Audio-Technica ATH-M50X

The Audio-Technica ATH-M50X are DJ headphones reborn to better suit a mass audience. They’re big and chunky, sure, but they also offer some of the best sound you’ll find for around $150 (£113, AU$199).

But before you run to the store to start your career as an audio engineer-slash-DJ, there are just a few points to note: The Audio Technica ATH-M50X are simple wired headphones nor do they don’t have Bluetooth or active noise cancellation. 

Most importantly, though, they don’t aim for the ultra-balanced sound you might expect from a pair of headphones Audio-Technica calls “professional studio monitors” – they sound good, but they're not exactly neutral-sounding. That said, you probably wouldn’t want to mix an album on the Audio Technica ATH-M50X. 

But, if you're just in the market for a solid, fun and engaging pair of headphones with an involving soundstage, plenty of energy and powerful bass at a price you can actually afford, you can't do any better than these.

Design

The Audio Technica ATH-M50X bridge the divide between “professional” studio headphones and pairs designed to be plugged into your phone. They don’t look as smooth and petite as the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, but also won’t look as out of place as the Beyerdynamic DT770 if you wear them out in town. 

Their look won’t appeal to everyone, though. The Audio Technica ATH-M50X have a very chunky headband, with a thick hinged part where the cups attach. Compare them to the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 and they seem almost industrial. 

However, this isn’t just an attempt at a bolshy style. They’re designed to be handled quite roughly, without even a slight threat of damage. The cups swivel around by 90 degrees and fold up right into the headband. Throw them against a wall or drop them from your desk and this movement will actually suck up quite a lot of the impact.

Being able to turn the cups around also allows easy one-ear monitoring – a nice feature for the budding DJs out there looking to enter into the world of professional audio products.

In terms of materials, the Audio Technica ATH-M50X are all-plastic aside from the band of metal inside the headband and a few little aluminium highlights. See the ring on the cups and the little silvery circles telling you whether the cup plays the left or right channel? These parts are metal. 

All the padding is synthetic leather, which is plastic. We’ve been using the Audio Technica ATH-M50X for a couple of years now, and in that time they’ve earned a few nicks to the pleather. That use case should speak to the durability of these headphones but, if you couldn't stand to see your headphones scuffed up, you can find replacements easily online – a nice benefit of this pair’s popularity. 

The Audio Technica ATH-M50X will heat up your ears after a while if you live in a hot area. Pleather pads and shallow cups are not a great combo for keeping ears cool. However, this is rarely a major problem in the UK, where we’ve been using the pair. 

Shallow cups are also an important part of why these headphones work well as a pair to wear on your way to work. Deep cups and a headband that sticks out from your head can make a full-size pair like this look silly, but the Audio Technica ATH-M50X stick to the contours of your head as closely as possible.

Features

A removable cable is one of the differences between the original ATH-M50 and the newer ATH-M50X. You get both short and long cables, letting them have a double life in and out of the home. There are three cables in the box, one for portable use and both coiled and straight longer cables for home listening.

The cables use a twist-to-lock mechanism, so you can’t just use any old 3.5mm cable – however, just like the pads, you can find replacements online. 

That is the start and end of the Audio Technica ATH-M50X’s special features. They don’t have wireless, active noise cancellation or an integrated DAC. There’s no in-line control on the shorter cable either, which is a shame. 

Without active noise cancellation, you're stuck with what little noise isolation the headphones themselves offer which, unfortunately, isn't much. Some other closed-back headphones do a much better job of blocking out noisy environments.

Performance

That said, if you're buying a pair of the ATH-M50X it's more than likely because you've heard on forums how wonderful their sound is. 

And, well, they are great fun, with lively and vivid sound that delivers music with heaps of energy. Like a lot of straight portable headphones, there’s extra punch and weight added to the bass. This doesn’t boom or very obviously skew the sound, but does mean the Audio Technica ATH-M50X are not the best choice if you want a neutral pair for a home studio. (The open-back AKG K701 are a better choice for that scenario. )

There’s also a bit of a boost in the higher parts of the mids. This gives them a brighter sound, even though they don’t have very pronounced output in the treble, which helps them largely avoid any challenging sibilance or harshness. 

The combo of powerful bass and zesty upper mids tells us the Audio Technica ATH-M50X have been tuned for impact, to impress. And, unlike many pairs that opt for this sort of approach, this one isn’t left with a yawning gulf of detail or texture in the lower mids. 

It’s a fun sound signature that even audiophiles should be able to appreciate.

Comparing the Audio Technica ATH-M50X with the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0, the Sennheisers sound much darker, the ATs more lively and energetic. However, the Sennheiser approach pays off in the sculpting of vocals. 

It gives us a more convincing picture of the tonal shape of a voice, where the Audio Technica ATH-M50X’s upper mids take a little too much focus away from the bulkier lower mids. It’s particularly noticeable when listening to lower-register male singers. 

The Sennheiser pair also has slightly better soundstage width, although the ATH-M50X still sound wide for a closed-back headphone. And the soundstage is deep too, providing them with a good sense of scale and an all-round engaging sound.

Ultimately, if you like predominantly electronic or other pulse-driven music, there’s very little to dislike about the Audio Technica ATH-M50X sound. 

It’s also worth considering how the headphone market has changed since the M50X arrived in 2014. We now see far fewer non-wireless headphones, and this has seen a dip in price of some classic models that have avoided being discontinued entirely. 

The Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 are actually one of the best examples. They launched at $349 (£279) but can now be found for £169 in the UK, and a somewhat less dramatic $249 in the US. 

The lesson? While this is a bad time for wired headphones, it’s not necessarily a bad time for finding a good deal on a pair. Conversely, as the Audio Technica ATH-M50X’s audience is less likely to be put off by a lack of techy features, its price has not changed substantially since launch. They were and are a good deal, but bargain hunters are likely too find deeper discounts elsewhere.

Verdict

If the thought of phones losing their 3.5mm sockets and just about all headphones going wireless makes you sigh, check out the Audio Technica ATH-M50X. They are classic headphones given just a little tweak to make them play nice with phones. 

Don’t buy them expecting the totally neutral sound of a studio monitor, but the Audio Technica ATH-M50X are great fun. They are lively, have an extra hit of bass and make for a particularly involving listen if you prefer electronic music to introspective singer-songwriters.  

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Andrew Williams

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