Parting ways with old headphones are a struggle primarily because of the nostalgia factor. Reminding you of the early days of your journey, how far you’ve come, and how the landscape of the hobby has changed since. Though that is only true if the headphone is good enough to be kept around. Today, we are going to be doing a super long-term review/revisit of my first ‘expensive’ headphone, the Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9.
The Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9 is an on-ear portable headphone that retails for $349 but was mostly available for $150-$200 towards the end of its production. It’s part of Audio-Technica’s Earsuit line which is focused more on style while still delivering decent sound. I am not sure if this line is still being actively maintained but I do know they released recent variants based on the ESW9’s design.
Little background story
I bought the ESW9 almost a decade ago and prior to that, I’ve mostly owned budget IEMs and headphones. At the time, I wanted to finally make that big splurge but I also wanted the headphones to be portable enough and aesthetically pleasing. The top-tier headphones for the on-ear category back then were the Sennheiser HD-25 1-II, the Beyerdynamic DT1350, and the V-Moda M80/V80. I did my due diligence and researched the heck out of them all and while I didn’t have any major problems with any of the three, they were more expensive than the ESW9.
In the end, it came down to the ESW9 and V-Moda M80. The latter is overall the better headphone but the styling just isn’t to my liking. Add the fact that the wood cups of the ESW9 look extremely sexy and I’m sold! Over time, I accumulated the DT1350 and M80 at varying points but that’s another story for another day.
Build, comfort & portability
While the ESW9 perceptibly gives you that luxurious vibe with African Paduak wood cups and lambskin earpads, the construction as a whole doesn’t. Outside of those, it’s predominantly (cheap) plastic, the cable is thin and non-removable and it lacks the heft that makes a product premium-feeling. It also doesn’t inspire ruggedness which is unfortunate since the headphone only comes with a soft pouch.
Comfort and isolation are both average. As an on-ear headphone, there’s just so much you can do to make it comfortable. The pads are larger than your average on-ear but doesn’t change the fact that it’s sitting on top as opposed to over your ears. Isolation is slightly below average for your typical portable headphone so this doesn’t work for train and plane rides.
Despite feeling flimsy, to begin with, the headphone is still fully functional up to now so I guess we can give some credit to Audio-Technica here. Granted my usage has severely declined since around 5 years ago. It’s endured the normal wear and tear with flaking headband padding, earpads getting thinner and stiffer, and some scratches here and there, but apart from those, the ESW9 still produces sound.
The fun part. You can go back and read my original review of the ESW9, and compare my subjective impressions if you want. I called the ESW9 a warm-neutral headphone back then and while I don’t think I can agree with that anymore, some of my findings then were still valid now to some extent.
More than 20 headphones and 9 years later, I find the ESW9 to be too colored for my liking. It’s too warm, the bass is bloomy and lacks sub-bass extension, and the treble is just too recessed and overly smoothed-out. Soundstage is small which is not a surprise and imaging is typical of most on-ears that I’ve listened to. I would say the best quality of the ESW9 when all is said and done is it’s a decent headphone for casual and relaxed listening sessions with its laid-back and inoffensive sound signature.
This headphone is famous for having a “tube-like” sound and I think there’s still merit there except this type of tuning doesn’t work all the time. For rock genres, it cuts off the overall liveliness due to recessed treble and the dynamic punch of the bass is also quite soft. It does work however for genres that prominently feature vocals. So acoustics and jazz can work with this tuning and I have no problems listening to Diana Krall and Norah Jones with the ESW9.
In 2021, I will have a hard time recommending the ESW9 both at its MSRP of $349 and street price of $199. But it’s also been long discontinued so unless you’re willing to buy a used item at a reasonable price, you’re no longer gonna find it.
A similar and better-sounding option that is still available today is the Meze 99 Classics. Audio-Technica’s very own M50x and M40x are better options for the price although they have a different tuning than the ESW9.
That’s about it for the throwback of the Audio-Technica ESW9 portable headphones. I am just amazed that this headphone has lasted me this long considering they’re not built like a tank. Sound-wise, I would have no problem casually listening using this headphone if needed. Thankfully, it’s not needed so I’ll just have it stored and displayed in my headphone cabinet until I can do another long-term review again 10 years from now.