Audio-Technica Introduces Professional Headphones for Speaker-Like Sound Mixing

Professional monitoring headphones — assumed to be a “mature” audio product category — are, in fact, in a highly competitive race for perfection as sound engineers continuously experiment for improvement with new materials and designs.

As more vendors introduce new designs into the pro audio market, a veteran professional audio manufacturer — Audio-Technica — has introduced a new top of the line open-back reference headphone system that it says is the culmination of its over 40 years designing headphones.

Audio-Technica has introduced the ATH-R70x professional open-back reference headphones to join its existing high-end ATH-M70x closed-back headphone design. The new headphones, which top the Audio-Technica pro headphone line, are the first professional-quality open-back headphones that the manufacturer has ever offered.

Open and closed-back headphones are both used by professional sound engineers for different purposes. Closed-back headphones are preferred in live recording, front of house sound mixing applications and for tracking in studios when the engineer is working in the same room as a band and doesn’t want sound to leak out to microphones. The design isolates the wearer better from ambient sound.

Because closed-back headphones have a cavity in the rear, design engineers can tweak their sound more precisely. With open-designs, however, the engineering is much harder because that rear cavity doesn’t exist — meaning the driver itself represents most of the sound from the headset. Until now, Audio-Technica has only made audiophile consumer-quality open-back designs and not a professional model.

“All the audiophile consumer open-back headphones we’ve made to date had 53 millimeter drivers,” said Chris Nighman, Audio-Technica’s product manager for wired products. “The driver in our ATH-R70x is a brand new, purpose-built 45 millimeter driver designed specifically for these headphones.

“For years, audio engineers have shied away from doing critical sound mixing on headphones and used loudspeakers instead for better accuracy. Now, some of the comments we’ve gotten from top engineers on the R70x is ‘I can finally mix on these.’ That is very encouraging news from engineers who now don’t have to depend on speakers.”

Chris Nighman, Audio-Technica’s product manager for wired products says his company's new ATH-R70x headphones are lightweight, allowing for long periods of mixing without fatigue.

Chris Nighman, Audio-Technica’s product manager for wired products says his company's new ATH-R70x headphones are lightweight, allowing for long periods of mixing without fatigue.

Open-back headphones like the ATH-R70x allow more ambient sound to enter the ears than closed units, offering greater accuracy in critical listening in quieter environments. The new headphones are also lighter (7.4 ounces without cable) than closed models (the ATH-M70x weighs about 10 ounces). This allows users to wear them for longer periods of time without fatigue.

The ATH-R70x uses high-efficiency magnets and a pure alloy magnetic circuit design, reducing distortion and helping ensure accurate and extended high frequency response. Use of carbon composite resin improves the structural rigidity of the headphone frame to provide detailed transient response.

“Carbon composite resin is lighter but also improves structural strength,” said Nighman. “The frame is all one piece. When you can mount that driver on that solid, rigid frame, you get really good transient response. You don’t get a lot of resonance.”

The headphones’ acoustically transparent aluminum honeycomb mesh housing provides a spacious open-back sound. A self-adjusting 3D wing support headband design adapts to automatically fit any wearer with no need for adjustment. Breathable fabric ear-pads provide additional comfort in long sessions. A dual-sided detachable locking cable that is left-right signal independent ensures proper stereo orientation.

The ATH-R70x’s frequency response is 5 to 40,000 Hz, the maximum input power is 1,000 milliwatts, the impedance is 470 ohms and the sensitivity is 98dB at 1 kHz. The street price is $349. The ATH-M70x is the closed-back version and is street priced at $299. It also uses a 45 millimeter driver, but a different one designed for the headphone’s unique sonic characteristics.

ATH-R70x headphones (left) are of open-back design. This means they are targeted for use in a studio (quiet) environment. The ATH-M70x headphones (right) are closed-back design. These headphones can be used in live (noisy) locations because they block ambient sounds.

ATH-R70x headphones (left) are of open-back design. This means they are targeted for use in a studio (quiet) environment. The ATH-M70x headphones (right) are closed-back design. These headphones can be used in live (noisy) locations because they block ambient sounds.

“We design the driver for the individual headset,” said Nighman. “On a closed-back headphone design you’ve got that rear cavity that’s kind of like a loudspeaker. You can tune that rear cavity because it’s got more acoustic resistance.

“The heart of a headphone is the driver itself. Any headphone manufacturer will tell you that. Headphone engineers spend their time experimenting with new materials and diaphragm shapes. But it’s much harder with open-back headphones since you don’t have the opportunity to tune as much. There is no rear cavity. The driver essentially determines the way the headphones sound. With a closed-back design you can put in damping and different baffle materials to alter the sound. But with open-back designs, you have to make sure sure the driver sounds close to the way you want the final sound to be.”

As for the future of headphones, Nighman said it may be more about what feeds the headphones than the design of the headphones themselves. He called Blue’s Mo-Fi headphones with a built-in amplifier an “interesting” idea, but noted that with single drivers, it should not be compared with bi-amping loudspeakers, which use multiple speaker elements that need crossovers.

“We already have some headphones in our consumer line that use amplifiers,” he said, “so the Mo-Fi idea is not really new to us.”

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