Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Audio-Technica ATH-ES5 portable headphones

New portable headphones from Audio-Technica, available outside of Japan from Audiocubes, Bluetin and so forth. Product Link (Japanese)

The ATH-ES5 is a folding portable headphone designed for use with Walkmen, etc. It is claimed to be closed back, and is efficient enough to be used from almost any MP3/CD/MD player. It's primary competitor in Europe and in the US is Sennheiser's PX200, and considering import costs and so forth, the ES5 would end up around double the price of the PX200 to most. Even in Japan, the ES5 is more expensive than the PX200. However both are aimed at the same type of usage, so I compared the ES5 against the PX200 in many respects.

A very good looking headphone, the ATH-ES5 is worthy of it's 'Earsuit' name. The styling is different, with a cantilevered earcup mount and the lines are crisp yet understated. Technical touches abound emphasising attention to detail. Examples include the solidly constructed folding hinges, and the seemingly all-plastic headband which is actually topped with an anti-skid rubber covering to prevent the phones from moving around the head. The 'swoop' of the earcup mount flows towards the front (not towards the back) and it does definitely make a discreet style statement. In addition to the pictured black/silver, an all-black model is available.

The phone folds/unfolds by rotating the earcup to a raised state, rotating the cantilevered mount by 90 degrees then folding at the joint. You can see how that happens by the half folded phone shown above.

The fully folded ES5 is definitely jacket pocketable, although it will end up taking up practically all of the jacket pocket. The folded PX200 also shown takes up less space, due to a better designed folding system.

Both ATH-ES5 and PX200 ship with cases. The ES5 ships with a very nice soft case, while the PX200 ships with a cheaper looking but more protective hard case.

The overall feeling of quality has to go to the ATH-ES5. It generally feels very well put together and has material touches of definite quality. However, all is not well. There is no external strain relief in the headphone cables at the earcup end which will inevitably lead to premature cable failure, and the folding process is extremely cumbersome, especially when compared with the Sennheiser's well-engineered, quick and ingenious folding method.

Comfort is decent, although the earcups do tend to 'bow' outwards at the back of the ear due to the phone's design... and that leads to another problem: While the cantilevered earcup mount looks different, the disadvantage of it compared to a centre-of-earcup mounting like the PX200 is an offset application of pressure on the ears towards the front of the ear, which works against the truly effective placement of the earcups.

The ATH-ES5 is billed as a closed phone. However, there is a noticeable amount of sound leakage to the outside for a closed phone from these phones and they do not isolate external sounds a great deal. I have tracked this down to tiny vents on the back of the earcups. The genuinely closed Sennheiser PX200 manages very little leakage at arm's length and do isolate a usable amount... no more than 10db I estimate, but still surprisingly effective in most locations.

Slightly better news for the ATH-ES5 here. First of all, the ES5 is noticeably efficient, which means that the power from headphone jacks is optimised so you'll get more decibels at a given volume. The PX200 has a noticeably lower efficiency.
The PX200 has a slightly 'slow' response, i.e. the sound is slightly dull and sluggish. The (bloated) bass is there in spades, but there's not a dynamic sense of agility that I'm used to hearing in good phones. Even at this price point, there are better sounding headphones than the PX200, although none in the mainstream which actually offers isolation and non-leakage. The ATH-ES5 features a slightly more sparkling sound than the PX200 which offers more detail in the sound, but the mids exhibit some nasal effects and the lows are similar to the PX200... slightly slow and bloated.
Pulling back a bit and offering a layman's perspective, both of these phones will sound pretty good if you haven't tried any high-end phones, but won't win any awards for sound. The PX200 can be somewhat excused for any faults here as it offers isolation, and that nearly always comes at a sonic penalty. The ES5 doesn't offer much in the way of isolation, so it should sound better... and it does, but not by much.

A high quality product incorporating excellent aesthetics in the usual Audio-Technica way, but beset by certain fundamental engineering problems which undoubtedly cropped up in the quest to look different. Relatively poor folding design, lack of isolation, high cost for non-Japanese residents ($100-ish) combined with only slightly above PX200-level sound quality means that you should really only consider these if your sole aim is to look different - and yet the understated nature of these phones mean that they don't actually grab the casual eye anyway. They offer no real peformance advantages over the PX200. In fact, one might say that in many ways they are a step back. In my opinion, worth a look only for Japanese residents, and only at a sale ;-)

The core of the above review was worked on some time ago, and it's now time to add some long-term listening notes on these.

The build quality of these phones is really first class. After relatively long-term use (although in my case not everyday use) the phones are still holding up nicely and nothing has come loose or broken. That is with careful use though. The cables which lack strain relief have not give up yet. However the non-slip elastomer covering of the cables has proven to be an immense annoyance, tangling with remote cables and so forth at every opportunity.

As for long-term use actually on the head, if you read the above review I refer to the potential discomfort of the cantilevered earcup mount creating spot pressure instead of an even pressure on the ears. Here's how to simulate it:

Put your index finger roughly where the red circle is in relation to your head. Now press down quite hard. Do that for a while. That's what wearing the ATH-ES5 feels like. Relatively speaking, I find the Sony G74SL, of which I complained about the comfort, actually more comfortable.

Has the sound settled down a bit? Well, the low-end extension has increased a little. Provided your portable can do it, the ES5 is capable of knocking out some very decent lows, combined with good extension at the trebles too. It certainly 'out-sparkles' the $30 Sony MDR-G74SL and the $50 PX200, and you do hear more information... but that's provided you can hear the phones as the lack of any isolation still applies, which is annoying since these are supposed to be closed.

Still distinctly unimpressed given what non-Japanese residents will be paying. I think my initial overall verdict still applies... It is better than the PX200/MDR-G4SL/etc, but there are better $100-$110 phones, some of which are actually closed. In my opinion, still only worth considering if you're a Japanese resident.


Anonymous said...

How much burn-in have you given Bangra?

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