On Playback’s march through the well-respected headphones of the major manufacturers we haven’t yet tested a top model from Audio-Technica (we’ve covered other A-T models, though: click here to download Playback’s Headphone Buyer’s Guide). In a way that’s fitting because the Audio-Technica brand lies somewhere away from the center of the radar screen. Nonetheless, Audio-Technica is a long-standing headphone brand and has a following among those in the know.
Naturally, we chose A-T’s top-of-the-line model for this test. Nominally they cost $1669.95, but you should check actual street pricing before crossing these off your list, even if you are shopping in the $600 range.
The ATH-W5000 “Raffinato” offers some special features in keeping with its elevated positioning:
Those of you who’ve read my reviews in the past will know that I’m skeptical about the ability of reviewers and consumers to relate these feature lists to sound quality (years spent in E.E. and systems labs will do that to you), so we’ll leave the technology behind and get on with listening.
For this round of tests, I used the Esoteric DV-60 universal player as a source, and as always I ran the DAC in PCM>DSD mode since previous testing has revealed that to be the highest resolution mode for the Esoteric. The DV-60 was connected to a PS Audio GCHA amp and a Grace m902 amp/DAC via Audioquest Sidewinder interconnects. All the electronics were connected to a PS Audio Power Plant Premier on a dedicated 20 amp line.
My long-standing experience is that you can tell a lot about a component on first listen. But as a reviewer, you also learn that you can’t hear a behavior of a component until you feed a signal into it that triggers that behavior. Since I’m only part way into this test, I haven’t gone through some of my test discs. As a result, these remarks are preliminary.
With the A-T 5000s your initial impression is of balanced warmth. They sound like transparent headphones, with good macro balance. What I mean is that bass, midrange and treble are present in about the right amounts. I would add that the 5000s have what I've described in the past as an "n" shaped perceived response -- low bass and upper treble are reduced and mid-range is slightly emphasized. That statement is relative to the sound of live music. For a product comparison, consider the Sennheiser HD 800s, which have less relative midrange output, and more low bass and upper treble. I would characterize the HD800s as having a very slightly "u" shaped curve.
Over the course of my initial listening, I noticed another endearing quality behind the A-T 5000s sense of balance. Within most of the midrange the 5000s sound quite vivid (even octave-to-octave balance without major dropouts). When you switch to other headphones (I used the Sennheiser HD800s and the AKG 702 for this part of the test), the other headphones may seem roughly balanced but it almost always sounds like something is missing in the midrange. In contrast, the 5000s sound more present in the upper mid-range and quite flat in the remainder of the mid-band. I commented on a similar quality in the AKG 702s, and I think the A-Ts take this a step further (and the A-Ts have arguably a more accurate balance bottom to top). This additional step may be a smidgeon too strong (elevated mid-range and upper mid-range energy -- at least with some amps) but it sounds relatively natural with the tracks I've played so far; I intend to address this question in further listening.