For once, let’s do a piece on gears that won’t actually make your wallet run away. Here are three fairly entry level headphones from Audio Technica, the SJ11, SJ33, and the SJ55 ($39.99, $49.99, and $59.99, respectively). Some may think that “hey, that would make for a nice birthday gift for my kid”, but for the true music enthusiasts, a great music is still a great music regardless of the headphones.
Now, don’t get all pessimistic about these yet, as they actually sound pretty good and musical, overlooking their white boyband look for a second (if you need matching colors with your leather jackets, they are all available in black, by the way). The tonal balance doesn’t try to do anything weird or funny, and even on the least priced SJ11, I am getting good bass, good vocals, and good vibes from the music. And listening to casual pop tunes, I couldn’t care if the soundstage image is coherent or have a good proper center image. Good vocal presence, nice bass punch with no boominess, no over enthusiastic treble. I am slightly bothered by the plasticky timbre and the fragile plastic housing of the SJ11, but hey, they are $39.99 headphones! Now, if casual pop and indie is the music you listen to most of the time, perhaps you can put that LCD-2 for sale and get a nice new laptop in return.
The SJ33 is one step up from the SJ11 and you actually get gobs of sonic upgrades over the latter. Though the SJ11 was nice, I think the SJ33 is the minimum that Headfonia readers should go for. Yes, I know you all love your music very much, but I doubt you can live with a $39.99 plastic headphone with a plasticky timbre, regardless of how nice its tonal balance actually is. The SJ33 takes the same basic recipe that works on the SJ11, adds better treble and bass extension, a more audible soundstage, and a less plasticky timbre. Instruments actually sound pretty nice with the SJ33, you know, those guitar plucks? Throw in a nice acoustic recording like Kings of Convenience’s Declaration of Dependence, or the superbly recorded Jazz at the Pawnshop, do a little sales pitch among your colleagues (it’s very important to talk as if you are an expert in headphones who know what you’re talking about), and you’ll soon have a few people in your office toe-tapping to the sound of these SJ33s.
The SJ55 is the biggest and the baddest model (supposedly) of the three. Even more prominent treble and deeper bass gives the most Hi-fi sensation of the three. I probably would’ve taken this as my favorite cans from the group (the $59.99 price tag doesn’t lie, those Audio Technica guys know their products), BUT (an it’s a very big one), I find the treble to be a tad over enthusiastic for my ears. Actually it’s more to the lower treble, the high vocal range, because every time the vocal gets loud, I find myself squinting my eyes because of the loudness of the vocals. It’s as if Norah Jones is standing next to you, but she’s singing with the same volume and intensity as if she were performing in a small jazz club. You’d like to tell her to take a few steps back because no matter how smooth her voice is, your ears simply can’t take it.
I can back down the volume level a little and that would put the vocal in good levels, but the rest of the instruments just ain’t got the same groove at that volume level. I don’t know though, the SJ55 is really nice and Hi-Fi sounding, and that issue with vocals are probably just my ears’ fault. The good thing is that they actually don’t try to push the treble to be over enthusiastic, because that would’ve been really nasty. But seriously, the SJ55 is really nice, and since it is the most HD800-like of the trio, I’d probably learn to live with Norah’s voice (actually Norah’s Come Away with me is a very forward in the vocals, with the other recordings the vocal is very good on the SJ55).
The good thing about these Audio Technicas are as follows:
- They actually have a decent speed/pace. You can be playing Muse, Prodigy, or Rage Against The Machine, and still be getting a fairly good pace and energy, unlike the more laid back Sennheiser PX100-II or HD202.
- They are forward sounding, without being in your face ala Grado. I know that some people, perhaps also because of the music choice, can’t stand the laid-back Sennheiser sound (again such as in the PX100-II or HD202).
- The bass is awesome for the price. Punchy, fairly tight bass that doesn’t get boomy. Another score over the PX100-II, HD202, or the Jays V-Jays even. The SJ11 gets a little loose compared to the two bigger brothers, but I know that you’ll probably be getting the SJ33 at the minimum.
- They are closed-back. While they doesn’t attain to the level of open-ness that you get from a PX100-II or the V-Jays, I know people have been asking about a good entry level closed-back headphone.
- Genre bandwith. As high end headphones continue to have a polarizing sound that limits the music genre you listen to, perhaps we should all be listening to Audio Technica SJ55s instead.
- Superb sounding from an Ipod. No worry about amplifier synergies, getting separate DAC boxes, silver recables, lossless WAV files, et cetera. Gosh, I wish things can be this simple with the HD800.
By now, have I convinced you that you need to go out and place an order on Amazon for an SJ55? I know you started reading this article with some pessimism, but now you really want to give at least one of these babies a try, just to see if I’m really talking the truth. Damn right I am talking the truth. Get the SJ55, sell the rest of your headphone gears, and you can finally go back to a normal life like everybody else. And next time you see a guy trying out the AKG K701, you can tell him that you’ve been there, done all that, and ended up with the ATH-SJ55.
Long Live Music!!!
PS: Despite constantly referring to Norah Jones throughout the article, I actually listened to quite a lot of albums through these headphones, even a Benjamin Zander Mahler 5th recording.