How well high-end audio equipment performs is partially down to the philosophy of the company making it. Some do things the way they always have done, using a tried-and-tested formula that’s worked in the past. Some are willing to experiment. Some recognise when the landscape has shifted, and that they have to shift their thinking too.
Take headphones. Most of us play digital music from our smartphones, but manufacturers are still trotting out cans with designs largely unchanged from the days when cassette tapes ruled the portable audio roost. Wireless headphones are typically treated in the same way, but with the addition of Bluetooth radios and internal amplifiers that deliver tether-free convenience.
Audio-Technica thinks differently. It’s still blazing a trail it started 50 years ago in Tokyo, with two new pairs of high-end closed-back wireless headphones designed specifically for digital audio. Its new DSR Series cans use a cocktail of cutting-edge Bluetooth technologies to receive audio, including aptX HD up to 24-bit/48kHz, but it’s the way they treat music once they get it that makes them particularly fit for our new digital reality.
Truly digital audio
The DSR9BT and DSR7BT headphones are Audio-Technica’s first to use its Pure Digital Drive™ system. With Pure Digital Drive, audio remains in the digital domain right up until it hits the headphone driver and is converted into the sound wave your ears perceive. Yes, you read right: no digital to analogue conversion happens until the driver does it itself.
Where traditional wireless headphones have a DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) and an amplifier, Audio-Technica’s new cans use a custom-made Dnote chipset that uses the original digital signal to excite the voice coil in the headphone’s drivers. Because the electronics are connected to the physical speakers, your music spends more time in the digital domain, so there’s less opportunity for it to become degraded.
The drivers are specially optimised for Pure Digital Drive, too. “We use bespoke 45mm True Motion Drivers in our headphones,” says Kozo Ando, an acoustic engineer who worked on the DSR series at Audio-Technica. “Drivers are typically the heaviest component in a pair of headphones, but ours are designed to weigh as little as possible”. This means they can move more delicately and precisely, which in turn makes for better sound quality. “It’s all about movement and control,” says Kozo Ando. With the DSR9BT, that extra control means an extended frequency response right up to a bat-bothering 45,000Hz, and 40,000Hz with the DSR7BT.
The use of Dnote means that the DSR Series headphones are designed to make the most of whichever variety of digital audio they receive. “You can’t avoid the audio compression that’s part and parcel of Bluetooth,” explains Kenzo Tsuihiji, an electronics engineer at Audio-Technica, “but many manufacturers simply use existing solutions when it comes to processing audio once the signal reaches the headphones. Even if your driver design is amazing, audio quality deterioration has already been influenced by the preceding steps.”
By supporting the aptX HD codec, the DSR Series avoids much of the compression that occurs in the wireless transmission of audio files. And for those eager to banish any compression at all, both the DSR9BT and DSR7BT also work with wired USB connections – and support full Hi-Res Audio playback in that configuration.
Beyond the drivers
Despite its focus on digital audio, Audio-Technica hasn’t neglected the proven rules of hi-fi engineering. Build quality and internal layout still matters. “Our dual-layer isolation design separates electrical and acoustic spaces,” says Kozo Ando, which means a cleaner sound and less interference. “We also design each individual can – left and right – to have equal internal acoustic space, which makes for better audio reproduction.”
Top-notch sound reproduction is only part of the story. Memory foam is used in both the DSR9BT and DSR7BT so the headphones sit snugly, meaning a more comfortable fit over prolonged listening sessions. Lucky, given their internal batteries can keep them going long enough for you to travel from the UK to Audio-Technica’s home in Japan – 15 hours between charges is a lot of listening.
Traditional Bluetooth pairing is bolstered by NFC, making initial setup as simple as possible, which means you can get listening to this whole different breed of wireless headphones faster, for longer and in more comfort. Now there’s a philosophy we can get behind.
To find out more about Audio-Technica’s DSR Series headphones, click here >>