How some of the best wireless headphones were almost never made

Whether it’s robots or smartphones, AI or premium audio products, Japan has always been at the forefront of any conversation about technology. We recently spent several weeks in Tokyo discovering not only what some of the biggest names in new tech are creating, but also taking advantage of the exciting location to test out the best smartphone cameras, and discover the charm of its popular tech-tourism destinations. Make sure to check out other entries in our series “Modern Japan.”

Audio Technica’s ATH-DSR9BT headphones are fantastic, but they almost never made it past the early stages of life, which would have robbed us of a superb-sounding pair of Bluetooth headphones. It’s a good thing they weren’t abandoned, as the technology that was developed subsequently made the headphones what they are today, and will continue to influence future Audio Technica products. We sat down with the design team to get the full story, after touring the 55-year old company’s brand-new offices on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Right at the beginning of the yearlong project to bring the DSR9BT to life, the intent was to simply add AptX HD Bluetooth to a pair of high-resolution audio headphones, enhancing the wireless experience. The engineers took the existing ATH-SR9 headphones, which met the basic specifications required, and added in the necessary hardware for Bluetooth connectivity. The end result was less than satisfactory, with poor audio quality causing members of the team to wonder if it was a project worth pursuing.

audio technica offices headphone parts
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

A decision had to be made. Was the project doomed to failure? Audio Technica prides itself on producing the very best transducers — whether it’s inside a microphone or a speaker — and wasn’t going to settle for a product that was substandard. If it was to go ahead, everything needed to change. The project was greenlit, and the DSR9BT headphones started coming to life.

The next months saw radical alterations shift the project far away from the wired ATH-SR9s, and take in technology from other existing Audio Technica models — the 2014 ATH-DN1000USB and the ATH-MSR7. The result, Audio Technica told Digital Trends, is like putting a big engine into a small car. Not in a man-in-his-garage way, but like a highly technical racing team concerned with precision and performance. The vision was simple enough — wireless headphones are the way forward for many people, but that shouldn’t mean compromising on sound quality.

Was the project doomed to failure?

The racing team analogy is also appropriate for Audio Technica’s headquarters. It’s squeaky clean in a way that’s reminiscent of McLaren’s notoriously spotless offices in the United Kingdom, but rather than racing cars filling the entrance hall, Audio Technica honors its industry with a collection of classic gramophones. Donated by the founder, some date back to 1905, all are lovingly maintained, and they all still function. It’s a wonderful demonstration of how far the audio industry has moved on in a century.

They’re also a world apart from the ATH-DSR9BTs. Audio Technica’s choice of engine came from the 2014 ATH-DN1000USB headphones, a niche pair of high-resolution headphones with a full-size USB connection. As is usual for its over-ear headphones, Audio Technica used a 45mm driver for the DSR9BTs, but rather than a small magnet, a much larger one from the DN1000USB headphones has been used. It’s attached to a 53mm driver, and paired with a smaller diaphragm in the DSR9BT to help them react faster to the signal and provide a more detailed, precise, and higher-quality sound. At its most basic, the decision to use this combination means you get sound better associated with meaty home-use headphones, only on the move.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

To better control the movement of air inside the headphones, a newly designed, uniform vent system replaces an uneven version. The end result is the True Motion Driver, speaker technology only possible because Audio Technica designs and manufactures all the major components. Only a few headphones manufacturers have the ability to do something similar. The final step was to use its Pure Digital Drive system. This eliminates a digital-to-analog converter, keeping the digital signal digital for longer. The fewer conversions, the less the quality is affected. The addition of Qualcomm’s AptX HD codec then makes the best of the signal.

All of these internal changes allow Audio Technica to more accurately predict what the headphones will sound like. The headphones aren’t tuned to a certain sound, but instead are aimed at letting the music’s natural sound shine through, so you hear the recording itself, not a manufacturer’s interpretation of it through extensive tuning. This dedication to getting the sound exactly right, in a wireless format, was the reason noise cancellation was left out of the ATH-DSR9BT. The engineers tried to incorporate it, but haven’t yet been able to reach their high audio quality standards with it activated. It also removed the ability to use a 3.5mm cable with the headphones, exercising control over the way you hear music. The ATH-DSR9BT were made for Bluetooth, and that’s how it wants you to listen.

The ATH-DSR9BT were made for Bluetooth, and that’s how it wants you to listen.

Interestingly, although the addition of Pure Digital Drive and removal of DAC systems inside the DSR9BT do not have any effect on battery life, they would if the drivers were larger, like inside a speaker system, where it would reduce power consumption. When asked if Audio Technica was working on a speaker system — which would be a first for the company — the question was met with silence. Although we don’t know yet, we’d speculate that something is being planned.

However, a new set of headphones using the same principles, Bluetooth technology, and the Pure Digital Drive may arrive at CES 2018. We got the impression a more reasonably priced pair may be on the way. Audio Technica continues to increase Bluetooth audio quality, and change people’s minds about what wireless headphones can sound like. Even comparing AptX HD headphones together, the ATH-DSR9BT’s ability to sound utterly superb is immediately obvious. We put them up against a top-notch wired system, and were surprised at just how closely they compared.

If you haven’t tried a pair of Audio Technica’s ATH-DRS9BT headphones with an AptX HD smartphone, then make a point to do so. The research, development time, and technology that went into creating them is special, and the sound they produce is evidence of the company’s expertise. Your ears will be very pleased the project was seen through to the end.

Product Review

Dolby makes the most comfortable headphones ever, and that's only the start

Dolby has taken its first step into product design with the new Dolby Dimension wireless headphones. Offering tons of features, supreme comfort, and a shocking price tag, the Dimension are a unique new take on audio in the home, and out.
Home Theater

Wireless headphones are finally awesome, and these are our favorites

Between sleek form factors, prime audio quality, and the freedom of untethered listening, there has never been a better time to pick up a pair of wireless headphones. These are the best ones currently available.
Home Theater

Still listening on tinny TV speakers? Try one of our favorite soundbars

You no longer have to sacrifice sound for size when selecting home audio equipment. Check out our picks for the best soundbars, whether you're looking for budget options, pure power, smarts, or tons of features.
Home Theater

LG slashes the price of its Xboom speakers for Black Friday

If powerful portable audio at a terrific price sounds good to you, now is the best time of the year to pick up an LG XBoom portable Bluetooth speaker. The company has slashed prices by as much as 50 percent.
Home Theater

The seven best TVs you can buy right now, from budget to big screen

Looking for a new television? In an oversaturated market, buying power is at an all-time high, but you'll need to cut through the rough to find a diamond. We're here to help with our picks for the best TVs of 2018.
Home Theater

Don’t cash in that 401(k)! These are the best TVs you can get for under $500

These days, $500 can get you a pretty nice TV. Still, sorting through thousands of options online can be both boring and overwhelming, so we've put together a quick guide to the best TVs under $500.
Smart Home

All the best Amazon Black Friday deals for 2018

Amazon may be an online-only retailer, but that doesn’t mean its Black Friday sales are anything to sniff at. In fact, due to its online status, Amazon has huge flexibility with the range of products and deals it can offer. Here's our…
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods -- we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our 10 favorites.
Home Theater

Set your ears free with the best completely wireless earbuds

If you can't stand the tangle of cords, or you're just excited about completely wireless earbuds, you're going to need some help separating the wheat from the chaff. Our list serves up the best wireless earbuds around.
Deals

The best Target Black Friday deals for 2018

The mega-retailer opens its doors to the most competitive shoppers at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 22, and signs indicate that the retailer means business this year. We've sifted through all of the deals, from consumer electronics to small…
Deals

Cyber Monday 2018: When it takes place and where to find the best deals

Cyber Monday is still a ways off, but it's never too early to start planning ahead. With so many different deals to choose from during one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year, going in with a little know-how makes all the…
Home Theater

What’s new on Netflix and what’s leaving in December 2018

Our complete list of what's new on Netflix for December 2018 and which titles will be removed will help you catch up on your bingeing, and also ensure you don't miss any titles heading into the streaming ether.
Home Theater

What’s new on HBO and what’s leaving in December 2018

Whether you're a cable lifer or a staunch cord cutter, there's never been a better time to get down with premium TV. Follow us to find out what's new on HBO each month. December 2018 brings sci-fi hit Ready Player One and the drama Icebox.
Deals

Stream on, value shopper: Here are the best Black Friday Amazon Fire TV deals

Save yourself some dough and a trip to the store: If you're looking for a new streaming device this Black Friday, look no further than Amazon, which is offering some pretty steep discounts on its popular Fire TV line.