Audio-Technica WS55 Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Jul 2, 2014.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube review:


    Sources: iPhone5 with Portaphile Micro/PA2V2/Decware Zen Head amps using the LOD, various computers using Microstreamer/Beyer A200p/v-moda Verza DAC/amps.

    Review note: My first impressions of the sound of the WS55 are based on direct comparisons to other headphones - the v-moda M80 and M100, the Beyerdynamic DT1350, T51p, and T90, the FAD Pandora IV and VI, and notes I've accumulated from many prior reviews. I describe how I relate to the WS55 (i.e. my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    My first impression of the WS55 was very muffled**, and it hasn't gotten better. The chart included here and on my dalethorn website tells the story - it's down more than 12 db at ~4 khz (low-mid treble), and up about 5 db between 100-200 hz (upper bass). This is the fourth "Earsuit-style" headphone I've had, preceded by the ATH ESW9a, ESW11LTD, and ES700. The ESW9a for example has a mild recess of 3-4 db between 3-5 khz, and some rolloff above 8 khz, but is otherwise highly regarded for music listening. The EQ settings I created to balance and smooth the WS55 response were tricky and a bit extreme, but the result is a fairly smooth and warm sound. The problem with extreme EQ (and this one is not an exception) is that you're usually left with an uneven response between each of the EQ center frequencies, and that unevenness can make the sound rough, grainy - anything but smooth and clear.

    **The combination of lower-treble recess and upper-bass emphasis is what makes the sound very dull or muffled. The good news (for those willing to use it) is that the EQ gives this headphone a reasonably good hi-fi sound, with no apparent distortions or sibilant harshness etc. I can't say any more about the default "out of the box" WS55 sound, since the remainder of this review will assume the EQ settings specified above. Putting this differently, without the EQ I'd have to give up and end the review here.

    Continuing (with the specified EQ), the bass seems quite good, with plenty of detail and satisfactory tonality. Besides the music tracks listed below, I use the track "Rock You Gently" by Jennifer Warnes as a good test for bass impact and detail, and the WS55 passes that test with no issues. The WS55 midrange has no issues either - colorations are extremely small or nonexistent. The treble is where the extreme EQ was applied, and while the result is good and smooth, the treble detail isn't as good as some other headphones whose price is around $100 - the Shure SRH440 and Beyerdynamic DTX501p for example. Still, I find it good for average hi-fi listening.

    The earpads are a low-cost plastic, unlike the leather or pleather earpads of the ESW9a, yet they don't seem to have any negative effect on the bass even though they don't form as good a seal as the more expensive earpads. In fact, the WS55 earpads may be advantageous to people who use the headphone in warm and humid environments - since they don't tend to seal to the head as much as the pleather or velour etc. earpads, they're likely to be more comfortable in those warm and humid climates. The 4 foot long dual-entry cable seems sturdy, but is not detachable, and the strain-reliefs seem loose and almost disconnected from the earcups, which doesn't inspire confidence on my part. The WS55 doesn't come with a carry case, but since the earcups fold flat, there are some low-profile and stiff carry cases available online that will protect this headphone when carried in luggage.

    The WS55's isolation is nearly average for a closed headphone, which will probably be OK for home use with TV, A/C, or other appliances making their typical noises, but the isolation will not likely be satisfactory for use in noisy environments such as public transport. The leakage is fairly low, and if used in a very quiet office at moderate volumes, it might be acceptable there. 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 WS55 plays the different types of music listed here compared to other headphones. 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 WS55 compares with each individual track.
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    ATH WS55 review part 2 - music tracks

    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has good detail and tone with a strong weight, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The WS55 plays this very 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 very well by the WS55.

    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 really feel the weight they carry.

    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 WS55 plays this music perfectly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the WS55.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The WS55 plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight to sound very natural, yet there is very little 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 WS55 reproduces the space and detail convincingly.

    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 WS55 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The WS55 plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are detailed but not sharp or edgy.

    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 realistic.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The WS55 reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed, albeit a little weak.

    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 WS55 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 and feel that indicates a good deep-bass response. Overall, the WS55 plays this music pretty well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has very good detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The WS55 makes this track enjoyable.

    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 WS55. 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.

    Human League - Keep Feeling Fascination (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's bass line is very detailed, but the somewhat forward voices don't have quite the "you are there" quality of the Heaven 17 track noted above.

    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 WS55 provides good detail. 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 instrument separation and detail, and the WS55 does those 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 WS55 sound is somewhat boomy, but there is plenty of the 16 hz fundamental under the upper bass boom.

    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 2014, 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 WS55 is an excellent example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    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 WS55.

    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 WS55 reproduces those sound effects very well.

    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 WS55 conveys some of that experience, but the muddiness or other lack of detail in the deep bass lessens the realism.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the WS55 renders the tones and transients fairly well.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are quite strong, and work very well with the horns and other instruments. The WS55 delivers the impacts with a strong weight and good detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.

    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 fairly soft, and while the bass isn't very deep, it 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.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2014

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