Review: Audio-Technica ATH-M50xSTS StreamSet
An instant workhorse that combines the M50x headphones and a 20 Series mic capsule.
Headset mics undeniably offer the best presence and intelligibility on a stream or conference call. Nothing beats that proximity to your mouth. The only downside is the aesthetic. If you’re on a Zoom call with business associates, then you’re always going to be mistaken for ‘that guy from the help desk’. Mind you, streamers don’t care. The headset look is the look.
Audio-Technica has done headsets for a long time, back when ‘streaming’ was a head cold symptom, and broadcast was the only market for such a product.
These days, Audio-Technica addresses the expanding streaming market, as does the other big headphone brands, including Sennheiser, AKG and Rode, but the real competition is probably coming from IT behemoths such as Logitech.
Audio-Technica has now married a mic mini-boom to a pair of its M50s. It was only a matter of time. The M50s (or M50x as the latest iterations are called) are industry staples. Like the NS10s of headphones, they’re mid priced and reliable — solidly built, with one of the most well known sound signatures in audio.
I’ve been sent the USB version of StreamSet (USB2.0 compliant, supporting up to 24-bit/96k). There’s an analogue XLR/minijack version that’ll plug into your audio interface, if you prefer. The USB version terminates in a USB-A connector and ships with a USB-C adapter. There are two earcup options: a fabric option built for comfort, and a leatherette version for superior isolation. The boom sits under the left earcup, and there’s no option to move it to the other side. The flexi boom pivots and can be bent to the desired position. Flip the boom up and you silently mute the mic. The mic itself uses an Audio-Technica 20 Series capsule. For monitoring your own voice you can depress a little swivel-switch on the left cup. Press is again to mute. Push the switch up and down to get more/less level. The closed back, 45mm-driver headphones adhere to a tried and tested M50 build quality. The set weighs in at 330g, and should remain comfortable on longer sessions.
The M50 headphones have been a studio staple for years. The reason for their success is largely down to a just-right Goldilocks combination of features: good enough audio quality for mixing, good enough isolation for tracking, good enough build quality to last for years, good enough price to not need to treat with kid gloves. The M50s are a great all-rounder and that’s the performance you get here in the StreamSet.
With the M50s being such a known quantity, let’s talk about the performance of the mic for a minute. That said, Audio-Technica’s 20 Series is hardly a mystery. The low-cost AT2020 condenser is one of the most popular microphones ever built and has helped launch the careers of countless recording engineers and musicians.
With the cardioid capsule sitting only about an inch from the mouth, the sound is super-present. The grille and assembly do an excellent job at resisting plosives, but placement is also important — keep the capsule just to the side of your mouth. The boom is very resistant to mechanical noise when you handle or accidentally tap it.
Consumers of video game Twitch streams know that exchanges and commentary can get rowdy. In fact, the sound of people screaming (resulting in crushing distortion) seems to be part of the sonic palette. There’s not a lot that can be done to completely preserve the signal when you vacillate from a hoarse whisper to Defcon 1 screaming, but the dynamic range of the StreamSet capsule means the headset won’t be the weak link in the signal chain that’s letting the team down.
NEED TO KNOW
Audio-Technica ATH-M50xSTS StreamSet
Streaming Headset Microphone
There’s not much mentioned in the documentation about the audio circuit and converter in the USB version of headset itself. I conducted a few quick recording tests (going straight into my DAW on a MacBook Pro), speaking from a whisper to all-out hollerin’. I was, frankly, amazed at how resistant it is to distortion. Even when screaming, the sound doesn’t break up, you just hear the on-board limiter working especially hard.
Looking at the frequency response of the recorded waveform, there’s no hard HPF rolloff of the low end; it’s full range. I guess I found this a bit surprising for the USB version, given the application. If you have the analogue version it’s easy enough to whack a filter on and it’s nice to have that option.
PRO GRADE STREAMING
With ‘M50x’ in the model name of this product I was convinced I was going to appreciate my time with StreamSet. It’s a workhorse. The USB version plugs straight into your computer and uses USB power to provide juice to the mic (the analogue version of StreamSet requires phantom power). Its 2m hard-wired lead is sturdy and if you’re jumping around in your chair there’s no mechanical noise induced by the lead or the boom. StreamSet feels right and looks well suited to extended use.
Gamers and streamers gravitate to what the pros use, so I’ve no doubt the ATH-M50xSTS StreamSet headphones will do well. Price won’t be a problem for streamers looking for quality. The Audio-Technica logo on the earcups tell their audience and colleagues that they’re serious about sound.
For others who enjoy a weekly virtual catchup with mates on XBox but aren’t dedicated streamers, the StreamSet still has a lot to recommend it. Here’s an exhortation: how we sound on web conference calls is becoming a real hallmark of how much we care about business communication. If you’re an audio person, sounding bad on a VC is a terrible look. I’ve been challenged by the StreamSet — it’s actually easy and convenient to sound present and pristine on a call. Ok, I’ll have to put up with the occasional Maccas Drive Thru/Dwight Yoakam/Tech Help jibe from colleagues but I’m okay with that. Bring it on!