Review: Audio-Technica IEM Series

Alistair McGhee gets his lugs around the two higher-end models from the manufacturer’s new range of in-ear monitors…

As my old friend Donal used to say, “never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear”, but to be fair that was long before the rise of IEMs, or in-ear monitors.

Now the whole business of in-ear monitors is, for me, fraught with difficulty, for the very simple reason that in-ears more than any other aspect of audio technology depend on fit. Remember we wear these suckers in a way more intimate than most items of clothing and that means that in the world of IEMs, fit is if not king, then at least Prince (RIP). And in my case the situation is complicated by, to misquote the great Frank Zappa, one of my canals is wider than the other and both of my ears are too big! Yes, I find getting IEMs to fit me properly in both ears is a bit of a drag.

And in to the IEM arena Audio-Technica has now pitched three new in-ear monitor offerings. Audio-Technica is on a bit of a roll at the moment in the headphone department. I’ve been a long-term user of the ATH M50’s and the new(ish) ATH-M70X model is just knock-out. So I was eagerly looking forward to trying the ATH-E50 and its bigger brother, the ATH-E70 (pictured). These are the two higher-end models from the new range that A-T has released – the ATH-E40 has a good old dynamic driver, the E50’s feature a single balanced armature while the E70’s offer a triple balanced armature design.

Fit for purpose

And so back to the question of fit and wearability – why is this important? Well, my first experience with the E50 is a perfect example – I was distinctly underwhelmed; thin and lacking in bass was my first response. I quickly turned to the E70’s. They were better, as they should be, but again I was sure that I wasn’t getting the best out of the Audio-Tehnicas. The simple thing to do at this stage is test the fit – apply some pressure on the body of the transducer – pushing them tighter into your ears – try a little rotation too and gauge the magnitude of the improvement, if any. With the E50’s and E70’s, added pressure was giving me much better audio than with the normal fit.

So what I had was a fitting problem rather than a quality problem per se. Now Audio-Technica provides Extra-Small, Small, Medium and Large silicone tips to suit a variety of ear sizes, but maybe my ears were just too big, or the wrong shape, or both.

However, although the E50’s and E70’s come with four pairs of silicone tips, interestingly Audio-Technica also supplies the E70’s with an additional set of Comply memory foam tips, Comply being a big name in after market tips. Using memory foam technology, the idea is that the foam expands slightly due to the heat of being wedged in your ear, therefore ensuring a better fit and thus better sound. As for me I tend to use INAIRS tips, which I guess are very similar products to Comply.

In Use

So returning retipped to the E50 was a much more assured experience. I fitted them with the Comply tips and set about some enjoyable listening. The great strength of the E50s is their finely articulated upper mid range. It feels like an extended plateau but there’s no sense of an aggressive honk lurking in there. From just under 2k to up around 6k you feel a real sense of surgical precision. And the good news here is that the top end, although full of detail, avoids the slippery slope of overbalancing into strident brightness that is a real danger with IEMs.

Remember the audio we mix is done on loudspeakers and therefore there’s always a small amount of correction for high frequency absorption going on. And of course when we stick the generator right in our ears, well there isn’t going to be a lot of HF absorbed.

While I enjoyed the E50’s (and rather regretted not getting the E40’s to give them a spin) the star of the show is definitely its big brother. The E70’s are without doubt tremendous.

The bottom end is authoritative but with no sense of bloom or wallowing; the mid range – smooth and capable of high resolution – runs seamlessly into a really delicate and refined top end. In pure HiFi terms the E70s are in the words of Jim Kerr, “a glittering prize.” Both the E50’s and E70’s have flexible cable loops for precise over-ear fitting and the 1.6m cable (just right for reaching the receiver) is replaceable, so when the talent breaks it you can replace it.

And that reminds us really that what we are looking for in an IEM might not be exactly what we’re looking for in a HiFi product. On stage some may prefer the balance of the E50’s out of the box, if they want the maximum cut through. For me, I would take the E70’s and EQ if I need it, but your mileage may vary, not to mention your budget. At any rate, Audio-Technica has produced some cracking IEMs in the new E series. To get the very best out of them you may need to consider after market tips, a small price to pay to maximise A-T’s in-ear audio engineering.

Key Features

  • Three balanced armature drivers provide accurate, extended response across entire frequency range (ATH-E70)
  • Powerful single armature drivers ensure precise, full-range response (ATH-E50)
  • Flexible memory cable that loops over ears
  • Specially designed housings for maximum isolation
  • Comes with carrying case, 0.25in adapter and range of silicone eartips

RRP: £140 (ATH-E50); £240 (ATH-E70)

Alistair McGhee began audio life in Hi-Fi before joining the BBC as an audio engineer. After 10 years in radio and TV, he moved to production. When BBC Choice started, he pioneered personal digital production in television. Most recently, Alistair was assistant editor, BBC Radio Wales and has been helping the UN with broadcast operations in Juba.