X

Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT review: Wireless monitor-grade headphones for serious music fans

The Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT offers consistently high sound quality for both wireless and wired use, making them great for music fans looking to trade up from entry-level models.

Ty_Pendlebury.jpg
Ty Pendlebury
Ty_Pendlebury.jpg

Ty Pendlebury

Editor

Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

See full bio
5 min read

Headphone wires, especially for mobile use, can be an unnecessary distraction. They get tangled on your bag, snag on fellow commuters, or come unplugged and become a trip hazard.

01-audio-technica-ath-m50xbt
8.0

Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT

The Good

The Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT offers great sound quality both with and without wires. They have an open sound with enough bass to satisfy most users. The Bluetooth controls are well integrated and the inclusion of a separate cable with an integrated mic is a real boon.

The Bad

Unlike many headphones at this price, there's no noise cancelling. The sound can be a little too forward in noisy environments, resulting in less natural sound. The power button is in an awkward spot.

The Bottom Line

The Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT offers consistently high sound quality for both wireless and wired use, making them great for serious music fans.

Of course, wireless Bluetooth doesn't sound as good as a wired connection, so audiophiles and others who buy monitor-grade headphones like the iconic Audio Technica ATH-M50 prefer wires. Four years ago Audio Technica released its ATH-M50x update, which boasted a more upfront sound and one of the most requested features of all: a detachable cable. Several third party manufacturers latched onto this free port and started developing Bluetooth adaptors to make that headphone completely wireless. But... they kind of looked silly. They hung off the bottom of the headset like busted earlobes.

The newest update, the ATH-M50xBT, finally brings with it integrated Bluetooth wireless, in a housing that's the same size as the original. The ATH-M50xBT is $199, £179 or AU$379.

06-audio-technica-ath-m50xbt
Sarah Tew/CNET

Audio Technica's engineers have done an excellent job of integrating the Bluetooth electronics and controls inside the original shell. It's hard to tell they're the Bluetooth version at all. 

The controls are housed in the left cup, with the volume and play button all within easy reach behind the ear. My only complaint is that the power button is a physical slider placed forward of the ear, which makes it awkward to activate. Hold your finger against the Audio Technica faceplate for two seconds and it will activate either Google Assistant or Siri on your phone. While it takes about five seconds from first press to when the voice assistant registers, it worked fine otherwise

The headphones are built around a pair of 45mm drivers with a claimed frequency response of 15Hz to 20kHz. They're more sensitive than most of the competition, they go louder than my reference Sony MDR-1R for example. It's worth noting that unlike many Bluetooth over-ear designs at this price, like the Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC and the AKG N60NC, the AT's lack noise cancelling.

The headphones are compatible with Bluetooth 5, aptX along with AAC codecs and can play for up to an impressive 40 hours of continuous use. Despite the long battery life, they are not uncomfortably heavy at 310 g (10.9 oz). The headphones fold up and come with a leatherette bag for storage. Another thing the company has fixed since the original M50x is with the inclusion of an in-line mic on the optional 1.2m cable.

10-audio-technica-ath-m50xbt
Sarah Tew/CNET

The headset features a plush headband and spongy leatherette earcups. I did find that the headphone pressed down pretty hard on my head, and depending on how large your own ears are you may find the earcup sits on rather than around them. However, I was able to make the Audio Technicas more comfortable by flexing the headband backwards.

Sadly I didn't have the ATH-M50x on hand to compare the new model to, though I did have the older ATH-M50 at my disposal. In my testing I alternated between the iPhone 8 with Bluetooth and the Lightning adaptor connected with the included wire. I used them connected to a AudioQuest DragonFly Red playing hi-res files.

These are the first Bluetooth headphones I can think of that don't sound completely different when you plug a cable into them. Most usually sound worse. Seemingly a lot of manufacturers offer a headphone input as a fall-back, after putting all of their effort into juicing the Bluetooth sound with EQ. The fact the M50x was a wired headphone first obviously helps here. The wired version sounded a smidgeon brighter with a little less bass, but there wasn't the hit in sound quality you might expect.

08-audio-technica-ath-m50xbt
Sarah Tew/CNET

One thing I did experience is there is a bit of low-level electronic noise present when the Bluetooth is on and there's no music playing. This does disappear when something is playing.

I started my evaluations with something slow -- Pink Moon by Nick Drake. Drake's voice was as elegiac as ever, and there was a sense of space between him and his acoustic guitar. When the piano stabs came in they were felt as much as they were heard. Using the cable shrank the sound stage and made his voice a little more chesty, but the effect was to highlight a sense of intimacy, mixed with a pinch of claustrophobia. 

I moved to something a little more challenging -- The Last Night by Dirty Three -- which features drums, a spare electric guitar and mournful violin. This song brought out the subtle differences between the cable and the Bluetooth stream. The splash cymbal that appears at 1:15 sounded more grainy and less clear when heard over Bluetooth, while the wired feed offered more detail in the higher end.

While there was a loss of stereo image with Bluetooth -- central images became less material such as the harmonica which lost some of its reediness -- some music sounds bigger. Missing U by electronic pop artist Robin sounded more contained over the wire but more expansive and fun over Bluetooth.

03-audio-technica-ath-m50xbt
Sarah Tew/CNET

With rock and roll, and a wired connection to a PC, the Audio Technicas don't skip a beat. Nub by Jesus Lizard helped define noise rock, but the sound can get splashy and thin when played loudly through bright speakers. Drummer Mac McNeilly plays the crash cymbal like a madman, David Sims' throaty bass honks and singer David Yow freaks out about something unintelligible. While the cymbals were prominent, the ATs also managed to capture the deepest bass notes during the quieter choruses. There was still light and shade here.

The headphone hit a snag when I listened in noisy environments. I took the ATH-M50xBT on the New York subway, and the sometimes awkward balance of the headphone over Bluetooth came to the fore. The bass dropped out and without EQ the sound was robbed of its drama. The more even-handed Sony MDR-1R filled out the music with just enough bass to make my commuting soundtrack more natural.

If you're considering a pair of wireless cans you may be wondering what the difference is between these and a pair of (more expensive) Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones for example. Apart from the noise cancelling, the most obvious difference is the amount of bass. There's just a lot more of it with the Sony, which is great in noisy trains. The Sony also offers the flexibility of different sound profiles if you want to tweak the sound to your taste. It's a big jump to $350 but the noise cancelling, natural sound quality and improved construction could be worth it.

Should you buy them?

If you're a musician or audio professional, the ATH-M50xBT's flexibility as both a wired and a wireless headphone may be its greatest draw. It offers plenty of midrange clarity and enough bass for use in most environments. It's likable and affordable for a headphone of its type. However if you're looking to spend this amount of money you may find the Bose SoundLink II headphones more easy-going sound and subtler look more attractive.

01-audio-technica-ath-m50xbt
8.0

Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Sound 8Value 8