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Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 review: The lowest-priced (true) high-resolution headphone

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Audio-Technica's ATH-M50 and subsequent ATH-M50x have long been among the best sounding headphones for the money with a price tag of around $150 online. And while the company has plenty of other headphones in its line, it hasn't had a killer step-up model to go up against popular "premium" closed-back over-ear headphones in the $250-$300 range.

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Audio Technica ATH-MSR7

The Good

The Audio Technica ATH-MSR7 offers impressive audio quality, is sturdily built, should fit most people comfortably, and comes with three cables, including one that has an inline remote/microphone for cell-phone use.

The Bad

A little heavy; not quite as comfortable as some competing models'; abundance of clarity reveals harshness or distortion in recordings.

The Bottom Line

The Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 is a great-sounding headphone with the one caveat that its sonic detail is so impressive that it brings out both the best and worst in any given source material.

The ATH-MSR7 may just be that headphone. Priced at $250 (£199, AU $349) and available in a few different color options, it features rich, highly detailed sound, is well-built, should fit most people comfortably and comes with three cables, including one that has an inline remote/microphone for cell-phone use.

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The ATH-MSR7 comes in black and a few other colors.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design and features

The ATH-MSR7 shares some familial resemblance with the ATH-M50x, but it's a sleeker-looking headphone and has more plushly padded earcups. In terms of competing products, its design is in the same vein as Sony's MDR-1R and MDR-1A, but those two models are lighter and more comfortable to wear over long sessions. The ATH-MSR7 weighs 290 grams, while the MSR-1A weighs 225 grams.

The ATH-50x has a detachable cord and comes with additional cords of varying lengths. However, staying true to its studio monitor roots, it doesn't come with a cord that has an integrated remote and microphone, whereas the ATH-MSR7 does. You also get two standard straight cables 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) and 3 meters (9.8 feet) in length.

Additionally, the headphones come with simple black protective vinyl carrying bag that's similar to the one that ships with the ATH-50x. It's nothing fancy, but it serves its purpose.

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What you get in the box.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance

There's a lot of energy and life to the sound of the ATH-MSR7. It's the sort of sound that gets strong reactions from listeners. There's a lot of clarity, so you feel a strong connection to the music, but it's also the kind of headphone that's not shy about revealing harshness or distortion in recordings.

The best recordings benefit from the ATH-MSR7's vivid character, so with bluesman Doug MacLeod's new "Exactly Like This" album sounded utterly live and the ATH-MSR7 could do no wrong. After we listened for a half an hour we started to feel that the ATH-MSR7's earpads' pressure was a little too high. As we said, it's not as comfortable a headphone as Sony's MDR-1R, which has softer, more laid-back highs and fuller lows.

The ATH-MSR7 has more energy and livelier dynamics, and it projected wider, more outside-the-head stereo imaging. Still, some listeners will prefer the MDR-1R's warmer balance that flatters a wider range of music genres. (Sony's MDR-1A, which we're in the process of reviewing, is a bit of an improvement over the MDR-1R, but the newer MDR-1A costs about $75 more).

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The sturdy L-shaped is tapered so it fits it works with most smartphone cases.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We found the NAD Viso HP50's bass slightly leaner and the treble less bright than the ATH-MSR7's, but they were pretty close overall. Sennheiser's Momentum 2.0 headphone was also in the running with the Viso HP50, but the ATH-MSR7 was the clearest of the three.

Acoustic guitars' tonality and texture sounded more realistic over the ATH-MSR7 than the Momentum 2.0, which slightly blurred and softened the sound. The ATH-MSR7 also had the clearest, best defined, but definitely not over emphasized bass of the three headphones.

Last but not least, we were curious to see how the ATH-MSR7 compared with company's popular ATH-M50x headphones while listening to Beck's "Morning Phase" album.

The string orchestration that sounded so lush and opulent over the ATH-MSR7 was less so on the ATH- M50x. That MX50x is less clear yet more forgiving of harsh-sounding recordings. So what we're saying here is the ATH-MSR7 will delight audiophiles seeking oodles of detail and don't crave added fullness and warmth.

It's worth noting that we did the the bulk of our listening with an iPod Classic, Sony Walkman NWZ-A17 and iPhone 5S, but the ATH-MSR7 sounded even sweeter and richer, with no loss of detail when we switched over to a FiiO X5 ($349) music player. Bass definition and low-end drive also improved with the X5, which only goes to show the ATH-MSR7 benefits from being partnered with better headphone amplifiers.

Conclusion

The Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7 is a great-sounding headphone with the one caveat that it offers such impressive detail that it not only brings out the best in recordings but also the worst. But if you are detail hound, it's a delight.