The Jeep Wrangler started as a true utility vehicle — its simple body panels and spartan interior reflected that it was designed for people that valued off-road capability over on-road luxury. Over the years, however, the truck changed — it’s now available with modern appointments like power windows, heated seats, and touchscreen navigation. What was once a purpose-built tool has evolved to meet the demand of a wider consumer base. Audio-Technica’s most popular studio monitor headphones have gone through a similar evolution — once a dedicated studio monitoring tool, the new ATH-M50xBT adds features that today’s headphone users demand without losing the spirit of the original.
The ATH-M50xBT’s model name may be a mouthful but it’s also a bit of a lesson in the history of the headphone hobby. This headphone was launched over 10 years ago as the ATH-M50, a studio monitor headphone with a long cable that couldn’t be detached. Designed for professional use, it featured an accurate sound, sturdy plastic build, and low price — musicians and mastering pros wouldn’t be buying expensive audiophile headphones made of exotic materials. The M50 quickly became the go-to recommendation for those getting started in the headphone hobby. Community members invented ways to manage the M50’s unwieldy cable, some (including us) learning to solder to make the cable removable. Audio-Technica responded to this demand with the M50x — the same headphone with a detachable cable — making the M50 more accessible, portable, and popular. Users modded those too, adding sometimes-awkward Bluetooth modules to the outside of the headphone. By adding Bluetooth to the M50x, the M50xBT reflects the huge change in consumer preference to wireless headphones. Not all makers of popular studio monitors have followed this path — the Beyerdynamic DT770, for example, remains utilitarian with a permanently-attached cable.
Like its older sibilings, the M50xBT is an over-ear headphone featuring durable plastic construction, pleather ear pads, 45mm dynamic drivers, and driver cups that swivel and fold. The M50xBT is about as comfortable as the previous model, which is to say that it’s not exactly relaxing to wear — clamping force is high, and its shallow, stiff ear pads get warm over time. The ear pads from the “SR” line of headphones (i.e. MSR7, DSR9BT) are far more comfortable, though the M50xBT exhibits none of the creaking problems that we experienced with those headphones. The only significant physical differences from the M50x are on its left ear cup — now present are a Micro-USB charging port, power switch, and three track control buttons. These additions blend nicely into the existing aesthetic of the M50, which is otherwise unchanged. A 3.5mm analog cable jack is also present for wired mode, which works even when the Bluetooth is off. There are some penalties that come along with wireless functionality — at 310 grams and $199, the M50xBT is 25 grams heavier and $50 more expensive than the wired M50x. Included in the box is a pleather storage bag, charging cable, and 3.5mm analog cable. Battery life on these cans is excellent — Audio-Technica claims around 40 hours of playback, all we can say is that we never had to recharge them in weeks of testing. The M50xBT has one final trick up its sleeve — touch the left ear cup for a few seconds, and Siri activates.
The M50xBT features Bluetooth 5.0, which means longer range and higher transfer rates — the connection was nice and strong throughout our testing. The M50xBT supports both AAC and aptX, but we would have liked to see Audio-Technica take advantage of this current-gen Bluetooth to also include some high-definition codecs like apt-X HD or LDAC. The M50xBT sounds the same in wired or wireless mode, which is either a testament to the maturity of Bluetooth or an indication that Audio-Technica isn’t applying any weird DSP here (probably both). Though we didn’t have an original M50x to A/B test, the M50xBT sounds very much like what we remember of the wired version. It’s got a clean, detailed sound that remains a great value at this price point. Treble, as with the M50x, is a bit “forward,” which can be hard on some tracks. Midrange sounds natural and clear. Bass is emphasized and punchy, but not muddy, no doubt part of the reason why these have been popular for those looking to upgrade from the likes of Beats. Passive isolation is very good. Like the M50s, the M50xBT has a smallish, in-your-face soundstage.
Like fans of the original YJ Wrangler, purists will surely decry the addition of Bluetooth the M50 — that Audio-Technica has degraded performance of a workhorse product in favor of market share. To some extent, they’re right — accepting some loss of quality in favor of wireless convenience seems to defeat the purpose of using studio monitors and, perhaps tellingly, Audio-Technica does not include the M50xBT among their “professional” headphones. Still, we like the change. Bluetooth has never sounded better than it does now, and if making the M50 wireless will result in more people being introduced to high-quality audio, we’re all for it. If you like the ATH-M50, we think you’ll find that the M50xBT is exactly what it should be — the same great headphone, but wireless. Now, more than ever, the M50 is what you should be buying instead of Beats.
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