Quick Thoughts: Audio-Technica ATH-LS200

Editor’s Note: This overview of the Audio-Technica ATH-LS200 is based off multiple listening sessions at headphone stores and shows, without sustained personal time with the product. Thus, it should not be regarded as a full review — in fact, our entire ‘Thoughts‘ category of articles is not meant to house comprehensive reviews.

The ATH-LS200 is Japanese audio giant Audio-Technica‘s latest dual balanced armature earphone effort, continuing the long line of well-regarded IEMs that stem from the pedigree of the vaunted, near-legendary ATH-CK10. Their previous model, the ATH-IM02, seemed to be well-reviewed by most people, but rather than a complete overhaul, was more of an evolution of their previous ATH-CK90 MK2 and ATH-CK90. We presented the reasons why we believed so in an old article (here).

Essentially, for about five years, Audio-Technica had been recycling its acoustic formula for multiple generations of the ATH-CK90, ATH-CK90 MK2, and the ATH-IM02, fitting the same exact dual driver assembly (the Knowles GQ-30783) into its earphones and outputting it through the exact same length/diameter “acoustic horn“.

For 2017, however, Audio-Technica has engineered a completely different model, and the results really are great. The first time I had a listen was late last year at an audio show, and then multiple times thereafter at a headphone shop. It has never disappointed me, neither with sound nor ergonomics.

Having sung the praises of the ATH-LS200 twice on our Facebook page, I thought I’d give people the lowdown on why the new model is so good.

Acoustic Design

Let’s start with the drivers. Instead of going with Knowles like they have for the past few generations, Audio-Technica has switched to Sonion for the ATH-LS200 (Audio-Technica has a history of contracting with both companies for its drivers). They likely did so for access to the easy-to-use AcuPass system, which allows audio designers to drop a dual driver assembly into any earphone and have only a single output port to worry about. If you need a refresher on AcuPass, here’s a link to our past article on how AcuPass works (link).

Last year, after having pretty good success with its first generation of AcuPass drivers in the 1723 series of driver assemblies, Sonion introduced its second generation of AcuPass drivers, offering more versatility and modularity with swappable central plates. AcuPass drivers could now come in pretty much any combination of drivers, giving way to some pretty exciting possibilities. While we were privy to this development way back in early 2015, all of this information was confidential and not finalized —- we weren’t allowed to let the public know.

The release of Klipsch’s flagship X20i launched the first of the second generation AcuPass drivers with a custom-ordered version of the 26-E25T. It was essentially a Sonion 2600 driver mated to a new supertweeter called the E25T. The E25T promised great real-world treble extension (both Knowles and Sonion have in the past claimed the ability of their drivers to extend to 40 kHz in the ultrasonic region but have had trouble maintaining sound pressure from 20 Hz to 20 kHz), all the way to 18.5 kHz, and a smooth gradation getting there. The prospect of these kinds of drivers in affordable packages was truly exciting. The only caveat was that the 2600 driver really wasn’t the most dynamic, exciting, or even accurate BA driver around. Being a smaller driver, it didn’t quite deliver the bass impact or extension.

Audio-Technica‘s announcement of the ATH-LS200 was truly exciting, however. While Audio-Technica has never specified what it used as drivers for the ATH-LS200, from marketing pictures it was clear they were using a second generation AcuPass driver different from the 26-E25T — the 23-E25T (link). Wider at the base, the 2300 driver is a larger driver than the 2600, but is a staple standard driver for most audio designers seeking a balanced, neutral tone from the bass all the way to the treble. Mating the 2300 with a E25T would mean really great, extended treble performance.

The Audio-Technica ATH-LS200 uses the new Sonion 23-E25T AcuPass driver assembly, which mates a 2300 series full-range driver with the E25T supertweeter.

In addition, such a design from Sonion is approximately the same size as the GQ from Knowles, allowing Audio-Technica‘s industrial designers already familiar with the GQ’s required cavity spaces to evolve on an already small housing size. For the icing on top, Audio-Technica opted for a stainless steel tube to reinforce the highs, in the stead of the plastic horn used in the past.

Frequency Response & Subjective Impressions

With all this new age technology fully in play, how does the ATH-LS200 measure on an ear simulator?

In terms of frequency response, it is pretty darn good. Currently, two Korean websites have measured the ATH-LS200‘s various characteristics: the first is from blogger HeavyMetalHallelujah’s Ear-Fi Blog (in two parts, here and here), with all measurements performed by our very own Speakerphone, while the second is from 0dB (link). Both sets of measurements agree that the ATH-LS200 has pretty good linearity with respect to Harman’s “Olive-Welti” target equalization, and when equalized to the diffuse field target, it imparts a pretty smooth downsloping curve.

Unequalized IEC-60318-4 (a.k.a. IEC 711) frequency response of the Audio-Technica ATH-LS200 (Figure courtesy of Speakerphone)

When I first heard the ATH-LS200 (before any measurements ever came out), it felt close to a neutral signature without anemic bass or annoying treble spikes, with great and expansive treble extension that allowed the “soundstage” to feel unbounded. The center image was large and seemed phase-correct, with a bit of vocal warmth that I happen to like a lot. In this sense, it was genre-versatile, able to play pretty much anything from classic jazz to modern pop. Simply put, the LS200 just sounded correct.

Ergonomically, the ATH-LS200 is comfortable inside my ears. The new A2DC plugs are pretty good too — they rotate less easily than MMCX connectors and are less bulky than the reversed two-pin connectors they replaced.

The ONLY negative I can really say about it is that I’d personally take down the bass a teeny-tiny bit, and the bass extension and depth of impact is not on the level of earphones with big huge CI drivers or DTEC drivers, but for its form factor (a Sonion 2300 stacked with an E25ST), it’s good enough. I can hear some bass distortion at high volumes, but I’m not bothered.

The measurements corroborated my findings:
  • +4.5 dB boost under 200 Hz relative to 500 Hz
  • +6.0 dB boost under 200 Hz relative to 1000 Hz
  • Fairly flat diffuse field EQ profile from 800 to 4000 Hz
  • The uncompensated plot shows a healthy 9 dB rise from 800 to 2700 Hz
  • A small 5k clarity bump, but without 6-7k sibilance
  • Not much of a dip between 9-12k
  • A huge 16-18k spike: this means there’s treble energy way up there that just isn’t easily quantified by an IEC 711 coupler
  • The CSD has a nice, middle thickness midrange that isn’t too thick; no obvious ringing artifacts, other than the big 16-18k spike
  • Square wave response shows mild mid-bass centered response and warmish presentation, with both being mild
The thing I dislike about Sonion’s 2300 series drivers is their high distortion; Knowles’ ED drivers are a lot better in that regard (Knowles drivers just have lower distortion across the board in general), and the ATH-LS200 has quite a bit of measured distortion, up to 2-3% THD in the midrange band between 800-900 Hz. Strangely enough, however, you won’t hear it as patently as you do with the bass distortion in the 1723 AcuPass models. Then again, I’ve only heard the ATH-LS200 in louder environments, where distortion is more difficult to hear. In the quietest instance where I was able to test the LS200, I did hear distortion here and there, especially with male vocals, but it didn’t seem to ruin my perception and enjoyment of the music. In some ways, the distortion of the ATH-LS200 presents itself more similarly to the warm “haze” that Final Audio earphones tended to give off in the past (link).

Conclusions

Overall, I firmly believe the Audio-Technica ATH-LS200 is one of the best overall earphones the company has produced. It’s an ‘entry’ level balanced armature in-ear with a balanced, relatively neutral-sounding profile versatile with all kinds of music, delivering clarity without harshness, and bass presence without head-thumping pressure. The ergonomics of the LS200 are also well-considered, and well-rounded earphones at this lower mid-end price point are hard to find.
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