Review: AudioTechnica ATH-AD900X

When I’m asked to pick my favorite headphones for S&V’s Editor’s Choice awards, it’s always easy. I just make a list of the ones I kept using after the review was done—the ones I listened to even when I didn’t have to. After our test of affordable audiophile headphones last year, the headphone I kept on using afterward was the AudioTechnica ATH-AD900. It’s a big, comfortable, spacious-sounding, tonally neutral open-back headphone. Just the thing for streaming Internet radio for hours while I’m writing, or to use for an all-night-long Netflix binge.

That’s why I was so happy to find a successor to the ATH-AD900 at the January CES show. The ATH-AD900X has the same list price, pretty much the same specs, and similar looks.

The company’s booth and press releases didn’t have a blow-by-blow list of the differences between the old and new models. But based on my memory of the original, it looks like the differences are fairly subtle. The 53mm drivers appear to be more angled, so they’re more on-axis with the listener’s ear canal. The grilles covering the backs of the drivers seem to be more open; you can easily see the drivers through them. The ear pads are similar, but if memory serves, they’re a little firmer than the ones on the original.

Just to recap the basics of the design: The ATH-AD900X is an open-back headphone, so it offers almost no isolation from external sound, and sound leaks out of the back of the ear pieces. Considering the headphone’s size, its lack of isolation, and the long 3.5-meter, non-detachable cable, it’s unlikely anyone will want to use it on the go. Instead of an adjustable band, it uses spring-loaded, padded “wings” to keep the earpads positioned over your ears. Most people find it comfortable enough, but my fellow Tech^2 blogger Geoff Morrison found the feel of the wings on his hairless scalp intolerable.

OK, let’s find out if the new one’s as good as the old … or maybe even better.

Open wide

I felt instantly at home when I put on the ATH-AD900X. It felt much like the original, and sounded much like the original. I heard that huge, open sound I loved before; it seemed less like listening to a headphone and more like listening to a pair of speakers in a room.

Drummer Manu Katché’s eponymous new CD on the ECM label is, of course, filled with intricate percussion work, and through the ATH-AD900X, it sounded---well, I don’t want to say “spectacular” or “dazzling,” because that would imply something artificial, so how about “rendered with lifelike detail”? There’s something about the feel of a drumstick on a ride cymbal that sounds palpable when you’re in the room with the drummer, and few audio devices can reproduce that feel, but the ATH-AD900X did. ECM’s trademark spacious sound came through much as it does with the best speakers I review for S&V.

I loved what the ATH-AD900X did with voices. It sounded neutral and natural except for just a touch of emphasis in the lower treble; I estimated a few dB of boost somewhere between 3 and 4 kHz. But it’s a subtle enough effect that it sounds to me like an enhancement rather than an overt coloration. I didn’t hear extra sibilance or spit, just extra detail and clearer pronunciation. If smooth is what you want, you won’t find it here, but in my experience most audiophiles—most listeners, perhaps—prefer a little bit of extra oomph in the lower treble to make the sound a bit more vivid. To the best of my recollection, the ATH-AD900 sounded a little smoother in the treble, but I think most people will prefer this sound. In fact, as I recall, some of our panelists found the ATH-AD900’s highs a little less than engaging.

This is definitely not a headphone for bassheads, but still, the bass seemed a little more prominent than in the original. It’s not the punchy bass you get with a lot of sealed-back headphones. It sounds more flat, and by “flat” I mean both “even in frequency response” and “not exciting.” Still, it was plenty to make the bass line in K-pop band Bigbang’s dancepop hit “Haru Haru” groove hard enough for me, and enough to keep that little boost in the highs from making the tonal balance sound thin.

You can even rock with the ATH-AD900X. While it doesn’t have enough bass, or enough kick in the bass, to earn it my first (or even 10th) recommendation for a rock-oriented listener, it played my favorite tracks from The Cult, Led Zeppelin, and ZZ Top pretty well—not sounding kick-ass, but never sounding thin, either.

The only other member of our West Coast listening panel I was able to run the ATH-AD900X by was jazz musician Will Huff. Will—who never got a chance to hear the ATH-AD900—found a lot to like in the ATH-AD900X, as well as a few things to dislike. “It’s a very airy sound,” he said. “Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ sounded like it was being performed in an outdoor venue. Which was pleasing, but I’m not sure I want to hear all music played that way. It sounds mid-heavy to me—the highs and lows don’t have much attack—but that made Stevie Nicks’ vocals stand out nicely.” He found that when he played the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” the ATH-AD900X’s big, spacious sound tended to make the vocals and instruments blur together somewhat.

Almost forgot: Unlike many audiophile-oriented headphones, the ATH-AD900X can easily be driven with anything. Sure, it’ll sound a little better with a good amp, but it sounded great running off my iPod touch, my MSI laptop, and my Samsung G3S, too.