Brief: Sitting near the top of the Audio-Technica’s style-focused Earsuit line of portable headphones, the wooden ESW9A is as unique in sound as it is in aesthetics
MSRP: $369.95 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $219 from amazon.com
Build Quality (8/10): I would like to start off by saying that the ATH-ESW9A is an absolutely gorgeous set of headphones and photographs really don’t do it justice. The construction of the set is surprisingly similar to that of the Phiaton MS400 with the exception of the extra headband hinges that make the MS400 collapsible. The headbands are of similar thickness and the plastics are of similar quality between the two portables. Both feature leather-wrapped metal headbands and plastic forks, though the ones on the Phiatons are just a tad beefier. On the other hand the point for best cable goes to the Audio-Technicas by a hair, with a slightly more flexible cord and sturdier connections used all around. While the MS400 is at least partially circumaural, the ESW9A is a supraaural headphone through and through, with bowl-shaped (a-la Grado) pads only slightly larger in diameter than those used by the HD25-1. One thing worth noting is that while the ESWA is not particularly fragile per se, the wooden cups inspire a definite tendency to be delicate with the headphones – something I don’t find myself doing with the polycarbonate-shelled Phiaton MS400 and definitely not with the tank-like HD25-1.
Comfort (8/10): The ESW9A features lambskin earpads only slightly larger in diameter than those used by the HD25-1. The stitched pads look very good and are extremely soft – soft enough to compete with the wonderful red pleather on my MS400s. The cups of the headphones are fully adjustable and clamping force is rather mild, allowing the ESW9A to remain comfortable for hours. Those who have a general dislike of supraaural phones may still want to give these pass, however.
Isolation (7.5/10): The lambskin earpads provide a surprisingly good coupling with the ear for a supraaural headphone, resulting in isolation that only just yields to that of the Phiaton MS400
Sound (8.5/10): The sound of the ATH-ESW9A generally falls between the warm-and-bassy Phiaton MS400 and the colder, brighter Sennheiser HD25-1. There is good sub-bass presence at the low end and the 42mm drivers move plenty of air. Impact is nearly on-par with the HD25 but the ESW9A somehow sounds less closed, less boomy when it comes to presenting bass. At the same time the low end of the ESW9A is slightly bloated. Despite the drivers being quite quick by nature, the ESW9A gives bass notes extended decay times, which results in greater overall bass presence and ‘rounder’ notes than with the HD25. Next to the midrange and treble, the bass is quite forward but not nearly as much so as that of the MS400, which boasts more impact, more texture, and much more weight at the low end. Hopefully that makes sense as I really think that it‘s important to distinguish between tactile and sonic bass. The MS400, of course, has more of both while between the ESW9 and HD25 the tactility is comparable but the ESW9 is still “bassier” in the conventional sense while the HD25 sounds tighter and cleaner, albeit more closed-in.
The midrange of the ESW9 is warmed up by the bass but still not nearly as warm as that of the MS400. It is smooth and lush, with good vocal presence and significantly more refinement than I remember getting from the ATH-ES7 or EM7. It is rather transparent and treads a fine line between being slightly recessed and slightly forward, depending on the track. The generally intimate MS400 is, of course, noticeably more forward in the midrange – not a bad thing by any means but just one more reason why no headphone can be all things to all people. The upper midrange is smooth and refined but carries a bit of added emphasis like so many of Audio-Technica’s other models. The treble is not as crisp, sparkly, or detailed as that of the HD25 but at the same time smoother and less hard-edged. It is certainly more present than with the MS400 but not necessarily of better quality. The clarity is still quite excellent and the ESW9 never sounds overly strident as the ES7 and EM7GM can.
On the whole, the ESW9A is a colored and fun-sounding headphone, falling between the mainstream-sounding MS400 and the cold and unforgiving HD25-1. The sound of the Audio-Technicas is well-blended and generally quite easy-going. Compared to the lower-end ATH-ES7, the ESW9 has a better dynamic range and softer, more rounded notes. The presentation is also a bit more intimate with the ESW9. The soundstage is medium-sized – bigger than what most Grados, the HD25-1, and even the MS400 are capable of but not as broad as that of the ATH-M50 or Ultrasone Pro 650. It is well-spaced and sounds quite ambient and three-dimensional for a portable headphone. The instrumental separation could be better but the wider soundstage helps the ATs keep up with the closed-sounding but more layered HD25. Lastly, it is worth noting that the ESW9 is nearly as forgiving as the Phiaton MS400 of poor sources and digital encoding, playing nice with tracks that the HD25 would simply butcher.
Value (7.5/10): The Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9 offers just as much style as it does substance, competing with the better portable headphones in its price bracket (street price, not MSRP) in performance and aesthetics. Designed to be as pleasing to the ear as it is to the eye, the ESW9 is smooth-sounding and fairly well-balanced, giving up the aggressiveness and energy of the HD25 and the mellow warmth of the MS400 for a mid-line sound that is easily pegged as belonging to an Audio-Technica headphone. As far as functionality goes, the ESW9 is supraaural and isolates noticeably less than the HD25 does. The wood finish also inspires a certain delicacy of use so those who like to toss their headphones around may want to look at something else. Still, as far as stylish and truly portable mid-range headphones go, the ESW9 near the top of the food chain.
Frequency Response: 5 – 35,000 Hz
Impedance: 42 Ω
Sensitivity: 103 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.91ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding