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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Audiophile/Pro Review!
Audio Technica
Close-Back Headphones

Headphones for home recording and audiophile use

Price: $299/$249
Likes: accurate audio, price
Dislikes: MSR7's long-term comfort
Wow Factor: best buy HP's from AT
More Info: AT Headphones

 by Russ Long
   Audio Technica’s recently released ATH-M70x & ATH-MSR7 closed-back headphones are beautifully designed, competitively priced and sonically optimized for high-resolution music. This makes them good options for audiophiles, recording engineers and audio enthusiasts in need of a headphone upgrade or listening option. Both models have an input impedance of 35 ohms, a 5 Hz – 40 kHz frequency response and are equipped with proprietary 45-mm drivers.
  While both offer astounding sonic performance, they were designed for two separate markets. The rugged construction, protective carry case and 90° swiveling earpieces of the M70x (street price $299) perfectly suit the rigors of the studio or touring musician/engineer. In addition to listening for pleasure, this model is perfectly suited for mixing, tracking and other monitoring tasks. The MSR7 (street price $249.95) tailors to the discriminating, music-loving listener who greatly values a product’s aesthetics in addition to comfort and sound quality.
  I’ve been a fan of the ATH-M50 since they came out in 2009. The headphones have become a staple in recording studios around the world because of their quality sound, isolation, and durability. While the ATH-M70x, Audio Technica’s new flagship M-Series headphones, visually resembles the M50x (the current M50 model), it is, sonically, a different beast; in my opinion, it’s a significant improvement over the already wonderful M50x.

  The professional-niched M70x was designed for accurate, full-range audio monitoring (hi-res), but also does an impressive job of isolating the listener from outside noise. Since they are designed for pro use, they are designed to stand up to the rigors of daily use, either in the studio or on the road, and they are intended to be comfortable for hours of continuous use as well. The robust build means that the pro and audiophile buyers will have a headphone that lasts for years.
ATH-M70X impressively balanced for the money

  Like the M50x, the M70x comes in black and silver, but the M70x’s headband end pieces and earpiece mounts are metal — as opposed to plastic. This makes for a sleeker look, and I anticipate improved durability. The headphones include a robust, flat-black neoprene case that is imprinted with the Audio Technica logo.
  I spent a significant amount of time traveling with the M70x. The case alone is a strong selling point for the headphones. Included in the case is a small, black plastic pouch that contains three, high-quality, locking headphone cables: 1.2-meter and 3-meter straight cables that terminate into 3.5-mm plugs and a 1.2-meter coiled cable that extends to 3 meters and terminates into a 3.5-mm plug that is threaded to attach to the included 3.5-mm to quarter-inch adapter. Identical to the M50x cables, all three utilize a twist-lock connection that mates with the M70x’s left earpiece, eliminating the chance of the cable falling out or accidentally getting pulled out.
  In order to identify the headphones as a professional product rather than an iPhone accessory; the headphones don’t include a cable incorporating smartphone control.

 The M70x has a completely neutral, low-end response that is controlled, musical and well defined. High-frequency reproduction is also balanced and smooth.

Original M50 users (myself included) found that the headphone ear pads and headband had a tendency to shed after a few years. I’m happy to report that both the ear pads and the headband of the M70x are replaceable. (A-T says that the ATH-M50x has improved ear pad and headphone material, compared to the older ATH-M50).
  The M70x is extremely comfortable, even more so than the M50x. This appears to be primarily due to additional headband padding. The M70x’s ear pads are the same shape and size as the M50x and to me feel the same over my ears.
  Sonically, while my M50 has a slight bass boost, this is not the case with the M70x, which to me has a completely neutral, low-end response that is controlled, musical and well defined. High-frequency reproduction is also balanced and smooth. There does seem to be a bit of brightness that comes into play when listening at louder volumes, but the headphones are extremely smooth and natural at normal monitoring levels.

  The ATH-MSR7 has a look similar to the M70x but with an overall sleeker, attractive design; like the cool cousin. There are two color options: black and gunmetal. The pair I reviewed had the gun metal finish and they are gorgeous. Nearly every time I wore them in public, someone would ask me what kind of headphones they were. That has never happened with any other headphone I have worn. The MSR7’s ear-pad openings, at 40mm x 60mm, are slightly larger than average. The ear cups are more plushy padded than those found on the M70x which adds to their comfort.

ATH-MSR7: a favorite for hi-res portable listening
  I found the MSR7 to be much more forgiving headphone. Great sounding recordings sound great but not so great recordings are actually passable on the MSR7 — and will likely sound better than you’ve ever heard them before.
  The headband is fully covered by protein leather and is padded all over with additional padding where the band touches the head. After three or more hours of listening, this padding becomes somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe in future versions of the headphone, AT will incorporate memory foam into the headband. Cable connectivity is on the left earpiece, which incorporates a recess around the opening (5.9mm diameter by 2.6mm depth) but with no locking mechanism.

The MSR7 has amazing high-frequency reproduction — with an exceptional transient response and impressive imaging. Bass response is smooth and natural with natural articulation. As with the M70x, there is no extra bass hype.

  The cables include 1.2-meter and 3-meter straight cables and a 1.2-meter smartphone-compatible cable with in-line controls & mic. All three cables terminate into 3.5-mm plugs. The headphones include a padded drawstring bag and a 1/4" to 3.5-mm adapter. To accommodate storage in the bag, the headphone's earpieces rotate flat.
  Though not as effective as the M70x, the MSR7 does a reasonable job of isolating the listener from outside noise, and the MSR7 has amazing high-frequency reproduction with an exceptional transient response and impressive imaging. Bass response is smooth and natural with exceptional articulation. As with the M70x, there is no extra bass hype.
  Midrange response is clear and even and the high-frequency response is stunningly good. Honestly, the MSR7 is one of the few headphone in its price range that I’ve encountered that I would consider reference quality. I would consider reference quality.
  I did the bulk of my listening through a TEAC HA-P90SD hi-res player and a Benchmark DAC-1, but I also spent ample time monitoring through an iPhone 6 and my MacBook Pro. As suspected, better-quality amplifiers yielded higher quality sound reproduction. I always preferred the sound of the HA-P90SD followed by the Benchmark DAC-1, but the iPhone and MacBook headphone amplifier had no problems reproducing good audio quality.

The audition
  After a 60-hour burn-in on both sets of headphones, I spent significant time auditioning both pairs of headphones while listening to my tried and true staple of reference material. This included Elton JohnGoodbye Yellow Brick Road, Pink FloydDark Side of the Moon, James TaylorJT, Before This World and Hourglass; Adele25, The BeatlesSgt. Pepper and Love, The Beach BoysPet Sounds, Fleetwood MacRumours, Daft Punk Random Access Memories, and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’— Paulus: Three Places of Enlightenment, Veil of Tears /Grand Concerto.
  I can’t emphasize enough how good the sonic quality is through these headphones — way above their price points. The M70x’s signature is more analytical — with an extreme amount of detail. This is the pair of headphones I’d select to use for professional work. They aren’t forgiving so you know exactly where you stand. If you are in a situation where you have to mix on headphones, the M70x won’t trick you into thinking your mix is finished before it actually is. Great sounding recordings are a pleasure to listen to on the M70x but poor sounding recordings sound bad.

The verdict
  In contrast, I found the MSR7 to be much more forgiving headphone. Great sounding recordings sound great but not so great recordings are actually passable on the MSR7 — and will likely sound better than you’ve ever heard them before. These are an ideal option for high-quality recreational listening and have quickly become my go-to headphone for hi-res on the go. 
  The Audio Technica ATH-M70x and the ATH-MSR7 both provide pristine sound reproduction, exceptional imaging and detail, and remarkable external noise reduction through the close-back design, all the while providing a comfortable listening experience. Although the ATH-M70X is a pro-marketed headphone, audiophile can easily obtain them via online resellers. Accuracy headphone buffs will be impressed by the ultra detail. But the ATH-MSR7 is a good choice as well. Especially for the on-the-go types who like their sonics real. You truly can’t go wrong with either model, and they both get the Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.
  An avid home theater and audiophile listener, Russ Long makes his living as a Nashville-based professional audio engineer, who has recorded hundreds of albums for various artists, including Grammy Award winner Sixpence None The Richer. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Audiophile Review!
Artisan Audio Nautical
Single-Driver Loudspeaker

Price: $1,795 (per pair)
Likes: great visual appeal, sound
Dislikes: need a sub for deep bass
Wow Factor: with tripods, you bet
More Info: Artisan Audio

by John Gatski
  At the 2015 Capital Audio Fest in Rockville, MD, I was perusing the various display rooms and found an interesting speaker company: Artisan Audio Electronics. This company based in North Carolina produces single-driver speakers, based on the Trinity Engine driver. What caught my eye, was the round, tripod-mounted Nautical Series. These speakers had an aesthetic appeal that was simultaneously high-end, attractive and space saving in their appearance. A minimalist kind of speaker that still commanded the room.
  I had the Artisan Audio crew play my Hi-Fiman portable, filled with hi-res music. And I sat down and listened for a few minutes. Wow! I was impressed. Nice articulation and phase coherence in this one driver design. There was not an abundant amount of 60 Hz and under bass, but i was intrigued by the ability to easily position the Nautical's on their tripods perches. The drivers had a well-proportioned midrange and a nice airy top end. Ultimately, the Artisan Audio crew let me take the Nautical's home and spend a few weeks for a full-fledged review.

  The Nautical consists of a 4-inch driver wrapped with either brown or black leather. It uses the original Trinity Engine Series single driver design, now termed the Alpair 7 Gen. 3. This high-performance, single driver has an advanced damping system. It is claimed to deliver a “near flat” response across its range. Useable frequency response in a box speaker design with this driver can achieve 40 Hz to 32 kHz frequency response with SPL in the mid-to-upper 85 dB range.
 The driver also employs a rear ring, clamped suspension system and a new torque loaded rear suspension (spider). Both of these components add pre-tension to the power-train. These features are said to improve linearity and damping on the moving components, which nets out a very clean delivery of mid/upper bass and the critical midrange frequencies.

A lot of sound from Alp7 Gen. 3 single-driver

 In the Nautical's — without subwoofer reinforcement — my measured low-end response was -3 dB at 70 Hz, with the speakers free standing in the room and about -5 dB at 60. Still enough bass to make it acceptably full range with acoustic instruments. Adding a subwoofer can get you as much bass as you want to augment these dandy tripod-mounted speakers (More on that later).
  According to Artisan Audio, the driver’s rear magnet cover can be removed. The cover's magnetic attraction keeps it attached to the main driver body. Simply pull it away from the driverʼs main body, no tools are needed to do this job. The ability to remove the cover helps speaker manufacturers who design shallow cabinets or wish to optimize internal box volumes. The performance change with the cover removed is small, so the installation choices for the end user is optimal. The frameʼs front cover is also made removable. This driver is used by several models in the Artisan Audio line, including a variety of its “box” speakers.

Love the natural-wood tripod option

  As implemented in the Nautical's, the Alpair 7 is installed in a cylinder and wrapped in leather. The bottom of the cylinder has bolt slots so it can be mounted on the tripod. Artisan Audio offers two tripod options. The costlier choice is a special, high-end, all-wood, nautical camera tripod, at $600 each. These really are quite attractive, and, to my eyes, showcase the Nautical’s in their best  visual light. Tripod option B is a pair of high-quality, painted-black tripods that are $300 for the pair. The lower-cost tripod is just as effective a mount as the high-end tripod and is half the price. However, I think the Nautical visual impression is at its most impressive via the wood tripods.
  It is easy to set up the Nautical's. Attach them to the top of the tripods and adjust the height level via the lock knobs on the tripod legs to where it corresponds best to your listening position.  The leather pouches can be filled with sand, which provides a stable, acoustically dead way to display.

The setup
  Initially, I installed the Nautical's upstairs in my main living room with real oak hardwood floors. I spread them 7 feet apart and listened to them at about 10 feet to the listener position. I set their height at ear height. The speakers were about six feet from side walls and six feet from the rear wall. Because the bass is minimal without a sub, I  eventually moved them to within a foot of the back wall to get as much linear bass out of the Nautical's as possible.  With my RTA and warble test tones, I had fairly tight response to 70 Hz, but it fell off quickly below that point.

Nautical closeup

   I ultimately brought a subwoofer, an Episode Triple 10, a great powered sub I reviewed a couple of years ago, featuring an active 10-inch driver and two passive radiators. The powered sub has a lot of features, including speaker hi-pass and adjustable crossover. I adapted it into the system via speaker output, setting the crossover at 80 Hz. That setup really made the Nautical's a full-range system. Artisan Audio said it is planning a matching subwoofer for the Nautical's, but so far nothing in the catalog.
  The primary playback system consisted of a Pass Labs X30.5 Class A Supersymmetry MOSFET amplifier, Benchmark DAC2-DX DAC/preamp with variable line output. and an Oppo BDP-105 universal player. I used Wireworld Eclipse cables for analog and speaker connections, and connected all the AC cable devices with Essential Sound Products Essence II Reference cables, all terminated into an Essence Reference II power strip.

The audition
  First, up was the one of my favorite acoustic guitar SACD’s, Gene Bertoncini Body and Soul, an open, detailed, nylon-string guitar album full of jazz standards — all done in DSD. I often use this recording to listen to a speaker’s dynamic range, timbral accuracy, etc. From the first note, I could tell the Nautical's were serious speakers. Great articulation on the guitar string plucks and imaging was very wide — with good front to back depth cues. Without the sub, the bass was a bit lean, but it still managed to have decent bottom end. When I set up the Episode sub, the extra bottom end bloom of Mr. Bertoncini’s acoustic got a bit more prominent, more like a full range classical should be.
  On the Tom Jung-recorded Warren Bernhardt — So Real SACD., another recording I use for reference. the Artisan Audio Nautical's projected the “So Real" cut with vibrant energy, a quick and spacious presentation of the drum cymbal sheen and Steinway piano. 

  On the Tom Jung-recorded Warren BernhardtSo Real SACD, another recording I use for reference. the Artisan Audio Nautical's projected the “So Real"cut with vibrant energy, a quick and spacious presentation of the drum cymbal sheen and Steinway piano. Unsubwoofered, the 4-inch round Natural’s, did not get all the electric bass or drum kit toms, but adding the Episode Triple 10 gave the full bottom spectrum of the recording. Shy-bass notwithstanding, this single driver is impressive in its precision of the upper bass, critical midrange and transient top-end character. And it sounds clean. The speakers are not the most sensitive, about 86 dB at 1 watt, 1 meter, but most amps will be able to power them to satisfying levels.
  For a vocal, I listened to Judy Collins' new hi-res recording Strangers Again. With the sub connected, the system really meshed. Ms. Collin's ageless voice sounded up front, yet smooth with no strident aberrations or excessive sibilance. Her co-vocalists and the impeccable hi-resolution recording, by noted pro engineer Alan Silverman, all made for a satisfying listening experience. Plus, as the music plays, you get to look at the classy, high-end  tripod speaker system well placed there in your room.

The verdict
  With all the “me-too” products in the hi-fi world, it is great to see that Artisan Audio has come out with atypical, single-driver speakers that can complete in a world of two-ways, three-ways and more exotic technologies, such as electrostatics and planars.
  By themselves, the Nautical's are not as full range as some of Artisan Audio’s other “box” speakers (I have one of the other models in for review), but the high-optioned tripod mount puts it in another category when it comes to its architectural appeal; they look really classy. The wife may be much more inclined to let you put ‘em in the living room. The whole system with the wooden tripods is about $3,000, but it is so cool looking!
  By themselves, the Nautical’s have a phase-accurate stereo image, a smooth midrange and present treble that is pretty accurate. On acoustic instruments, there is enough bass to listen to guitar, solo violin, spinet piano, horns, etc. If you combine it with a quality small sub that reaches down to 40 Hz, then you have a really cool-looking, great sounding speaker system. I am giving the  Nautical’s an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.
  John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via