November 26, 2017
This is going to be a long review, so try to hang in there and read to the end, I promise it's worth it!
Alright, so chances are, you're looking at buying the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x most likely because of one of three reasons: A friend that has never listened to genuinely good headphones before is telling you that these are way better than Beats by Dre, A YouTuber told you that these are way better than Beats by Dre and most other consumer grade headphones, or because you need a pair of headphones for audio monitoring. I'd say almost 90% of people aren't buying the M50x for that last reason, which is the main problem here. Not so much the headphones themselves, but the reason people are buying them.
Countless amounts of people spend the majority of their lives listening to music with headphones and earbuds that are either cheap, tinny sounding trash or overpriced, consumer-grade "fashion cans" with overpowering bass. So it's only natural that when you go from something like that to something like the M50x which has waaaay more detail and clarity, you're going to think they're the bee's knees and that they knock everything else on the shelf at your local electronics store out of the ballpark. And for the most part, that's very true. The M50x have been regarded by many as the "Beats killers." And this is also true, they have better sound quality than even the most expensive Beats headphones, for around half the price. These headphones get compared to Beats quite a lot, if you haven't already figured it out.
BUT. There is unnecessary hype surrounding these headphones that has been built up by various people on YouTube who recommend these headphones for everyday use and gaming.
So here's the deal, I don't dislike the M50x. I respect the M50x for their original, intended purpose: audio monitoring. If you don't know what monitoring is, in simple terms, it is listening to audio recordings and analyzing them. In order to effectively do this, you need a pair of monitor headphones or monitor speakers that playback music with as much detail as possible.
So while these are indeed very good headphones for monitoring, they have several very important flaws that make them impractical for casual listening. I'm going to break things down into 3 main categories: Build, Comfort and Sound.
Build quality on the M50x is, for the most part, no issue here. The plastic feels sturdy and fairly thick, and the headband is metal, leading to an overall robust-feeling headphone that won't break unless you really try to. They fold up and the ear cups flip all the way backwards, so portability is very good. They also have a detachable cable which is great for portability. The fake leather on the headband and ear pads feel soft, but a bit cheap. Nothing deal-breaking for the price, in my opinion. But later on, the corners cut on the quality of the fake leather will bite you in the back when the pads and/or headband start flaking. The pads can be easily replaced, however. Overall, solid build quality but nothing amazing.
If you're anything like me and most audiophiles, you'll refuse to wear a pair of headphones that bother or hurt your ears, no matter how good the sound quality is. The M50x aren't super uncomfortable, but they're nothing close to being the absolute most comfortable. Anyone who says the M50x are "super-comfy" have probably been wearing concrete on their ears until they bought these. For a lot of people, the main reason these are uncomfortable are the cheap, poorly made ear pads. As mentioned in the build quality, they're made of a fake leather, which isn't a big deal. But the padding inside of them is, in my opinion, unacceptable. It's a cheap foam that has very little density to it. The second reason, which can fortunately be fixed for the most part, is the clamping force these have on your ears. When I first used these, the clamp wasn't terrible, but after 30 minutes of listening my ears starting hurting, also due to the bad ear pads. You should be able to fix this by stretching them across the box they came in and letting them sit there overnight, maybe a bit longer. This helped enough to relieve the clamp a fair amount for me.
Comfort can be improved a ton by buying different ear pads. However, doing this will affect sound quality, usually for the worst. More on that in the sound section. Overall they aren't exactly comfortable, but these headphones shouldn't be used for long listening sessions anyways. Which leads us to....
How to describe the sound in simple terms? Clear, detailed, accurate. But also harsh, fatiguing, and narrow. Do these sound better than all Beats by Dre headphones, yes. Not by an unbelievable amount, though. You won't have a life-changing experience just from switching to the M50x if a pair of Beats Studio or Solo were your previous "best" listening experience. Bass is cleaner and less emphasized, which to extreme bass-heads (People who absolutely crave bass in headphones) may be disappointing. But this doesn't mean the bass is bad. Bass does get deep, but it can be a bit "muddy" at times, meaning that it isn't very tight-feeling (I know, these terms might not make much sense! Google them up, you might find a much better explanation than what I can give).
Mid-range frequencies (Think vocals and string instruments as well as most wind instruments) are there and can be heard fine, but aren't exactly up at the front of the stage like the bass and highs are. You might have even heard someone already say that the M50x have a recessed mid-range, and this is true.
Now the high-end frequencies (Think high-pitched, sibilant vocals and instruments like flutes and cymbals, as well as higher-pitched chords from acoustic guitars). This is where the M50x stop being a casual-listening or "fun" headphone. The highs are upfront and detailed, which can be good for the purpose of monitoring, but they're so heavily emphasized that it makes listening at high volumes uncomfortable and fatiguing. Some people like for headphones to have this even when casually listening, but the majority of people will eventually find it uncomfortable and not very relaxing.
Finally the soundstage and imaging (Soundstage: how big the area of the audio sounds. If every sound seems like it's very close to your head and not further away, that's narrow soundstage. If it sounds like you're in a big room or a theater, that's wide soundstage. Imaging: how accurate the placement of sounds are within the soundstage. If you feel like you can hear almost exactly where that sound is coming from, that's great imaging.) Soundstage is almost non-existant. It exists, but it's pretty narrow. Everything sounds right up against your head. However, the imaging is decent. I could usually tell pretty accurately what direction sounds are coming from.
So the sound of the M50x is where the fun, casual listening experience gets cut short. Yes, they are very detailed. Yes, the clarity is exceptional. But the highs and sometimes muddy bass, especially the highs, can make relaxed listening very difficult.
It boils down to this: The build quality of the M50x is good and they're very portable, but the comfort falls short of other similarly-priced (and even lower priced) headphones and the sound quality is not suitable for listening to music for pure enjoyment. Audio-Technica themselves, for some reason, claim "casual listening" as a selling point for this headphone compared to the other headphones in the M-series, which is silly and goes to show that they're trying to profit from all the unnecessary hype about these headphones. Shun me if you want, but if you do some more research about these, it's blatantly obvious. But once again, like I said, I respect these headphones and they ARE good, just not for the reason people are led to believe.
If you truly want a pair of good, portable pair (most are portable) headphones meant for causal, fun, enjoyable listening, then check out these headphones I've either personally used or have owned myself. There are more out there than these, but here is a short list to get you started. Happy researching!
SONY MDR-1A: Great headphones for portable, everyday use. Build quality is excellent, comfort is on-point and they sound warm and relaxing, but definitely not dull or boring. They do however, cost a little bit more than the M50x, nowadays around $200 brand new. The price jump is worth it though.
Bose Soundtrue AE2: Good portable headphones, comfort is outstanding, they're lightweight and are easy to forget about when you wear them. Build quality is good and sound is relaxed but can still be fun when the volume is cranked up! As of this review, they are on sale for $100 on Amazon. You can find a used pair for even less. Not on sale they're $180 which is a bit pricey but still in my opinion, worth it.
Beyerdynamic DT770 32ohm: An overall great pair of headphones for both casual listening and even professional use. Build quality and comfort are on-point, and sound quality is like the M50x, but honestly, better. However, the cable isn't detachable and they don't fold up, so they aren't exactly portable. These can be found for around $200, sometimes less. Definitely less if you buy them used.
Status Audio CB-1: These are basically half the price of the M50x, but have more enjoyable sound (plenty of bass!), and are more comfortable. Build quality is questionable, though, so don't be rough with them. And if you have a very large head, they may not fit snug on your head because of light clamping force.
B&O PLAY H6: These are more expensive than the M50x, especially the 2nd generation which start at around $240, but the build is great, they're very comfortable, look fantastic, and have a clear, warm, inviting sound that's fun to listen to.
Philips SHP9500: Right now, these only cost around $60 or less, and they're fantastic. Build is good, comfort is fantastic and the sound is spacious and wonderfully pleasant. However, these are OPEN-BACK headphones, which means that sound will leak. If you're listening at normal or loud volumes especially, other people around you will hear your music. But if this isn't a concern or you're going to be using your headphones mostly at home, definitely go ahead and get these.
Audio-Technica M40x: This is the little-brother of the M50x that nobody cares about for some reason, even though they're way better suited for casual or fun listening. Build is good like the M50x, comfort is pretty much the same, but changing the pads to something like the Brainwavz HM5 angled leather pads would make them excellent, and doesn't negatively affect the sound (pads other than these may affect the sound). Sound is more neutral than the M50x, the bass and highs aren't emphasized, but they're still great. Also they cost only $100!
HIFIMAN Edition S: A comfortable, well-built portable headphone that sounds great, and actually has the ability to switch between being open-back and closed-back (open-backed headphones usually sound better!). Also on sale for $130 right now, a great deal!
If you managed to read through all that, thank you for actually taking the time to do so!