For $160 or so used on Amazon, you can grab yourself a set of these and that will turn heads everywhere you go. I highly recommend you purchase Orange Bees Wax polish, which when applied to the exterior wooden cups of the ESW9A will result in a candy-like glaze that will last a day or two. You should polish all wooden headphones at least once or twice a week to keep them fresh and clean, but also to maintain a constant lacquer visual appeal without actually needed to apply lacquer.
The ESW9A comes with beveled pads that are different from all the other stock pads of the ES/W series from Audio Technica. I do find them comfortable, but not quite as comfortable as the flat pads of the ESW11LTD that make a lot more surface contact with your noggin’. Made of real lambskin leather, both the ESW9A and ESW11LTD pads can get a bit warm after a few minutes of usage.
The general sound signature of this headphone mirrors the ESW11LTD: a flat, linear sound without too much of a forward midrange bloom. Although, the midrange is very Audeze LCD3 and very forward from top to bottom and there isn’t even a hint of a V shape inside their presentation: Audio Technica tuned the drivers to produce a forward midrange with bass and treble level out to either side. The end result of which comes out to feeling very forward, but also very linear. The sound signature has a nice solidity factor and feels hefty, lacking that thinness common in portables and it is something most everyone considers “lush” in the midrange. The treble is also a bit unclean and slightly prone to slam, I wouldn’t call it smooth and there is a noticeable grain to it. In terms of clarity, it is still one of the better $150-200 on ear that I’ve ever heard, besting the HD25 series from Sennheiser audibly. Some Japanese sellers refuse to drop prices to humane levels, so ignore the $250+ ads out there and buy a used one from Amazon’s Warehouse used headphones section for $150 instead.
The ESW9A’s bass texture and type is actually quite pure and lacking any boomy/muddy flavoring, although it is just a step into the world of what I consider bass-moderate in terms of quantity and just one step outside of being lean. This model also does not improve with EQ or boosting of any kind, but does decrease in quality when bass boosted and when crossfeed is active. Do not expect great dynamics or realism, the stage is claustrophobic in all of these models except the ESW11LTD, but if you are a vocalist enthusiast and on a budget, I’ve never come across anything else that looks sexy and sounds good too. There are two versions of the ESW9: The ESW9 original that uses Cherry Wood, and the ESW9A that uses African Pollok wood cups. Both sound the same acoustically.
ESW9A Traits summed up:
- – Forward sound signature, but linear feeling with equal parts bass, mids and treble quantity
- – Thick, weighted sound signature
- – Moderate levels of bass and treble quantity, moderately harsh treble that is a bit too bright
- – A bit overly slamming with treble
Audio Technica is notorious for their lack of comfort in the design elements of most of their portables and this model is no exception. Out of the lot, it is the only one I find uncomfortable. It is also the only one to use a dual pole rail system for the headband, where all the others use a solid and thin piece of aluminum instead. I can actually feel the rails on the top of my head and through the headband…ouch. The horrid quality pads don’t help either, which are swappable only the ESW10JPN’s stock pads. Sadly, the ES700 and ESW10JPN are a few millimeters smaller than the other models and that makes it hard to swap pads freely between these two models and the rest. Yes, you can struggle to get the smaller ES700/10JPN pads onto the other models, but they are stretched to their limits and you should never even attempt to do so.
The ES700 is the sharpest and most unclear of the entire series, but shockingly I got this headphone on eBay for $40, when normally it is sells for $110. At the $100 or so price point, I don’t think any other on ear that exists can compare to it for musicality factor, it even bests the Phiaton MS400 of a similar price these days to an audible degree from top to bottom. The ES700 is also midrange prominent and there is a noticeable bloom effect with this model for all vocal experiences. The bass is again pure sounding and lacking a muddy appeal, although it is not at all responsive to EQ alterations and tends to lose control fairly quickly. It also is right on the horizon of what I consider something to be bass moderate in quantity. Clarity however is another story, as it appears noticeably inferior to the quality of the ESW9A.
Treble is the weakest link in the chain inside the ES700 and I feel it to be a bit bright, overly harsh and grainy. This doesn’t help the fact that it is the smallest sounding in staging between all 5 of these models, or that the pads seem to restrict the sound stage and treble potential this model can achieve. Like the 10JPN that shares the same pad and cup size, the ES700 can be improved with the larger model earpads and the ESW9A pads work best. Stray away from the ESW11LTD pads if you want to go larger, as the ESW11LTD pads mute the entire experience from top to bottom. You might also consider the 10JPN’s pads that are real leather and much softer than the low quality, stiff ES700 pads. This model also does not respond well with EQ or boosting of any type. Strangely, ATH says this model is rated at 56ohms, yet I have found it to be the most efficient of the series with all my amplifiers and sources. None of them require amplifiers and are all mildly efficient, but the ES700 plays as higher volumes than the rest and when swapping each out of the same amp without touching the volume knob…weird.
ES700 summed up:
- – Very forward mids
- – Moderate heft to the sound signature, similar to the stock ESW10JPN
- – Moderate bass quantity and good quality for the price, but ugly and harsh treble compared to the rest
- – Most efficient despite the company saying it is the least efficient
- – Least comfortable
I won’t go into too much detail about the design of this model, as there is a giant section already available in the Urushi portion of this article that describes it in detail. The ESW10JPN is the same size as the ES700 and a few millimeters smaller than the ESW11LTD, ESW9A and the ES-10. As mentioned, you can swap the pads of the ES700 and 10JPN freely, however the stock pads of the 10JPN are of a much higher quality. Audio Technica used Black Cherry Wood on this model and a hand crafted Urushi Lacquer that took months to apply.
This model is quite similar in sound setup to the ES700 and with a very forward midrange. The entire headphone from top to bottom also feels thinner than the ESW9A. This is not a lush sounding headphone and clearly offers a relatively thin substance factor. Again and just like the ES700, the headphone is a bit harsh on the bass and treble impact, although they are audibly superior in clarity to the ES700 and the ESW9A. This headphone sounds very pure and even a bit flimsy at times with a crystalline/purist type of sound signature.
Unlike the ES700 and ESW9A’s poor EQ response, the ESW10JPN increases in quality with certain EQ options active. With just a small amount of crossfeed applied, this headphone inverts to a headphone I don’t recognize compared to its stock sound. Furthermore, the addition of the ESW9A pads in place of the smaller stock pads alters the sound for the better. I will never use this headphone without crossfeed and without the ESW9A pads! The stock bass quantity is pretty much the same as the ES700, which is a bit thin and pure sounding, lacking depth and weight. However, once crossfeed comes into play, the entire bottom end of this headphone feels like it puffs its chest a bit more. The lacking solidity factor becomes a non-issue with a slight amount of crossfeed and a small bump in the bass quantity via a booster. So many other reviewers called this headphone a “lush” sounding headphone similar to the ESW9A…and I cannot disagree more. Without crossfeed active, the headphone feels rather thin to me.
ESW10JPN summed up:
- – Very forward midrange.
- – Somewhat moderate heft (kind of thin) sound signature that is improved with crossfeed.
- – Good quality top to bottom, but a bit harsh with slam and kick on the bass and treble.
- – Acceptable comfort that improves drastically with ESW9A pads
- – Pain in the ass to refurbish, the most desirable ES/W series and the rarest of the bunch.
Oh boy, I doubt most people will believe me in the following section. But, that’s okay. If I hadn’t experienced all of these headphones at the same time, I’d likely say I was full of crap as well. But, the ES-10 is audibly clearer than the ESW10JPN and is certainly the black sheep of the entire ES/W series of headphones from Audio Technica. It shares a larger driver and housing similar to the ESW9 and ESW11LTD, but happens to be the most V shaped of the entire lot, but it also is significantly smoother and more relaxing on impact than everything else.
V shape bothers me, but not in this model. Despite the prominent bass and treble, the midrange is still what I consider moderately forward and not subjectively problematic in the slightest with its recessed tendency: the ES-10 feels like a boosted ESW11LTD in setup. When I swap this headphone on my head and coming off the Ultrasone Edition 5 ($2800), I realize that the Edition 5 is significantly more mid-recessed than the ES-10, yet the ES-10 is still a bit V shaped. Here we have a good midrange placement and forwardness factor in a headphone, but also one that implemented the most bass and treble quantity of the entire series. Pads also make an immense difference in quality across the board and it seems it meshes most with the ESW9A pads. The ES-10 with ESW9A pads sounds audibly cleaner in the bass regions and by comparison to the ESW11LTD, which loses control much quicker and sounds less firm and solid than the ES-10. The stock pads of the ES-10 are awful and distort the entire presentation, so depending on your preferences, grab yourself a set of ESW11LTD or ESW9A pads for replacements. Typically, anyone who has kept the stock pads and has yet to use a set of ESW9A replacements on the ES-10 have all missed out on the potential this headphone is capable of and are missing out on the great bass depth and involving sound signature the ESW9A pads allow for. The ESW11LTD pads smooth out the bass and drop some quantity, as well as mask the treble just a bit and in turn make the headphone feel a bit more linear in physical setup.
The ES-10 happens to be one of the most responsive to EQ headphones that I’ve used in a while. This model has great potential to become something very different from what it offers in its stock form, depending on your EQ setup. With crossfeed active, this headphone is a pleasure to listen to and super power in the portable world: the stock quality is fine to begin with, but greatly improved in center imaging and solidity factor with crossfeed active. I am legitimately shocked by how well this headphone responds to anything I toss at it. I’ve been able to drop in a +5dB on both the treble and the lower end with great success, all while moderate crossfeed is active and all while not losing much quality. With my iBasso DX90’s custom Rockbox firmware, I am able to toggle an impressive list of EQ functions on and off at will, yet the ES-10 never really falters and keeps up with me as I turn things on and off just to see what it can and cannot handle. I can jack the bass booster up to +10dB and the treble up to +8dB and hear sonic quantity differences every +2dB increments…which means the headphone responded audibly in quantity of the bass or treble with from 0.0 to +2dB, from +2dB to +4dB, +4dB to +6dB and so on. The ESW11LTD, 10JPN, ESW9A and the ES700 all failed to respond nearly as well as the ES-10 to alterations via EQ of various types.
Like the ESW10JPN repair I went through, I’ve also repaired the scuffs on this ES-10’s titanium housing. Thankfully, the repair only took 60 seconds with this wonderful titanium repair kit from Boston Watch Company, which you can purchase on eBay or Amazon for about $35. This kit almost completely removed all the scuffs that weren’t extremely deep on my ES-10’s cups, so feel good in knowing that maintaining and repairing this model’s metal cups is relatively easy and cheap. This headphone was so to my liking, that I custom recabled it myself…yum. Here is a video of the entire process!
ES-10 summed up:
- – Slightly recessed midrange, but still so yummy and enjoyable
- – Immensely lush sound, more solid than the ESW9A, the densest feeling of all
- – The most soft and relaxing, least impacting/harsh of the lot
- – The most bass quantity and most responsive to EQ, sparkled and beautiful treble
- – Excellent comfort with ESW9A/ESW11LTD pads
- – Jet black background compared to all other models that are noticeably less darkened
The most expensive of the series, the ESW11LTD is stupidly overpriced at $700-800. There is no doubt this 11LTD is one of the better and most musical portables money can buy, but it is far from the best in terms of clarity and fidelity overall. Nobody buys this headphone for $700-800 for the sound quality, they buy for the sexy looks, pretty good sound quality that is still very good for a mid tier headphone and to make all the other collectors jealous that you have one. This model uses Onigurumi Japanese Walnut wooden cups, which are “renowned for their warm sound signature”. I agree with that statement and I’ve found it to be an improved ESW9A across the board and sharing identical properties, but the 11LTD feels like it is the most neutral in tone of the lot and the least colored sounding down below in the bass end of the spectrum.
It doesn’t have a forward midrange bloom effect, but instead offers a linear appeal with equal parts bass, mids and treble. It is also the most spacious and aired out of the series, by far. It is very sweet up top and polite all around, but not quite on the level of the ES-10 in terms of a soft impact level. Everything else outside of the ES-10 sounds noticeably harsher on impact, but this ESW11LTD is a step or two behind in softness factor. The 11LTD has some issues on the bass end that bother me, as the texture of the bottom end of things feels less solid than most of the others in the ES/W series: all the other models feel denser and of a purer type, the ESW11LTD actually feels a bit thinner and less solid and focused. I want more quantity of it that can compare to the more than plentiful amount experienced in the ES-10. But, for what it seems to be intended to offer, the lack of bass quantity is objectively fine and plenty responsive.
It is very obvious Audio Technica wanted this model to be the most refined, clean and linear of the bunch. It is still very forward sounding, but this model lower and top ends do not struggle for attention and play ball with the midrange placement. The ESW11LTD still offers a lush midrange and dense appeal top to bottom, but also what my ears sense as uncolored bass and treble: the ES-10, 10JPN, ESW9A and the ES700 all feel noticeably brighter in the treble and also offer a more solid feeling bass experience. This model is also not justified for usage with my iBasso DX90 and it requires a better source, whereas none of the other models seem to benefit from my desktop amplifiers in terms of quality or staging. It seems the DX90 maxes out the clarity potential of the ES-10, ESW9A, ESW10JPN and the ES700…but not the ESW11LTD. There is an audible superiority factor in clarity when swapping from my portable music players to something like my Felix Audio Expressivo or Airist Audio desktop amplifiers. Musical amps and sources work best here, so try to avoid neutral or blandness in hopes of retaining the fun factor this headphone was intended to offer.
ESW11LTD summed up:
- – Very linear feeling, same physical setup as the ESW9A
- – 2nd best mid/treble density factor behind the ES-10
- – The most spacious, by far
- – Lacking bass density compared to other models, but certainly the clearest sounding of the lot
- – Benefits from better sources and desktop amplifiers
- – Bordering the line between musical and reference tone
I’ve purchased a ton of pads from various sellers on eBay, all of which are absolute garbage except one. This set specifically that I’ve marked as “awesome” are the cheapest and is actually made of low quality leather, which I’ve found to mesh nicely with every set on the list. Pad swapping made a world of difference, especially so on the 10JPN and ES-10, so choose carefully. Both the $50US or so ESW10JPN and ESW11LTD replacement pads are thick lambskin leather, but all the other models use a low quality fake vinyl like material with stiff foam or half decent pleather. Pad swapping can make or break the experience and I’ve found the ESW10JPN to react very well to the ESW9A pads, the ESW11LTD should stick with its own stock pads and the ES-10 to also sound best with the ESW9A pads. Seems like the ESW9A pads are the safest bet and they also do sound very good every other model on the list, but tend to cause the treble of the ESW11LTD to feel a bit muted than what the stock ESW11LTD pads offer up top.
If you can’t afford the expensive and official replacement pads, grab this one from eBay or Amazon that I’ve highlighted. Just match up the image and ignore any other pads for sale that don’t look identical to this picture, these are good replacement pads, nothing else of the many other pads I’ve purchased are worth even the few dollars they charged for them. I paid a whopping $4.99US with free shipping for these and they are the only set that I am aware of that are leatherette, likely fake, but still very comfortable and that do not ruin the sound when placed on any of these headphones.
At the end of the day, I’ve found the ES-10 to offer the best price to performance and it is really the only one I want to use. I really enjoy this headphone a lot and I can’t believe how well it reacts to EQ alterations of various types. If you want a great value portable, this is it. It has plentiful bass, treble and clarity all around, but also is the yummiest and softest impact of the entire series: the Black Sheep and the one I wish Audio Technica would revise into a full size model and maybe push the midrange forward a bit more. All of these models are good and years later remain my picks for the best musical portables in their respected price tiers. No, they are not the cleanest portables you can buy, but they are the only musical portables that are clear enough for me to actually use and keep for myself. If you are a purist, look away. If you are looking for something to rock out to without sibilance or painful impact levels, something with strong midrange emphasis, then try to grab one of these 5 models from the ES/W series of old and avoid the newer models recently released by Audio Technica. Odds are good I’ll resell the 11LTD soon, but likely keep my refurbished ESW10JPN for some time…if only to admire how sexy it looks.
I’ve already reviewed the ESW9LTD and found it to be unworthy of inclusion in this review, as it appears to be a rehash of the same type of sound signature that the ESW10JPN housed: rather thin sounding and lacking bass, but very clear and pure feeling. In that article, I stated the newer ESW9LTD has quality on par with the ESW11LTD, but upon further investigation I believe the ESW9LTD is more on par with the ESW10JPN. This model was released 8 years after the older ES/W series here that I’ve been talking about in this article, but Audio Technica improved nothing and gave you a standard lacquer job instead of Urushi lacquering. Audio Technica has not innovated in decades and learned nothing from nearly everyone who complained about the comfort qualities of their older models, but made the ESW9LTD with identical specs to their headphone lineup from 8 years prior. Recently, they’ve also released the ESW950, which is the ESW9A with detachable cables. They’ve ignored the community three times over the course of roughly a decade with their ES/W portable series of headphones and I cannot stress how upset I am at them over it. They’ve actually refused to send me a loaner 9LTD/ESW950 while knowing full well that I am the only reviewer on Earth who wants to cover this family of ES/W series headphones and share information with everyone. Despite my unyielding support and fanboyism of Audio Technica’s older W series and ES/W portables, they still won’t play ball with me.
Despite ATH’s failures to address issues that annoy us, their older lineups of ES/W series headphones are all worth every penny. Neigh 8 years later, I’m still floored by the ESW9A, despite it being the most common and easily purchased of the lot, the ESW10JPN still makes me want to fall to my knees and cry over how satisfying the vocal experience can be, the ES-10 is a near perfect portable and the ESW11LTD will remain legendary to most of us who have heard it. If you are on a super budget, then grab a set of ES700’s and enjoy! Just make sure to grab a replacement pad online somewhere and swap out those horrid stock pads and your best bet are certainly the official ESW9 replacement pads.
The ES/W series from Audio Technica are all beautiful, easily repairable for the most part, mod friendly, have high price to performance ratios and also are the most fun and musical portables money can buy. I hope this article helped at least a few people, as it sure did take a long time to complete that forced me to put my heart and soul into. Thanks for reading.