Not many people know about the extent of the headphone market. For someone who has never looked into it, the thought of paying hundreds, or sometimes thousands of dollars to listen to music through headphones seems somewhat stupid. There are, however, cheaper entries into the realm of ‘audiophile’ headphones. In this review, we will focus on two headphones that are in one of the sweet spots of price to performance; the Audio Technica AD700, and the Alessandro MS1. Both of these can be had for around $100 USD, and both are open-backed. We will also be looking into what kind of improvement you can get out of headphones such as these compared to those cheap buds that came with your MP3 player.
First off, let’s take a look at the ATH-AD700.
The AD700 are the updated version of the old ATH-AD7. They feature Audio Technica’s ‘3D Wing’ system, or those little things you see that can be mistaken for eyebrows. Despite what can be first interpreted as marketing, the combination of these and the velour ear pads has resulted in what are widely considered the most comfortable headphones that you can buy. The downside of that, however, is that they don’t stay put well enough for headbanging, if you are into that kind of thing. Also, since I am the owner of a horrible camera, I had to use stock photos. Unfortunately they are off color; the purple on the sides is a bit brighter, and the gold bits are more gold, less silver.
Now, the Alessandro MS1.
Alessandro is a company that makes various guitar related products, which strangely enough seems to encompass headphones. The MS1 is a tweaked version of the grado 125, which supposedly is better suited for use with guitar amps. In common practice though, they seem to have become one of the best headphones in the $100 price range for listening to music. The only visual difference between them and the 125 from which they originated is the lack of a button saying ‘125’ and the difference in text around the side of the cup. The grado design philosophy is rather simple, no fancy mechanisms here. As a result they suffer from some comfort issues, although nothing serious for short listening sessions. They do stay put slightly better than the AD700 though.
Now let’s get on to directly comparing these two.
Now before I say anything, I will note that I am very rough on headphones. Anything that I can hide under my hair is usually used at school, meaning there is a 30lb backpack pulling the cord all day. Even if I don’t use it at school, my rolling chair seems to have a thing for eating any cord within a 5 foot radius of it and that isn’t helped by the fact that I tend to fix this by yanking until the darn thing comes out. All of this has resulted in all but one of my headphones having broken cables. Although the MS1 is simply built, the connection between the headband and the plastic part holding the adjustable ‘antenna’ can come out if pulled. Luckily this is easily fixed with a few drops of superglue. The more troublesome design flaw is the part of the cable extending from the Y split to the cups. Even though the other part of the cable is rather thick and beefy, the part here is thin and will twist near the ends. Mine broke near the cup on the left side. After a rather annoying fix, I was left with a bit of a J-cord effect, the left cord being shorter than the right. The fix being done by me, it eventually broke again, and now the left side is roughly half as long as the right. All of this said, I can personally attest to the MS1 being fine after getting wet, as long as they aren’t plugged in when said water gets to them. Don’t ask how I found this out, but if you let them dry out then they will be fine.
Remember that one set of headphones I haven’t broken at all? That would the the AD700. Even after being used by me for almost a half year now (the same length as the MS1) they haven’t had a single problem, except for those eyebrows coming off once, and even then they just snap back in. The flexible headband and proper stress reliefs on the cable make this easily the most durable headphone I’ve used.
Although we have already touched on this, I want to come back to it for just a moment. To put it simply, the AD700s can be worn all day. Your ears might get a little warm after a while, but it’s not much of a problem at all. The MS1 can be worn for a few hours, but after that they become uncomfortable due to them sitting on top of your ear, rather than around like the AD700. Taking them off for 15 minutes or so can help this, but they still aren’t as comfortable as the AD700.
Here is where it gets a bit tricky. Sound is very, very subjective. What one person finds to sound great can sound horrible to another person. Moreover, I have found that you adjust to whatever you are listening to, and the only time these differences are really heard is right after you change headphones. After a few minutes, this difference is very hard to hear. If you are coming from cheap buds, then you should take this entire section with a very large grain of salt (or perhaps an entire shaker), as you will thoroughly enjoy both. Even if you do have problems with the sound, and don’t talk to a bunch of audiophiles every day, you can always just change your equalizer settings. Be warned though, you WILL get yelled at by most audiophile for doing this.
Speaking of audiophiles, they also like to yell at people who don’t say the equipment and music they used to test headphones they review. To avoid getting hunted down and killed, I have to put all of that stuff here. The only two sources used were either out of my computer through a Nuforce Icon Mobile amp/DAC, or directly out of my Sanza Fuze (with rockbox). The music used was almost all v0 and 320kbps .mp3, with a very small amount of flac thrown in. They were also used while I was producing in FL Studio 8.
All of this said, let’s begin.
Bass, simply, is the deep part of music. It is usually the part that you can feel and the only part you hear when someone has a few subs in their car and is going down the street. If anyone is about to send me a message yelling about the differences in bass and sub-bass, then please go away now; most people don’t want to be bored with the differences between the two.
Lots of people will say the AD700 has no bass or very little. They certainly don’t have the most bass in a headphone, but from my experience they still have plenty. It is a very ‘neutral’ bass, and it doesn’t make the bass louder than it should be. When listening to dance, the kicks are easily felt, and when the song overstates the bass (Bonkers volume 3 disk 1, cough cough) the AD700 will overstate it as well. All of this said the MS1 still has more bass. It’s still not as bass heavy as most closed headphones are, but in my opinion, it has plenty of bass. Neither of these headphones have any problems with too much bass, or the bass being louder than the rest of the sound though.
The mids, or the midrange, is where most of the sound is in music. Guitars, synths, trumpets, or basically any other main instrument you can think of (including vocals) is based in the midrange. The main difference between these two headphones sound wise is what they do with the mids. The MS1 focuses the sound on the low mids, like where a rock guitar would be. The AD700 focuses the sound almost in the highs, which is partially why they have an ‘airy’ sound. In fact, you can almost say that the AD700 has a sucked out, or slightly quieter midrange than the MS1.
The highs are the really high frequency stuff, like snares, symbols, claps, and notably the little hiss that is heard when saying something with the letter ‘t’ or ‘s’. The highs in the MS1 seem to be a bit rolled off, or slightly quieter than the rest of the sound range. In the AD700 however, the highs are basically the focused part of the sound. This can lead to some problems with fatigue, especially when you first listen to them. This fatigue disappears after you listen to them for a while though.
Soundstage is a little hard to describe, but it’s kind of where you think the sound is originating from. Luckily, the sound stage is easy to compare between these two. The AD700 has a very large soundstage; the sounds seem like they are coming from different places and music seems to have more ‘depth’ to it. The MS1 has a very small soundstage, or all of the music seems like it’s coming from the same place, and in this case that is something very close to where your ear is. If someone is singing, it seems like they are singing close to your ear, rather than at a bit of a distance like the AD700.
Now if you are wondering what to make of all of that above, it’s basically that if you are looking for a reason to buy one headphone over the other and have come down to nitpicking about the sound, get the MS1 if you listen to a lot of rock, electronic, or something of that sort. Get the AD700 if you like stuff more like classical, jazz, or other stuff like that. The added soundstage also makes the AD700 better at gaming, since it is easier to tell what direction a sound is coming from.
So what about compared to regular earbuds? For this I nicked a buddy’s $10 supermarket special phillips earbuds. Now I could split this into sections, but frankly they don’t deserve it. There is no sub bass to speak of, the mids are all focused around 1khz (about where a distorted guitar is) and the highs are extremely harsh, or just flat out painful. On top of all of that, they are quite inaccurate. With the MS1 and AD700, you can quite accurately hear the detail in sound waves in things like synthesizers or guitars, but with these it’s all just a mushy sound being called music. Simply, these buds are a waste of money. Much, much better things can be had for $15, but that’s another review.
Both of these headphones can be modified in a few different ways, depending on what you want to do with them. The headband on the AD700 can be bent to give a bit more clamp or to make it press against your head a bit harder so that it stays on better. I have also heard about people taking out the lining on the back of the grille to change the sound, but I haven’t tried this personally. It is also easy to add a microphone onto the side. I use a hair stretchy (That is a technical term, by the way) to hold a boom mic on mine. Other people have also used Velcro pads to hold theirs on.
The MS1s can be modded a few different ways. Many people change the pads to different grado pads, to pads from old sennheisers, even to duck shaped sponges. Unfortunately I haven’t tried any of these. The only modification I have done is a homemade clip on mod, done by taking some old wire cloths hangers and bending the metal into a clip on shape, even with a bit of fleece added to attempt to make them more comfortable. That said I can’t really recommend doing this, since they are very, very uncomfortable. In fact, I’ve not included a picture just to make sure no one does it and gets an ear cut off and sues me. It definitely wasn’t because I couldn’t find the clips.
Now both of these headphones are not exactly the prettiest. However, I have devised a test to show what they look like while they are on your head. I have borrowed a crash test dummy to help out. They will be rated on the goofball scale, one being that it looks good and could qualify as a fashion accessory, five being not to wear it in public.
Although the MS1 by itself looks a bit geeky, it has a tendency to become less obvious when worn. The cord does become a bit obvious though, the Y cable not being the prettiest in the world. The MS1 earns a rather neutral 3.5 goofballs out of five.
On the other hand, the AD700 sticks out like a sore thumb. Between the huge, colorful cups and the funky headband, wearing the AD700 anywhere that you can be seen by other people is definitely not advised. These earn the full, 5 goofballs out of 5.
Price and conclusion
As for price, The AD700 can be had from anywhere between $70 and $90 USD from merchants at Amazon, depending on if they are on sale or not. The MS1 can only be bought new from the Alessandro website for $100. It should also be noted that they have outdated security and it brings up tons of warnings on Firefox. If you don’t like putting your credit card over an unsecured connection, then you can always send the money through the mail using an order form, like I ended up doing. As with the comparisons between most headphones there is no clear winner, the only thing you can do is research both and decide which one suits your needs best. However, if you want to have all of the positive traits of both headphones, your only option is to buy both.
AUTHOR UPDATE: Alessandro also has a model based off of the newer ‘125i’, listed as the ‘2009 improved version’ for 10$ more. I have yet to hear it so I can’t tell you if it’s any better than the regular MS1 or not.