Links on SoundGuys may earn us a commission. Learn more.
January 23, 2014
3m (permanent audio cable)
What is the least amount of money you should spend on studio headphones? Sliding in at a hair under $50 USD, the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x is challenging perceptions of what you can get for not much scratch. As the cheapest member of the ATH-M line of studio cans, it has the least to prove. From an engineering perspective, it proposes an interesting brief: make the best cheap studio headphones.
We spent over a week testing out the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x and learned everything you need to know about it. Let’s see what the data shows and if it succeeds.
- Bedroom music producers on a budget will like the attractive price to performance ratio of this Audio-Technica headset.
- Podcasters will appreciate the relatively accurate frequency response from this set of over-ear cans.
- Studio owners won’t mind musicians abusing this inexpensive headset during tracking.
Editor’s note: This review of the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x was updated on August 10, 2022, to update formatting and address FAQs.
What’s it like to use Audio-Technica ATH-M20x?
The most obvious difference between the ATH-M20x and other members of the ATH-M family is cosmetic. Unlike the other headsets, a silver Audio-Technica logo doesn’t adorn each ear cup on the M20x. The logo is there, but it’s simply a glossy black set against the matte plastic. In a market chockful of expensive headphones that skip the garish branding, the omission feels surprisingly premium.
The lightweight plastic build (save for metal reinforcements) retains a branded headband. You get a similar degree of padding compared to other ATH-M headsets, but the band still feels cheap. This quibble hardly makes or breaks the experience, however. Another sign of keeping the price low is the vinyl-covered ear pads around the 40mm drivers, which feel rather unforgiving. After two hours the ATH-M20x feels downright uncomfortable.
Over long sessions you may experience some discomfort due to the lack of give in the ear pads, but the sensible clamping grip makes it more tolerable. If you’re recording a musical instrument, likely you’ll interrupt a listening session to remove the headset between takes for feedback or adjustments. For this application, it’s a born performer, and the cheap price means nobody gets too upset if the cable breaks.
You don’t get any extras with the ATH-M20x—not even a carry bag—so you may want a third party option. On the other hand, the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x does not fold down at all, and the 3 meter cable won’t exactly encourage you to commute with it. The ear cups rotate 15 degrees to better fit your head, which is about the bare minimum for over-ears. This helps to ensure the seal around your ears, and better distributes the clamping force.
Does the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x have good isolation?
Isolation performance ranks as average. Like most over-ears, the ATH-M20x depends on a secure seal around the ear to physically keep out noise. This kind of passive isolation acts best at blocking higher pitched sounds above 1kHz, rather than low frequencies. At 8kHz it maxes out attenuation of noise at around 35dB. This is okay, but not groundbreaking.
If you wear glasses, the isolation performance won’t be as good as the chart above suggests because the vinyl material leaves gaps between the padding and glasses arms. This kind of fit is inevitable whether your glasses have round or flat arms, unfortunately.
How does the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x sound?
Save for a very slight emphasis at 2kHz, the ATH-M20x frequency response distinctly under-emphasizes basically every note. Areas of major deviation include below 70Hz in the bass and sub-bass, and in the highs at 5kHz and between 8-10kHz.
In a way, it sort of evens out because if everything lands basically in the realm of under-emphasis, you don’t get as much auditory masking. In general, you’ll hear a lot more highs and mids than bass, but the bass isn’t as absent as you might assume at a glance. The highs are not so boosted as to totally mask the quiet bass.
Lows, mids, and highs
Listening to the 1980s goth ballad When I Go by Minimal Compact, the ATH-M20x performs admirably for a budget option. There’s no apparent masking here, and the sound stage is fine, if somewhat “narrow.” Alto vocals remain audible in the din of the slow arpeggiated piano and synths. Low-frequency strings could use a bit of extra volume, however, everything is easy enough to hear. Perhaps absent is some of that perceived extra clarity that more volume to frequencies at and above 7kHz would supply.
That’s not the whole story. Put on something with a good amount of low end and the ATH-M20x just does not supply enough bass. The 90’s alt-rock song, Every You Every Me by Placebo noticeably lacks bass. It is surprising just how quiet, or “weak,” the toms and bass guitar sound. Meanwhile, the electric guitar sounds distorted because of that fundamental frequency oomph. You can still technically hear them all, so for tracking purposes it works.
The neutral-leaning frequency response is useable for most audio applications from tracking a song, to editing a podcast. It does a good job of reproducing the fundamentals of music, though you may notice that 200-600Hz under-emphasis.
This headset won’t be the first choice for listening pleasure, and you definitely will miss bass, if that’s your wheelhouse. Higher frequencies actually sound pretty good, and vocals come through without piercing loudness. Overall though, it’s a little like listening to a song with a high-pass filter siphoning off the low end and a filter simultaneously quieting the very highest frequencies.
Audio-Technica ATH-M20x vs Audio-Technica ATH-M30x
As a bargain hunter one can’t help but pick up the ATH-M20x and notice how it’s $20 USD cheaper than the already wallet-friendly ATH-M30x.
To compare the frequency responses of the ATH-M20x and Audio-Technica ATH-M30x, consider that they follow the same basic voicing. Between 200-5,000Hz the headsets sound almost identical. Below 100Hz, the ATH-M30x reproduces more bass. With that said, not much musically happens below 50Hz, so you’ll notice only a slight difference. In the highs, the ATH-M30x supplies more volume, especially above 7KHz.
Build quality is similar, though the ATH-M20x feels cheaper. While the cabling looks the same as does the housing, excepting the lack of silver logos on the ATH-M20x, the ATH-M30x padding feels a little cushier. Both headsets have a somewhat slimmed-down look, but the padding on the ATH-M30x isolates better too. Unlike the ATH-M30x, the ATH-M20x does not fold down at all either, and does not ship with a carry pouch. The headband adjustment on the ATH-20x does not have the satisfying notching of the other ATH-M models, but the crown padding feels about the same.
If you plan to wear your headphones for short sessions (less than two hours), the similarities may be worth saving $20 USD and nabbing the cheaper, ATH-M20x. Otherwise, the ATH-M30x edges ahead with better isolation, better highs and lows, and an ever so slightly more comfortable fit.
To really see a considerable difference you’ll have to try the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x, which has better frequency response and more plush ear cups, designed for longer sessions. Its folding design and removable cables all come at double the cost of the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x though, so if you buy in bulk, one can’t fault you for choosing the ATH-M20x because it performs suitably well for the price.
Should you buy Audio-Technica ATH-M20x?
Audio-Technica positively defies what you can expect for around $50 USD. Ultimately, Audio-Technica did not design the ATH-M20x to go on the subway with you. It’s for the budget-conscious, do-it-yourself producer, podcaster, or studio that needs to buy tracking cans in bulk. If you don’t need the most deluxe, comfortable headphones, maybe you’ll like the ATH-M20x for its spartan functionality. The headphones are aimed at giving you the minimum requirements without it feeling like a sacrifice. In this regard, the headset does the job as needed without finesse, but also without fuss. For the buyer working within a tight budget, it might top as the best choice for headphones under $50 for recording.
What should you get instead of the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x?
If you are really just starting out and looking to buy all the gear to record, consider the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio 3rd Gen bundle. We’ve tested the headphones and it sounds surprisingly good, though unavailable separately. You also get a perfectly good USB audio interface for the price, and a mic with some software to boot. Of course, that’s a unique scenario in which you don’t already have equipment.
Otherwise, it might be worthwhile to pay the extra dough for the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x offering softer ear cups and removable cables, extending the lifespan of the headset. Having a bit more bass on tap, your sound is more evenly distributed than the ATH-M20x too. With so many ATH-M choices in close price proximity, it’s splitting hairs, but you’ll notice a sizeable quality difference between the ATH-M20x and the ATH-M40x.
If you don’t require closed-back headphones, the AKG K240 Studio feels infinitely more comfortable. At $69 USD it sounds neutral, has removable cables, and ear cups. The build quality leaves something to be desired, so buy from a reputable retailer in case you need to use that warranty, but at least you can replace some parts. Definitely don’t pick this one up if you plan on recording in the room, because the open back design leaks audio and does not isolate. For mixing and monitoring its neutral voicing works well.
Frequently asked questions about the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x
The Audio-Technica ATH-M20x connects to an audio source device with a 3.5mm cable. It also comes with a 1/4-inch adapter that you can use to plug into headphone ports with this kind of input. The cable is not detachable or replaceable.
You don’t need to turn on the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x. Simply plug it into your source device and start listening.