Positive Feedback ISSUE 54
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
There's something to be said for keeping it simple. You'd think that's why we all find ourselves at Positive Feedback Online in the first place. After all, most of us would prefer a good two-channel integrated amp to a 7.1 surround receiver any day. Yet there's still a lot of overly complicated, blue-backlit nonsense out there, and a lot of us buy it because it's fun to play with, knowing full well we're idiots. I'll bet a lot of us also own Swiss-made, automatic chronographs when all we really need is a good Casio.
Audio-Technica's ATH-W5000 headphones are interesting because I can defend them either way. On the outside, they look anything but practical. The design brief must have called for a set of headphones crafted only from materials found in the cigar lounge of a really nice country club because they're a riot of fine wood and glove-soft leather. The resulting product stands out like a Fendi fur coat in Old Navy's sweatpants department. I wouldn't wear these on the subway or anywhere else you might potentially get your ass kicked or robbed, but they'd look really nice in a rich guy's den next to a stack of McIntosh. Naturally, they're packed in a snazzy flight case, comfortably nesting in a bed of red velour.
Inside however, there's no silly talk of maximum flux ports or thermonuclear high-frequency ohm blasters or any other grandiose trademarkable tripe. The engineering philosophy is easy to get behind: the best possible materials, employed in service of a sensible, proven design. That includes bespoke components designed specifically for the ATH-W5000 including 53mm neodymium drivers incorporating a magnetic circuit made from costly, fussy permendur alloy. I'm already getting bored so just Google for the rest of the specs. Point is, Audio-Technica hasn't reinvented a damn thing here and that turns out to be just fine.
Unsurprisingly, my initial impressions were of a luxurious sound—subtle, rich and deceptively effortless in the same way a luxury car doesn't let on how hard it's working to keep you comfy and safe. It actually took several days before I began to fully appreciate how articulate these are because they're just so easy to enjoy. The ultimate level of performance depends on partnering equipment but by the same token, you don't necessarily need to break the bank.
They're easy to drive. Just about any decent piece of home equipment with a built-in headphone jack will work. Driven directly by the cheapo home theater receiver in my living room, or the SACD player in my listening room, the sound was satisfying, revealing and listen-all-day pleasant. Most of the time, there was nothing to complain about except for a lack of ultimate background silence, congestion during complex passages and some high-frequency disorganization where cymbals, for example, sounded more like they were being thrown down the stairs than played.
Things got even better when I plugged them into the headphone jack of the superbly musical Marantz SA8004 SACD player (reviewed here). The sound quality went from pleasant and satisfying to compelling by virtue of the Marantz's enhanced resolution, confidence and ease. Inserting various headphone amps in between was interesting. One entry-level amp actually sounded worse—very slightly noisier, notably flatter and tonally gray. Another more expensive two-box unit, with a tube output, opened up the sound a bit but blurred the overall focus, rounding the edges too much. As with most high-end headphones, finding the right amp to match your taste could potentially be challenging and costly if you want to get nuts. Not for me though; I'll skip the amp entirely and just plug them right into that Marantz SA8004.
At their best, the ATH-W5000 are fast like a low-output moving coil. Attack and decay are excellent, and potentially exceptional with the right partnering equipment, yet the focus here is more on conveying musical flow, tone and texture. Paired with suitably quiet gear, notes burst onto the soundstage like paint splashed on a pure white canvas, and the colors didn't bleed. Instruments that congeal with lesser headphones are clearly delineated here. In other words, they do what an expensive pair of headphones should.
Surprisingly for a closed-back design, the soundstage was almost as big as my open-back Sennheisers. The added micro detail better specified imaging and more believably grounded the instruments in the performance space. This is as close to a convincing stereo image as you are likely to get in this type of design. The added isolation, though nowhere near as dramatic as you'll find with noise canceling headphones, was useful even around the house. It's up to you whether it's worth sacrificing that last degree of spaciousness in the bargain.
There are a few things to complain about. The self-adjusting headband is a clever touch that should make fitting easy for 95% of potential buyers. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. If you've got a really small head or a really fat one, don't count on these to fit like a glove. In my case—that of the pencil-neck geek—the tops of the earpieces sealed better than the bottoms. Eventually, the padding softened up to create a perfect seal but the pressure was never quite evenly distributed. They were pretty comfortable anyway..
Occasionally, I noticed an odd character to the sound. It might be, say, a horn or a clarinet or vocal that had some extra zing or ringiness to it. I couldn't tell if it was some kind of resonance or a characteristic of the drivers or maybe just something to do with the fact that sound pressure has nowhere to go inside a sealed enclosure. When I say this was minor, I mean really, really minor and infrequent, certainly nothing that would stop you from enjoying them unless heavy medication is part of your daily routine.
Yes, Audio-Technica's ATH-W5000 are conspicuously luxurious. Perhaps plastic and microfiber could have accomplished the same job as wood and leather at less cost. Even so, they're made mostly from materials found in nature so in that sense they're refreshingly simple and certainly high in quality. If you like that, you'll probably like how they sound. And why wouldn't you? This is a conventional closed-back headphone, made from the best stuff and solidly crafted. Like a French chef frying a farm fresh egg, there's very little that could have gone wrong.
Packing these up for their return trip to Audio-Technica, I noticed the word raffinato is silk screened onto the earpieces. According to the Interweb, that's Italian for 'refined.' I guess it ain't braggin' if it's true. Stay classy, Audio-Technica. Ed Kobesky
Unfortunately, the matching AT-HA5000 headphone amp is for the Japanese home market only.