Audio-Technica M50X Headphones Review

Reviewing a classic in 2017, because why not?

Although I’ve written at length about Audio-Technica’s M50X headphones in the past, and created a ridiculously huge borderline-spoof comparison article featuring them…I’ve never properly reviewed them.

Until now!

This is the default shape I think of when I imagine “headphones.”

OVERVIEW

The Audio-Technica M50 was never meant to be a “popular” headphone.

It started out as a studio monitoring and mixing pair. It was created to compete with the likes of the Sony MDR-7506, with a classic, chunky design and a permanently-attached long straight or coiled cable. The sound signature had gentle bumps in it that were designed to help professionals do weird audio jobs, and that would probably be off-putting to the average user.

But then something happened. People on the internet started buying tons of them! And recommending them! And loving them to death!

So a couple of years ago, Audio-Technica responded by releasing the M50X. They added a removable cable system. They improved the ear pads. They tweaked the sound signature a little bit to make it closer to the Harman Target Response.

But at its core, it’s still a studio headphone.

Its lowest price used to be $150, but now that’s often its highest price. So it does represent a good value…assuming this is the sort of sound you want.

I love these. But you might hate them depending on your needs/tastes.

These are pretty easy to transport thanks to their folding mechanism. Some headphones that fold down like this require you to extend the headband adjustments a little bit first, but not the M50X! The result is a compact footprint when collapsed. They can still get profoundly huge when opened and should fit nearly every head size.

SOUND QUALITY

I like the sound of the M50X headphones, but many people hate them. The overall response is slightly “w-shaped”…with gentle peaks in the bass, midrange, and treble.

They have a slightly-north-of-neutral fun thumpy bass response, crisp mids that are borderline-harsh in the upper registers, and airy highs.

The energy in the upper mids and the slightly-sculpted bass response are the most hotly-debated parts of the sound. If you’ve never used an Audio-Technica headphone before, their strident energy in the top end can take a little time to adjust to. It’s definitely a signature that’s geared towards critical listening, or jazz/classical/acoustic music. It makes vocals and pop music sound just a touch grainy, thin, and artificial compared to warmer headphones.

I don’t mind this, or the energy in the bass, but both of these elements make it feel a little like the headphones are assaulting your ears with detail.

The soundstage is a bit thin in spite of the angled drivers, so that further contributes to this sensation of ear assault.

The overall quality and balance of the sound is quite good, but these little quirks make the M50X the definition of an acquired taste. They’re generally accepted to be neutral as far as headphones at this price go…but many people find them either too bassy or too bright, depending on their individual tastes.

I’m someone that likes the DT770, which has a similar sound signature but is even more aggressive at both the top and bottom end, so the M50X sounds pleasantly clean and detailed to me while still having enough bass for me to enjoy them on fun material. So that’s where I’m coming from, and where my personal biases rest.

If nothing else, the M50X is an excellent baseline starting point for “quality audio reproduction.” It reproduces music in a way that’s likely similar to the environment the music was mixed in, and will help you to decide where your own personal tastes lie. Its fidelity is high enough that you might be satisfied enough with its reproduction to never buy another pair of headphones…or it might be just the tip of the iceberg if you don’t love its w-shaped signature.

Also, these will play very loudly from just about any device, and their impedance is low enough that you don’t have to worry about an amp for the best quality.

The ear pad openings are just big enough to be considered over-ear, and they’ll feel intimate for most users. I don’t find them uncomfortable, and I don’t get a lot of contact with the back of my ears against the insides of the cups…but these have nowhere near the same level of ear space as the DT770’s or Sennheiser’s 500 series.

COMFORT/ISOLATION

These are acceptably comfy…as far as studio headphones go.

They’re reasonably balanced between the top of the head and the ear pad clamp. Both the ear pads and the headband pad use the least possible amount of padding to still feel okay. It feels like scientists studied this extensively, and went with the lowest amount of padding they could get away with.

These never disappear on your head. And nothing about them is particularly soft or inviting.

Both the ear cups and the headband adjustments offer such a wide range of movement that you shouldn’t have any trouble dialing in a perfect fit…but you’ll always notice that you’re wearing them thanks to their clamping force.

If you like having tons of space around your ears in an over-ear headphone…these are not for you. The drivers are angled, but the space inside the pads/cups is not that huge.

Isolation is average for a closed-back studio headphone. I think the DT770 isolates better, and is more comfy in the process.

I can wear these for hours without discomfort, so I guess that’s all you really need…but the comfort feels close to the baseline and not exceptional in any way.

This doofy picture of me wearing my M50X’s last year is *disturbingly high* in the Google Image search results for these headphones…so that’s interesting?

BUILD/DESIGN

The design of the M50X is many years old, now. Its ear cups and complex hinged headband recall other studio headphones from the 80’s and 90’s. They don’t stick out as far from the sides of the head as other models, and the detachable cable system is nice.

The only thing that sticks out from the chunky design are the weird chrome circles that have the R and L ear indicators on them. They’re weirdly prominent and out of place, in my opinion.

Build is good for the price. Most of the headphone is made out of decent plastic, with some metal reinforcement in the headband.

They look and feel like a pro tool that was hastily retrofitted into a consumer product…because that’s exactly what they are. If you want to see what happened when Audio-Technica spent some more time and further “consumer-ized” this headphone, you’ll want to check out the MSR7.

Here is the included bag! It’s much better than the bag that comes with the DT770’s, and thus not as amusing to me on a personal level.

FEATURES/EXTRAS

I wish other wired headphones came with this exact compliment of extras.

You get three different cables in the box, covering the three most common styles of cable in the world of wired headphones. There’s a 1.2 meter mobile straight cable, a 1.2 meter coiled cable that stretches to 3 meters, and a 3 meter straight cable. The coiled cable and 3 meter straight cable both have threads on the end for a screw-on 6.3mm adapter. You get one of those adapters in the box.

Also in the box is a totally fine padded leatherette bag. It puts the nylon bag that comes with the DT770s to absolute shame, and feels better than the bag that comes with Sony’s studio headphones as well.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Audio-Technica M50X is a good studio headphone with a decently-neutral response for the price that has some bumps designed to make them better for critical listening, and which often frustrate listeners. The X version has some awkward retrofits to make them more consumer-focused…and I think the attempt is mostly successful.

Not as successful as something like the Custom One Pro, but still…these will work in multiple use cases if you need them to.

I don’t think anyone at Audio-Technica ever expected these to become so popular. Or so polarizing.

It’s hard to deny their basic level of competent audio quality…and it’s easy to see why some people absolutely loathe different aspects about them. I still like them, a little over two years since I first listened to a pair. If push came to shove in some weird hypothetical scenario, I’d happily keep these as my only headphones thanks to their versatility and good audio.

But as far as this type of sound goes, I still slightly prefer the DT770’s. And the HRM-5 is still a more comfy, cheaper option.

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