ATH-M50 Video Review:
Gear note: For this review I mostly used an Iphone4s connected to an iStreamer DAC connected to a pre-assembled Objective2 by JDS headphone amp. In some cases I used Foobar2000 on a desktop PC to play FLAC versions of the 320k CBR MP3's I use on the iPhone. Any significant differences are noted below. Based on use with the headphone amp and using the iPhone sans amp, the M50's efficiency is greater than average for this type of headphone. Testing with an iPod Nano (touchscreen variety) and average-volume tracks that are lower in volume than what Amazon or iTunes typically sells, I can still get volume 10 db or more above loud, and loud for me is pretty loud.
Getting to the sound first, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 could well be the bargain of the century based on price and performance. The sound is high fidelity, no question. The highs may sound a bit sharp or edgy on some material - my worst-case track for sibilants is Sidesaddle by Carousel (obtained in 2001) and while it's not great, it's actually listenable at a moderate volume. Of my 2000-plus tracks, the next worst is Tony Bennett's San Francisco, and that one I can play at normal volume. So overall I would say the highs will be fine for 98 percent of the people who buy the M50. Compared to my other headphones, the only one with better highs is the Shure 1840 which costs 4 times as much.
The mids are also very good, and whether anyone would perceive them as slightly forward or recessed will depend on the recording itself, since there is no significant midrange peak or dip that I can detect. In fact, I ran several test frequency sweeps from 20 hz to at least 16 khz (where the sound becomes faint), and the smoothness and lack of peaks or dips was impressive, even moreso given the price range of the M50. The overall signature compared to my Shure 1840 or my bass-reduced Philips L1 is more output in the area around 400-500 hz, but since some of my headphones (for example the Beyer DT1350) have even more output in that range comparatively, I can't say that it's an absolute plus or minus.
Then there's the bass. I'm waiting for the carriage to turn into a pumpkin so to speak, because the bass is much better than I expected. I remarked in another review that the Philips L1 has a near-perfect bass using some bass-reduction EQ, since it has a fairly large upper bass emphasis that masks some of the lower midrange and lower bass detail. In the case of the L1, with bass-reducer ON the bass is still stronger and better overall than any other remotely neutral headphone I've ever had. That was a surprise. The ATH M50 is also a surprise in a different way. The M50's bass doesn't need any reduction since it doesn't have any peaks or major emphasis that I hear, nor does it have any excess strength that masks any of the midrange or deep notes.
The M50's bass sounds similar to what most experts regard as neutral, but in the deep notes it seems a little stronger, meaning it has less rolloff than many of my other headphones. The response sounds full-up at 30 hz, down a few decibels at 20 hz, and faint but audible at 15 hz. The 15 and 20 hz tones are clearly fundamentals by the way - no mistaking that. My guess is that most people who like a good bottom end to their music will find the M50's bass to be quite satisfactory. Before purchasing, I looked at the response curves at HeadRoom and Innerfidelity. HeadRoom's curve showed a huge bass emphasis, and Innerfidelity's 2 curves showed a flatter bass. I'll go with Innerfidelity on this one. Perhaps HeadRoom's was measured with a much older model and the spec has since changed.
I don't know how many reviewers rate the overall sound quality of their headphones according to their price, but it's reasonable to assume that some of them do. I don't exactly do that, but I would like to point out that the lower the price of a hi-fi headphone the less likely that the drivers will be precisely matched, or that all of the samples of that headphone model will sound alike with very small variances. In the case of the M50, looking very close at the build quality and finish, it looks good enough to suggest that the drivers and other internals are probably spec'd very closely as well. With approximately 20 hours of play time so far, I don't hear any major changes in the sound. I expect it to settle eventually into something that sounds fairly neutral but with slightly stronger bass.
One other point about sound quality that's important but is rarely discussed is where reviewers report quality differences such as bass detail or bass quality - there are other factors such as bass strength that may skew those perceptions, so I'd advise people to compare different reviews and consider all of the factors and how they affect each other. One example is soundstage - the M50's seems to be significantly less than the Shure 940 which is a comparable closed headphone, but I suspect that the frequency response or signature is contributing to that impression, so it's not a clear-cut thing in my view.
The ATH-M50 is a circumaural (around the ear) closed-back headphone. The version I purchased is white and came with a single-sided coiled cord, which seems to be permanently attached. Normally I prefer straight cords, but this cord isn't getting in my way much, and on the bright side I won't be running over it with my chair like I do with other straight cords. The cord is 4mm thick and looks very durable. It terminates in a miniplug that also has a screw-on 6.35mm adapter. Construction is all plastic but the headband inside is spring steel and very flexible. Clamping force is typical for this type of headphone, but it's comfortable for me in spite of a fairly strong clamp. The earpads and headband padding are a soft plastic. There is a tendency for sweat to build up in the earcups, particularly in warm weather, so I would advise removing the headphone occasionally and wiping out any built-up moisture.
The M50 is a full-size headphone that many people would not want to use when walking around or engaged in most physical activity, but I took a long walk with it and found it comfortable with no tendency to move around on my head. A major plus for walkaround use is that the earcups can be pulled down and folded flat so you can actually wear it around your neck all day with no bother, as long as you're OK with tucking the cord into your pocket or whatever is handy. The M50 comes with a soft plastic carry pouch which would protect it from dust, but I would prefer a rigid compact carrycase for use in airline luggage etc. The M50's isolation is moderate - high frequencies are attenuated, but mids not that much.
Now that I've covered the basics and the sound, it's time to describe how the ATH-M50 sounds with a variety of music that's available on CD's or as high-quality downloads from Internet music stores. I've used the following examples in other reviews, so these will serve as good test tracks for this review and the results can also be compared to the results noted in the other reviews.
Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled very well by the M50.
Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound and particularly striking how the M50 reproduces the triangles, bells and other background instruments that are often obscured with other headphones that have limited high frequency response. Of special note for this headphone are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. It's a rare headphone that has such a strong, solid deep bass impact yet no significant mid or upper bass emphasis.
Blues Project - Caress Me Baby (1966): Rarely mentioned, but one of the greatest white blues recordings ever. The loud piercing guitar sound at 0:41 into the track is a good test for distortion or other problems. Handled well here.
Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled well by the M50.
Buffalo Springfield - Kind Woman (~1968): A Richie Furay song entirely, rarely mentioned, but one of the best sounding rock ballads ever. This will sound good on most headphones, but it's a special treat with the M50.
Cat Stevens - Morning Has Broken (early 70's): A near-perfect test for overall sound - this track will separate the best sounding headphones from the lesser quality types. Nothing specific, except that almost any deviation from perfect reproduction will stand out with this track.
Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the M50 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.
Def Leppard - Bringin' On The Heartbreak (1981): MTV goth/pop/metal at its best - good ambience and high energy - the better headphones will separate the details and make for a good experience. Lesser quality and the details tend to mush together.
J.S. Bach - E. Power Biggs Plays Bach in the Thomaskirche (~1970): Recorded on a tracker organ in East Germany, the tracks on this recording have the authentic baroque sound that Bach composed for, albeit the bellows are operated by motor today. The M50 plays the tones seamlessly through the upper limits of the organ, which cover nearly the full range of human hearing. Of special note are the pedal notes - tracker organs have low-pressure pipes and don't typically produce the kind of impact around 20-35 hz that modern organs do. A headphone that's lacking even a little in the low bass will sound especially bass-shy with this type of organ, but the M50 delivers the full experience of this music.
Jamming With Edward - It Hurts Me Too (1969): Intended originally as a test to fill studio down time and set recording levels etc., this was released a few years later for hardcore Rolling Stones fans. Although not as good technically in every aspect as the Chess studio recordings of 1964, and in spite of the non-serious vocals by Mick Jagger, this rates very high on my list of white blues recordings, and sounds absolutely delicious with the M50.
Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has some loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical on some headphones. The M50 provides very good reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in, for maximum detail effect.
Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch (~2009): Featured in The September Issue, this song has heavy overdub and will sound a bit muddy on some headphones.
Milt Jackson/Wes Montgomery - Delilah (Take 3) (1962): The vibraphone is heavily dependent on harmonics to sound right, and the M50 plays it superbly.
Pink Floyd/Dark Side of the Moon - Speak To Me (1973): Strong deep bass impacts will be heard and felt here.
Rolling Stones - Stray Cat Blues (1968): Dirty, gritty blues that very few white artists could match. On some headphones the vocals and guitar lack the edge and fall more-or-less flat. If you're a really good person, playing this song will probably make you feel nervous and uneasy.
Tony Bennett - I Left My Heart In San Francisco (1962): Frank Sinatra's favorite singer. Highest recommendation. With some of the best headphones, the sibilants on this recording are very strong, but they're not bad with the M50.