Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9A Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Oct 31, 2012.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Youtube video review: http://youtu.be/U_7ewRz6UtQ

    Sources: iPhone4 alone, iPhone4 with PA2V2 amp using LOD, various computers using the Audioengine D1 DAC and the D1's headphone out.

    First impression: Soft highs, like so many of the newer high-quality headphones these days. The treble is about 5 db lower than the Shure 1840 (a non-bright headphone) at 10 khz, and gradually rises to the same level around 2-3 khz. I used a slight boost in Foobar2000 to get close to the 1840's output, so I could compare the other qualities on a more or less equal basis. Larger amounts of EQ can introduce distortions as well as irregularities in the frequency balance, but my small test adjustment proved successful. Vocals and instruments with the ESW9A were very similar in presence and harmonic quality to the 1840, but seemed very subtly rougher, which may be an unavoidable result of trying to bring the two signatures closer for these tests. Other than that, the sound is very similar except that the ESW9A is somewhat darker and bassier. The bass is strong, yet doesn't have the kind of upper bass emphasis that colors or muddies the lower midrange.

    I ran a series of tone sweeps with the ESW9A to confirm what I was hearing in these preliminary tests, and the only significant variances from flat or neutral (compared to my most neutral headphones) were a slight emphasis at 2 khz and 7 khz, and a gradual rolloff in the deep bass to approximately -3 db at 50 hz and -6 db at 30 hz. This bass response is similar to what I experienced with the new Sennheiser Momentum, except that the Momentum has looser, less well defined tones and impact at the same output level. I expected the ESW9A to have a dramatically smaller sense of space or soundstage than the Shure 1840, since the 1840 is an open model and the ESW9A is a small on-ear closed headphone. The difference was there, but not dramatic, which was quite a surprise. Compared to the Momentum, vocals seem clearer with the ESW9A, and not just because they're more forward (they are, somewhat), but it's probably the same effect as the ESW9A's tighter and better-defined bass.

    My overall analysis of the ESW9A's sound: Treble: Soft, but near ideal for most users. Midrange: Excellent, should be near ideal for most users. Mid to upper bass: Excellent, but not for bassheads, not even marginally. Deep bass: Slightly less than ideal, but very good. My overall judgement of the ESW9A is that it's a headphone which can transition well between genres that like a strong yet detailed bass, such as rock or some of the house music, and also those genres that favor vocal and instrumental tone such as jazz, classical, folk, and acoustic. If you like a cooler, leaner sound like the Shure 1840, the ESW9A might not be a good match. If you like a really hard-hitting bass for gaming and other applications that benefit from a lot of physical sensation, also not a good match. For everything else I think the ESW9A is ready to play hard, because the overall sound is smooth and free of peaks and recesses, and the quality of that sound is excellent.

    The new ESW9A seems slightly above average in weight for a small on-ear headphone, but due to the soft spongy earcups and the very spongy lining under the headband, the weight will not be noticeable. The moderate clamping force will get much more attention than the headphone's weight, but because the earcups have a wide range of rotation and those cushy earpads, the comfort level will be high. With the earcups folded flat and pulled all the way down, the ESW9A can be worn around the neck comfortably, but it's a tight fit, with the eacups less than an inch from my adam's apple. The outer face of the earcups is supposed to be some kind of exotic wood, yet it looks to me like it could easily be made of plastic, so if it really is wood I can't tell. The ESW9A does look very nice in an understated way - not a fashion/bling headphone in the modern sense, but more like the look of an old library with dark wood fixtures, with its patrons wearing cardigans and smoking tobacco pipes.

    The ESW9A's cable is dual-sided, non-detachable, and terminated by a 3.5 mm plug. The wires going to the earcups are 2 mm thick, and the two sides become bonded together (but separable) about 15 inches below the earcups. Total cable length is about 4.5 feet. The ESW9A did not include a 6.35 mm adapter plug, but did include a flat plastic carry bag that I would not recommend using. Although the headphone does not look especially fragile for normal use (unless you yank the very thin cable frequently), any impacts on the thin plastic carry bag could easily damage it.

    In other reviews I've done I've included the following music examples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to other reviews and see how the ESW9A compares with each individual track.

    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 very well by the ESW9A.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Very good 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 here.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the ESW9A.

    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 ESW9A.

    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 excellent on the ESW9A.

    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 ESW9A 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 ESW9A 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 ESW9A 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 ESW9A 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 ESW9A.

    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 ESW9A plays those notes with good impact and control. Having played this track a number of times now, I'm highly impressed with the ESW9A'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 ESW9A provides very 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 the ESW9A aces them.

    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 ESW9A.

    Milt Jackson/Wes Montgomery - Delilah (Take 3) (1962): The vibraphone is heavily dependent on harmonics to sound right, and the ESW9A plays it superbly.

    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 not with the ESW9A.
     
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2012
  2. marcusd

    marcusd Member

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    One of my long time favs the ESW9 - woody richness, liquid mids and very pleasing non fatiguing sound. The only caveat is that as you mention the darker tonality can seem slightly veiled coming off more neutral headphones.

    I would recable with some silver to lift the tonality a touch but honestly I am happy with stock since I don't have too many dark headphones in my collection that match the quality of the ESW9.
     
  3. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Thanks - it's one of those unplanned things I never expected to get, but looking at the ESW9's thin wires going to the earcups, a recable will probably be necessary eventually. My wife's P5 cables finally gave up - both of them. The bird chewed through one of them pretty quickly and the other got yanked too many times.
     
  4. marcusd

    marcusd Member

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    Well my stock cables are still going strong but I am not a heavy user like some I know. I think a few have tried mundorf and cardas and denko cables with mixed results.
     
  5. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Apparently the ESW10 is no longer available, but I ordered the ES10 today and I hope I don't regret it. If the wood part of the ESW9A is just decorative, then no worries, but if it's an inportant part of the sound, then the ES10 may lack something by not having wood parts.
     
  6. marcusd

    marcusd Member

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    The ES10 is quite a different beast to the ESW9 but they have released a new ESW10 limited ed just this week I believe but not sure if outside Japan. The old Japan Limited ed of the esw9 is quite sought after.
     
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