Audio-Technica ATH-ESW11LTD Stereo Headphone Review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Jan 10, 2013.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube video review: Audio-Technica ESW11 LTD Stereo Headphone Review by Dale - YouTube

    Sources: iPhone4 alone, iPhone4 with FiiO E17 using LOD, various computers using Audioengine D1 DAC and the D1's headphone out.

    First impressions of the ESW11LTD: Better than average soundstage, great bass detail, very smooth sound, slightly forward with emphasis in the upper midrange, and rather soft highs. This was a dramatic change from what I'd been listening to - the v-moda M100 and Sennheiser Momentum mostly. I ran some test tones after a short break-in period (~6 hours), and from the bass up through the mids the response was smooth and even, with just a gentle rolloff in the bass to minus 3 or 4 db at 30 hz. The treble has a peak of ~3 db at 2 khz, ~6 db at 4 khz, and ~5 db at 7 khz. Despite these emphasis areas, the ESW11 has significantly less output in the "presence" area from ~4 to ~7 khz than the Sennheiser Momentum, and also less output at 10 khz and above. Compared to the ESW9a, the ESW11 has the distinct "light" signature of upper midrange emphasis, while the ESW9a has little or no emphasis in the mids. The ESW9a has a slightly recessed upper treble, while the ESW11's recess is more pronounced.

    I find that the ESW11 sounds great with most music, although I'd recommend a darker sounding headphone if you listen mostly to techno/house/hip-hop and other similar music. The comments in the music tracks listed in this review can be compared to other headphone reviews** I've done, to get an idea of how the ESW11 plays the different types of music listed here compared to other headphones. While I consider the ESW11's bass to be very good, I wouldn't recommend it for bass-centric music, or for use when gaming or watching action movies on TV. For those applications you would probably want a headphone with a strong bass, and the ESW11's bass is just average in strength, albeit very high in quality. This may apply to portable use as well for some people, since even though the ESW11 has pretty good isolation, the low frequencies occurring in traffic or on public transport may drown out the ESW11's bass, making it sound lighter than what most people would like.

    **As of this date, the only other review that lists these music tracks is my review of the v-moda M100.

    Isolation is good with the ESW11, and leakage is low, but just how much leakage you experience depends on how good of a seal you get with the earpads. Comfort is really good with the fine leather on-ear pads, but even though the initial comfort is good and the clamping force light, you may experience some pinching on the outer ear parts for a few days until the earpads get broken in. The outer part of the earcups is some kind of Japanese wood, which probably adds to the $700 USD price of this headphone. I don't know how much wood is in those earcups though - they may have just a thin strip on the outside, or they might use the wood for sonic purposes to reduce resonances in the earcups. The ESW11 is an all matte-black color except for the reddish wood outer earcups and whatever small portion of the metal headband is showing. Fortunately, a darker color was chosen for the metal part of the headband, so that the metal that shows fits well with the overall appearance.

    My head is average sized or better, and I wear the ESW11 with the earcups extended 6 click stops out of the maximum 10, so I expect that this headphone will fit just about everyone. The portability is good because the ESW11 can be pulled down off of the head and around the neck, and with the earcups fully extended it can be carried around the neck all day if needed. The earcups rotate 90 degrees one direction and about 35 degrees the other way. The 90 degree (flat) position adds to the portability, and the 35 degree rotation the other direction helps fit the earcups to ears that aren't perfectly parallel to each other on opposite sides of the head. The supplied carrycase is just a thin plastic bag, which offers no impact protection to this headphone. I would think that anyone who spends $700 on this item would not dare put the ESW11 into that plastic bag and throw it into a backpack or luggage where it could be damaged. The cable is non-detachable, double-entry, and has no controls or microphone.

    The music tracks listed in my older reviews were carried over from what I mostly listened to 5-10 years ago. As I added more headphone reviews, I've gravitated more toward "techno" music, from 1980's New Wave to current house music, and even some hip-hop tracks. This new list began with the previous review (the v-moda M100 review), and continues here. My suggestion is instead of reading each comment below as an absolute unto itself, you could compare these notes to other reviews as they get posted, and see how the ESW11 compares with each individual track. Note that the following comments are based on using the ESW11LTD with a moderate treble boost EQ, since the upper treble is recessed more than the ESW9a or Sennheiser Momentum, which are the most comparable headphones I have at this time.
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Music tracks for ATH ESW11LTD review

    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has very good detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural, although they lack some clarity with the ESW11.

    Ben Heit Quartet - Suite-Magnet and Iron (Jazz with a Bebop flavor): The piano that leads off sounds realistic and the saxophone sounds appropriately soft. Overall, the ESW11 plays this music very well.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's voice reproduction is good with the ESW11, but some of the percussion sounds have too much emphasis in the upper midrange to lower treble, making light drum hits sound more like claps using a solid material instead of drum skins.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice sounds very good, but a certain high-frequency percussion (tambourine?) sounds slightly dulled, as though some upper harmonics are being cut off with the ESW11.

    Crystal Castles - Wrath of God (Electro-Pop): The moderate level of bass in this track has good detail, and the ambient electronic effects are clear and distinct. The ESW11 makes this music sound just right.

    DJ Shadow - Building Steam With a Grain of Salt (Electronic/DJ): This track opens with what sounds like very high and very low piano notes, and the ESW11 renders those notes well. The ambient voices are a little bit indistinct though.

    Franz Ferdinand - Ulysses (Pop-Rock): The moderate level of bass in this track is played with good detail by the ESW11, and the voice is crisp and well-balanced. The percussion, when it's a mass of several instruments or devices, has a slight hardness or glassy sound in the upper mids to lower treble.

    Halie Loren - Sway (Jazz vocal): Bass instrument(s) here may sound boomy with some headphones, but the ESW11 handles this perfectly. The trumpet sounds natural but soft, and the voice is done just right.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion that hits hard here with some headphones has less impact with the ESW11, but the bass tones beginning around 0:45 into the track have the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound and feel that indicates a good deep-bass response.

    Kaskade - 4am (Electro-House): The bass that kicks in around 1:01 into the track is subtle, but the ESW11 plays it well. The percussion and female voice balance well with neither overwriting the other - the ESW11 gets this right.

    Katy B - Perfect Stranger (R&B-House-Garage): The heavy bass that begins at 0:27 into this track is played very well by the ESW11. The voice has a slightly hard or glassy sound, but it doesn't detract much from the rest of the music.

    Machine Gun Kelly - All We Have (Rap/Hip-Hop): The heavy bass beats that begin at 0:23 into the track do sound like drum impacts, although they're not sharp impacts. The male and female voices have a reasonably good balance, and the ESW11 plays this about as good as can be expected given the limited quality of the recording.

    Massive Attack - Angel (Trip-Hop): This track begins with a steady low-frequency sound and some slightly soft deep-bass impacts. The voices blend well with the music and have just the right presence, although the recorded quality of the instruments isn't great. The ESW11 plays this about as good as can be expected given the limited quality of the recording.

    Morcheeba - Bullet Proof (Trip-Hop): Bright percussion and medium-strength bass impacts make up most of this, with some dance-club spoken intonations thrown in. The ESW11 plays the percussion fairly well, and the voices sound good too.

    Peter Tosh - Get Up Stand Up (Reggae): The bass here has a decent but moderate impact, and the lead and backup voices have good separation that's not too narrow or wide. The ESW11 renders the bass with good detail and the voices sound very natural.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some string sounds that are lacking a bit of detail, and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are some "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that sound (on other headphones) like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. With the ESW11, the 'clip' part of the sound effect is clearly audible, but the more subtle 'clop' part is pretty well missing.

    Rachmaninoff - Prelude in C-Sharp Minor Op3 No2 (Classical, Piano): Grand piano played mechanically from an original recording by the master himself. The bass is light here, but while the ESW11 renders the low notes fairly well, the upper notes have a touch of hardness to them.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the ESW11 renders the tones and transients fairly well.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are unusually strong, and work very well with the horns and other instruments. The ESW11 delivers the impacts with proper weight, and makes the horns sound real.

    William Orbit - Optical Illusion (Billy Buttons Mix) (Electronic): This is about as close as I want to get to easy-listening music. The string(?) tones beginning at 0:18 are subtle, and lack some detail with the ESW11. The bass isn't very strong, but still adds a good underpinning to the music. The short poetic rap at 4:14, preceded by an etherial female voice, works very well with this track.
  3. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Second thoughts about music genres for the ESW11Ltd

    ---------- ESW11Ltd REVIEW PART 2 ----------

    When I reviewed the v-moda M100 recently, I started off with the music tracks I used in my previous reviews, then realized afterward that those tracks lacked the qualities that would make the darker-sounding M100 perform up to its full potential. So I put together a second series of music tracks that were oriented more toward modern music, and got much better results with the M100. Now with the ATH-ESW11Ltd, I started with the new music that I expected to be using from that point on, then realized after that review that the lighter-sounding ESW11 would do better with the original tracks. So here are the music tracks and comments from my older reviews as they sound with the ESW11. Note that these tracks were played using treble booster EQ.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled extremely well by the ESW11.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note for this headphone are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts won't overwhelm you since they're soft and well in the background, but you can really feel the weight they carry.

    Blues Project - Caress Me Baby (1966): Rarely mentioned, but one of the greatest white blues recordings ever. The loud piercing guitar sound at 0:41 into the track is a good test for distortion or other problems. Handled very well by the ESW11.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled well by the ESW11.

    Buffalo Springfield - Kind Woman (~1968): A Richie Furay song entirely, rarely mentioned, but one of the best sounding rock ballads ever. This will sound good on most headphones, but it's a special treat with the ESW11.

    Cat Stevens - Morning Has Broken (early 70's): A near-perfect test for overall sound - this track will separate the best sounding headphones from the lesser quality types. Nothing specific, except that almost any deviation from perfect reproduction will stand out with this track. Sounds pretty good with the ESW11, but the guitar string tone is a little dull.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the ESW11 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Def Leppard - Bringin' On The Heartbreak (1981): MTV goth/pop/metal at its best - good ambience and high energy - the better headphones will separate the details and make for a good experience. Lesser quality and the details tend to mush together. The ESW11 plays this perfectly.

    J.S. Bach - E. Power Biggs Plays Bach in the Thomaskirche (~1970): Recorded on a tracker organ in East Germany, the tracks on this recording have the authentic baroque sound that Bach composed for, albeit the bellows are operated by motor today. The ESW11 plays the tones seamlessly through the upper limits of the organ, which cover nearly the full range of human hearing. Of special note are the pedal notes - tracker organs have low-pressure pipes and don't typically produce the kind of impact around 30-35 hz that modern organs do. A headphone that's lacking even a little in the low bass will sound especially bass-shy with this type of organ, but the ESW11 delivers the full experience of this music.

    Jamming With Edward - It Hurts Me Too (1969): Intended originally as a test to fill studio down time and set recording levels etc., this was released a few years later for hardcore Rolling Stones fans. Although not as good technically in every aspect as the Chess studio recordings of 1964, and in spite of the non-serious vocals by Mick Jagger, this rates very high on my list of white blues recordings, and sounds absolutely delicious with the ESW11.

    Jennifer Warnes - Rock You Gently (1992?): The strong deep bass percussion at the beginning of this track has been cited as a test for weakness or distortion in certain headphones. The ESW11 plays those notes with great impact and control. Having played this track many times now, I'm highly impressed with the ESW11's bass reproduction and detail throughout the track.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has some loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical on some headphones. The ESW11 provides fairly good reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in, for maximum detail effect. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrumental separation and detail, and while ESW11 plays them reasonably well, the tone of the horns is a little dull.

    Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch (~2009): Featured in The September Issue, this song has heavy overdub and will sound a bit muddy on some headphones. Sounds great with the ESW11.

    Milt Jackson/Wes Montgomery - Delilah (Take 3) (1962): The vibraphone is heavily dependent on harmonics to sound right, and the ESW11 plays it well.

    Pink Floyd/Dark Side of the Moon - Speak To Me (1973): Strong deep bass impacts will be heard and felt here.

    Rolling Stones - Stray Cat Blues (1968): Dirty, gritty blues that very few white artists could match. On some headphones the vocals and guitar lack the edge and fall more-or-less flat. If you're a really good person, playing this song will probably make you feel nervous and uneasy.

    Tony Bennett - I Left My Heart In San Francisco (1962): Frank Sinatra's favorite singer. Highest recommendation. With some of the best headphones, the sibilants on this recording are very strong, but they're not too bad with the ESW11.

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