Headphones in this price range often give a cheap and cheerful impression from the off, but Audio-Technica's ATH-ES3 set looks and feels like a piece of quality Hi-Fi equipment. "Earsuit" the stylish black box proudly proclaims - I'm not entirely sure what that means, but I presume it's a reference to the elegant good looks of these cans. From the rubberised cover over the metal headband to the matt black ear-cups and leatherette ear pads, these feel like a smaller, lighter version of a 'proper' pair of 'phones.
Build quality is sturdy, all the joints feel solid and there are nice touches like the cover protecting the join between cable and ear-cup. The cups swivel so that the ATH-ES3s fold flat, and once folded they and the bog-standard 1.2m cord can be stored in the leatherette pouch provided. Our review sample came in a cool, understated black, but the ATH-ES5s can also be found in white, blue, pink and green.
Comfort isn't great at first. The metal headband expands from the plastic cover to adjust for different sizes of head while the cups swivel to fit your ears. However, the band is quite a tight fit and- even with the cushioned ear pads- the cups put quite a bit of pressure on your poor lug'oles. With a bit of time this eases and you can wear the ATH-ES3s for longer periods, but it must be said that the ATH-ES3s don't feel quite as luxurious as they look.
And unfortunately it's a similar story with the way they sound. The closed-back design and 28mm Neodymium drivers produce an output that's probably a bit too bright for most tastes, and the poor bass response and thin mid-range don't help. This imbalance affects different types of music in different ways. For the small group jazz of Miles Davis' All Blues, for example, the Audio Technica phones practically lose the bassline and over-emphasise the brushed snare and cymbals. Play something poppy, like Maroon 5's Make me Wonder or Justin Timberlake's What Goes Around, and you're left struck by the instrumental detail but disappointed by the brittle tone.
To balance this, there's plenty of clarity, and on some classical pieces you can hear more detail in the upper range than with rival 'phones. For rock, pop, hip-hop, soul and electronica, however, the sound just isn't good enough. In fact, the treble-heavy tone gets wearing very quickly. Radiohead's Just was actually uncomfortable to listen to, while the guitars in AC/DC's Back in Black never achieve that raw, monolithic crunch sound that the track is famous for.
One advantage the ATH-ES3s do have is that, being closed-back, they leak less sound than the other models on test. Overall, though, the ATH-ES3s are good-looking 'phones, but the substance doesn't match the style. When the alternatives offer so much more bang for your buck, the Audio-Technicas' superficial attractions just aren't enough to recommend them.
Headphones for the style-conscious, not the sound-obsessed.