A ‘revival’ is all well and good, but a good revival picks and chooses - it doesn’t just take wholesale. That’s why the 70s revival includes great fashion but doesn’t include smoking in cinemas. So I’m bound to wonder if anyone’s genuinely nostalgic for a time when the best headphones had cables (yes, wired headphones) and needed to be plugged into players before they were of any use.
Audio-Technica doesn’t wonder, though. Its ATH-WP900 over-ear headphones aren’t just wired, they feature quite extensive use of wood in their construction - and if that’s not revivalist, I don’t know what is. But there’s nothing about the asking price that’s a throwback. Expensive, portable, wired over-ear headphones - is it a revival too far?
Audio-Technica WP900: Price & Availability
The Audio-Technica ATH-WP900 are on sale now, priced at £599 in the United Kingdom. American customers will need to part with $649 or thereabouts, while in Australia they sell for around AU$899.
Given the amount of time this website spends eulogising wireless over-ear headphones that cost little more than half of this amount (or even much less, if you're after the best cheap headphones), it’s pretty obvious that the ATH-WP900 will need to be special if they’re going to make a meaningful case for themselves.
Audio-Technica WP900 review: Features & What's New?
What’s new? Very little where the Audio-Technica WP900 are concerned. They’re over-ear headphones of the old school. So it follows that their list of features doesn’t exactly go on and on, either.
The WP-900 are fitted with a couple of big (53mm) full-range dynamic drivers, serving up a claimed frequency response of 5Hz - 50kHz. The drivers are coated with DLC (diamond-like carbon), which is given as a reason for their remarkable high-end extension, and they sit in an angled baffle designed to regulate airflow between the front and rear of the driver. This is claimed to help regulate mid- and low-frequency response.
Each earcup requires cabling, and Audio-Technica has provided two 1.2m lengths in the box. One terminates with a gold-plated, unbalanced 3.5mm jack at one end, the other has a gold-plated five-pole 4.4mm balanced alternative. Both cables split into two, of course, in order to serve both earcups, and these ends are terminated with A2DC (audio-designed detachable coaxial) connections.
Audio-Technica WP900 review: Performance
The expensive wired option seems unlikely to be on the radar of customers who just want to plug a pair of headphones into the output socket of their laptop (or, if they have one of the rare examples with a socket, their smartphone). It seems much more likely that prospective ATH-WP900 owners want to plug them into one of the best headphone DACs available, or the headphone socket of a decent piece of audio equipment. And so that’s mostly how this review is conducted.
No matter the type of equipment they’re plugged into (provided it’s of a certain standard, of course), no matter if the connection is balanced or unbalanced, and no matter the type of music they're given to deal with, the ATH-WP900 are an admirably coherent and consistent listen. If they have a comfort zone, its boundaries are so far away as to be invisible.
The soundstage they create is open, organised and properly defined. Each element of a recording gets more than enough elbow-room to stretch out and express itself, but at the same time each element relates to and integrates with every other - the WP900 always seek to present music as a unified performance.
Detail levels are high across the board. Even the most transitory, fleeting occurrences or harmonic details are identified and delivered to the listener, and as a result you never feel like you’re getting anything except the full picture.
Low frequencies are deep, nicely shaped, hit with real determination, and are properly controlled. This lack of overhang means the WP900 express rhythms well, and don’t allow tempos to collapse under the weight of their own bass information.
At the opposite end of the frequency range there’s ample bite and crunch to treble sounds, but there’s never any suggestion of glassiness or coarseness - instead, the Audio-Technica give the top-end substance to go with the shine.
The midrange, though, where vocalists do their thing, is probably the star of the WP900 show. The prodigious detail levels mean singers get to express themselves unequivocally, with all of their character and attitude to the fore. The more communicative your favourite singer, the more affecting and effective they are when dealt with by these Audio-Technica over-ears.
Dynamic headroom is considerable, and the second-stage dynamics apparent in, say, an unaccompanied piano are communicated well too.
It seems unlikely that anyone will spend this sort of money on such a single-minded pair of headphones and then feed them low-res content of the type that Spotify offers for free - but if they do, they’ll wonder what all the fuss is about. The ATH-WP900 are far from tolerant of information-light audio files, and will expose their muddiness and lack of definition quite ruthlessly.
They’re also not the biggest fans of the biggest volumes. Turn it up to the point on the dial marked ‘antisocial’ and some of the soundstage definition falls away, leaving each element of a recording scrapping for a spot at the front of the stage.
But the volume issue is a fairly mild one, and the issue around low-res audio really shouldn’t arise in the first place. Treat them properly, and the ATH-WP900 will reward you indefinitely.
Audio-Technica WP900 review: Design & Usability
For once, here’s a pair of headphones you wouldn’t mistake in a line-up. And, what’s more, they manage to be distinctive and good-looking without being any great departure from the long-established over-ear headphones design template.
Certainly it’s business as usual where the hanger, headband and slider mechanism are concerned. Everything feels robust in a nicely weighted manner, and both the padding and the synthetic leather wrapping of the headband is comfortable and tactile in equal measure. The clamping force is well-judged, and an all-in weight of just 243g only adds to the comfort quotient. The earpads fit over even the most generously sized ears and, again, the amount of padding is, in the Goldilock-style, just right.
It’s the earcups themselves that set the WP900 apart, though. As it’s been periodically doing for some of its headphones over the last quarter of a century, Audio-Technica has constructed the earcups from wood - in this instance, it’s solid, machined maple with a thin slice of flame maple fused on top (the flame maple is supplied by Japanese guitar brand Fujigen). Wood has impeccable acoustic credentials, of course, but the fact it makes the ATH-WP900 look lustrous, expensive and distinctive certainly doesn’t do any harm either.
Usability is scarcely an issue, of course. The earcups swivel through 90 degrees, so the WP900 can lie flat before you slide them into their soft carry-pouch. And once they’re plugged into a source of music and positioned on your head, that’s the rest of ‘usability’ covered off.
Audio-Technica ATH-WP900 review: Verdict
There are downsides to the Audio-Technica ATH-WP900, but they’re far from fatal and are, in fact, easily avoided. And if you do feed these with top-tier source material then you’ll find yourself in possession of one of the best-sounding pairs of headphones around on a pound-for-pound basis. No, there’s no extended functionality and no, they don’t work wirelessly - but take them on their own terms and these are very rewarding wired headphones indeed.
They’re not as gratifying to look at, and their open-backed configuration means they’re nothing like as portable as the ATH-WP900, but the HD660S by Sennheiser are nevertheless an extremely capable pair of hard-wired headphones. Sonically they’re on the warm side of neutral, but their open-backed nature means they’re as expansive and, yes, open as they come.