By Mike Metlay
Audio-Technica has been in the business of consumer and sports in-ear monitoring for quite a while, and is also a well-respected name in the world of professional studio headphones for decades. I suppose it was only a matter of time before the two worlds came together in a lineup of professional-grade in-ear monitor headphones for stage and studio, and at the Winter NAMM Show last January, they did just that.
Audio-Technica announced The E Series, a range of three new pro in-ear monitors with three different driver designs: the push-pull ATH-E40, the single-armature ATH-E50, and the triple-armature ATH-E70. The line offers pro-friendly features and performance to suit any budget and please even the most demanding ears. I was lucky enough to have all three sets for several weeks, and thoroughly enjoyed reviewing them.
All three E-Series models come with a new cable design called A2DC (Audio Designed Detachable Coaxial). In plain English, the cables are easy to attach and detach with a firm push or pull, and they can swivel in place while you’re putting them in and wearing them. That means no more stressing the cable with repeated use, and trivially simple replacement of worn-out cables in the field. The cables end in sections with moldable wires that hook over the ears and offer a secure fit.
The enclosures for the drivers are designed for impressive sound isolation; combined with properly fitted ear inserts, I would roughly estimate that they offer at least 15 dB of outside noise reduction, more at high frequencies. Each model comes with a 1.6-meter (5.2’) cable ending in a right-angle miniplug; there’s a snap-on 1/4” adaptor included, gold-plated like the miniplug, and each model comes with a set of four sizes of silicone eartips for a custom fit (including a rare but much-appreciated XS size).
What’s different between the three? Their driver design and their sound. Read on…
The ATH-E40 represents the entry level of the new line, and it’s a very impressive in-ear for the price. The ATH-E40 has a dual phase push-pull driver that offers surprising clarity and range at the small expense of a slightly larger and bulkier enclosure than those of the other two models. Specs include a 20 Hz–20 kHz frequency response, a sensitivity of 107 dB/mW, and a vanishingly small 12Ω impedance, meaning these headphones get really loud really fast, even when being fed by the comparatively wimpy headphone amplifiers in consumer electronics gear.
In terms of sound, the ATH-E40 is a solid performer with clear and noticeably forward mids, balanced bass, and treble extension that’s crisp without being hashy. For want of a better word, I would call its presentation “believable”—there’s not a lot of hype in the highs, and the lows, while solid, aren’t muddy or overwhelming. Intelligibility in vocals is very good, and the vital midrange presents electric and acoustic guitars, drums, winds/brasses, and keyboards with good detail. The unusual drivers deliver what’s needed with panache, at a price that will draw in many musicians who are curious to try a high-performance in-ear monitor.
The ATH-E50 is a significant step up from the ATH-E40 in both price and sound quality. A single balanced armature design, it sits snugly in the ear and practically disappears, with the clear window showing its innards about all that’s visible when worn. Its specs include a frequency response of 20 Hz to 18 kHz, 107 dB/mW sensitivity, and 44Ω impedance. It requires a bit more beef than the ATH-E40, but will still deliver a lot of level from a small headphone amp.
The ATH-E50’s sound is balanced, clear, and detailed in all registers. It’s remarkable how the low end thumps yet presents its information clearly, and the highs are smooth as silk and nicely in balance with the mids and lows. The midrange is nowhere near as forward as that of the ATH-E40, presenting lots of detail without causing the mids to dominate the mix. This is an in-ear that you could easily work with in a field recording situation and be confident of your results; it combines excellent isolation with a soundstage that’s broad, immersive, and full of rich detail and clarity. Really impressive!
Even as the ATH-E50 is twice the price of the ATH-E40, the price of the ATH-E70 doubles yet again, and it’s hard to believe that one would instantly hear a doubling of sound quality… yeah, well, color me stunned. The ATH-E70 is a triple balanced armature design, a bit bulkier than the ATH-E50 but still well-fitted to the ear, still presenting its inner workings with that sexy window on each earpiece.
The ATH-E70 has pretty much the same appointments as the other two models, but comes with a more supple clear cable and a set of Comply (complyfoam.com) closed-cell foam eartips in addition to the four silicone sets. Specs include 20 Hz–19 kHz frequency response, a whopping 109 dB/mW sensitivity, and a 39Ω impedance that matches well with pretty much any headphone amp out there.
When listening to the ATH-E70, you stop hearing the clean, focused, balanced presentation of the ATH-E50, and you start hearing the music and the mix, no more and no less. The soundstage is incredibly wide and airy, bass is solid and powerful, mids are tight and detailed, and the highs are sweet and clear… and when you put it all together, it equates to a listening experience that places it in company with high-end professional headphones.
Let me present an example of what I mean. Part of my go-to reference library for headphone and speaker reviews is a live album by one of my favorite artists, recorded decades ago while on a fairly small-scale tour and originally only available to his fan club. On the ATH-E40, you find yourself grooving to the solid bass, the laidback and clear guitars, and the quirky and distinctive lead vocals. On the ATH-E50, you hear the entire mix snap together into a clear and exquisitely detailed whole, with every tiny nuance easy to pick out. On the ATH-E70, you hear that the recording was a board tape reinforced with a couple of audience mics and the mixing engineer did something weird with the bass’s EQ and the kick drum wasn’t tuned properly and the backing vocalists were too far off mic and… you get the idea?
Audio-Technica’s first foray into pro in-ears is a smashing success. The ATH-E40 is an unusual but very solid contender in the entry-level pro in-ear market, one that will attract a lot of attention with its unique driver design. The ATH-E50 is a studio-ready in-ear for serious mixing, delivering exceptional audio performance for its price. And the ATH-E70, well, it’s just a revelation… one of the very best in-ears I’ve heard to date. No matter which E-Series model you choose, there’s a great performer in this line that will meet your needs and then some.
Prices: ATH-E40, $99; ATH-E50, $199; ATH-E70, $399
More from: Audio-Technica, www.audio-technica.com