Audio-Technica’s new flagship wireless headphone is finally here and it’s bringing something new to the table. Most bluetooth headphones have a DAC built into the cups/buds themselves but the new Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT ($550) and DSR7BT ($300) both use Pure Digital Drive, a DAC-less technology. Basically the digital signal from your laptop/phone goes directly into a Trigence Semiconductor Dnote chipset which translates the digital signal into digital pulses. These pulses then move the voice coil in the 45mm diamond-like carbon (DLC) driver. It’s digital across the entire chain and this supposedly drastically reduces the amount of distortion via bluetooth. The DSR9BT also uses a four-wire voice coil for a very controlled, detailed, and accurate sound. The DSR7BT uses a single wire voice coil.
First I want to thank Bill Poteet at Audio-Technica for being gracious and patient enough to send me these wonderful demos. If you ever get a chance to meet him at the shows, stop by and say hi. He’s a really awesome guy.
The ATH-DSR9BT is a full-featured wireless headphone with a well-thought-out set of tools at your finger tips.
- Using the volume slider, you could adjust volume and also skip tracks.
- Using the “tap controller” which looks like an IR receiver, you’re able to pause/play music, answer and end calls. You could also check the battery life by double tapping it. Long tap for voice commands.
- NFC support so just tap your phone to connect your headphones.
- Built-in microphone for calls
- LEDs on the cup indicate battery levels and the codec being used. Please refer to the manual for the legend.
- 15 hours of continuous battery life, 1,000 hours of standby, and 4 hours to fully charge.
- Up to 10 meters line-of-site range
- Pairing was easy and painless although I had to use the tiny reset button once when moving between different players.
- Overall very comfortable and fairly light (at 11 ounces). Earpads and headband were properly sized and I didn’t find the clamping pressure to be an issue. Depending on the ambient temperature of your room the pads could be a bit warm after a few hours of use.
- Support for aptX HD, aptX, AAC, SBC.
- A ridiculous frequency response of 5 Hz – 45,000 Hz (!!)
- 97 dB/mW, 38 ohms of impedance. Not the most sensitive but I kept the volume 2-3 notches below the max for most of my listening.
- Capable of listening to hi-res (up to 96/24) music from a USB cable rather than a 3.5mm analog output.
- Astell & Kern KANN DAP
- Sony Walkman NW‑WM1Z DAP
- Sony MDR-1000X
- Audio-Technica DSR9BT
- Audio-Technica DSR7BT
- Audeze Sine
- Late 2013 Macbook Pro
- In case you weren’t aware, set “Exclusive mode” on your player (JRiver, Tidal, etc). You’ll get much, much better fidelity with more meat to the music. Without this mode on, music will sound very thin, harsh, and fatiguing. If you’re using Tidal click here.
- Make sure your transmitting device (laptop, phone, DAP, etc) supports either aptX HD, aptX, or AAC. For most Windows and OSX devices, the best codec will be selected. aptX HD (and LDAC) support will be available for Android O. At the time of writing, iOS devices don’t support aptX. The worse thing you’ll want is having your device default to SBC.
All codecs used for bluetooth are lossy (although some claim to be “CD-quality”). The sonic delta between playing the same track via bluetooth and a direct USB connection were significant.
Codec bitrates at 44.1 kHz sampling rate:
- SBC – 328 kbps
- AAC – 246 kbps
- aptX – 352 kbps
- aptX HD – 576 kbps
- LDAC – 990 kbps
I’ve tried various players with various codecs including aptX HD. I’ve found that, although there are additive benefits to using a better codec/DAP, the overarching qualities of the headphone itself will be the determining factor for those looking to purchase any of these headphones. I’ve covered pretty much every genre of music so my findings and impressions are inclusive of that.
ATH-DSR9BT vs. ATH-DSR7BT
As mentioned, both headphones use the Pure Digital Drive system but the 9BT has a four-wire voice coil while the 7BT has a single coil. I tested both the bluetooth and direct USB connection in my listening sessions. Both headphones are very comfortable although the 9BT has better fitting ear-cups and a roomier headband.
- Both headphones have a similar clean and neutral-ish elevated tone. Not much coloring going on but slightly tilts to the brighter side of neutral.
- The 7BT has a much silkier and smoother presentation. The tradeoff is clarity and resolution, which the 9BT has plenty of.
- Although the frequency response on paper is close, the 7BT just doesn’t sound like it has close to the amount of extension the 9BT has.
- 7BT sounds a tonally grey in comparison to the 9BT.
- The 9BT is far more revealing (especially of micro-details) and is a few layers more transparent.
- The 9BT has a better sense of air and spaciousness.
- I found the 9BT to be more engaging and the 7BT to be more relaxed and easy to listen to.
- Without the A/B, the 7BT sounds very airy and alive. The 9BT is just in another league in this respect and makes the 7BT sound a bit congested.
- Bass slam is much better with the 9BT.
- Separation and delineation is far superior on the 9BT. Guitar plucks and textures are smoothed over on the 7BT.
- The bass response on the 7BT is a bit rougher than the 9BT.
- The 7BT was more of a wall of sound rather than the 9BT’s more dimensional presentation.
- Without a comparison, the 7BT sounds very smooth, neutral, and musical. Some may prefer this over the more vivid and incisive sound of the 9BT.
Bottomline: The 9BT has a much more insightful and transparent sound with more realistic instrumentation and voices. Transients are quick and extension is vast. The 7BT gives way to a much smoother and relaxed presentation. Delineation isn’t as great and it’s less impactful but it’s really easy to listen to. If you just want to kick back to a silky and melodic sound, the 7BT does a better job than most headphones (wired or wireless).
- Beast Mode (Direct USB)
- Keep in mind, with the right adapter, direct USB mode could also be used with your smart phone. With a wired connection, it’s apparent the timing and coherence are much improved in both headphones. There’s an immediate sense of warmth, body, and control. The headphones also don’t have to be switched on for use in beast mode. I also want to note that the USB cable for the 9BT seems proprietary to AT. I couldn’t use any of my micro-usb cables as a replacement. This isn’t an issue with the 7BT.
- The delta is lower here. The 7BT really shines with direct USB. It sounds MUCH better, like a different headphone.
- Textures come back
- Much lower noise floor
- More musical and euphoric
- More control and refinement
- Much more transparent, no longer sounds veiled.
- The delta is lower here. The 7BT really shines with direct USB. It sounds MUCH better, like a different headphone.
- In comparison, the 9BT sounds a bit hollow without the USB connection. The USB connection adds warmth and a more natural timbre.
- The 9BT also moves to another level. It sounds absolutely amazing in Beast Mode.
- 9BT provides more body and has a more visceral outlook
- Bass is better extended (goes way lower) and has more presence.
- Has an even lower noise floor with a pitch black background.
- That sub-bass is something I’ve never heard from any bluetooth headphone.
- The 7BT…
- still can’t compete with the 9BT on textures, dynamics, and separation. The 7BT sounds much flatter overall.
- still the smoother sounding headphone which does wonders with vocals.
- has some bleeding from the mids to the lows but vocals are still intelligible and fun.
- sounds much more involving than in bluetooth mode. Just missing a bit of separation to make it more of an experience.
- is more forward sounding while the mids on the 9BT sounds a bit recessed at times.
- doesn’t have close to the same level of refinement of the 9BT.
- The 9BT sounds really good with live, amplified music (Nirvana). The 7BT is more well-behaved and chill.
- The articulation of the 9BT cannot be understated. Amazing amount of definition across the entire spectrum and a breathtaking sense of dimension.
Bottomline: Both headphones are significantly elevated in direct USB mode. Both benefit from a lower noise floor, faster transients, deeper bass, and transparency. I really don’t mind the smoother more sultry sound of the 7BT. It’s neutral and enjoyable. It just lacks the dimension and incisiveness that makes music more involving. The 9BT has so much more detail, air, textures, impact, dynamics, and just more insight into the mix. The 9BT also has a more holistic realism over the 7BT. $550 is a lot to spend on a pair of wireless headphones but I personally feel the upgrade to the 9BT is a worthy proposition. Once again, personal preference.
Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT vs. Sony MDR-1000X
Not quite an apples to apples comparison but interesting enough given the amount of attention the Sony MDR-1000X has been getting.
- If you prefer a richer, lusher sound, go with the Sony. It lacks the treble energy (in general and comparatively), resolution, and clarity of the 9BT.
- There’s a denser tone on the Sony, which adds weight and naturalness to instruments and vocals. The 9BT is much leaner sounding in comparison but sounds like it breathes better.
- The 9BT has a more vivid sound with a much blacker background. If you tend to chase resolution, micro-details, and balance over a richer bass response, the 9BT is for you.
- The sub-bass textures are amazing on the 9BT and somewhat nonexistent on the Sony. Probably the Pure Digital Drive at work.
- The 9BT has more snap and slam and definitely more transparency than the Sony. It’s an X-ray into the music.
- The main complaint I have with the Sony is the lack of shimmer and shine up top. I’ve found the treble to be rolled-off and overly romantic.
- Vocals and instruments have a seductive quality to them on the Sony, which I can’t say the same for the 9BT.
- The Sony sounds a bit flatter than the 9BT. The 9BT sounds more open, clean, better separation, and much better resolution.
- I’ve found the 9BT to be more sonically engaging and alive but enjoyed the smoothness, timbre, and musicality of the Sony.
- The Sony doesn’t have as much image focus and isn’t as sharp as the 9BT.
- The 9BT provides a larger sonic image, which results in better immersion.
- As far as comfort, the Sony is better for longer listening sessions. Super light-weight and comfortable.
Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT vs. Audeze Sine
With the 9BT on Beast Mode and the Sine directly connected to the Macbook, it’s a toss up due to preference. Richer/Warmer vs. Detailed/Brighter. Similar to the MDR-1000X comparison. With a Chord Hugo connected to the Sine, it’s no competition. The Sine wins hands-down on all points. Given the lossy nature of bluetooth and the addition of a $1,500 DAC and a $180 Curious USB cable, it wasn’t a fair comparison to begin with but I was curious. 🙂 There were plenty of times I wanted to just cut the wire for my portable use but perhaps another day.
These were the common descriptors from my notes:
- Insightful and faithful as far as detail
- Superb layering
- Extremely low distortion, quiet background
- Energetic and engaging
- Tight bass response with incredible sub-bass detail
- Very well extended
- Leaner and more elevated tone
Audio is full of compromises so the 9BT isn’t going to be perfect for everyone. I would say the ATH-DSR9BT is more tonally elevated and pseudo-analytical than most but has this uncanny ability to remain musical and engaging. A difficult balance to which the 9BT handles beautifully. It has a ton of low-end rumble, but maybe not enough weight and body for some. If you’re a bass-head or prefer a richer and warmer tone, this 9BT probably won’t be your style. Although being one of the most spacious sounding closed wireless headphone, the soundstage still sounds in-your-head. If instead you tend to chase neutrality, balance, and ridiculous resolution, you really can’t do better than the 9BT. Orchestral, classical, rock, pop, and even electronic sounds quite compelling with the 9BT. For these palates, the Audio-Technica DSR9BT is an easy recommendation.
I intentionally avoid talks about the technology (and measurements) used in audio components. My real concern is how it sounds. You could use NASA space-grade material on your amp or Egyptian cotton around your cables but all of that means squat if it doesn’t enhance sound quality. However, if I do hear something interesting, only then will I delve into the details. Well, I could tell you for a fact, Audio-Technica’s Pure Digital Drive with Trigence’s Dnote chip technology does do something very special for these headphones. There’s an unprecedented level of transparency, detail, and dynamics with the Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT. It surpasses any bluetooth headphone I’ve ever heard and even beats out a majority of the wired ones. This headphone is a micro and macro-details MONSTER. You’re able to hear all the dynamic shadings of violin movements and guitar plucks. The air around instruments and voices decay gracefully and naturally. I’ve never heard a bluetooth headphone as resolving and nuanced as the ATH-DSR9BT. I also didn’t think that level of sub-bass texture was even possible with a wireless headphone. There’s no smearing of the mids to the lows or highs. Just amazing clarity across the board. Although impressive even without a cable, these qualities are only further elevated when the 9BT is plugged in via USB. My preference would be to keep it on USB if wireless weren’t absolutely necessary. The sonic improvements are night and day.
Hopefully, this review will help provide some insight on the sonic characteristics of these headphones. Give the ATH-DSR9BT a listen. It might be exactly what you’re looking for in a wireless can. If there are other comparisons you’d be interested in, please let me know in the comments.