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The Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9s are predominantly black and brown, with a reddish-brown, wooden exterior to the outside of their cups.

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 ***The left, center, and right views of the ATH-ESW9s.***

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.

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*** The padding is slightly triangular, with more padding

toward the outside edge and less towards the inside.***

The ear cups are attaced to the metal band with half moons of plastic that allow for tilting and swiveling. The band is extendabl, and features padding on both its top and underside.

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***The center of the band is metal, which should help the

headphones survive being accidentally stepped on. ***

 At the other end, the cord ends in a standard 1/8-inch plug, with a stout cord guard.

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***This cord guard should suffice unless you're connecting

to a media player in your pocket. ***

 

**In the Box**

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

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**Durability***(7.50)*

We didnt' 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.

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**Aesthetics***(8.50)*

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).

About our testing:

When we test headphones, we use really, really expensive equipment that manufacturers themselves use for tweaking how their products sound. On the hardware end we have HATS, our head and torso simulator. HATS is a creepy-looking robot mannequin with precision microphones for ears. This way we can test audio quality without relying on our own fallible auditory system. On the software end we have SoundCheck, developed by our pals at ListenInc. SoundCheck lets us perform the identical battery of tests on each set of headphones, and analyzes the data that HATs collects. HATs and SoundCheck let us standardize our tests to allow for directly-comparable reviews that don't hinge on the reviewer having perfectly impartial ears. Truly we are turning the world of online headphone reviews on its ear (we are not 100% sure if that is a pun, since headphones and ears are only tangentially related, but we figured we'd try it out anyway – email us your opinion). For more information on our tests, read this article.

**Frequency Response**   *(2.88)*     

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How the test works:

To test frequency response, we first play the frequencies through the headphones, have HATS listen, then determine what effect the headphones have on each frequency. The ideal score here is for a 100% true representation of what was piped into the headphones. Of course, since some people like dynamic headphones, we give a bit of leeway, represented below by our upper and lower limits. Typically if the line strays too far out of those limits, it means the headphones are giving a bit too much emphasis or adding too much deemphasis. Of course, many of these decisions are up to the user, so simply take the following graph as a guide meant to help you determine whether these headphones would be good for you, personally.

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What we found:

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 ok. The main problem you'll run into is any instrument that uses the 10kHz range might sound dull.

How the Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9 compares:

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 deemphasis 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.

**Distortion**   *(13.30)*     

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How the test works:

For our distortion test, we again play a frequency sweep through HATS. This time, we compare the headphones' performance to the original sound wave, noting any differences between the two. These differences are distortion, which simply indicates the sounds you're hearing aren't exactly what you're supposed to be hearing. In the graph below, the level of distortion is measured as a percentage. Anything over 3% is noticeable. Again, the green and red lines represent the left and right channels respectively. Also, like all our graphs, the extreme left and right sides aren't totally accurate and therefore aren't scored. We show this data anyway, since they're good indicators of trend. For more information on this or any other test, click the orange information buttons.

What we found:

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.

How the Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9 compares:

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 finnicky audiophile, the ATH-ESW9s, AH-NC732s, QC3s, DT 990 PROs, and ATH-A700s will all sound great.

**Tracking**   *(6.85)*     

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How the test works:

Tracking refers to the relative volume of each ear cup. Ideally, if your playback intends for each channel to be outputting the same decibel level, then they really should be doing so. Of course, no headphones are perfectly balanced, hence the need for this test. On the graph below, when the blue line raises above zero, the left channel is playing that many decibels louder than the right; when the blue line heads below zero, the right channel is louder.

What we found:

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.

How the Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9 compares:

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.

**Maximum Usable Volume**   *(9.37)*      

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How the test works:

This test is actually a battery of distortion tests. What we're looking for is the maximum volume level we can get out of the headphone before its distortion level reaches 3%, which is enough to be noticeable.

What we found:

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 capapble of a dangerous 123.13dB. We trust you'll only listen to them at safe decibel levels.

**Isolation**   *(2.34)*     

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How the test works:

To test isolation, we bombard HATS with pink noise and see how much of it the headphones can block out. For those who don't know a lot about noise, the pink variety plays each frequency at an inversely proportional decibel level: high frequencies are played more quietly than low frequencies. Therefore, every frequency is played at roughly the same power. If you'd like a more exact definition, check out the Wikipedia article, but we wouldn't recommend that since it's stupidly obtuse.

If the headphones don't have active cancellation, then what we're measuring is how well they plug up your ear canals, block off your ears, or otherwise physically obstruct external noise from your ears.

What we found:

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.

How the Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9 compares:

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.

**Leakage**   *(3.38)*     

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How the test works:

To test leakage, we put a microphone a set distance from the headphones (which are on HATS). We then play pink noise through the headphones at a set decibel level. The microphone picks any of the noise that leaks out of the headphones.

What we found:

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' subpar leakage control can be attributed to the wood panneling, 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 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.

**Extended Use***(3.00)*

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.

**Cable Connectivity***(4.27)*

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.

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***If you're using these these as portable headphones,

be wary of the plug, since straight plugs tend to

accrue wear and tear quickly in a pocket. ***

**Portability***(2.25)*

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.

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***The pouch doesn't have any inner pockets or cord-managing

features, so it's not particularly helpful. ***

**Customizability***(2.25)*

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.

**Maintenance***(2.00)*

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:

 

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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.

**Other Features***(5.00)*

Battery Dependency

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.

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**Value***(3.50)* 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.  Unfortuantely, 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.
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Denon AH-NC732 - The Denon AH-NC732s are great all-around headphones. Going outside? Turn on active noise cancellation. Staying inside? Turn it off for distortion-free playback. Like the ATH-ESW9s, the AH-NC732s are priced a bit high. What you're paying for is versatility, and you're getting some solid audio quality when the active cancellation feature is turned off. They aren't as classy as the ATH-ESW9s, though. For anyone but the fashionista, we'd recommend the AH-NC732s for their comparable audio quality, better isolation, and smaller price tag.

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Bose QuietComfort 3 - It's rare that the QC3s aren't the most expensive headphones in a pairing, and we thought they were overpriced. Really, the QC3s have ok audio quality, but are much better at isolating. They also come with the burden of batteries, however, requiring a charge to get any music out of them. The ATH-ESW9s have better overall audio quality, don't require batteries, but can't isolate. Also, there's the aesthetics issue. Really, this comes down to form (like all the ATH-ESW9 comparisons will) and function. Are you planning to go outside, take a bus or train and walk around? If so, the QC3s might be the better pick. Are you looking to sit in your house in your finest tuxedo and listen to jazz? Pick up the ATH-ESW9s.

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Grado SR60 - The Grado SR60s are lighter, far, far less expensive than the ATH-ESW9s, and are worse in just about every regard. This match-up is really a question of money. If you're a budget buyer, get the SR60s. They're not amazing, but they are a good value for what they are. If you're looking for a step up, but not to spend a lot of money, neither headphone is for you. If the SR60s and their kitschy appeal disgust you and your finer sensibilities, the ATH-ESW9s are for you.

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Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO - Unless you hate the looks of the DT 990 PROs or you specifically want to look like a baron/baroness, go for the Beyerdynamics. They're expensive themselves, and not as attractive, but by golly do they sound good. They outperform the ATH-ESW9s in just about every category except (maybe) comfort and aesthetics, both of which are going to be decided by you and not us. In general, however, the DT 990 PROs beat the ATH-ESW9s.

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Audio-Technica ATH-A700 - The sibling rivalry. Which ATH will you get, ESW9 or A700? Again, this is mainly a question of aesthetics and comfort, with the ATH-ESW9 being the upper-class option and the ATH-A700s being the upper-middle class option. The ATH-ESW9 did perform better on our audio quality tests too, however, so if you're an Audio-Technica fan who doesn't mind on-ears, then the ATH-ESW9s might be the best option.

Conclusion

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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.

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While vocals might seem a bit underemphasized, the playback will be distortion free. Give them a listen first, of course, but we'd generally recommend these to those who are fancier and more economically-gifted.

We would recommend these to people who don't like in-ear headphones or active noise cancellers. Typically, however, both of those are better options.

Poor isolation and a tight fit mean the ATH-ESW9 are a poor choice for an airplane.

A short cord and tight fit make us reluctant to recommend these for a home theater. We also prefer open-backed, dynamic headphones. The former is for a more open soundstange, and the latter is for clearer dialog or meatier explosions (movies should only focus on one or the other). The ATH-ESW9s have a middling bass and weak vocals.

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

Checking our work.

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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