Up until recently, my main studio monitoring headphones have been a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M40fs’s. I bought them in 2005 and have used them regularly ever since. However, headphone technology has improved a lot in 10 years, and the ATH-M40fs model has been discontinued anyway, so to find a credible alternative for new home studio users, or headphone upgraders, it was time for something new.
I’m a big fan of Audio-Technica gear, and I think the AT2020* is one of the best budget condenser microphones out there. It was only natural that I started looking for new headphones in the Audio-Technica range, but it turned out that my search was not very long.
Audio-Technica has updated their ATH-M studio headphone line in 2014, and there are now a total of five models, differing by price and features. The entry-level model ATH-M20X* is probably a good cheap pair for music listening, or for players and singers in the studio, if not critical studio mixing. At the other end of the spectrum there is the very serious and very expensive ATH-M70X* – at 299 € they were out of the question for this purpose.
The problem then becomes a decision between the more mid-range ATH-M30X*, ATH-M40X* and ATH-M50X*. Seriously, there are too many models in the range, but then again the 20-30 € respective price differences between them might matter for your budget.
After reading and watching a couple of reviews I came to the conclusion that the ATH-M50X is a little bit overkill, and the ATH-M30X is little more than the ATH-M20X. I figured that the sweet spot for me would be the Audio-Technica ATH-M40X*, so I plunged for a pair. There was a sale on, so I got them for 79 € (which really was a steal), but now the price is more like 115 €. Still, around or little over a hundred euros is a reasonable price for a quality pair of studio monitoring headphones. Other headphones in this price range include the AKG K-240 MKII* and the Sennheiser HD380 Pro*.
I have had my pair of ATH-M40X’s for about three months now, but due to all sorts of other activity, I’ve only gotten about three weeks worth of use from them so far. Still, I can comfortably say that as a music maker with both stationary and mobile requirements, I have made a good choice.
The sound quality is very good, with a specified frequency range of 15 Hz to 24 kHz. I suffer from slight hearing loss in the midrange anyway, so I’m not really qualified to judge accurately whether the headphones give any coloration to any part of the sound spectrum. There are some instrumental parts in recorded music that I struggle to pick out with a normal pair of stereo speakers, and I couldn’t discern them any better or any worse with these headphones. I have no problem with bass frequencies, though, and the ATH-M40X’s deliver – the bass is not over-emphasized, but it is enough to make your teeth rattle at high volume (not healthy!).
Comfort is right up there with sound quality in importance when it comes to selecting headphones. The ATH-M40X is a circumaural pair, which means the earcups go around your ears, not over them. These kinds of earcups are a must if you wear eyeglasses like me, or otherwise your listening sessions will be very painful. The earcups form a fairly good seal around the ear, and work to isolate outside noise well, which could be important if you have something else going on in your enviroment while you’re mixing or monitoring. To compare the ATH-M40X with my old pair of ATH-M40fs’s, the new ones fit much more snugly. It is by design – the ATH-M40fs’s have always been a little looser around the ears. The isolation and the closed-back build also stops the material you’re listening from bleeding to the outside, but it will be somewhat audible if the environment is very quiet and you listen at a loud volume.
The headband is not very thickly padded, but it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. The material of the earpads appears to be the same material as in the headband, and while it obviously isn’t real leather, it makes a fairly good impression. At least it’s a lot better than the thin and easily ripped pergament over cloth on the old ATH-M40fs’s, which crumbled and left tiny black flakes of material all over the place. I have yet to wear these headphones on a hot summer’s day, but I expect some sweating to be the norm. As with all decent professional headphones, you get spare parts if needed – replacement earpads* are about 10 € apiece.
Audio-Technica supplies you with a soft carrying pouch, a 6.3 mm jack adapter and two detachable cables: one 1.2-meter coiled cable and one 3 meter straight. The cable connects to the left ear cup (possibly a handy way to remember which side is left and which is right), and you should pay attention to the way the cable connector is inserted and then given a twist to secure it – don’t try to detach it without unlocking the jack first! Should you break only the cable and not the socket on the earcup, you can get replacement cables for under 20 euros (long straight cable*, short straight cable*, coiled cable*).
The ATH-M40X has an adjustable headband, with positions that lock well in place, but need just the right amount of force to shift them, so your adjustments are secured until you really want to change them. You will want to do this if you want to fold the headphones into their pouch, which is a regular origami-style exercise until you get the hang of it. It takes a little practice, or maybe I’m just a little bit spatially challenged. Either way, they will eventually fold fairly flat. The earcups rotate 90 degrees, so if you need to listen with just one ear like a DJ, you can do that, and it also allows you to also lower the headphones onto your neck comfortably.
The headphones weigh 241 grams without a cable, so you can comfomtably wear them for quite a long time – not that you should, but sometimes you must. Their impedance is 35 ohms, which gives you a decent sound power level even with the iPhone or iPad, which is important if you use these devices for music making or just listening. It is interesting to note that even professional headphones like these now default to the 3.5 mm jack on the cable, so you need to use the supplied adapter to connect them to most audio interfaces, but they plug straight into your MacBook, iPhone or iPad without it. The adapter twists into place instead of snapping, and I don’t believe it affects sound quality in any meaningful way.
I’m sure that some other studio monitoring headphones would give the ATH-M40X’s a run for their money, but I’ve found through experience that if something sounds and feels right, it usually is right. And since the price is reasonable, I’ve definitely found my sweet spot with this Audio-Technica model.
If you are looking for good studio monitoring headphones with a good price-performance ratio, and you trust my recommendation, then pop over to Musikhaus Thomann* and get yourself a pair. Links in this post leading to the Thomann web store are marked with a star like this*. I get some loyalty points if you buy from them, but I never plug products just for the sake of it. I actually use these things in my home studio, and have bought them with my own money. It makes me happy if you get a good deal and a good sound.
NOTE: The Musikhaus Thomann link above has an experimental redirector that tries to detect your country. Let me know how it works for you.