How the Audio-Technica E Series Changed What I Think of Earbuds


I admit it: I am an audio snob, but at the same time, I find the concept of some “audiophile” gear to be ridiculous. Some people go to lengths to enjoy their music that are well beyond reasonable and border on the absurd, and my experience as a recording engineer always has me reaching for the practical approach. While I track audio at high resolution rates (24-bit, 88.2 or 96 kHz) for mixing purposes, I have never experienced a practical difference listening to a mastered album at higher-than-CD quality or one at normal CD quality (sorry Neil Young, but like a southern man, I suppose I don’t need you around, anyhow). When talking “on-the-go” listening, my experience tells me my money is better spent on good analog-to-digital conversion and a great pair of headphones.

Because of this, my headphone tastes have always skewed toward “proper” over-the-ear headphones for critical listening or general enjoyment, sometimes open-back, but usually closed-back so my fellow commuters do not have to endure my taste in music. I do use earbuds regularly, but only begrudgingly, allowing the convenience of their size and portability to outweigh what has been my continued experience of mediocre sonic reproduction. So when tasked with checking out the new ATH E-Series In-Ear Monitors, I admittedly went into the task with a Lisa Simpson-sized dose of skepticism.

It is a safe bet that Audio-Technica does not take introducing a new professional series of earbuds lightly. The company’s M series line of over-ear headphones regularly tops readers’ polls and tech blog lists alike, and share the somewhat unique position of being loved by audio professionals and consumers, so these buds had a lot to live up to before I even got them out of their boxes.

There are three editions in the series, the budget-minded ATH-E40s, the single-balanced armature ATH-E50s, and the luxury-tier, three-balanced armature ATH-E70s. Each pair boasts to be “Professional In-Ear Monitors,” which is marketing talk for “really good earbuds,” so the intended audience here comprises audio and live-sound professionals and performers alongside those who just want higher-quality buds.

So, each pair had a chance to shine (and not be outshined by their bigger brothers). I listened to them in model-number order. First up were the E40s. Just unboxing these buds showed Audio-Technica’s attention to detail: the first feature that caught my eyes before my ears got involved was the detachable cable. It might seem like a small thing, but it assures that a damaged cable does not mean you need to splurge on new earbuds—simply swap it out and keep trucking. Four pairs of silicone ear tips provide fit customization, and a sturdy carry pouch rounds out what’s in the box.

Sonically, the E40s provide a souped-up version of what I consider most earbuds to give you; while your typical bud suffers from a lack of bass, Audio-Technica clearly tuned the E40s with a little more bass presence, which provides a bit of balance to the mids, which dominate the overall frequency response. Like all the models in the series, the E40s have a flexible cable loop that you can shape to fit over your ear, providing a comfy fit. These are nice, and if you are the kind of person who is hesitant to make a substantial investment in earbuds you are afraid you will end up losing, the E40s provide a great middle ground between higher-end features and quality and affordability.

Jumping to the E50s, the game began to change for me. Just like the E40s, the E50s give you the case, the detachable cable, and the four silicone ear tips, but the sonic quality is clearly a step up. Across the frequency range, the E50s provide a more balanced frequency response, with an ever so slightly boosted low end. The mids and the highs are reproduced smoothly (and certainly with more polish than the E40s), and I found these to be closer in sonic quality to the ATH-M40xs I know and use. I found these to really shine on electric-guitar-driven tracks, as well as EDM.

Regardless of manufacturer, in-ear monitors perform at optimum with a better seal, so I swapped out the included silicone ear tips with a pair of my favorite solution from Comply. The added isolation from these ear tips allows for better bass response, as well as letting me play back my tracks at a reduced volume. (It must be mentioned this is not a viable solution for those who run or bike outdoors, as they do limit situational awareness.)

The E70s are clearly the flagship of this line, and even though they come with the design specs to back it up, they do sport a price tag that can get you some of the top-rated and used on-ear and over-ear cans, including many made Audio-Technica. I can sum the E70s up simply by saying they flipped my preconceived notions about in-ear monitors. Elegant, balanced, and smooth across the frequency spectrum, the E70s provide the most accurate, least hyped flavor of the lineup. They provide mixing-reference quality playback, which I would expect from a pair of over-ear cans. Jazz and classical fans, these are the earbuds for you. If you are a touring pro, these might just replace your current high-end in-ear monitors.

The E70s step up the game with the feel of the product itself. The detachable cable is made from a thicker, but more flexible rubberized plastic and a pair of Comply ear tips, as well as 1/4" adapter, are included.

What impressed me overall on the line was the consistent build quality between the different models. While the E70s showed their higher price range, all of their cables felt substantial and sturdy. Visually, each model has a see-through window on the bud exposing a bit of its circuitry, for a mechanically elegant appearance. These models live up to their Audio-Technica professional headphone reputation, and have me second-guessing my opinions on earbuds.