At CES 2017, Audio-Technica announced a line of “purely digital” headphones, and many audio enthusiasts scoffed. Surely this was just more marketing speak, using “digital” as a buzzword just like other companies had slapped “HD” on nearly every product in the early 2000s. Common sense dictated that although these headphones might accept a digital signal, there must be a digital to analog conversion at some point, right? Well, the doubters were wrong — Audio-Technica’s DSR headphones are actually digital-only, using a new technology that we’ve never seen before in a headphone. Long story short: they’re the best sounding wireless headphones we’ve yet heard.
The DSR9BT is the new flagship of Audio-Technica’s “Sound Reality” line of headphones, and an evolution of the ATH-MSR7 that we liked so much last year. Its overall form factor is similar to that of the MSR7, but with a more futuristic look. The DSR9BT is a mixture of gray-toned leather, plastic, and metal, with sharp architecture and exposed hardware that give it an almost industrial look. Its ear pads are large and soft, just about the perfect size for a portable over-ear headphone. Light reflects off the spun metal ear cups in a way that’s borderline mesmerizing, and the three white LEDs on the right driver housing — there to indicate battery level and the audio codec in use — are thankfully small enough not to look silly. At just over 300 grams it’s not the lightest headphone out there, but we had no problem with comfort. We love the space-age look of the DSR9BT, but found that it may share a little too much design DNA with the MSR7: like the MSR7, its plastic joints occasionally creak, which can be heard through the headphone while it’s being worn.
The DSR9BT’s driver technology may be novel, but most users will find that it functions just like any other Bluetooth headphone. An On/Off switch is located on the right driver housing, and play/pause, track and volume controls are located on the left. Switching tracks is as easy as holding the volume switch up or down for two seconds, but the touch-sensitive play/pause pad is a little awkward to use — there’s no haptic feedback, and it’s too easy to trigger by accident. The DSR9BT’s volume is not linked to that of iOS, and its volume controls are a little sluggish — ultimately we found it easier to leave the headphone at max volume and regulate volume on our iPhone. It supports aptX, aptX HD, and, thankfully for iOS users, AAC codecs, though none of these benefit call quality (callers reported that we sounded muffled). The DSR9BT can remember up to eight paired devices, and lasted around 15 hours in our testing — not the best, but respectable.
Included accessories are relatively generous for an Audio-Technica headphone: in the box is a semi-rigid carry case and 6-foot micro USB cable. This heavy-duty cable handles both charging and wired audio mode. Though it is a standard micro USB cable, there’s a small tag on the cable warning users that only the included micro USB can be used with the DSR9BT. Indeed, the micro USB port on the DSR9BT is recessed, and only the included cable will fit. We inquired about this oddity with Audio-Technica, and learned that this was done to prevent users from accidentally using a power-only cable. Though we are not engineers, we can’t help but feel that there could have been a more elegant solution to this problem — though users are guaranteed not to accidentally use a power-only cable with the DSR9BT, they are also limited to only one cable, and would have to look to Audio-Technica for a replacement of an otherwise very common cable.
We brought the DSR9BT along on our daily commute to see how well this flagship headphone functions out in the world. The DSR9BT is light and its cups fold flat, which made them easy to carry and store on the go. However, amid the cacophony of the NYC subway system, we found that the DSR9BT simply does not isolate well enough — we often found ourselves near the top of the volume range trying to hear the music. In addition, we found that the DSR9BT’s volume and on/off switches are loose and rattled audibly as we walked, loudly enough to be heard over some music. We are a little puzzled by these results — the DSR9BT is a wireless headphone that is very portable, but apparently not ideal for all outdoor use. We would not call this a deal breaker, but it may limit appeal for some users. It’s a disappointing detail in an otherwise great experience. There’s no ANC on this headphone, though it would be interesting to see how ANC could be implemented in a digital-only device.
These minor usage complaints aside, the real story is in the DSR9BT’s digital driver technology. Normally when we test headphones, we think about things like their sensitivity and impedance, whether they benefit from amplification and, if they’re wireless, the quality of the DAC and amplification hardware in the headphone. All of that is irrelevant with the DSR9BT. The DSR9BT is truly a “Pure Digital Drive” headphone, in that the electrical impulses activate the voice coils that move the headphone’s drivers directly. There is no conversion of the audio signal from digital to analog, which means no potential errors or approximation in converting the digital signal back to analog. According to Audio-Technica, this should result in extreme precision in the driver’s movements and power savings over a traditional DAC-and-amp setup.
The digital driver system has some interesting implications on how this headphone will be used. It’s not possible to experiment with DAC and amplifier hardware to customize the DSR9BT’s sound, and they cannot be driven louder than Audio-Technica’s hardware allows. As discussed above, users are limited to the included micro USB cable; the DSR9BT functions just fine with USB extension cables, we would like the option to use to use a lighter, shorter, less-stiff cable when it makes sense. Using the DSR9BT in wired mode is easy, but different from its analog predecessors — this headphone is recognized as its own audio device, like a USB DAC. It worked flawlessly without special drivers on our Macbook and Windows 10 PC (though we did not test on any older PCs), but the only way to regulate volume is on the computer. Wired mode ‘unlocks’ some additional headroom — over USB, the DSR9BT can handle files up to 24-bit/96khz. As a bonus, the DSR9BT can be used in wired mode with an iOS device using the USB3 Camera Connection Kit.
All this new technology would be meaningless if it didn’t do anything for the DSR9BT’s sound; we’re happy to report that the DSR9BT sounds amazing. Its overall sound signature is neutral, but far from boring — we were repeatedly surprised by the bass extension and slam, clarity of vocals, and overall musical fidelity. The DSR9BT presents the music with a black background, with excellent imaging and realistic soundstage. They sound even better in wired mode, as they’re no longer limited by the compression inherent in Bluetooth codecs. This is an extremely articulate, detailed, dynamic, and yet natural-sounding headphone — the DSR9BT provided one of those rare listening experiences that made us want to re-listen to our entire library, just to see what those old songs would sound like through the its high-tech drivers. Though admittedly not a “basshead” headphone, we think the DSR9BT paired well with every genre of music we ran through its voice coils.
Many audiophiles spend tremendous amounts of money seeking transparency — to build an audio chain that adds as little conversion, coloration, and distortion as possible. We add external DACs to our computers, test expensive cables, and spend money on “transparent” amplifiers. The DSR9BT’s purely digital drivers just might be a way to bypass it all. Though this technology is clearly not without its quirks and, unfortunately, we were a little disappointed by the build quality and isolation of this headphone given its price, we are very happy with what we heard. Even with its faults, the DSR9BT does such an excellent job reproducing music over Bluetooth — and an even better job with digital audio — that we think it’s a headphone that everyone who is serious about music should hear.
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