Review: Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 headphones

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Gizmag reviews Audio-Technica's ATH-MSR7 headphones(Credit: Stanley Goodner/Gizmag.com)

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Audio-Technica has been producing audio equipment, from microphones to magnetic cartridges for turntables, since the 1960s. These days it is probably best known for its headphones, such as the ATH-M50 professional studio monitor headphones and the slightly more consumer-oriented ATH-M50x model. But not everyone wants to wear something you’d find in a DJ’s backpack, which is where the more street-ready ATH-MSR7 headphones come in. We've spent some time with our ears wrapped in the units to see how they perform.

Design and connectivity

The Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 headphones feature a mix of plastic, aluminum, and magnesium materials, elevating them above the crush of all-plastic headphone construction. Although they won’t win any "most-gorgeous" headphones awards, most will appreciate the MSR7’s classy, contemporary look, with pops of color and gleaming bezels that really catch the eye.

When it comes to overall construction, the MSR7's are pretty solid. The slide and swivel of moving parts are smooth with minimal wiggle, the headband holds firm, and ear cups adjust vertically with deep clicks. There is indeed some plastic in the MSR7 headphone body, but one won’t really see or feel it as much as hear it. The occasional creak, localized around the swivel joint, can make its way through to the ears when the head turns.

Thankfully, the trio of detachable audio cables are some of the least-noisy out there. Even a hard flick of the finger against any of these thick, durable cables adds only a muffled thump to music. Rub it up against clothing as much as you like, and all you will get is wonderful silence. The other key design of these cables is the tapered L-shaped plug, which all but guarantees compatibility with just about any smartphone case out there.

Also included with the headphones is a cloth carrying bag. Sure, most would prefer a custom-fit hard case, but the bag is nice and certainly better than nothing. Besides, sound quality trumps accessories, right?

Comfort

The Audio-Technica MSR7's have one of the best fits right out of the box. It’s bam – instant comfort. Soft, cushioned cups create a fantastic seal around the ears, and the headband’s clamping force presses the pads evenly against the head. There's also excellent vertical and horizontal play with the ear cups, ensuring a firm hold without any pinching. And if you wear glasses, the headphones aren't likely to mess with or tweak your vision. Unlike many other over-ear headphones out there, the Audio-Technica MSR7's feature ear cups that are slightly rotated back a few degrees. The cushioned pads aren’t your standard/generic design either. They’re more like an oval with a pinch of parallelogram to them. As such, ears won’t have to be crammed, tucked, or squashed when putting the MSR7's on. The shape and angle of the cups are meant to closely match the average human ear, which doesn’t simply lie vertically on heads.

Despite the solid fit and seal, which contribute to an improved listening experience, there are two minor quibbles with the overall comfort. Some may find that the MSR7’s ear cups aren’t deep enough for the softness of the pads. The tips of ears can end up touching the inside of the cups, most notably when turning the head. Secondly, the section of padded headband feels a bit too narrow with too small of a surface area for the weight distribution. Although cushioned with memory foam, the MSR7's bear down on this tiny contact spot on the head, inevitably leading to fatigue.

But even with all that, these headphones are comfortable to wear for around 2-3 hours before a break sounds appealing. And then only a few minutes are necessary to rest up before donning them again.

Audio quality

While many a pair of headphones can rattle skulls and blow eardrums with high volume levels, the Audio-Technica MSR7's are a little more reserved. Even at max volume on a mobile device, most ears should be able to bear the brunt without too much discomfort. But aside from protecting one’s hearing, the other reason to maintain moderate listening levels is keeping undesired effects at bay. Until the volume has been pushed to the point of discomfort, the MSR7's exhibit practically zero distortion. Those who like to listen loud – it would take using a DAC/AMP to do so – will hear how the distortion creates hard consonants and excessively sharp highs. And that alone is enough to overpower and obscure the finer details of vocals and instrumental tone.

With the way the cushions create a firm seal around the ears, the headphones provide some decent noise isolation from the outside world, although it’s not entirely closed off, due to the slim, open vents on each cup. The same applies to noise leaking. While most of the music remains confined to the cups, a high enough volume can be noticed by someone within a meter (~3 ft) or so. But with moderate/lower volume levels, one can listen inside a quiet library without anyone being the wiser.

The Audio-Technica MSR7's have one of the best, most-proportioned soundstages for their class. The width of the stage expands clearly to each side, slightly past the ears, and the dynamics are maintained with impressive precision. Not only can you hear the soft stuff along with the loudest, but the tone is not lost in the mix. When it comes to image positioning, elements moving between the left and right sides maintain smooth fluidity. The soundstage is deep enough to deliver that sense of distance and separation between layers. All of this comes together to create a spacious atmosphere for instruments and vocals to flex and breathe. There’s no elbowing, no stepping on toes within this soundstage.

Vocals and instruments are forward on the stage toward the listener, but not aggressive. All the elements within a track sound properly distanced with respect to everything else. Adding to this sense of realism is the way the MSR7's handle tone and texture, with quick attacks and snappy decays. The flow of music sounds clean, maintaining distinctive edges that transform instruments and vocals into something more palpable.

You won't have too hard a time identifying low-quality audio files here. The headphones pick up and highlight everything, imperfections and all, like a magnifying glass. Those who know their music well can hear peaks and dips, and/or veiling, and/or fuzzy edges, and/or a general blandness that stems from compressed audio files. If music was ripped from scuffed or damaged CDs, it's likely that you'll pick up on the associated track noise. In this respect, the MSR7’s level of clarity can be somewhat double-edged. But if you stick to quality recordings, everything sounds golden.

Hi-hats and cymbals are delivered with great tone and accuracy. Hits, taps, and brushes all sound distinct from one another, coming out clear with minimal (if that) tinniness. With the right track, you can hear how each metallic strike sounds a little different from the last. Other instruments, such as tambourines and maracas, also exhibit this vivid level of expression that is never lost upon the listener, even when music increases in complexity.

Chalk it up to the Audio-Technica MSR7’s precision, but you can hear when a fiddle transitions from sounding "normal" to "sweet" and back again, or how a violin might shift in intensity, sounding "stern" one moment and then "delicate" the next. Such are the subtle, honest ways that you’ll notice more out of your music, especially with higher-quality or lossless audio files.

There is a minor drawback to the MSR7’s crisp clarity within the highs, however. On occasion, and especially at greater volume levels, the tips brighten a bit more than desired. Such focused precision leads to excess sharpness and/or a harsher sound, especially toward the edges of the upper registers. It doesn’t happen with all songs, but you’ll know it when you hear it.

Fond of saxophones and fun-filled mids? You can practically taste the tart brass as the Audio-Technica MSR7's drive tone and energy, with the soul of electric guitars is evoked through the squeals and wails, and the hit and scratch of guitar strings popping out, even when a song is rife with action all over. The reproduction of vocals is equally impressive.

There is a minimal amount of coloration that affects the mids, not unlike a healthy pinch to bring out the best of acoustic guitars, brass instruments, and some vocals. Combined with the abundance of energy within the music itself, you should catch yourself unconsciously moving or bobbing to the beats while listening with this unit.

The MSR7’s lows are, for a lack of a better description, somewhat well-mannered, almost on the verge of sounding timid. As if they might be afraid to tip the balance and anger the highs and mids – almost. But once you get past the initial listen, be ready to slip into some serious low-end detail. What the Audio-Technica MSR7's lack in theatrical lows is made up with tight control and musical tone. Drums come off as taut, firm, and with that perfect bit of bounce for mid-level character. It’s a far cry from hulked-out drums and bass from less-sophisticated brands. These lows are more active, sculpted, sort of like Joe Manganiello’s abs.

Sure, the sub-bass texture of the MSR7's may not sound as prominent when compared to headphones heavier in the lows. But the upside is that the MSR7's sound far more plush with their technical execution. Method Man’s song, Bring The Pain, makes for a great example. But one doesn’t necessarily need to resort to hip-hop for this. Drums in Ray LaMontagne’s song, Trouble, deliver a tight thump with that accompanying "feel" in the middle of your head. The MSR7 headphones prove that extra force isn’t necessary, opting to focus on big-picture sound and faithful audio reproduction.

The verdict

The Audio-Technica MSR7's succeed most with how well they straddle and bind together various aspects. The audio quality and over-ear design make them a solid at home listening choice, yet the swiveling ear cups make the MSR7's easy to pack and take on the road. While this headphones are more suited for sitting and listening, they're also fine for light-to-moderate physical activity (walking, bicycling, elliptical machine, maybe a light jog). Although they're affordable and accessible to most everyone, they don’t come off as cheap-looking with sub-par construction.

If the MSR7's were a story instead of a headphone, clarity would be the theme, nirvana the setting, tone and detail the style, and vibrant imaging the protagonist. It’s hard to put a good pair of headphones down, and the MSR7's are very comfortable with their plush cushions. At times, and especially with the right track, the headphones come off as a little too analytical, driving some highs to be a little too sharp. There’s also a bit of creaking in the cups, and the headband can be too narrow for some, leading to fatigue sooner than desired, but these are "problems" that many a set of headphones would kill to have.

The Audio-Technica MSR7 headphones definitely fire on all cylinders. They're well made, comfortable, portable, affordable, stylish yet not garish, and feature a sound signature that should garner genuine approval and smiles from all audiophiles, enthusiasts, and casual listeners alike. The overall performance – especially when you consider the sculpted, musical lows – far exceeds the MSR7’s price point of US$299 (although they can easily be found for less). So if clean looks and clear audio are high on your list of priorities, then we can't help but recommend the Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 headphones.

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