Best Headphones for Mixing: Audio-Technica ATH-M50X
The ATH-M50X continues to impress audiophiles and is considered to be one of the best headphones for mixing, monitoring and personal listening.
The ATH-M50X is Audio-Technica’s spiritual successor to their critically acclaimed and highly successful ATH-M50 (release date: 2008). Launched in 2014, the ATH-M50X continues to impress many audiophiles for its unique sonic signature and hardware improvements, and is considered by many as one of the best headphones for mixing and personal listening.
The M-Series is Audio-Technica’s range of professional studio monitor headphones. They’re great for recording or tracking in the studio, but I’ve found that these headphones also work well for field-recording, home listening and even commuting. You don’t often find people lugging around studio monitors while on the move, simply because they’re either too expensive or bulky. The M-Series, however, has a rather sleek profile (more on this later).
This review will focus on the ATH-M50X. I acquired a set of these bad boys after reading much about both the M50 and M50X. There’s been a lot of praise for the M50X for carrying on its predecessor’s tradition in a positive way.
I had the opportunity to demo the entire M-Series lineup in October 2015 (at that time, the ATH-M70X wasn’t released yet). I will do a quick review of the M20X, M30X and M40X, and then focus on the ATH-M50X for the second half of the review.
ATH-M20X: Enhanced bass and highs
The design for the M20X, M30X, M40X and M50X is strikingly similar. Except for the logo on the earcups and its swivel design, all 4 pairs look pretty much the same. But that’s where their similarity stops.
The ATH-M20X is a great pair of monitoring headphones for anyone on a budget. For under $50, you get a pair of well-built studio headphones. The sound signature is geared towards those who prefer stronger bass. It has a V-shaped EQ and would most likely appeal to those who enjoy electronic or rock music. Basically if you want a better sounding Beats, get this. Although, I wouldn’t recommend the ATH-M20X if you are considering doing proper tracking and mixing. What would I recommend? If your budget permits, either the ATH-M40X or ATH-M50X.
Having said that, I do realize that most consumer listeners don’t upgrade the earphones that come stock with their iPhones or Androids. And even if they do, they don’t spend more than $20 on a pair. The thing is, most of these stock earphones are tuned to a V-shaped EQ as well — strong bass and highs, and subdued mids. This is a popular sound signature because it appeals to most people. So if you really think about it, tracking on the ATH-M20X may not be such a bad idea after all, especially if you’re on a budget.
ATH-M30X: Pronounced mid-range
The ATH-M30X is similar is almost every way to the M20X, except it has a foldable earcup and sounds nothing like the M20X. I was pleasantly surprised by the sound signature of the M30X. It has a very pronounced mid-range and subdued bass and highs. I would describe the tone as warm.
According to Audio-Technica, these were “tuned for highly detailed audio, with strong mid-range definition”. I absolutely agree. If you enjoy strong mid-range tones — especially if you’re a guitarist and you enjoy hearing guitar tones cutting through a mix — get these. They work particularly well for pop music and vocal-driven tunes. I think the M30X will work very well for field-recording because of its enhanced mid-range; plus the entire M-Series offers good sound isolation (no active sound isolation, but still good enough) with its circumaural-designed earcups.
In a tracking or recording situation, I could see the ATH-M30X being used to monitor the mid-range definition of any mix, especially for guitars, piano and vocals.
ATH-M40X: Tuned flat
I was very excited to demo this pair because of its sound signature (this and the M50X of course). The ATH-M40X is tuned flat. There is no coloring or EQ applied; the frequency response is absolutely flat. This means the M40X is ideal for studio monitoring. According to Audio-Technica, the M40X is “tuned flat for incredible accurate audio monitoring across an extended frequency range”.
What I can say is the ATH-M40X is one of the flattest sounding headphones I have ever tried. I know that sounds very unflattering, but if you consider its true purpose and intention, then the ATH-M40X is a perfect candidate for those seeking accurate sound reproduction while recording. If you’re looking for a truly flat-response headphones, I highly recommend the ATH-M40X.
The M40X’s earcup also swivels at 15° in and 90° out, and comes with a 3m straight and 1.2m-3m coiled cable. By the way, the M20X and M30Xs’ earcups both swivels at 15° in and out, and comes with one 3m straight cable. Clearly, the ATH-M40X is meant to be a substantial upgrade over the other two.
ATH-M50X: Best headphones for mixing and personal listening
Amongst all 4 pairs, I was most excited about the ATH-M50X. Audio-Technica claimed to have retained the “exact same coveted sonic signature as the original, with the addition of refined earpads and three detachable cables (a 1.2m-3m coiled cable, 3m straight cable and 1.2m straight cable)”.
It sounds like they had a winning formula to start with in the original ATH-M50, except that fans wanted more options and a more comfortable headband. Did Audio-Technica deliver?
While I’ve never demoed a pair of the original M50, I can say that the difference between the M50X and the others (M20X, M30X, M40X) is astounding. It’s true that all 4 pairs offer very different sound signatures, and the ATH-M50X sings to its own tune. It has a “premium” sound, a more elegant tone, if you will.
If I had to describe its EQ, it would be this: bass is strong but never overwhelming. On tracks with heavy bass, the M50X’s low-end takes over and offers a deep, reassuring thump without muddying up the overall mix. The mid-range is more vivid than the M20X, but not as present as the M30X. It’s forward enough without shouting in your face. Treble is also tuned high, but strangely, the M50X never sounds sibilant or overly harsh. Where the M30X can sometimes sound lack-lustre, the M50X sings with grace.
Soundstage is wide and balanced, without being over-analytical. You get the sense that individual instruments and vocals are presented as the producer intended. Some headphones tend to go overboard with sound-staging and the result is a complicated mess. Not so with the ATH-M50X — the overall mix is cohesive and fluid.
I’ve never been one to believe in a single do-it-all headphone. I have earbuds for casual listening, in-ears for commuting, and headphones for mixing and recording. I even have different headphones for different genres of music simply because each pair has its own unique signature tone (like the M20X versus the M30X). But — and I’m not kidding here — the M50X has performed well in these situations:
- Listening to my music collection
- Recording my guitar
- Mixing music on my iPad
I’d like to stress point 1. I listen to a wide range of music: jazz, soul, blues, rock, pop, metal, electronic, acoustic, piano-focused, vocal-focused, etc. It seems to handle most, if not all, with ease. Although I find that on certain tracks where the producer has emphasised mid-range a tad too much, the M50X can be a little fatiguing after a few hours. But we’re talking about over 3 hours of continued listening here. In any case, it’s not something that I would take away points from the M50X for doing what it was meant to do.
Perhaps points 2 and 3 might interest those looking for a pair of studio headphones. And by studio, I mean both bedroom and conventional studio producers. I’ve seen the M-Series in many radio and recording studios, but mostly the M50Xs. Even Audio-Technica claims that these cans were designed for critical listening, broadcast and live sound monitoring. What they did was take a winning formula in the original M50, improved on the recipe and created the best headphones for mixing and personal listening. And it’s easy to understand why: the M50X tracks well, has a lively sonic signature, and sounds great while recording and on playback as well.
The ATH-M50X sings to its own tune. It has a “premium” sound, a more elegant tone, if you will.
Design & Build Quality
I don’t commute with my M50X much. But the day I bought the M50X, I listened to it at a café for 2 hours and on the way home in the subway. No one batted an eyelid at me for wearing some giant clamp on my head that looked like it should have belonged in a studio.
Which brings me to my other point: features. The M50X comes with a 45mm aperture driver, while the M20X, M30X and M40X comes with 40mm drivers. The M50X also features 3 cable types, and earcups that swivel 90° in AND out. Some of you might be wondering why this sounds so great. Trust me, if you’re mixing or monitoring, the ability to quickly perform one-ear monitoring can be a life-saver at times.
At the time of writing, the ATH-M50X comes in a few color flavors other than standard black. It also comes in limited edition matte gray, limited edition dark green, and white. I especially liked the blue version with its light-tan headband and earcups (and matching outer-ring on the earcups). It’s also priced slightly higher, and since I was looking for a pair for home use, I decided to go with basic black. It’s just a matter of personal taste, although I did find the all-white version a bit too clean.
March 23, 2016 Update: The limited edition blue/tan model is no longer available.
I’ve had the ATH-M50X for 3 months, and what I’ve come to appreciate is how it’s become my go-to pair of headphones for any situation. I consider it the best headphones for mixing, tracking, monitoring, and personal listening. When I record or mix music, I use only the M50X. If I’m listening to music, I’ll switch between my Grados SR80 or the M50X, and sometimes between my Baldoor or Yuin earbuds (a review is in the pipeline for the Yuin PK-2 and PK-3 — two great sounding earbuds!). But when I’m seeking a truly immersive experience, or when I’m feeling in a very audiophile mood, I’ll always bust out the M50X and plug this bad boy in!