Audio-Technica SJ-11 On-Ear Portable Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Feb 5, 2016.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Youtube review:

    Photos:
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/iPhone6sp/Headphone_Ath_Sj11_01.jpg
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Audioforge/Ath_Sj11.jpg

    Sources: iPhone6s+ with Oppo HA-2/FiiO K1 DAC/amps, various computers using the Audioquest Dragonfly-2/HRT Microstreamer/FiiO E17k/FiiO E07k DAC/amps.

    Review notes: My first impressions of the sound of the SJ11 are based on direct comparisons to other headphones, particularly other very lightweight on-ear types, but also to a few premium headphones for reference. I'll describe how I relate to the SJ11 (i.e., my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    The ATH SJ11 is a miracle, unless I'm really missing something. This is my 145th review, and nearly all of the small, light, very inexpensive-looking headphones I've had have serious sonic deficiencies. I say 'nearly' as a hedge, because I don't want to go back through all those reviews to prove that this SJ11 is truly unique. The bass is nearly flat and solid. The mids have a plus-3 minus-3 variance between 200 and 1000 hz, which is phenomenal, and very smooth. The treble has a similar variance between 5 and 9 khz - again, phenomenal. This review had me wondering about the reality of sub-$30 USD headphones - since this one sounds so good, how can so many $150 to $200 headphones (and some even more pricy than that) sound so bad? Well, this is a very, very inexpensive-looking and feeling headphone, much like a toy rather than a serious listening device, and the very low price doesn't give me a lot of confidence that each sample of the SJ11 that leaves the factory will sound exactly the same - but they might.

    The last question on sound quality, given the headphone's basic signature, is whether the sound is smooth (no significant peaks or suckouts), whether the tonality is accurate (voices and instruments sound natural), and whether an audiophile volume level with good dynamics causes any distortions. The SJ11 sounds natural enough and plays loudly with no discernible strain or distortion, so it gets my recommendation with durability being my main concern. Although the signature is fairly hi-fi and there's nothing particularly bothersome in the overall sound, the SJ11's tonality isn't quite as 'real' as many of the more than $100 headphones that I've used. Still, that may not be important for on-location monitoring. Isolation is minimal - better than nothing, but a very noisy environment will mask important musical details. Leakage on the other hand is extremely low, so the SJ11 should be useful in libraries and quiet workplaces if the volume isn't extremely loud.

    The SJ11 is the least expensive of 3 Audio-Technica headphones that seem to belong to the same class - neutral or monitor types, although I still don't know how a monitor headphone can cost less than $30 and sound really good. The other 2 headphones are the SJ33 and SJ55, which I may or may not get. The SJ11's headband has no padding, but since there's almost no weight to support that the earcups don't already carry, that's probably not an issue. The spongy earpads are covered in a decent plastic that should hold up well. For comparison, Sennheiser's PX100 and PX200 earpads disintegrate regularly. The earcups rotate 180 degrees vertically, 90 degrees one way horizontally, and a few degrees the other way to accomodate ears that aren't parallel to each other. The very small earpads sit "on-ear", but the pressure is negligible. The headband's adjustment range is 4/8 inch smaller on each side from where my average-size head fits it, and 7/8 inch larger on each side - an excellent range.

    The double-entry non-detachable cable is very thin going to the earcups, with a minimal strain relief, but twice as thick below the 'Y' out to the standard 3.5 mm miniplug. The SJ11 is an ideal portable headphone in that it can be pulled off the head when not in use, and worn around the neck with the earcups pulled out and folded flat. In previous reviews 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 those other reviews and see how the SJ11 compares with each individual track.
     
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

    Joined:
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    Location:
    Charleston South Carolina
    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has excellent detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The SJ11 plays this extremely well.

    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 perfectly by the SJ11.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can feel the weight they carry with the SJ11.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The SJ11 plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the SJ11.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The SJ11 plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The SJ11 reproduces the space and detail very well.

    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 SJ11 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The SJ11 plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.

    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 is excellent, and the tambourine sound is clearly identifiable.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The SJ11 reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The SJ11 plays this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound that indicates a solid deep-bass response. Overall, the SJ11 plays this music extremely well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The SJ11 plays this track almost perfectly.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce very well with the SJ11. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The SJ11 provides decent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the SJ11 does those pretty well.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The SJ11 plays the fundamental with a light weight but good detail, so that you can hear/feel some of the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor** who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2015, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the SJ11 is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    **Mantovani developed the "Cascading Strings" sonic effect circa 1950, a famous "Wall of Sound" effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector's own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is subtle but appreciable with the SJ11.

    Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the SJ11 renders this music as perfectly as I've heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The SJ11 does not reproduce the 'clop' portion of that sound accurately.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The SJ11 conveys some of that drama, but the deep bass is a little weak.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the SJ11 renders the tones and transients clearly.

    Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The SJ11's reproduction is near-perfect, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are good, and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The SJ11 delivers the impacts with decent weight and good detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.
     
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