X

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x review: The best-sounding headphones under $200 get (slightly) better

They cost a bit more than the previous model and still don't have a cable with controller and microphone, but ​the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones are among the best-sounding you'll find for less than $200.

carnoy-headshot-2019-2
headshots_Steve_Guttenberg.jpg
David Carnoy
Steve Guttenberg
carnoy-headshot-2019-2

David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

See full bio
headshots_Steve_Guttenberg.jpg

Steve Guttenberg

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.

See full bio
4 min read

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

One of the reasons Audio-Technica's ATH-M50 headphones became popular was that they were sort of the anti-Beats. Or, put another way, they were the headphones for "smart" listeners who looked down on people who overpaid and got suckered into the whole Beats marketing machine.

audio-technica-ath-m50x-product-photos07.jpg

The Good

The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones offer excellent build quality and very detailed, balanced sound with tight bass. They're also very comfortable and have slightly more cushiony earcups along with a detachable-cord design (three cords are included).

The Bad

There's no integrated microphone for making cell phone calls and the bulkier design makes them less suitable for mobile use.

The Bottom Line

Quibbles aside, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones are a modestly improved version of the already spectacular model they're based on, and among the best-sounding pairs you'll find for less than $200.

At around half the price of the original $300 Beats by Dre Studio (since replaced by an updated Beats Studio ), they sounded significantly better and were also built better. There was just one small problem. While the ATH-M50 headphones were studio-style -- the "M" in the name stands for "monitor" -- a lot of people were using them on the go, so an inline remote/microphone would have been helpful.

At first glance, the new-for-2014 ATH-M50x headphones seem to be that more mobile-oriented version. Almost identical to the ATH-M50 model, they have improved padding on the earcups and a new detachable-cord design. The headphones are available in black, white, and blue, and come with three different cords in the box matching the chosen color.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x product photos

See all photos

You'd expect that one of those cords would have an integrated microphone and remote, but oddly, none of them do. Instead you get a long 3-meter (9.8-foot) straight cable, a short 1.2-m (3.9-foot) straight cable, and 1.2-meter - 3.0-meter (3.9-foot - 9.8-foot) coiled cable.

Audio-Technica's explanation for the missing cord, found in the Q&A section of the headphone's product page, is this:

"Unfortunately, the ATH-M50x headphones do not feature an in-line microphone or controller. This is true of all the Audio-Technica M-Series Headphones. There is currently no known adapter available that would accommodate either operation."

So it goes. The ATH-M50x model is still excellent, with enough extras to mostly justify the somewhat higher price -- about $169 in the US, £126 in the UK, and AU$249 in Australia.

Before you invest in the ATH-M50x, note that it is one of four updated models in the line. The step-down ATH-M40x ($99, £88, AU$149), ATH-M30x ($69, £59, AU$109), and ATH-M20x ($49, £45, AU$79) are also worthy of consideration.

Design and features

As we said in our review of the previous model, the ATH-M50x headphones are well-built and have a sturdy design that looks and feels like it will hold up well over time, with a thick single cord that terminates in a heavy-duty reinforced plug. The thick, padded earcups swivel on two axes, and the headphones fold flat for storage, though it's worth noting that the simple soft case they come with is essentially just a bag.

audio-technica-ath-m50x-product-photos01.jpg

The earcups offer slightly more comfortable padding than the ATH-M50s do.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As their model name indicates, these are monitor headphones and they look and sound every bit like headphones you'd find in a recording studio (and some folks will use them for that purpose). Weighing just less than 10 ounces (283 grams), they're not light, but they fit nicely and are comfortable to wear. Naturally, since these are over-the-ear headphones, with a closed-back design, they will make your ears pretty steamy on warmer days.

Although they don't have the active noise cancellation of the Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise-Cancelling Headphones or Beats Studio (2013) , they do a good job of passively sealing out the sound from the outside world. No, you don't get the same level of noise reduction, but they're a good alternative to the QuietComfort 15 headphones for people who are sensitive to the slight pressure of active noise cancellation -- and they sound better.

Performance

Soundwise, the ATH-M50x headphones are hard to fault. The tonal balance is accurate, stereo imaging (for a closed-back design) is spacious, and dynamic impact is excellent.

While Audio-Technica claims there's no difference between the sound of the original ATH-M50 and the updated version, we think the ATH-M50x model sounds clearer with more detailed bass, midrange, and treble. Switching back to the ATH-M50 headphones, the sound seems slightly veiled and cloudy. So we found sound very similar, but not identical.

audio-technica-ath-m50x-product-photos05.jpg

The headphones come with both a coiled cord and two straight ones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

While we prefer the ATH-M50x, we're also sure some folks might prefer the ATH-M50 for the richer, more laid-back perspective. As always, when it comes to audio, there's some subjectivity involved.

Comparing the ATH-M50x with the V-Moda M-100 over-the-ear 'phones showed clear differences. First, the M-100 headphones emphasized treble and had a leaner overall balance, while the ATH M50x headphones were fuller, with deeper bass went deeper, and we felt they were more accurate. Both models are winners, but if we had to pick one over the other, we'd go for the ATH-M50x headphones because they sounded great with all music genres. The M-100s favor electric over acoustic-oriented music.

Conclusion

Although it's a shame Audio-Technica doesn't include a cable with a controller and microphone with the ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones, that probably won't bother audio purists. You do have to pay more for than for the ATH-M50 model, but the ATH-M50x version has a lot to offer, with excellent performance and a slightly more comfortable fit to go along with the detachable-cord system and extra cords.