Headphone Showdown: Audio-Technica M50X vs Pioneer DJ HRM-5

It’s Saturday, so it’s time for the headphone showdown!

Today, it’s one of the most popular headphones on the market versus a headphone I wasn’t even aware of until I found it in the dusty corner of a store this week.

Why didn’t I just add this to my big stupid M50X round-up? Well, that article is an unwieldy document bordering on parody, and I have too much to say about this one to include all of it in that monster.

Overview

Audio-Technica’s M50X is one of the world’s most recommended headphones. It’s an improved version of the M50 headphone that first debuted about 15 years ago. It has a love-it-or-hate it W-shaped sound signature. It’s neutral and bright enough to be marketed for pro work yet fun enough in the bass to appeal to Beats lovers. It has the industrial design of something that was never meant to go outside of a studio, though AT has augmented that throughout the years by releasing special edition colors. I wager some people out there might buy the new color each year, but not me.

Its initial MSRP was a frankly absurd $200+ dollars, though they usually went for around $150, and a quick check shows that’s now the current MSRP. Thank goodness.

Pioneer DJ’s HRM-5 is a relatively new entry in the studio headphone space. It launched last year and it’s $100. It’s really great! Its direct competitor is the Audio-Technica M40X, and its big brother the HRM-6 is designed to take on the M50X.

But I think the HRM-5 provides such a good value for the money that it’s more than capable of “Headphone Showdowning” with the M50X. The build/design, sound, and marketed usage scenarios are similar.

So already, the HRM-5 starts out with a $50 price lead. Will it also take some other categories?

Yes. Yes it will.

Sound Signature

Audio-Technica’s M50X has a love-it-or-hate it reputation in the audiophile world, and that’s because of its sound signature. Some say that it’s the best cheap neutral headphone, while others think it’s a piece of v-shaped garbage with too much brightness in the treble.

The reality is that they’re both totally valid takes. Sound is subjective. In objective tests, the M50X measures in the neighborhood of neutral…but it definitely has some sweetening in the bass and the treble. The bass has a thumpy character to it, not unlike the popular Beats Solo 2 and 3. The treble has a bit of grain and harshness to it, which some folks will perceive as detail and others will loathe.

I really like the sound of the M50X. It’s a good introduction to high-end sound, and it works particularly well for pop and jazz music. But to deny it’s slightly v-shaped and sculpted character, I’d have to lie about what I hear in it. Those gentle boosts are what allow a headphone that was originally designed for singers to use in studio to work just as well for home music listening.

After the M50X backlash began, the new recommendation for “flat” sound was its little brother: the M40X. The M40X does indeed sound a bit more natural and neutral, although I have to wonder if that’s because of the slightly smaller 40mm drivers. The overall design of the headphone and its general sound signature mimic the M50X, but with a little less oomph. It still has the slightly bright house sound that Audio-Technica is known for. Also, people always say to change the pads on both these headphones. But you shouldn’t have to do that, in my opinion. And with the HRM-5, you won’t have to.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

I think the HRM-5 sounds better than both of Audio-Technica’s popular studio headphones, particularly for general use. It maintains a signautre that’s neutral enough for studio use, with plenty of detail retrieval and extension in the bass. But it does so without any obvious harshness across the signature. It’s a more pleasant listen on the whole, by a few percentage points. The M50X is more impressive-sounding at very first listen, perhaps…but after an hour of music, the M50X is much more likely to grate on the ears due to its high-end emphasis.

Now don’t get me wrong, I often love brighter headphones. But there’s a time and place for everyting. And in the world of neutral studio headphones, it’s nice to find one like the HRM-5 that’s just as listenable over long sessions as more consumer-oriented products from Sony and Bose. Unless you’re doing lots of nitpicky listening for hiss, hum, and distortion in the studio or in the field, you don’t always need a headphone that can kill you with treble spikes.

The HRM-5 provides a perfect balance between the analytical character of most studio headphones and the warm fun character of most consumer headphones. If you want a jack of all trades, it’s the new leader over and above the M50X in my book.

The driver in the HRM-5 is probably nicer too, or at least better-tuned. Inside each M50X ear cup, you’ll notice a really thick piece of foam between your ear and the driver. While this helps with the comfort a little bit, it’s also there to try and kill the harsh treble of the driver. That’s a good tip: any time the foam over the driver is really thick, they’ve tried to tame a treble-screaming driver.

You can look straight through the foam inside the HRM-5 cups and see the driver. So Pioneer got that business figured out in their design and materials, no thick foam needed!

Winner: HRM-5

Soundstage

No contest, really. Audio-Technica’s studio headphones all have some of the thinnest, close-to-your-head soundstages in the business. They were designed for critical listening. In spite of the M50X featuring angled drivers, the thin pads and sound signature conspire to jam the audio right into your ears.

The HRM-5 also has angled drivers, and the thicker pads and more even sound mean that it has a pleasantly wide soundstage for a closed-back headphone.

Winner: HRM-5

Comfort

This one’s easy. Audio-technica’s headphones tend to be a bit clampy, and the M50X carries on this tradition. The padding on the ear pads is just north of decent, but the headband padding is a little thin and the ear holes are on the smaller side. Over time, unless you get it adjusted well, you will most likely get hot spots. The padding isn’t quite thick enough to offset the clamping force over a long session, and it certainly never disappears on the head. The M50X provides plenty of swivel in its adjustment, but it never quite achieves perfect comfort.

Pioneer solves these problems by including good padding on the headband and ear cups. What a concept! The HRM-5 offers a comparable clamp and adjustable fit to the M50X, but it has a thicker better memory foam along the headband and inside the ear pads. They’re quite comfy. The clamp means they don’t disappear, but they’re such a pleasant pair on the head that this category isn’t even a contest.

Winner: HRM-5

Build/Design

The M50X was designed many years ago, for studios. It’s a chunky black and silver thing. It’s rather tank-like. The ear cups swivel 180 degrees. The adjustment mechanisms provide plenty of room for giant heads, and have little lines so you can easily line them up visually. The headphone folds down football style. Every year, Audio-Technica releases a new limited-edition color scheme to see if you will buy another pair, but the default black and silver is always on the market.

Pioneer designed the HRM-5 within the last two years. It has a nice subtle look that blends elements from modern consumer headphones and classic studio pairs. Like the M50X, it feels very solid in the hands. It comes in black and black. The ear cups swivel 180 degrees, and the adjustment mechanisms provide tons of room. The adjustment steps don’t have any visual markings, which is lame. The headphones collapse down football style, just like the M50X.

The HRM-5 features rectangles on the backs of the ear cups instead of circles, which requires a different yoke design. It’s a touch weird, but it grew on me. The Pioneer DJ logo is printed on each ear cup, and embossed in black in the headband.

On the M50X, there’s a big metal circle on each side surrounding the AT logo. The top of the headband has Audio-Technica written on it in white. It’s less suitable for outdoor use if you’re worried about sticking out.

This would be more or less a tie…if the M50X was cheaper. But it’s not. It’s about 50 dollars more expensive. So, you’re getting most of the same classic design and build touchstones in a more subtle package for less money with the HRM-5

Winner: HRM-5

Features/Extras

Both headphones come with a carrying bag. The HRM-5 bag is a touch softer, and I like that more. Both headphones use proprietary detachable cables. Audio-Technica includes 3 cables in the bag, and Pioneer includes only 2. You need the step-up HRM-6 if you want the same 3 cable package included with the M50’s.

Winner: M50X, solely for including a third cable. It’s part of the price disparity though, and Pioneer includes the same exact complement of extras in their higher-end HRM-6 model.

Overall Winner: HRM-5

Pioneer DJ has beaten Audio-Technica at their own game. The HRM-5 is a true M50X killer, impressive considering it was designed to take out the M40X. It’s more comfy and sounds better. And it’s priced affordably. The HRM-5 is my new go-to recommendation for people looking to see what high-end audio is all about who want the studio extras of a folding design and removable cable. It joins the HyperX Cloud II as a great entry level headphone that could easily be the first and last step on your personal audio gear journey.