The Neoteric Listener and the
Audio Technica A900x
The last time I truly immersed myself within the spell of headphones, I was sitting in a Mexican hammock, grooving to Seals and Croft's "Ruby and Billy Lee,” and letting the music play its enticing Baha'i song At thirteen, sweet harmonies and tuneful mandolins are pretty good articles of faith, especially when the pop star icons on the album cover are the mellowest proselytizers I've ever heard. So, ignorant of any real understanding other than that promised by long hair and Art Nouveau beards, I turned up the volume knobs on my Sharp two-way stereo and was off and running on a Persian-inspired spiritual quest, all courtesy of the broadminded folks at Warner Bros. Records.
Sadly, the days of music-inspired reveries have not passed this way again, and headphones have largely been relegated to work outs and guitar practice. I tried to get back into the game, even acquiring a pair of Beyerdynamic T1s, but I'm apparently the one in a million who can't wear them comfortably for any length of time. This was especially disappointing, as they are exceptionally fine sounding headphones. Since then, I've been to countless trade shows and audiophile events, trying wares of every size and price, but I can never find the voice that enchants or the slipper that fits. A comfortable headphone is definitely at the top of my list because I don't need six inch stiletto heels for the ears, no matter how sexy they look in the ad. On the other hand, if a headphone's sound is boring or irritating, the ear-pads can be as soothing as a pair of mini sensory deprivation tanks, but I'm still not shelling out good money for them. Happily, the Audio Technica A900x closed-back dynamic headphones have arrived to offer a fine balance of comfort and good sound at a reasonable price.
The ATH-A900x's 3D "Wing Support Housing" is designed to reduce vibrations and provide sufficient support for long-term wearing. I found the "pleather" (a type of synthetic leather) ear-pads and aluminum headphone housing to be light and pleasant. Not that I make a habit of estimating people's noggins, but I'd say that my head size is medium to slightly large. My ears, well, they measure somewhere between huge and pachyderm. Big flappers run in the family; even so, the ATH's managed to fit everything in snugly and comfortably. The headphones fit nicely under the ears, which is of special importance to me, as I'm very sensitive to anything pressing on that particular pressure point. Those with smaller heads or who prefer a tighter grip might not like the fit, but I had no problem listening for several hours at a time without any impulse to remove them. Believe me, that is not my norm. Most of my listening was either via the CEntrance DACmini PX review model or my CEntrance DACport, and both had no problem driving the A900x's (rated sensitivity of 101dB/mW and Impedance of 40 ohms). It was my review of the CEntrance Audiophile Desktop, in fact, that got me thinking about returning to headphones in the first place. The DACmini PX is not content being a fine DAC and power amplifier; it also likes to show off by being a killer headphone amp too. The DACmini PX is absolutely noise-free, which makes it really revealing of any headphone's sonic qualities. The ATH-A900x, therefore, is characterized by a very balanced sound throughout the frequency range, so the CENtrance/Audio-Technica pairing produces a remarkably musical experience largely absent of nagging sonic anomalies
As a rule, my preferences in a headphone are radically different from my expectations of a loudspeaker. Normally, when it comes to headphones, I don't mind sacrificing listener fatigue and euphonic warmth for an increased detail, because I'm the type who really enjoys digging in and hearing every single broken string or tape edit. I rarely sit for hours and hours with my headphones (but just wait until I retire--it'll be nothing but The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and Physical Graffiti for days!), so I like a sound that is lively and intense, if not exactly as balanced and natural as I prefer in a pair of loudspeakers. Which is why it came as some surprise how well the A900x's appealed to me, sonically. The large aperture 53 mm drivers reveal enough detail to do some audio sleuthing, but avoid the exaggerations in the upper mid-band and higher-frequencies that typically pass for "resolution." For example, the A900x's render the high ringing chimes of the synthesizer on "Good Morning" from Nora Jones's new album, Little Broken Hearts in fine clarity and musicality; with other headphones, this instrumentation could easily be a piercing distraction. Similarly, Emmy Verhey's sumptuous violin playing in Mozart's "Adagio in E Major for Violin and Orchestra, K. 261" (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Eduardo Marturet) loses none of its expressive force, because the A900x's work to produce the full tone, rather than reveal every aspect of the performance.
This even-handed approach continues in the lower frequencies, as evidenced by the funky bass work on Brian Bromberg's cover of Earth Wind and Fire's "Shining Star.” The very lowest notes may not be as explosively percussive as you find in headphones that load up the bass frequencies, but the ATH-A900x's "closed-back Double Air Damping System" ensure that the sliding grace notes and fretted harmonics find plenty of space and body to work their rhythmic groove in your earphones. While on the subject of space, this Audio-Technica model offers a wide, engaging soundstage that should appeal to those who enjoy the panoramic pyrotechnics that only headphones can offer. While there are any number of albums mixed like an auditory Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters bus ride, I prefer a favorite live album to gauge a headphone's soundstage skills. Spinning "I Miss You" by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes from Golden Gate Groove - The Sound of Philadelphia in San Francisco, the A900x's recreated enough of the leisurely gospel vibe in the Fairmont Hotel venue to make me turn my head to look for the folks shouting encouragements in the middle of the song. Vocals, too, benefit from a tonal balance that avoids the cloying midrange warmth so prominent (and so obvious) in many headphones at this price point. Instead, vocals are slightly forward, and thoroughly believable. The Audio-Technica's do not sport the wrap-around soundstage that sound so otherworldly with the right recordings, but neither do they suffer from the artificiality that often occurs when playing more straightforward mixes. If you're really into Hawkwind and the like, you may find the soundstage of the A900x's too staid for your magical mystery trips, but everything else should suit the taste of most.
At the end of many months of listening to the Audio-Technics A900x headphones, I am pleased to have found a pair of comfortable, enjoyable sounding headphones that fit within my budget. Are they as good as the Beyerdynamic T1 or the amazing Audeze LCD-3 (soon to be reviewed in these pages) or even Audio-Technica's own top of the line ATH-W5000? Of course not, but then, these models are as pricey as they are accomplished. Besides, nothing is as shifty as a headphone list price, and I've seen the A900x's on ad for as low as $240, which makes them a great value. Even at list price, their performance and comfort get two ears up from me. Recommended.
Audio Technica A900x Closed-Back Dynamic Headphones