Last autumn saw the unveiling of an all-new flagship circumaural open-back from Audio Technica in their esteemed Air Dynamic (AD) series of headphones. Combining Japanese craftsmanship and state-of-the art audio engineering, the ATH-ADX5000 is claimed not only to be the finest audiophile headphone AT has ever produced but to also more widely represent “a new reference in home audio listening”. I was of course eager to put this bold claim to the test and discover whether AT’s latest effort will elevate its standing in what has in recent times become a fiercely competitive marketplace.
Retailing at £1,990, the ATH-ADX5000 is Audio Technica’s most expensive open-back headphone to date and the first to reach four figures. To provide some context, Sennheiser’s current flagship open-back, the HD800S is £1,395, Focal’s recently released Clear is also £1,395, and MrSpeakers Ether Flow is £1,595. At the very top end of the market you have the likes of the Focal Utopia, Audeze LCD-4 and Stax SR-009 which retail at or around £3.5k. The ADX5000 faces stiff competition in this increasingly crowded market segment and, costing more than twice its predecessor (the ATH-AD2000X), the pressure is most certainly on it to deliver the goods.
Assembled by hand in Tokyo, the ADX5000 features innovations that set it apart from what has gone before. At its heart is a unique integrated driver design in which the diaphragm, voice coil, baffle and magnet are built as one piece. Not only is this supposed to minimise unwanted vibrations that may colour the sound, it also sheds weight by eliminating fixings. The dynamic drive unit uses Permendur magnetic circuitry to control a large but lightweight 58mm diaphragm that has been coated in tungsten to improve transient response and minimise power loss. AT’s newly developed Core Mount Technology has been used to optimise the position of the drive unit within the housing. This is claimed to improve airflow efficiency and, as a result, “increase the transparency of mid and high frequencies” whilst producing a low end that is both “rich and precise”. The drivers are encased in a punched honeycomb lattice that is rear-vented to deliver a natural, open sound, but closed off at the sides to prevent a loss of air pressure that would otherwise be detrimental to full-range performance. All of these advances amount to an earspeaker that covers an exceptionally wide frequency range from 5Hz to 50kHz and is fully-equipped to harness the benefits of hi-res audio.
The ADX5000’s 420 ohm impedance is typical of a move amongst top-end open-back dynamic headphones to high impedance drive units. This is sure to please purists who believe thinner voice coils are the key to delivering a more responsive and resolving presentation, and it guarantees compatibility with both solid state and OTL valve amplification. It does however mean portable digital audio players that can’t swing much output voltage will struggle to power this headphone cleanly, despite its 100dB/mW sensitivity. A MacBook drives it surprisingly well to be fair, but an iPod reveals audible strain. As you will discover shortly, the ADX is capable of such remarkable transparency and resolve that it ultimately deserves to be paired with an equally capable source.
Low fat comfort
Headphone manufacturers are increasingly appreciating the importance of product presentation – or the ‘unboxing experience’ as it is now called – especially in their high-end models. The ADX5000 ships in a huge pristine white box that contains a hard carry case with handle, inside of which the product beds snugly in black satin. The 5000 retains similar styling to previous ATH-AD models and is immediately recognisable as an Audio Technica headphone. Although the circular earcups and skeletal structure give a somewhat retro and utilitarian appearance, the materials used its construction are cutting edge – none more so than the magnesium frame chosen for its slimness and strength – and have produced a headphone that weighs just 270g. Upon inspection, there isn’t a gram of fat anywhere.
I did have initial reservations about the headband, which offers little cushioning other than that provided by the Alcantara it is covered in. To my surprise, it is actually very pleasant on the head. In fact I’d go as far as to say it is one of the most comfortable designs I have worn. Assisted by a reassuringly secure clamping force, the headband rests lightly, distributes weight evenly and – thanks to its parallel design – avoids the pressure spot on top of my head. The over ear pads are clad in luxurious Alcantara which is breathable and remains comfortable against the skin, even during lengthy listening binges. The pads have 60mm circular apertures and are compliant enough to conform to the wearer whilst preventing the ears from touching the inner grilles, giving this headphone a snug yet sufficiently roomy feel when worn.
AT’s new flagship open-back ships with a 3 metre single-ended cable made from 6N-OFC and terminated with gold-plated A2DC connectors that plug in to the base of each earcup and a standard 6.3mm gold-plated TRS jack. A fully balanced cable with an Neutrik XLR plug will be available in the UK in the coming weeks for £290 (details at end of review); pricey but worth the investment if your amp is inherently balanced and you wish to wring every last drop of performance from its pairing with this highly capable headphone.
Both cables are sheathed in durable nylon fabric which, according to AT, is specially selected to “reduce friction and noise” and contains an elastomer inside the sheath to “suppress vibration”. As wearers have varying sensitivities to cable microphonics, it is difficult for headphone manufacturers to offer a solution that pleases everyone. I’d prefer a softer, smoother sleeve made from PVC or neoprene to be used, as it is in my experience quieter when it rubs against clothing than a woven sheathing. The single-ended cable is liberatingly lightweight and adds very little mass to the already svelte headset. The balanced cable on the other hand carries some unnecessary girth below the Y-junction and has a tendency to tug on the earcups unless its weight is supported.
Crisp and clean
My solid state headphone amp of choice at the moment is the Schiit Jotunheim, a single-ended and balanced drive design that has negligible output impedance and enough power to drive almost any ‘phone. Its pivot-point topology provides an exceptionally low noise floor, fast transient response and grippy low end that is comparable to conventional designs I’ve auditioned at higher price points. Listening to the ADX through the Jotunheim, fed by the latest version of Schiit’s flagship Yggdrasil multibit DAC, my first reaction was one of marvel at just how much detail can be extracted even from the humble 16/44.1 CD. Such a feat relies on a very high level of resolve from every component in the system, and it was evident that the 5000 is able to communicate all of the information this highly revealing playback chain nourishes it with.
As a self-confessed audiophile, the suspension of disbelief is unfortunately not a virtue that comes naturally. The quality that most often stands out upon initial audition is tonal balance and, even if there’s only a minor colouration, my ears need time to acclimatise before I’m able to shift attention onto more nuanced aspects of the presentation. I was however so taken aback by the ADX’s stunning ability to resolve fine details that I really had to make a conscious effort to focus on its timbral balance. This is because it deviates only a little from what I would consider a neutral tuning, displaying a subtle lift through the treble region and gentle droop in the lower mids.
With its super fast transient response, the ADX’s presentation is very crisp and clean, it veers more towards the ‘analytical’ (à la Sennheiser HD800S) than ‘musical’ (à la Focal Utopia). The mids and bass however carry just enough presence and dynamic impact to maintain balance and prevent this headphone from sounding lean or distant. Audio Technica’s promise of increased midrange transparency and rich, precise bass is most certainly delivered by its new statement open-back. The upper mids in particular are exceptionally linear and lend an exquisite sense of air and openness to strings and the female voice, and the agility, slam and extension of the low frequencies is mightily impressive for a dynamic open-back design. What’s more, this headphone is one of the few of its ilk that can be used at reduced levels without sacrificing either low-level detail retrieval or visceral impact. Usually one aspect is compromised but, impressively, the ADX5000 is able to preserve both and remains satisfyingly articulate and tangible across the spectrum.
The ADX performs convincingly on all of the genres of music I typically listen to, both tonally and spatially. Its soundstaging may not be expansively wide like the Sennheiser HD800/S for example, but it has a very natural, spherical distribution and is realistic in size for most genres. I particularly enjoyed the time spent listening to Mike Valentine’s Chasing The Dragon series of binaural recordings, in which every discreet breath, rustle of sheet music, and contact of rosin-treated horsehair bow against string is imaged and distanced in stunning detail by these headphones.
To assess how AT’s new flagship responds to different amplification I also paired it with the Schiit Mjolnir 2, a high-powered tube-hybrid headphone amp I use when I wish to depart from the speed and neutrality of solid state and alter the sonic presentation by ‘rolling’ preamp tubes. I found the ADX5000 to be very amenable and chameleon-like in its ability to reflect the subtle changes brought by swapping said tubes, whether it be tonal euphony, a re-sizing of the soundstage, or a softening of transient response. Such observations are once again testament to this earspeaker’s exceptional transparency to its source.
Audio Technica’s all-new ATH-ADX5000 quite possibly sets a new benchmark in audiophile, open-back dynamic headphones. The ADX5000 is a certifiably reference quality earspeaker that delivers crisp response, realistic soundstage and truly exceptional resolve, with the bonus of an articulate low end that has satisfying extension and slam. Priced at just under £2,000, it represents strong value and is likely to disrupt the current natural order in the audiophile headphone market. The 5000 has in fact impressed me so much I anticipate a soul-searching reassessment of my own headphone inventory in the very near future.
I also had a listen to this beutfiully executed headphone but not being an expert in this field left the lion’s share of the review to Richard. I discovered early on that it needs a better headphone amp than is found on many audio components but once you get up to the likes of Chord’s DAVEDAC it starts to deliver fabulous results. This pairing created a very strong sense of realism and presence that made for a pretty intense listening experience. I also took the opportunity to try the headphone amp on a Merging Player + Powercombo, a very high end Swiss streamer/DAC and power supply. The result with the ATs was calm, effortless and properly good, sounding open, detailed and three dimensional.
I was also able to borrow the partnering AT-HA5050H headphone amplifier from Audio Technica, this retro styled beauty has a lot of features with which to get the best match with a given headphone and naturally works a treat with the 5000s. The pairing produced a result that was truly magical in its realism with loads of space from a live recording and a strong sense of immediacy in the context of a relaxed presentation. Great music becomes a pure escape when played through these headphones, they respond to the character of the source and amplifier with incredible transparency and have apparently nothing in the way of overhang or smear, either of detail or timing. I’ve not had the experience that Richard has with headphones but this is easily the most inspiring I’ve tried.
Source/s: Mac Mini 2010, MacBook Pro 2015, iPod 6th Generation
Software: Mac OS 10.11.6, Audirvana Plus 2.6.8, iTunes 12.7
DAC/s: Schiit Yggdrasil (Analog v2 & USB v5)
Headphone amplifier/s: Schiit Jotunheim, Schiit Mjolnir 2