As long-term Playback readers know, we are in the midst of a program to review top-tier models from all the well-respected headphone manufacturers, and thus far 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 has long-standing expertise as a headphone manufacturer and has won a loyal following among those in the know.
Naturally, we chose A-T’s top-of-the-line model—the ATH-W5000 Raffinato—for this test. Nominally this model is priced at $1669.95, but you should check actual street pricing before crossing these off your list, even if you are shopping in the $600 range.
Consider this headphone if: you want a closed headphone with an emphasis on transparency and instrumental separation, while retaining a basically balanced sound
Look further if: you place unbending priority on frequency extension and/or smoothness
Ratings (relative to comparably priced headphones):
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.
With the A-T 5000s your initial impression is of balanced transparency. You generally feel that you’ve moved a step closer to the music with these headphones. It is almost like moving closer to the stage, not because the music gets louder, but because instrumental delineation improves just as it does when you are able to listen from up close.
The A-T 5000s also have good macro tonal balance. What I mean by this 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, at least relative to the sound of live music.
Over the course of my listening test, I noticed a possibly endearing quality behind the A-T 5000’s sense of balance. Across most of the midrange the 5000s sound quite vivid (delivering 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 as well balanced, though they often (almost always) sound as if something is missing in the midrange. In contrast, the 5000s sound quite present, maybe even forward, in the upper mid-range and quite flat in the remainder of the mid-band. This forwardness is a smidgeon too strong (you’ll hear elevated levels of midrange and upper midrange energy, at least with some amps) but it gives an excellent sense of transparency, albeit with some loss of naturalness. I think that a little extra midrange energy (as observed in some Grado headphones and in these A-Ts) is less distracting from the sense of musical realism than is the reduced (or slightly recessed) midrange common on other ‘phones (e.g., some Sennheisers). You may feel the opposite (this is not an issue of taste, per se, but more about how you perceive sonic realism triggers and inhibitors).