There is a curious contrast between today's high-fidelity stereo market and many (probably most) headphones sold today. While the home-stereo market typically touts flat frequency response, the head-fi market is occupied by many products that intentionally deviate from a perceptually flat frequency response to cater to a certain audio aesthetic. Veteran headphone manufacturer Audio-Technica has cunningly segregated its product lines not into a traditional hierarchy of price and quality but along the lines of sound signature preference. Its Sound Reality range of headphones is clearly geared toward the "audiophile on the go," and the ATH-SR9 over-the-ear headphone ($449) is its newly crowned flagship. The SR9 basically promises to be an upgraded, refined version of the previous flagship ATH-MSR7, and it is ... well, mostly.
Audio-Technica has done a great job of including a variety of accessories that greatly increase the SR9's value proposition. It comes with a hard carrying case, a quarter-inch gold-plated adapter, a standard four-foot cable with in-line controls and a microphone, and a standard 10-foot cable. Both cables terminate into dual A2DC connectors (Audio Designed Detachable Coaxial) at the headphone end. The SR9 has 45mm drivers and a nominal impedance of 47 ohms, which makes it fairly easy to drive, even for mobile phones. My listening impressions were mostly formed using my Cowon P1 Plenue digital audio player and the headphone output of my Onkyo P-3000R stereo preamplifier.
The materials used to construct the SR9 are quite nice and clearly of a higher caliber than the considerably less expensive MSR7 ($249). The ear pads, in particular, have a much softer synthetic leather, as does the headband. The housings on the SR9 are tastefully designed, and they're noticeably narrower than the MSR7. Audio-Technica has done a wonderful job elevating the visual appeal of the SR9 while simultaneously making it less ostentatious. The deft mixture of polished and matte textures with the subtle emblem on the cups quietly screams, "I take sound seriously" without shouting "Look at me, I'm privately listening to music in public!" Even though the SR9's construction is still mostly plastic, the general feel is less creaky. It's worth noting that, prior to the SR9, I didn't have any real quality complaints about the MSR7. Only now that I have the two side-by-side are the differences highlighted.
I work as a mechanic, which is a dirty, sweaty job filled with constant noise that often requires hearing protection. I also enjoy weightlifting in my spare time, and I enjoy listening to music when doing so--which requires a headphone that stays put and remains comfortable even when soaked with sweat. I bring up both points merely to spotlight the fact that the SR9 stood up to the rigors of both situations quite well. I can wear them for hours on end without even noticing their presence. The clamping force is firm, but the deep, cushy ear pads and the fairly lightweight design combine to keep the clamping force from being a source of discomfort.
The headphones also isolate noise from getting in and music from getting out very well. I owned a pair of first-generation Bose QC15s; and, even without noise cancellation, the SR9's excellent isolation cancels more ambient sound simply by fitting firmly. Comfort and utility are necessities when considering portable headphones, and the SR9 can't be praised enough in these categories.
In terms of sonic performance, though, the SR9 is an unfortunate deviation from the already borderline-bright MSR7. Everything that made the MSR7 great is still present. The soundstage is great for a portable headphone. Clarity is excellent, as is the delineation between musical elements. However, the SR9's tonal balance is uncomfortably cool and bright. Listening at a mild to moderate volume will reward the more analytical listener with a cornucopia of musical details. Sadly, this becomes a textbook case of "too much of a good thing." Once the volume is pushed to louder levels, the SR9 transforms from a refined gentleman into a homicidal maniac. Generally speaking, I find music much more enjoyable when played at visceral listening levels, but the SR9's excessive upper-treble energy combined with its anemic bass response forced me toward music that doesn't highlight these weaknesses.
Even when listening to the euphonic recordings of Acoustic Alchemy at high levels, I desperately wanted more punch in the low end and less edge at the top. I found myself preferring my $19.99 Sennheiser HD202 headphones, which have the most appropriate tonal balance of any headphone I own. The pernicious brightness that creeps in to these high-end "hi-fi" headphones is absent, which gives the HD202 a more enjoyable, easy-to-listen-to sound. (Of course, the SR9 outclasses the HD202 in almost every other conceivable metric, as it should.)
When I attenuated the SR9's highest frequencies and boosted the lowest using my Cowon P1 Plenue (specifically, a gentle roll-off above 4.2 kHz, ending up -3dB around 13.2 kHz, with a boost of +3dB between 76hz and 135Hz), it transformed the SR9 from a disappointment to an almost ideal portable headphone. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to, or is inclined to use, equalization to fix inherent frequency imbalances in a product.
• The SR9 has a crisp, clean, revealing sound.
• These headphones offer excellent comfort and aesthetics
• A great accessories package is included.
• The SR9 has excessive upper treble energy and is lacking lower bass punch.
Comparison and Competition
When comparing the ATH-SR9 to a larger member of the Audio-Technica family, the ATH-W1000z ($699.99), I noticed that they obviously share a similar voicing. However, while the W1000z can be on the brighter side at times, it doesn't have the harsher upper-treble sibilance that the SR9 has at louder volumes. The W1000Z's overall frequency range sounds fuller and richer--especially the bass. The difference in soundstage presentation between these two is marked. It's worth mentioning that the ATH-W1000Z is made exclusively for home use, giving it some design limitations compared with portable headphones.
I also compared the SR9 with another non-portable heavyweight, the Fostex TH610 ($599.99). The tonal differences between these two headphones are much more obvious. The TH610's bass energy is notably stronger, especially in the lowest frequencies, even though it is no bass monster in its own right. The Fostex has a more balanced presentation; even though it can be a tad bright at times, it can be listened to loudly without issue.
There's no shortage of competition for Audio-Technica at this price point. The Sennheiser HD1 ($349.95), the Bose QC25 ($179.95), and the Bang and Olufsen Beoplay H6 ($299) present compelling alternatives to the pricier SR9. This headphone category has become even more competitive due to the market shift toward wireless models, leading many manufacturers to discount their corded versions. For those of you still using DAPs without Bluetooth technology, there probably isn't a better time to be shopping for wired headphones.
The Audio-Technica ATH-SR9 is a very well-made, supremely comfortable, audiophile-oriented headphone that suffers from an unbalanced frequency response and a high price that is hard to justify when compared to the very similar ATH-MSR7. Now that I've properly equalized the SR9, I continue to use it daily, and I am quite fond of it. If your tastes lean on the brighter side or you're equipped for equalization, and you're more focused on fit and finish than absolute value, I suggest you give the Audio-Technica ATH-SR9 a look. But to address the elephant in the room, I don't think the SR9 represents a compelling value over the MSR7. For around $170 on Amazon.com (as of this writing), the MSR7 can be had for a little more than a third the price of the SR9.
• Visit the Audio-Technica website for more product information.
• Check out our Headphone + Accessory Reviews category page to read similar reviews.
• Audio-Technica Launches the ATH-DSR7BT Wireless Headphones at HomeTheaterReview.com.