Audio-technica ATH-AWAS Closed-back Headphones Review
Is this lavish new premium flagship over-ear headphone what the world needs now? Matthew Jens decides…
ATH-AWAS Closed-back Headphones
AUD $2,499 RRP
Audio-technica's flagship wooden headphones have always been a cornerstone of the personal audio world. Other brands may come and go, but masterpieces such as this are timeless. The company's top designs have been consistently high performers over the years, with the inevitably high price tag to match. Now, for the first time in years, Audio-technica has dropped two more closed-back dynamic headphones into its flagship position – the ATH-AWAS and ATH-AWKT. They're identical in every way, apart from the wooden enclosures that encase them. This review focuses on the ATH-AWAS, which has Asada Zakura Japanese cherry wood as the timber of choice.
This is not a value purchase, nor does it claim to be. Instead, it's the Rolls Royce of headphones, aiming to be the unmatched king when it comes to build quality, finish and sound. Yet I can't help wondering, with all of the craziness happening in our world right now, is an exotic new flagship headphone costing $2,499 in Australia what the world needs now? It had better be good, then!
When it comes to cost-no-object headphones, premium presentation is essential. Audio-technica has predictably pulled out all the stops, without quite going overboard – the ATH-AWAS comes in a hard box, wrapped in a softly textured felt. Opening the lid reveals a beautiful pair of headphones, sleeping soundly in a sumptuous bed of silk. Nestled underneath are the two Hi-OFC cables, with a choice of either 6.3mm jack or 4-pin balanced XLR tips. Swapping these cables is made easy with the A2DC (Audio Design Detachable Coaxial) connectors.
Once you navigate your way past the immaculate packaging, you'll be hard-pressed to ignore the striking wooden earcups. They're not made from any old bit of timber, but an exquisite hand-finished Japanese cherry wood. Fit and finish of these enclosures are extremely impressive, and any photos frankly don't do them justice. Indeed, the tactile quality is one of the attractions, and you only get this from handling the headphone in person.
This particular wood has been chosen for its acoustic properties, for its ability to minimise unwanted resonances in the earcup enclosure. Indeed it is found in several musical instruments manufactured in Japan, from traditional drums to modern-day guitars. So it certainly has its chops when it comes to audio applications such as this. This wood was specially selected to house the 53mm drivers, which were produced exclusively for the AWAS and AWKT headphones.
The earpads which surround the cups are flat, thick, soft and ultra-luxurious. Made from the same synthetic leather as the headband, they don't heat up too much during long listening sessions – meaning you don't get sticky. The 53mm drivers are angled, which is a neat psychoacoustic trick to achieve a larger soundstage, the company says. My ears touch the outside of the pads, and rest gently against the drivers – but not enough to be uncomfortable. By contrast, the comparably priced Sennheiser HD 820 design has pads that sit around the outside of your ears.
The headband is inherited from Audio-technica's flagship ATH-ADX5000 design, including the light but strong magnesium alloy arm, as well as the basic plastics of the headphone cup yolk. While you could be forgiven for being upset about the generous use of plastic that this inheritance entails, I'm more than happy to look past it for the weight tradeoff.
Oh yes, that glorious weight – or relative lack thereof! Hitting the scales at 395 grams, the ATH-AWAS is only a hair heavier than the 360g Sennheiser HD 820, and somewhat lighter than the 450g Focal Clear. The aforementioned two-spoke headband does an admirable – yet not quite perfect – job of distributing the weight evenly across the head, eliminating most hotspots.
As with other comfortable Audio-technica headphones, the clamping force is very gentle on the head. Indeed it's so soft that if you flicked your head back quickly enough, they might slide off – yet in regular daily listening, this will never be an issue. This makes complete sense, as this is a 'sit in your lounge chair for a few hours' pair of headphones, rather than a 'jump on the train to Bendigo' type design. So for easy, relaxed, laid-back lounging, this is pretty much perfect.
The level of thought that's gone into the design of the ATH-AWAS is incredible then, right down to the cable – which has the words 'left' and 'right' inscribed into each connector in a classy foiled gold finish. The cable has some light microphonic noises that will be transmitted into the earcups if you mess about with it too much, but it's nothing to really write home about. Overall then, build and finish are lavish – as you'd expect at this price. Material choice is excellent, making it exceptionally comfortable to wear. Yet this won't mean very much unless the AWAS has a great sound to back it up.
Audio-technica's ATH-AWAS sounds exactly like it looks – smooth, relaxed, poised, refined and organic. It's just the job if you're the sort who likes to lounge, reclined comfortably with a Hakushu Distiller's Reserve single malt in one hand and your high-end DAP in the other, drifting off into a world of high-end opulence.
With a quoted impedance of only 48 ohms, I knew this headphone would match well with low output impedance solid-state amplification, or from a tube amp with a coupled transformer. Armed with my Vincent KHV-1PRE and Matrix Quattro, I ventured headfirst, if you pardon the pun, into the orchestral garage hybrid styling of Claire (Kazam Remix) by Kid Loco…
Straight off the bat, I found myself swimming inside the engaging, warm and controlled bass kicks. Not being outdone by the low end, those classy drivers were able to keep pace with the energetic hi-hats and tied everything together in a clean, coherent manner. By comparison, the Sennheiser HD 820 was too analytical for my liking with this track, where the detail and edges took away too much attention from the song itself. The ATH-AWAS proved more enjoyable and musical, with a rounded top end to avoid any cringing with bright sounding programme material.
Wishing to throw something a little more challenging at this Japanese masterpiece, it was time for Chameleon by Emancipator. Although there are plenty of lively sounding samples peppered throughout the track, things never sounded too busy or congested through this pair of headphones. The song also gave an excellent demonstration of the soundstaging, which is roughly on-par with the high-end timbre-clad offerings from Fostex, for example. This song is an ideal demonstration of just how smooth and warm the ATH-AWAS naturally is – the bass extended deep into the lower registers, but was never too loud to distract from the rest of the mix.
The clean, coherent and warm sonic signature of these cans allowed the punchy and aggressive vocals of City Slicker by CASISDEAD to shine through with plenty of energy. Yet, I didn't encounter any ringing or resonance. This song is kryptonite for a sibilant headphone, so not a great listen with brighter flagships such as the Sennheiser HD 820. However, this top-end Audio-technica was able to navigate the busy crescendo without any issues, and even felt a little subdued on the very highest peaks of the top end.
Despite sharing the same headband, I'm intrigued by how different the ATH-AWAS sounds to its flagship open-backed cousin, the ATH-ADX5000. While the latter has a more surgical and analytical signature, the AWAS is smoother and more balanced by comparison. It doesn't overcomplicate things but instead lets you enjoy your music for what it is, without becoming too dry or dull.
To keep the good news coming, you won't need shedloads of power to drive the ATH-AWAS. The Sennheiser needed a few more clicks of volume on my headphone amplifier to reach a similar listening level, for example. Indeed the Audio-technica proved less fussy in general, and didn't mind being driven from less illustrious portable audio sources than you'd associate with it.
Audio-technica's new ATH-AWAS is a no-holds-barred, love-me-or-hate-me premium headphone from Japan, encased with gorgeous wood. With a gloriously warm, balanced sound that won't offend, it certainly meets the expectations one would have from its premium price tag. In this sense, it represents excellent value for money – providing, of course, you have this sort of sum to spend. As the world weighs on our shoulders, such purchases might be considered indulgent – but each to their own. I am reminded of that old expression, “money won't make you happy, but I'd rather cry in a Ferrari”.
For more information, visit Audio-technica.
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.