Before you jump at this product, though, a word of warning: These headphones clamp on rather firmly, and the soundscape is lacking in the midrange. If you're in search of a plush, premium listening experience, this isn't it.
Highly portable, but easier on the eyes than on the ears
I can't dress this up: Testing headphones involves wearing them for hours on end, and this was unpleasant with the ATH-AX5iS over-ears. The grip is tighter than usual, and the shape cannot be altered since the band is made of plastic. These headphones just aren't ideal for sensitive noggins.
Furthermore, the over-ear design isn't big enough to ensure that the cheap-looking ear cups will fit completely over top of your ears. In my case, pressure from the pads made my ears ache after a while. The point is, the AX5iS headphones do not offer an opulent or even particularly comfortable listening experience, especially with long-term use.
If your head isn't particularly sensitive, maybe you'll be A-okay with the fit. If that's the case, you'll also enjoy the AX5iS's attractive design. Red touches decorate little contours throughout the scheme, like around the bass of the ear cups, along the speaker backs, and up and down the cable. Audio-Technica also makes this product with a blue/black scheme.
Even better, the flat black-and-red cable effectively resists tangles, and moderately sturdy reinforcements guard both ends of the cord. To complete the look, a gunmetal finish gives the plastic body a more quality overall appearance—and a soft, portable carry case makes it even easier to transport these feather-light headphones.
Wanted: Details in the upper midrange
Like most entry level headphones, the AX5iS is pretty much exactly what you would expect: below average. While it might be palatable enough for some, the sound quality here is far from premium—so steer clear if that's what you're after.
The main trouble is that a bunch of treble notes fall sharply in emphasis. In particular, upper notes on strings and brass are more difficult to hear than they ought to be—and that means you just can't enjoy the full force of high notes on guitar, harp, trombone, and the like. This underemphasis also means that music sounds overly bass heavy and less detailed than on better performing headphones. Fans of bassy music probably won't mind this soundscape at all, but if you're a fan of jazz and classical you'll want to shop for something else.
The ATH-AX5iS are handy as isolators, though. Middle and high-pitched sounds like chit chat, beeping, and clattering are hushed pretty efficiently, making these a nice companion for on the street or in the office.
Shoppers with discerning ears won't settle for the AX5iS.
The Audio-Technica SonicFuel ATH-AX5iS (MSRP $89.95) over-ear headphones are geared towards bargain shoppers more than anyone else. Here's exactly what you'll get: portability, decent isolation, and a fairly attractive design. If you like big bass and you don't mind sacrificing some detail in the high midrange, maybe you'll enjoy the AX5iS.
If you're searching for high-quality, detailed sound, you won't find it here. Beautiful details from overtones on strings, brass, and percussion get lost in the mix, which is especially problematic for genres like jazz and classical. Over-ear design doesn't usually come with a price tag this delightfully small, but if you search hard enough, you may find better alternatives.
Audio-Technica's SonicFuel ATH-AX5iS headphones lost big points for certain qualities that surfaced during testing. Some results were favorable, specifically the isolation and impulse response tests—but poor results in the frequency response, tracking, and distortion tests ultimately brought the AX5iS's score down quite a bit.
Scientifically assessing a set of headphones involves measuring the frequency response (FR). Once charted, the FR shows us how a product handles every portion of the audible spectrum.
For instance, these Audio-Technica over-ears notably underemphasize high midrange frequencies of between 2kHz and 5kHz. The drop in volume is severe: The sub-bass and bass ranges live between 80dB and 70dB, while frequencies between 2kHz and 5kHz plummet to as low as 48dB. The result? Music is muddled with bass, and delicate overtones on instruments like the guitar and the harp are quite difficult to hear in comparison. We discovered no additional issues beyond this massive drop in volume in the upper midrange.
Sometimes, headphones deliver unwanted or distorted sounds that hamper the listening experience. These issues can really ruin your music, so we run a test to measure the total harmonic distortion (THD) on a given product. Ideally, we like to see less than 3% overall.
The AX5iS does a decent job here, though the results are less than shining. The sub-bass range of 20dB to 100dB suffers a measure of 20% distortion, but this is fairly common. Human ears aren't especially discerning in this range, so this reading isn't a deal breaker.
The more audible portion of the range (100dB and up) sounds pretty good, happily. Distortion keeps below 2% throughout with just one exception: a momentary spike of nearly 4% right at 3kHz.
As an aside, note that the maximum sound pressure level is 109dB—if you listen louder than that (you shouldn't!), the THD rises above the 3% mark.
Isolation tests look at how well a set of headphones effectively prevent outside noises from coming in. Generally, active noise cancelers and in-ear headphones do the best job, whereas on-ear and over-ear models only block a little bit of outside noise.
The AX5iS clamp rather tighter than most, however, which is perhaps why they block more sound than some of their over-ear counterparts. These headphones block an average of 10.8dB of outside noise–not too bad. Midrange noises are hushed to about half their volume while upper mid and high-pitched sounds are zapped to more like 1/4+.
Don't expect relief from bassy bothers, though—deep grumbling sounds will easily break the AX5iS's sound barrier.
Meet the tester
Former Managing Editor@
Virginia is a former Managing Editor at Reviewed.com. She has a background in English and journalism. Away from the office, Virginia passes time with dusty books & house cats.
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