Audio-Technica M40X Studio Headphones Review
I really like the sound of the M40X for the price and use case they’re targeting, but they’re not necessarily the end-all be-all EVERYTHING HEADPHONE that some folks make them out to be, in my opinion.
They are a sound-first analytical-listening pair that ignores pretty much everything else an average audio consumer has come to expect.
I conducted a survey recently asking if people wanted to know what I thought of the M40Xs. 92 percent of my small pool of responses were “Yes!” votes, with only 3 people voting “No!,” so here we go.
I haven’t owned an M40X since 2015. In the intervening years, it’s become a go-to budget audiophile headphone recommendation from numerous major reviewers, with many of them recommending a pad change.
I, on the other hand, think it’s a great studio/flat/neutral headphone with the stock pads…and that changing the pads to chase other use cases completely defeats the point.
It’s also not without some small faults, and is now in a field of serious competition.
If you want a decent studio headphone that helps you figure out what “Neutral” is, then buy one and don’t change the pads. Otherwise, maybe don’t?
The $99 Audio-Technica M40X is a closed-back, foldable studio headphone with a detachable locking cable. It’s like an M50X, but with a slightly flatter sound and some trimming to the production cost so that it can be priced at $50-$60 dollars less than its big brother.
Headphone companies aren’t often successful when they try to take a popular pair and make a cheaper version of it. This is one of those rare exceptions. The M40X gets there by trying to mimic the good qualities of the M50X while throwing almost everything physical out and recreating it from scratch. It has a different build and smaller drivers, but shoots for the same sort of sound signature and keeps the same basic design language.
If you’re a producer who is just starting out and you need a dependable and portable pair of working headphones, you’re running a recording studio and need to have a good tracking workhorse that won’t kill your budget, or you’re a listener curious about what “flat” sound is like, then this is a great product.
Everyone else might want to at least consider other options, especially depending on your particular tastes in sound. And clamping force.
The Audio-Technica “house sound” usually starts with a neutral signature, then sweetens the upper mids a bit to give female vocals and acoustic instruments a slightly airy, magical, detailed quality.
In contrast to models like the MSR7 and M50X, the M40X has almost none of that. It’s like they trimmed out the aspects of AT headphones that some people love to hate.
Audio-Technica claims that the M40X is “balanced for a flat response”. And that’s a pretty good description, at least to my ears and double-checking against measurements out there. It has a smooth bass that’s never over-prominent in the mix, a midrange with a nice realistic tone, and treble that provides ample detail without the fatigue possibilities of some other studio pairs like the MDR-7506.
As a side effect, it’s not as good as that venerable Sony pair for checking for unwanted noise in sound recordings or doing field recording work, but it’ll still work okay for those purposes.
Both the MSR7 and the M50X have more of the famous Audio-Technica upper-mid energy than the M40X. Listening to a 50X and a 40X side-by-side, the 50 feels a bit more crisp and detailed, like someone shaved a thin slice of blurriness off the top of the 40X sound, revealing more oomph and sparkle underneath. The 50X is still a balanced headphone, but it has a tiny bit of fun placed on top of it.
This could be a good or a bad thing depending on who you are. If you hate the classic Audio-Technica sound and decry it as “v-shaped,” then you might love the 40X. It’s just like how some people hate the DT770 but enjoy the Custom One Pro.
Preference rules the day.
There’s no real fun or thrill in the sound of the M40X at all. It presents flat, accurate sound with a modest soundstage. That’s great for critical listening, but not necessarily the first thing I’d reach for in a casual scenario. If you’re trying to determine whether your own headphone tastes lean towards bass or treble, spending some time with these is a good way to figure that out without spending too much.
When I first put on this new pair of M40X’s last week, I shouted “Holy crap, the Clamping Force!”
Aloud. Into an empty room.
These are a clampy headphone for the first day or two of use, and after that they’re merely “tight.” That’s by design, but it doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. The clamp helps the pads provide a “studio” level of passive isolation, and fortunately, it does calm down a touch as the metal headband stretches.
Outside of the potential clamping nightmare, the M40X is a light and flexible pair of headphones. It has almost no headband padding, but it’s so lightweight it doesn’t really need any. I have plenty of adjustment headroom even on my stupidly large head, so these should fit any head size.
The infamous ear pads are smaller in diameter than many other over-ear pads, but they’re decently thick, and there’s two layers of foam on the inside part against the driver as opposed to one. The second layer of foam is in there to help tune the sound signature AKA smooth out the treble, and has the added benefit of making them a little easier on your ears, which will almost certainly bump into the foam.
I was worried before my new pair loosened up that I had made a terrible mistake. But once I pushed through, everything was a bit better.
A lot of folks think the whole M-series is uncomfortable, but I’ve never had a huge problem with them. I had totally forgotten how clampy this particular model was, though.
It’s even clampier than an M50X out of the box. I should know, because I bought a new color of the M50’s last week for a different article I have coming up.
I wouldn’t recommend them for multi-day marathon listening, but I’ve worn mine for multiple 3+ hour listening sessions with only very minor, shortly-lingering discomfort in the edges of my ears from the clamp.
You will constantly feel these on your head and you won’t always like it.
As $99 dollar headphones go, you can’t ask for much more than the build on display here.
Plastics feel solid and the headband is a smooth and bendable metal-reinforced piece that’s seamlessly attached to the capsules containing the adjustment sliders. The folding/collapsing mechanism activates with an easy press, which some people don’t like, but I enjoy how quickly they click in and out of folded position.
The height adjustment mechanisms are nice and clicky, and the cups rotate 15 degrees in one direction and 90 degrees in the other. You’d think the 90 degree rotation would go towards your shoulders for neck-resting, but…they rotate 90 degrees upwards towards the ceiling.
This is a little baffling. It feels like they cut the full 180 degree rotation from the M50X just to say something was different.
The cable twists and locks into place, and features the same 2.5mm connector and locking system used in other M-series headphones and many Sennheiser models, so finding replacement cables is pretty easy. I’m totally fine with the big locking plug in spite of its proprietary nature. It adds some stability to the otherwise-frail 2.5mm plug platform, and has a good feel when it clicks in and out of place.
In ditching the more angular headband of the M50X, the M40X sticks out a bit farther from your head. That’s good if you have long hair or you’re trying to use these with a VR headset or something, but bad if you care about the visual profile of your headphones.
Nothing I’ve ever worn before or since is as big as the Razer Nari, so compared to that model these are nice and sleek.
PLEASE DON’T CHANGE THE PADS
Allow me a little tangent.
I understand why people are so tempted to change the stock pads on these. They feel that out-of-the-box clamp, scream OH NO MY EARS, and then throw the default padding out the nearest window.
I’m here to implore you not to do this, at least until you’ve spent a lot of time listening to the stock pads.
Headphone pads are one of the most important parts of a headphone’s audio tuning.
Imagine they’re like the room for a pair speakers you’re listening to. Just as a small room with sound proofing material would sound different than a vast room with bare walls, different headphone pads sound different.
Some headphones are more resistant to this effect than others, especially open-backed pairs. Not so with the M-series. They will famously punish you in the audio quality department if you change the pads.
The M40X’s neutral tone is very specifically crafted around its divisive pads and its extra layer of foam. Changing any of this alters the sound to the point where you might as well have taken the money you spent on this pair and the extra pads, and bought a different model of headphone more suited to your needs.
Would you ever buy a great spoon and try to make it into a decent bowl by bolting additional stuff onto it?
There’s plenty of great, comfortable headphones out there for the cost of an M40X+third party pads. You could practically afford an M50X. You could consider Beyerdynamic’s DT770. You could check out Pioneer’s awesome HRM5. You could even look at gaming headsets. All of those are going to have versatile sound signatures that don’t require you to force the impressively-flat M40X to be something it isn’t.
If you still want to change the pads on your M40X’s, I obviously can’t stop you. I get that it’s fun to experiment sometimes.
But the point of this headphone, in my personal opinion, is that you’re getting a very flat signature in a studio-ready form-factor for a very affordable price point, relatively speaking. The second you tip that balance by adding new pads to it, you’ve both altered the thing you’ve paid for into something lesser, and paid more for it.
This simply isn’t as much of an all-rounder giant-killer sort of product, in my opinion, as some folks have made it out to be. It’s so weird to see folks praise the sound in review after review, right alongside recommendations to change the pads.
Audio-Technica aimed this whole headphone at a very specific goal, and that’s what it does well.
Passive isolation is pretty darn good, easily passing my totally unscientific “sit in a loud coffee shop” test. However, due to the thin profile of the cups and the small bass vent near the fork attachments, these will leak a little bit if you really crank them. They’re efficient enough that you shouldn’t need an amp, so cranking them isn’t that hard.
As a side note, I’m always kind of amazed when various sites say that a headphone has bad sound leak while they’re playing them at 90 or 100 decibels.
Like, of course they do man. 90 decibels isn’t quiet. A small plastic wall and some baffling can’t stop that much vibration from getting out a little bit.
You get Audio-Technica’s trademark bag, a 1.2m coiled cable, and a 3m straight cable in the box, along with a 6.3mm jack adapter. Both of the cables target for desktop use with either a computer or a mixing desk, and aren’t that great for carrying around. The coiled cable has a nice long bit of straight cable before the coil, meaning the weight of the coil can sit on your desk and not slide around or hang down off the edge.
The M50X also comes with a 1.2m mobile cable with a plug that’s thin enough to go through phone cases, and there are a ton of third party cables available online.
In 2015, I was hard-pressed to come up with something in the ~$100 price range I’d rather own over these, but now 100+ stupid headphones later, I have opinions!
The Pioneer HRM5 is more comfortable, a little more robust in the build, and has a very similar type/quality of sound. It’s pretty clearly meant to be a shot across the bow of the M40X, and I think it totally succeeds.
Beyerdynamic’s Custom One Pro and Audio-Technica’s M50X both get regular discounts into the ~$120 region, and they’re more comfy with more fun in their sound. The Custom One Pro’s adjustable sliders allow you to add or subtract bass to your liking, and its pads are dramatically more comfy than the M40X stock pads.
For field recording work, the $79 Sony MDR-V6 or 7506 are better options. Their treble is probably a little bit too sharp for casual music listening, but they have a very flat midrange. And, that treble allows you to more easily hear the flaws in your recording situation.
As far as gaming goes…the M40X is one of the last pairs I’d recommend. It doesn’t have the width or depth of soundstage I like for gaming, and it doesn’t include a microphone. The HyperX Cloud Alpha, Logitech G Pro, and even the cheaper RIG 400 are all options I’d personally prefer, for their comfort, sound quality, and decent microphones.
For $99, the Audio-Technica M40X is an exceptional studio/work/critical listening headphone, with a relatively flat response that puts good accurate sound right into your face. If you’re the sort of person who loves accurate audio…you’ve probably already heard one and passed judgment on it.
But if you’re out there looking for a giant killer that can do it all, and you’re considering buying this plus another pair of pads…maybe don’t. The M40X is remarkably good for its specific stated purpose, and remarkably average for anything outside that narrow window.
I think Audio-Technica was right to place these under the M50X in their lineup, even though I know a lot of people disagree and prefer the cheaper pair. The M50X is a livelier, slightly more comfortable headphone, with a more flexible fit, more included cables, and sound that perfectly splits the middle between neutral and fun reproduction in a way that makes it a better multi-purpose pair…if you don’t mind the same somewhat-thin soundstage.
In contrast, the M40X is a little pro workhorse. A well-built, well-priced headphone that prioritized the flattest possible sound they could make for this price. You sacrifice some comfort, cable selection, flashy design, soundstage, and any real sense of fun to get there.
Lots of audiophiles feel like nothing else matters other than accuracy. And I have days like that myself. But sometimes fun is fun.
The M40X is the perfect pair for me to use in audio editing sessions and headphone reviews/comparisons, but it’ll never be the first one I reach for when I just want to enjoy some music.