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January 23, 2014
28.96 x 25.4 x 10.41 cm
Some people will tell you that you absolutely need to spend hundreds on headphones that are good enough for the studio. We call those people “snobs.” While it is true that some of the best studio headphones cost a pretty penny — and they’re often worth it — for most folks out there, you don’t need all the bells and whistles. Maybe all you need is the Audio-Technica ATH-M30x.
The ATH-M line pops up in various iterations in both upscale and home studios worldwide. Audio-Technica does a lot for not a lot of your money, and going down the line, buyers can choose what’s an absolute must and what they will concede to save a few bucks. Consistent across the line, however, is good sound. Ranking as the second most affordable ATH-M product, let’s see how well this sub-$100 headset does.
Editor’s note: this Audio-Technica ATH-M30x review was updated on August 21, 2023, to add the Audio-Technica ATH-M20xBT to Alternatives.
Musicians recording in studios will appreciate the long cable and accurate frequency response from the ATH-M30x. Anyone looking for a cheap set of studio headphones, whether they are just starting out home recording, or want a backup pair will like the value of this headset. Content creators and podcasters benefit from the headset’s comfortable fit and long cable to make recording set-ups easy.
What’s it like to use Audio-Technica ATH-M30x?
What you’ve got here is a plug-and-play studio headset. Besides a vinyl cinching pouch, the ATH-M30x has no luxuries, including the non-removable extra long three meters of cable with a 3.5mm jack. It certainly looks like a relative of the ATH-M40x and the pricier ATH-M50xBT2. The headbands feel and look alike, with the signature Audio-Technica logo across the top. Basically, the ATH-M30x appears as a slimmed down, cheaper version, and it is.
The padding on the ear cups feels thinner, as do the arms, but that’s not a bad thing, it’s just utilitarian. Clamping force seems to lean more towards loose for what traditionally would get deemed monitoring headphones. That’s good news for people in glasses. The ATH-M30x is mainly plastic, which keeps things lightweight, with metal reinforcements in the headband. The ear cups can fold up somewhat, but the arms do not articulate. If you had plans to lay the ear cups flat with the headset around your neck, no dice.
Using that long cable, you can easily navigate in a recording studio with your instrument. You won’t necessarily want to sit down and mix your hot single on the ATH-M30x, but you can record your vocals wearing them. The ATH-M30x stand as evidence that you can buy quality studio headphones for under $100. The Audio-Technica ATH-M30x is truly a purpose-built tool with minimal flair. There’s no reason for you to be precious about using these headphones, giving you more room to focus on the project at hand.
Does the Audio-Technica ATH-M30x have good isolation?
Like most headphones without active noise canceling (ANC) technology, the ATH-M30x relies purely on analog passive isolation. Over-ear headphones that isolate well, work their magic on high-frequency noises primarily, with mids receiving a bit of attenuation. Typically, low rumbles receive little to no noise reduction, as is the case with the ATH-M30x. It’ll dampen ear-splitting crash cymbals and shrill lead guitars in the room fairly well.
The nice thing about over-ear headphones is that they usually can get a good seal. Unlike in-ear monitors, over-ear cans are less finicky about achieving that and therefore, you get a more predictable outcome. You may experience a little more sound leakage with the ATH-M30x due to its slightly looser grip.
How does the Audio-Technica ATH-M30x sound?
The ATH-M30x frequency response is accurate-ish. Yes, it scores very well, because of the nature of our objective testing. Given the typical use of a pair of studio monitors, the M30x have a studio-style sound. However, the under-emphasized midrange response means this is better for getting a vocalist to belt out their track a little louder than they expected. Otherwise, this set of headphones is not the best tool for the job if you’re mixing.
Much like how a caricature will take somebody with a prominent nose and make it huge, the ATH-M30x has some quirky exaggerations when it comes to how it treats note emphasis. Our headphone preference curve dips in volume slightly around 5kHz, and the ATH-M30x exaggerates that, reproducing 5kHz sounds 10dB lower than our ideal. The mids and bass mimic a more consumer-oriented sound that ordinarily would get lauded, so we recommend this for use by bargain-hunting consumers more than we do for serious studio work. By and large, however, these are what you’d need them to be for the price.
Lows, mids, and highs
The song Drop by Cornelius reminds me of the point of bass-heavy headphones, which the ATH-M30x are not. While I can hear the bass in the track, its degree of oomph seems dependent on the notes. Especially on the higher bass registers, the notes come through with less relative volume. Lower bass notes have more thump, likely because those land in the parts of the frequency spectrum output with a subtle bump in decibels.
Some of the midrange synth parts are quieter than ideal, but I can hear them all fine. The same goes for the lower notes of the track’s disco-y lead guitar. In contrast, higher frequency acoustic rhythm guitar and vocals are reproduced at perfect volumes, making everything easy to hear. If you were to record along to this, you’d appreciate hearing all the parts.
Should you buy Audio-Technica ATH-M30x?
If you listen for less than two hours, the ATH-M30x feels comfortable without getting too hot. The long cable is ideal for snaking around a drum kit. However, that cable is not removable without a soldering iron, so if it busts, you need to repair it (or see if the warranty covers it). That’s a bummer but pretty normal at this price.
These are straightforward headphones for monitoring or tracking your recordings — you don’t get any luxuries here. For the budget-conscious aspiring producer, the ATH-M30x offer enough accuracy to create solid tracks. People have made great music with worse gear, and the ATH-M30x gets you most of the way there. If you produce podcasts, they are a great pick because the frequency response is accurate enough and easy to wear. It’s not too bad for casual listening at home either, so long as you’re game for the aforementioned long cable.
Typically, if a person is monitoring a track, they want the gist, and to hear the important parts. The ATH-M30x can do that. The attractive price point is nice for rounding out a home studio or a professional studio.
Audio-Technica ATH-M30x vs Audio-Technica ATH-M40x
You may ask if it’s worth the extra money for the Audio-Technica ATH-M40x, given that the two headphones share many similarities. Even their frequency responses sound very similar to most ears. While the ATH-M40x has more volume in the mids and high bass frequencies, it also under-emphasizes around 2kHz. The result is a pleasant-sounding headset with little boost to either end of the audible range of sounds. With that said, the ATH-M30x doesn’t sound a lot different, though it places a little more emphasis around 2kHz, and some under-emphasis in the mids.
In terms of construction, the ATH-M40x looks more refined, with hidden wires connecting the ear cups and slightly thicker padding. Also, unlike the ATH-M30x, it ships with three different removable cables, prolonging the life of the headset.
The ATH-M40x is generally a better pair of headphones, but if you need to work within a budget: the ATH-M30x is no slouch and can go toe to toe with big brother. The ATH-M30x will probably make you feel like you got the better deal because it can do most of the same things for less money.
If you’re considering the ATH-M30x you should definitely consider the cheaper Audio-Technica ATH-M20x. Objectively, the ATH-M30x is better. It has a nicer frequency response, better isolation, and fits more comfortably than the ATH-M20x. Of course, it all depends on what you’d rather do with the extra money you’d save by choosing the cheaper one. If you’re buying a bunch of headphones in bulk for a recording studio, it makes sense to buy the ATH-M20x. On the other hand, if you’re trying to get the most out of your budget with only one set of headphones, the slightly pricier ATH-M30x is much more enjoyable to use.
What should you get instead of the Audio-Technica ATH-M30x?
In this price bracket, you have a few options, including the even more spartan Audio-Technica ATH-M20x, with a cheaper build, fewer folding components, and similar design. You’ll only fork out $49 at Amazon for the M20x, though. Of course, there’s the big brother ATH-M40x, which costs $119 at Amazon with a “flatter” frequency response.
Interestingly, Audio-Technica also makes a Bluetooth or wired version, the Audio-Technica ATH-M20xBT ($79 at Amazon) which has a removable cable and expands the utility of this series of headphones to stretch outdoors.
If you’re more concerned with finding something neutral-leaning for close listening or tracking, rather than perfect accuracy, the lightweight AKG K371 is definitely worth your time. AKG’s headset costs $176 at Amazon.
The Sony MDR-7506 isn’t the most comfortable headset out there, but it does the trick and it’s been an industry standard for about three decades. You’ll pay about as much for Sony’s headphones as you will for the ATH-M40x ($79 at Sweetwater).
The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro feels equally plastic, but possibly more robust than the ATH M30x. For Sennheiser’s headphones, you’ll pay a reasonable $87 at Amazon. They offer a little more low end volume which can be nice for recording in small doses. If you want something more refined and don’t mind majorly upping the budget, the Beyerdynamic DT 700 PRO X kind of does everything — you can track with it and mix in a pinch, and the velour ear cups feel much more comfortable over long sessions. This is the most expensive option at $249 at Sweetwater.
Maybe you want something studio-style in sound, but not actual monitoring headphones. At around the same price, you can grab a set of in-ear monitors like the TIN HiFi T2. If you like to listen back to your recordings, or others on the go, the T2 is small and wired with a nice neutral frequency response. For $49 at Amazon, you’ll have a hard time finding a better set of in-ears.
Frequently asked questions about the Audio-Technica ATH-M30x
At the end of the day both types reproduce audio, but with different goals. Consumer headphones are designed to prioritize a fun, pleasant listening experience, and often come in various colorways. You can achieve some of that with studio style headphones too, but most folks like headphones that follow our consumer house curve for just pure enjoyment. The aim is in the name with studio headphones: to be used in a utilitarian studio context. The goal for studio headphones is to reproduce your audio without gross exaggeration. Other considerations come into play like audio leakage so as to minimize how much of the track you play along to is picked up by your mic—these kinds of things. You can still listen to music for fun on studio headphones, but it might not be your favorite sound.
Yes in a pinch if you must you can record drums while wearing the ATH-M30x, but to preserve your hearing it’s totally worth considering purpose built drum isolating headphones, such as the Vic Firth Stereo Isolation V2. Having tracked drums before, I can attest that wearing earplugs with over-ear headphones is not a fun way to do it, so just get some cans for drummers.