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The insides are a black leather material covering a small amount of padding.The bottom of the ear cups have small cord guards that are minimally rigid.

You will find two lonely items in the ATH-ESW9s' box: the headphones themselves, and a lamb skin pouch.

In the Box Image

We didn't see any specific durability issues on the ATH-ESW9s. They had passable cord guards, the cups met well at the band, and the band itself seemed durable. Overall, the headphones were solidly above average.

The ATH-ESW9s are classy headphones. These are the headphones you should listen to when you throw on your red smoking jacket and want to listen to some Vivaldi while you peruse the paintings in your study. Interestingly enough, the ATH-ESW9s are ergonomically designed for high brows (this is a joke, we have no idea if brow position was considered during the manufacturing process).

The frequency response here wasn't great. It started out fine, with an even response. At about 3kHz, however, the graph falls off a bit. This wasn't too bad, but the left channel's plummet at about 10kHz was what really hurt the ATH-ESW9s' score. It was especially troubling because the left and right channels were playing at such different decibel levels. This little blip is really too bad, because otherwise the headphones performed okay. The main problem you'll run into is any instrument that uses the 10kHz range might sound dull.

Frequency Response Graph

Despite a low-ish score, the ATH-ESW9 actually manged to fall in the top half of the below sample of comparison headphones. It managed to do better than the Denon AH-NC732s, which also had a big downward spike in the same areas. They also beat out their brothers, the ATH-A700s. The Bose QC3s are pretty bad in terms of frequency response, so we're really not surprised to see the ATH-ESW9s snatch a victory here.

The Grado SR60s had a similar de-emphasis towards the high end, but not quite as extreme as the ATH-ESW9s. The DT 990 Pros were flat the whole way, and got just about the best score we give. The ATH-A700s had a really inconsistent frequency response. Hopefully the ATH-ESW9s' superior frequency response won't cause a sibling rivalry between them and the ATH-A700s.

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The ATH-ESW9s did exceptionally well on this test, showing almost no distortion. It never rose above 0.5%, which is remarkably good. These headphones are definitely a good pick for audiophiles who are looking for pristine sound quality.

Distortion Graph

We put the ATH-ESW9s in good company here, which is why they might not seem as stellar as they actually are. Really, anything that scores above a 10 is going to sound equally distortion-free to just about everyone. To everyone but a particularly finicky audiophile, the ATH-ESW9s, AH-NC732s, QC3s, DT 990 PROs, and ATH-A700s will all sound great.

The ATH-ESW9s had good tracking overall. They start out slightly loud in the left channel, but 2 decibels isn't a noticeable amount. After that it dips down to favor the right channel by 2 decibels, making a 4-decibel shift that also won't be noticed by the average user. After this it levels out a bit, before getting a little wonky towards the high end. This is typical, so it's nothing to worry about. Overall, the ATH-ESW9s did a great job here.

Tracking Graph

The ATH-ESW9s clinch victory in the field of tracking, besting all oncomers. If you'll look at the graphs below, it might not always be obvious to see why the ATH-ESW9s got a better score, so allow us to clear that up for you. One thing to keep in mind: we don't score the extreme high and low ends, since the testing procedure isn't 100% accurate for those frequencies.

The Grado SR60s look like they have a flatter line overall, but that part towards the end where they get a little scribbly happens at a lower frequency than the ATH-ESW9s' does. While its not a huge dip, it is a steep one, meaning an instrument that uses frequencies in that range might seem like it's dodging slightly towards the right every time it plays. The DT 990 PRO also looks flatter overall, but that bump towards the higher end is very steep and more severe than the ATH-ESW9s' performance.

The ATH-ESW9s were capable of 117.37 decibels, which is really close to the 120dB cap we put on this section. Anything above 120dB is going to seriously hurt your ears, so something like the ATH-ESW9s should be fine. If you're feeling dangerous, check out something like the Grado SR60s, which were capable of a dangerous 123.13dB. We trust you'll only listen to them at safe decibel levels.

The ATH-ESW9s did about average for a pair of closed-back on-ear headphones, which is to say they didn't isolate much noise at all. Like all passive-cancellers, they mainly block out high-frequency sound and don't do anything to lower frequencies. Really, these headphones aren't the best option if you're looking to leave your house, since the outside noise will make you bump your volume, which could result in damage to your poor ear drums. While they're more portable than a giant set of over-ears, if you're going anywhere then in-ears are your best bet, with active noise cancellers being a distant second.

Isolation Graph

The ATH-ESW9s did better than open-backed headphones, like the DT 990 PRO, and on-ears with foam padding, like the Grado SR60s. They didn't perform better than either active noise canceller (not a surprise), and also didn't perform as well as a set of over-ears that were also closed-backed. We're guessing that, since the over-ears totally encompass the entire ear, they're capable of creating a better seal. Since on-ears simply smush your ear, the cups are still a crumpled ear's width away from totally blocking off your ear canal.

The ATH-ESW9s didn't perform all that well on this test. It did better than the DT 990 PROs and Grado SR60s, both of which are open-backed headphones. It did the worst out of all the closed-back headphones, however. We're not sure if the ATH-ESW9s' sub-par leakage control can be attributed to the wood paneling, the on-ear design, or a weak seal with the ear, but we're guessing it's mainly due to the first two factors. Overall, nothing soundly bested the ATH-ESW9 in terms of leakage control, although the Denons has the largest lead with a score of 5.88.

Overall, we wouldn't recommend using the ATH-ESW9s in a public, quiet place, like a museum or library. For in-home use, however, they should be just fine.

We'd like to start out this comfort section with no less than two words of warning:

**** We have literally no idea what your head looks like and what your comfort thresholds are.

**** On-ear headphones, in general, are far less comfortable if you're wearing glasses or have piercings.

These things being said, We didn't think the ATH-ESW9s were particularly comfortable. We put these things on a few people around the office, with head sizes ranging from large, to small, to oblong, to nearly trapezoidal. All but one thought these things fit a bit too tightly. This is likely a personal preference issue, because, when pressed, the people that thought these headphones were tight didn't typically wear on-ears: they only owned in-ears themselves, but they've tried on myriad over-ears for this site's purposes. The overall consensus was the ATH-ESW9s mush their wearer's ears into his or her head. If the headband was just a bit more forgiving, it would've been a lot more comfortable.

If you thought these were uncomfortable after the first hour, chances are they're not going to wear well over time. All of the comfort issues described above only exacerbate the longer you wear them. Again, however, the one office voice that didn't mind the headphones for a short-term wear also didn't particularly mind them during long-term use. If you can stand them initially, chances are you won't mind them much later on. Keep this in mind when you try these headphones: be sure to keep them on for longer than an hour, but if you make it to the 2-hour mark you probably can make it to the 6-hour mark without issue.

The ATH-ESW9s don't have a particularly long cord. It's just slightly over 4 feet long, which should be good enough to run from your head to your front pockets, but not much further. This means the ATH-ESW9s won't be the best headphones for connecting to your system on the other side of the room, but will be find for use with your computer, portable media player, or a close-by stereo.

There isn't much you can do to customize your ATH-ESW9s. The band extends, and that's about the only option you're given. There aren't any fancy cases for the outside of the ear cup, any adapters, or anything, really. All you're given is the headphones (with miraculous extending band) and a lamb-skin pouch.

As small(ish) on-ears, the ATH-ESW9s are easier to lug around than, say, the average set of over-ears. Truth be told, however, the ATH-ESW9s don't have a collapsible band, and will still displace a lot more space than a set of in-ears. Realistically, if you're going to be be out and about with your headphones, you should get a set of in-ears. Not only are they a fraction the size and easy to shove in your pocket, but they have better isolation as well. If you hate in-ear headphones, however, then the ATH-ESW9s shoot way up the list, although will still fall behind clip-on on-ears, like their cousins, the ATH-EW9s.

Portability Image

The pouch doesn't have any inner pockets or cord-managing features, so it's not particularly helpful.

There's also not much you can do to maintain the headphones, unless you risk breaking them to begin with. Other than taking off the ear cups -- which is a bit hard since the ear cups fit on like slippers as opposed to snapping into place -- there isn't much you can do. Once you've removed the cups, this is what you'll be looking at:

Maintenance Image

Once you take off the pad, there isn't much more you can do.

As you can see, there's no screws, just a felt facade held on by bits of plastic. We think you can unsnap them, but we couldn't without feeling like we were going to break the unit.

Battery

The ATH-ESW9s do not require batteries to work. Batteries are annoying and generally give your headphones an upkeep cost, so we award points to any headphones that don't require them.

According to Pricegrabber.com, the ATH-ESW9s can be found for a little under $300, but sites like Amazon.com and other popular retailers put them at about $450. Even if you get them on the lower end of the price range, they're not within the average consumer's budget. Of course, these aren't headphones for the average consumer.

Unfortunately, based on audio quality alone, you'll either be buying these for 'a bit too much money' or 'way too much money.' The true value of the ATH-ESW9s rests as much on aesthetics and comfort as it does on their audio quality, however, which means their value really comes down to your opinion. We thought the ATH-ESW9s certainly looked sharp, but weren't particularly comfortable. If you can pick them up at the $300 price point, they're a decent value – not great, but decent.

The main point to take away here is that, if you find these headphones particularly fetching, you're not wasting your money on style without substance. While there are headphones around this price point that can out-perform the ATH-ESW9s, you would be hard pressed to find something that looks quite as sophisticated.

If you can find these on sale, great. If you can't, and these still manage to fit into your budget, onto your head, and within your aesthetic taste, then they won't be a bad purchase.

The ATH-ESW9s are a pair of headphones that are likely priced outside the reach of the average consumer. Like most luxury items, the majority of their cost seems to come from aesthetics, although they aren't just a pretty face with no functionality. They are, however, outclassed by many headphones at the same price point in terms of audio quality.

Can you find classy, wooden headphones for less than the ATH-ESW9s? Probably, but we're not aware of any with the same level of audio quality. Really, the ATH-ESW9s are for someone who wants good sound and better aesthetics. If you don't like the way they look or feel, however, rest assured there are plenty of other options out there for you that won't beat on your wallet quite so badly.

Meet the tester

Mark Brezinski

Mark Brezinski

Senior Writer

@markbrezinski

Mark Brezinski is a senior writer with seven years of experience reviewing consumer tech and home appliances.

See all of Mark Brezinski's reviews

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We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.

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