How can audio progress in today's market? With digital streaming, the proliferation of High Resolution audio slowly making inroads and the advancement of wireless technologies to take advantage, there's increasing demand for quality.
Audio-Technica's answer is the ATH-DSR9BT: the first over-ear headphones to ditch the digital-to-analogue (DAC) conversion process and deliver a true digital signal from source to drivers. The company calls it Pure Digital Drive technology.
Which sounds all well and good, but what does this actually mean? Without a DAC there's no analogue conversion in this proprietary process and therefore no added distortion for the most accurate reproduction. No conversion means no compromise. And with aptX HD compatibility it's possible to benefit from formats up to 24-bit/48kHz via Bluetooth (24-bit/96kHz wired).
Ahead of the official DSR9BT announcement at CES 2017 we were given the opportunity to preview these digitally-focused headphones at a Japanese preview event. Here's how they stack up.
Audio-Technica DSR9BT preview: Design
Audio-Technica does stress that each new product is built from the ground up, with the DSR9BT no different. However, these new cans do take at least some design inspiration from the earlier MSR7 model - a wired set of over-ears that we've long praised for balanced delivery, comfortable wear and well considered price point.
With the DSR9BT in the hand the grey finish has understated appeal. Well, it's more interesting looking than black anyway. Shame that there's no brighter colour accents to be found, though, with only the silver sheen of the outer earcups acting as a notable point of differentiation. And we're not talking shimmery, bling silver like you'd find on Monster headphones: the Audio-Technica cans look sophisticated.
To take full advantage of their wireless nature there are on-headphone controls too. A jog switch for volume adjustment sits next to a touch-sensor to start/stop or accept calls. On the other earcup is the Bluetooth on/off switch to command the built-in battery for wireless listening; if that depletes then it can be recharged via micro-USB - or this port can be used for wired listening at high quality, as there's no 3.5mm jack.
The controls make sense but are the headphones' aesthetic weak point: their plasticky finish doesn't look or feel premium, while the finish lacks cohesion with the rest of the materials. Metal buttons might be to excess, perhaps, but at this £450-500 price point the material choice ought to be better (there's no final price just yet, all we're told is “under £500”).
There's nothing to criticise about the quality of the earcups though. The light grey leather-like finish is well padded for optimum comfort, complete with threaded finish, while the depth of the earcups avoids them pinching or pressing on the ears too much. Even the “left” and “right” markings of the MSR7 have been moved to the insides of the DSR9BT, which looks much neater.
Audio-Technica DSR9BT preview: Sound
Comfort is one thing, but with headphones such as these it's audio quality that ultimately makes the biggest impact. Here's where that Pure Digital Drive tech comes into play. Unlike other headphones the DSR9BT include what Audio-Technica calls a “Dnote chipset”, which commands four voice coils in the headphones' 45mm drivers for optimum dynamics and clarity.
How that translates into audio is interesting because it gives a true interpretation of the recording. Those who are looking for the warmth of analogue might not appreciate that, but what we found is how critical the source material is. Being in Japan we were naturally drawn to Babymetal (but of course) from the available playlist which sounded like a flat wall of sound. There's something to be said for production standards there: these headphones are so detailed that they'll highlight any shortcomings.
Get an exceptional quality recording, however, and results soar to great heights. We dabbled in the known classics, such as Hotel California, which shows the power of a quality recording. Winding the clock forward to 2016 with a slice of Adele's latest album showed how well the DSR9BT can handle vocals, rich with reverb, in delivering the nuances of a top production. There's ample bass, too, but the delivery isn't overdone as it is with so many headphones on the market these days.
Because there are tiers of quality standards, the DSR9BT headphones also feature a trio of LED on the side of one earcup. One represents aptX HD quality, the other aptX (standard), the last AAC and SBC. It's a subtle way of visually showing the quality of incoming audio. Saying that, it's not especially clear how this system works without knowing about it in advance - and who reads a manual?
Furthermore you'll need the necessary source device to get the utmost quality. Our preview session was with an LG G5, given its aptX HD compatibility. Not all phones, for example, are capable of delivering the highest quality. But even if you don't dig into Flac file playback or tuck into Tidal for your streaming, you can expect decent audio delivery.
If comfort, top audio quality with well considered balance and wireless listening are your priorities then the Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT are future standard-setting audiophile headphones. If the potential near £500 price tag gives you the fear, however, then the similar ATH-DSR7BT (which has one voice coil, rather than the four) ought to be priced near the £300 point with a potentially wider market appeal.