Prices: $80 to $250 (MSRP shown after model number; lower prices online)
It’s not often we have the opportunity to test a range of headphones across any given manufacturer’s range. For this group test we received four sets. All model names are prefixed ATH- to identify them as Audio-Technica products, but omitted here for improved readability. Clockwise starting in the top left of the photo they are:
WS99BT over-ear; S700BT over-ear; CKS55XBT in-ear; SPORT4BK in-ear.
All are Bluetooth enabled and the sports designated model is washable (not waterproof) under running water. All are equipped with a microphone and controls that allow you to wirelessly answer/end calls, control music, and adjust the volume level on compatible Bluetooth devices. The two over-ear devices are cable-connectable to conventional outputting devices in the absence of a Bluetooth signal.
The sets themselves are shown below. Visiting the Audio-Technica website is recommended. The webpages may not look like advertisements from glossy magazines. There are no beautiful people in extravagant surroundings living the good life. These webpages are much more useful for potential purchasers. Each product has its own overview, feature list, specification sheet, and user manual download section. Clickable images give access to high resolution images for each model. MSRP (suggested retail) prices are given, but lower prices are available from discount sellers.
The webpages have an ‘AnswerBox’ knowledge base type of facility for your questions. Most straightforward questions seemed to have received straightforward answers. Where the question was more complex or open to misunderstanding, an email address for support or service was given.
Our search for a local dealer was less than successful, even though the USA list is very long. Audio-Technica advises that you purchase only from their dealers. “Well of course they do!” we hear you say. This is good advice, however, in view of the rising number of reports of online sellers distributing counterfeit versions of well-known brands. Some of these outlets are household names, not just nonentities. We have seen no reports of the Audio-Technica brand being specifically affected, but better safe than sorry.
The USA list of authorized dealers contains more than one hundred dealers with online presences, so we suggest you pick from that list. Nothing beats trying before you buy, but if online is the only option available, then you will find that at least one giant online warehousing operation is on the list.
Out of the box, the fit and finish quality of all these headsets was immediately obvious. Audio performance was up to the standard expected from a major name brand manufacturer. For those who are interested in such things, the test music was the Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott album ’Songs from the Arc of Life’; Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, ’The Great’, from the four CD set by the Staatskapelle Dresden conducted by Sir Colin Davis of Schubert’s symphonies nºs 1-6 and 8-9; the 1991 remastering of the Pink Floyd 1977 album ‘Animals’.
If, as we have read, Bluetooth imposes some technical limitations on performance then that was not evident in any of the four review models. All passed the ‘walk to the bathroom’ test; the SPORT4BK model even survived the ‘step into the shower test’, which was a slightly unnnerving experience.
Here are the model by model review notes with the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price in US dollars) in parentheses after the model designation. The links are to the USA specific sections of the Audio-Technica website and to products that may be USA-specific, although you can easily navigate to the section of the website specific to different areas of the world using the location bar switcher in the top right of the webpage.
These circumaural (aka over-ear) studio monitor style ’cans’ are one of the most comfortable we have ever worn. They quickly joined our ‘favorite’ list along with other highly prized possessions that have stood the test of time. Most of that resulted from the comfort experienced by the gentle clamping and soft finishings on the headband and the round ear cups. The size adjusters are silky smooth and the headphones were comfortable for all the users we offered them to, irrespective of the varying head/ear dimensions of individual test subjects.
The controls take a little getting used to, but nothing that a little practice will not fix. The controls on the S700BT model are much easier to use.
We expected the sound might be base-enhanced given the ‘Solid Bass’ designation, but the actual experience was delightfully spare and neutral. That translates into low listening fatigue during extended use. Remarkably, the usual overheating experienced from the ‘ear-muff’ effect of the design was quite low. The overall feature set makes this an ideal set for relaxed armchair listening.
Although differentiated from the previous model by price, this set offers a quite different user experience. The ear cups are oval, which some users may find gives a better fit. The same soft padding as the previous model is evident, but the adjusters are click stopped. If the previous model was suitable for armchair listening, then this model is more suited if you plan on moving around while you listen. The clamping is slightly firmer than the WS99BT, but still not forceful enough to induce discomfort.
The controls are knobbier on this model, as befits the way they will be used on the go. Although they box illustration makes their color look a a military olive drab, they are black, but the red ear cup linings do make them highly visible to the across a room, but without drawing attention when they are in use. The same lay-flat design and carrying pouch make them easy to transport.
The designation assigned by the manufacturer for this set is SonicFuel. We were able to detect a slightly brighter sound.
The same Solid Bass designation used for the WS99BT studio monitor style is assigned by the manufacturer to these in-ear buds. We were a little dubious that the implied comparison would be valid. In fact the experience was a revelation. The reproduction is crisp and clear without being skewed to the treble or bass ends of the sound spectrum. The spec sheet mentions a Double Air Chamber System, which it is claimed “naturally expands bass output for powerful bass”. That might suggest a boombox effect. Certainly there is enough bass to avoid the tinniness sometimes experienced with low end in-ear headphones, but the effect is well controlled and produces a smooth, enjoyable sound experience.
Designed for sports and outdoor use, these in-ear headphones can be washed under running water, but don’t get carried away because they are specifically rated as not completely waterproof. It is probably best to think of this feature as a way to allow use in the rain and to keep the set clean after rigorous exercise. The high visibility color flashes make them easy to locate and are consistent with the context in which one might expect them to be used.
Additional soft sizing buds are a welcome feature: two types are included, one for noise isolation and the other for allowing some ambient noise as a safety feature. The model is designated SonicSport and although that may be a fanciful marketing term the robust sound is certainly in keeping with the description. The fit seems clumsy at first, but once the memory capability of the flexible cables has been mastered, most users will find the devices comfortable and secure for exercising.
Brand-name manufacturers strive to create awareness, appeal, satisfaction after purchase, and ultimately a brand loyalty that brings existing customers back for more. Audio-Technica have undoubtedly earned themselves a place in the top rank. If any of these four models fit your specification list and fall within at your budget price range, then you may buy with confidence at a very low risk of buyer remorse.
MyMac rating across the range is a solid 9 out of 10