted in me playing the album from start to finish, despite me wanting to try so many other tracks. They also have a knack of making you want to move in some way whilst listening, whether just tapping your foot or going for a full, Neil Peart 'air drums' outburst.
Anyone looking for a snoozefest will need to look elsewhere, but those searching for an energetic, dynamic and informative performance really should audition these before committing to anything else at this price point, or even higher. In the same way that high quality loudspeakers need to be carefully matched with the accompanying amplification in order to recreate the sonic performance levels achieved by that product, high quality headphones like these are no different - these are going to need a very good headphone amplifier in order for them to sound this good. Luckily, I had that in the Moon Neo 230HAD - my Classe Sigma SSP was just a little soft and warm in the bass to match its performance.
Whilst I've heard some great headphones over the past 27 years in this industry (including Sennheiser Orpheus), none have ever really tempted me away from loudspeakers and into a headphone only based audio system for my own use.
The Audio Technica ATH-ADX5000 headphones were tested with a Moon Neo 230HAD headphone amplifier or Classe Sigma SSP fed via USB from an Innuos ZENith media server.
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