Audio-Technica ATH-W1000X Grandioso Headphone (Playback 46)

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Audio-Technica ATH-W1000X
Audio-Technica ATH-W1000X Grandioso Headphone (Playback 46)

Audio-Technica’s ATH-W1000X “Grandioso” headphone ($699.99) debuted at the CES 2011 show this past January, and from the moment I first heard it I felt that the firm was on to something special. Right off the bat, two things surprised me about the W1000X. First, I noted that it was priced significantly below Audio-Technica’s flagship ATH-W5000 “Raffinato” headphone (now priced at $1199.99), and second, my initial “snap” impression was that the Grandioso offered sound quality that rivaled, and in some respects, surpassed that of its more costly big brother. The big question, of course, is whether those first impressions would hold up over a longer term listening test, and the answer is that—for the most part—they have. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the appeal of an upper-tier product that offers flagship-like performance at a much lower price.

Before we delve deep into the sound of the W1000X, let me provide a bit of background. Let’s start by noting that the W1000X marks the 10th-generation evolution of Audio-Technica’s top-tier W-series headphones—headphones that, judging by Internet buzz, have developed something of a cult following worldwide. Next let’s note that the W1000X looks the business, complete with closed-back ear cups fashioned from solid hardwoods. Finally, let’s observe that, in terms of key features and construction details, the ATH-W1000X could easily pass for an even more expensive model.

FEATURES

  • Closed-back design: The ATH-W1000X Grandioso is, much like the flagship ATH-W5000 Raffinato, a closed-back, circumaural headphone whose ear cups are made of “pure American Black Cherry Wood”—a material Audio-Technica believes helps to foster “magnificent natural playback.” Audio-Technica adds that the Grandioso also features a “floating mount system (that) enhances the natural qualities of the wooden housings.”
  • Frame and damping system: Drawing a few more pages from the Raffinato’s design brief, the ATH-W1000X features a “lightweight magnesium alloy frame with integrated baffle,” and also provides a “special D.A.D.S. (double air damping system)” that “delivers more linear sound.”
  • Driver technology: The ATH-W1000X features, as does the W5000, “large 53mm aperture drivers.” In the case of the ATH-W1000X, those drivers also incorporate “specially built 2-part magnetic circuits that produce high speed magnetic streams for improved sound quality.” The voice coils for the headphone’s drivers are wound from “OFC-6N” high-purity copper.
  • High-quality signal cables/connectors: Audio-Technica has paid close attention to details involving wiring throughout the Grandioso. Thus, the signal cables feature PC-OCC (pure crystal, Ohno continuous cast) conductor wires housed in an “elastomer sheath.” The signal cable plug features gold-plated conductors and bushings, while the plug body is fashioned from wood, and finished to match the headphone’s Black Cherry ear cups.
  • Comfort: As a signature design touch, the ATH-W1000X features Audio-Technica’s familiar “3D wing support” system, which provides, says A-T, “a great fit and long-wearing comfort.” In a nutshell, the 3D wing system foregoes a traditional padded, adjustable headband and provides instead a pair of articulated suspension pads that rest directly on top of the wearer’s head. The real genius of the system is that those pads are free to swivel and move freely, providing front-to-back, side-to-side, and up-and-down adjustments that enable the ‘phones to comfortably accommodate a very wide range of head sizes and shapes. In our experience, the 3D wing system really works, almost creating the illusion that the ‘phones are in a sense “floating” above your head, with only the ear cups and pads making contact with the sides of your head and ears. It’s a great system.

SONIC CHARACTER

One the best ways to approach the sound of the ATH-W1000X Grandioso is to begin by understanding both the strengths and weaknesses of the ATH-W5000 Raffinato (click here to read Tom Martin’s review from Playback 28). In highly condensed form, Tom’s take on the Raffinato was that it offered “balanced transparency,” a very slightly midrange-forward sound, or what Tom would call an “n-shaped” response curve (as opposed to a “u-shaped” curve), a really striking degree of midrange vividness, and bass that, though adequate, could at times seem lacking in the Nth-degree of definition and very low-frequency extension. Using that description as a baseline, let’s now move forward to see how the ATH-W1000X Grandioso is both similar to yet also different from the Raffinato.

Tom’s description of the Raffinato could, in broad strokes, also fit the Grandioso—especially the part about the headphone offering an impressive degree of midrange vividness and focus. If I had to come up with two descriptors for the Grandioso’s sonic persona the words I might choose would be “voluptuous” and “seductive”; this is one of those headphones that, like certain types of photographic film (from back in the day when most cameras still used film), tends to make tonal colors seem a little bit purer and more vivid, vibrant, and intense than they appear in real life. Some might argue, perhaps correctly, that this kind of sonic vividness may be the result of an artificial set of colorations of some kind, but even so there is no denying the appeal of the sound, since it tends to make many kinds of music seem more powerful, intimate, and alive.

The Grandioso’s midrange vividness does, at least on some recordings, come with a few sonic “strings attached,” in the sense that it can tend to accentuate any traces of upper midrange edginess or glare that may be present in the mix. On the other hand, the ATH-W1000X also manages to make most records sound subtly more expressive than they otherwise might.

The ATH-W1000X’s treble response is reasonably well extended, but not quite as silky smooth or refined as the highs produced by some of the best ‘phones in its price class (e.g., the HiFiMAN HE-5LE). The tradeoff, though, is that the Grandioso does a very good job of revealing treble details—in particular, the leading edges of treble transient sounds.

I would say that, on the whole, the Grandioso’s bass might be a bit tighter and better defined than that of the Raffinato, although the two are pretty close. One point to note is that the ATH-W1000X does a great job of conveying the wallop and drive of instruments that are rich in mid-bass output, such as bass guitars, kick drums and the like. But where the Raffinato could sometimes seem a little loose and lacking in definition when playing down low, the ATH-W1000X now offers a somewhat greater degree of low-frequency pitch definition and thus takes a step forward in overall bass clarity.

The good news here is that the ATH-W1000X captures much if not all of the sonic appeal of the ATH-W5000, but at a significantly lower price, and while upping the ante with a few new sonic advancements of its own.

MUSICAL EXAMPLES

To hear the Grandioso’s newfound bass definition in action, not to mention its signature vivid midranges, try playing the first movement (Prelude: Andante) of the Copland Organ Symphony as performed by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media, SACD). The movement features a lovely, slowly unfolding pipe organ passage where the upper register of the organ states a rising them even as low pedal notes sound a descending theme. This is the sort of passage that can and often does exposé bass problems in headphones (or, for that matter, loudspeakers), yet the Grandiosos handled the passage gracefully, delivering a good measure of bass clarity while preserving upper range clarity and vividness. Could other ‘phones have produced an even tighter, clearer and better-defined rendition of the pipe organ pedal notes? Perhaps a few headphones might have offered superior low-end performance, but most of the ones that could do so also turn out to cost more than the Grandioso.

To understand both the benefits, but also potential drawbacks, of the Grandioso’s vivid midrange sound, trying listening to a modern, non-audiophile-grade studio-made pop recording, such as “Fading” from Jewel’s Sweet and Wild [Valory]. In keeping with typical studio practice these days, Jewel’s vocals are very closely mic’d, so that you not only enjoy a certain kind of “hyper-clarity,” but are also subjected to more than a few moments where the singer’s voice sounds overly hot, glassy, and hard-edged. The good news is that the ATH-W1000X powerfully renders the ultra-clear vocals in an intense, emotionally compelling way. The not-so-good news, however, is that the Grandioso’s signature midrange vividness also makes the track’s overly hot, glassy sound seem painfully over-the-top at times.

Even so, check out the ultra high-energy sound of Jewel’s backing band tearing into the song’s terrific chorus with a vengeance. Their sheer energy and drive, which are beautifully rendered by the Grandioso’s, make the whole track worthwhile—sonic worts and all. And that’s the beauty of these headphones; when power and vividness are what the music calls for, the Grandioso delivers in a big way.

CONCLUSION

Consider this headphone if: you favor a reasonably accurately balance sound, but one that in particular makes the midrange of the music sound especially vivid, intimate, and intense. Note, too, that the Grandioso looks great, appears to be very well made, is extremely comfortable (and fits a variety of head sizes and shapes), and is relatively easy to drive, which many top-tier headphones are not. Oh, and did we mention that, while certainly not cheap, the ATH-W1000X offers very good value for money?

Look further if: you are a stickler for strict textbook accuracy and a true what-you-hear-is-what’s-on-the-record approach to music reproduction. The deal, here, is that the same qualities that make the Grandioso sound vivid and intense can—at times—make it sound just a little too colorful for its own good.

Ratings (relative to comparably priced headphones):

Tonal Balance: 9
Clarity: 9
Dynamics: 8.5
Comfort/Fit: 10 (Audio-Technica’s 3D wing support system feels great)
Sensitivity: 9.5
Noise Isolation: 7.5 (though it’s a closed-back design, the Grandioso still lets a certain amount of room noise through)
Value: 9

BOTTOM LINE:

Audio-Technica’s ATH-W1000X Grandioso headphone channels much of the sonic goodness of the firm’s flagship ATH-W5000 Raffinato model, but at lower price, and with a handful of worthwhile sonic advancements of its own (especially in terms of bass clarity). If you favor a headphone that makes tonal colors seem more vivid and pure than they otherwise might, the Grandioso could be a good choice for you.

SPECS & PRICING

Audio-Technica ATH-W1000X Headphone
Frequency Response: 5Hz – 42kHz
Drivers: 53mm aperture drivers
Sensitivity: 100dB/1mW
Impedance: 42 Ohms
Weight: 350 grams
Warranty: Not specified.
Price: $699.99

Audio-Technica U.S. Inc.
(330) 686-2200
www.audio-technica.com

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