For the first time ever, a pair of Audio-Technica headphones sport the ‘reference’ badge — but do they live up to the title?
When it comes to studio monitors, most of us know exactly what we want: clarity throughout the frequency range; a solid stereo image; neutral response; and good translation to the outside world. But what do we want from a pair of cans?
AT’s last couple of headphone reviews have cogitated over the difference between ‘accuracy’ and ‘listenability’. Their findings have shown these traits are not necessarily mutually exclusive, with new models often striking a balance between the two.
I can be somewhat fickle when it comes to headphones. Sometimes I do want to notice every squeak of a guitar string, or a vocalist’s every breath. But there are also times when I couldn’t care less about the details and would rather bask in an headphone’s un-flat, imperfect glory; where the bass goes doof, the highs sparkle, and the music is just fun to listen to.
So with that in mind, let’s don Audio-Technica’s first ever stab at reference headphones — the R70x.
The R70x’s all-black design isn’t ‘loud’, but it’ll still attract the odd sideways glance on public transport. The construction is lightweight and sturdy with a perforated, fixed-length metal headband. Aluminium honeycomb-mesh protects the drivers, while maintaining that open-back airiness. It’s a very comfortable pair of headphones — the soft circumaural pads provide a snug fit and the self-adjusting wing support system’s armatured pads feel (and look) like they’re cradling your head in a loving embrace.
On to the listening tests and it’s important to add that, given the high impedance (470Ω), you’d do well driving these cans with a good headphone amp. The sound stage is not particularly wide for open-back headphones; nevertheless an instrument’s placement in the stereo spread feels precise and definite. And as you’d expect, the unsealed drivers do terminally bleed audio so you wouldn’t use them for tracking duties.
The first thing to perk my ears up was the mildly suppressed high end that’s more akin to closed-backs. In fact, if I had to sum up the sound of the ATH R70x in one word, it would be, dare I say it, ‘warm’. I tend to subconsciously equate ‘reference headphones’ with a generous helping of treble, so this was a pleasant surprise and it helped avoid any ear-fatigue over extended listening periods. However as a result, there is perhaps a small sacrifice in detail and transient response above 10kHz. Bass is present and defined but not overbearing. Well-recorded vocal tracks present beautifully, without harsh sibilance or excessive thickness. My only niggle is that, after a while, I found myself craving a little more definition in the low-mids, more so when listening to dense mixes. On the whole though, the R70x sonic experience is very satisfying.
I asked a friend who knows little about pro audio to compare the R70x to AKG’s far more expensive K812 flagship open backs. After listening to a couple of songs on both, she felt like the K812 required ‘more concentration’ and ‘made everything separate’ whereas the R70x was ‘more relaxing ‘and ‘made everything stick together’.
And I’ve got to say, I agree. While the R70x is indeed a reference headphone, it does a great job at being easy to listen to. And if you’re looking for accuracy, it delivers in that department too. Solo acoustic guitar and orchestral tracks really brought out the detail — every picked string sounded lifelike and the lows were delightfully smooth.
So again, here’s the big question: What do you want from a pair of headphones? While many of us will reach for personal favourites when demanding either accuracy or listenability, it’s nice to have a faithful in-betweener that performs well on both fronts. And the Audio-Technica R70x fits the bill nicely.