"FINAL FANTASY XIV ONLINE" (FFXIV) is an MMORPG developed and operated by SQUARE ENIX. Audio-Technica "ATH-R70x," the open-back headphone, is the key for sound production of this title in the remote environment amid the coronavirus pandemic and is widely used as the reference model among the staff members.
To find out why this product was hired as the reference model and to reveal its excellence that creators rave about, Mr. Masayoshi Soken, the sound creator of FFXIV, Mr. Hiroyasu Suzuki, the product planner of Audio-Technica ATH-R70x, and myself (Tomoya Miwa), the composer to provide music for commercial scenes, these three of us had a round-table talk about the product with the editorial staff as a moderator.
By reading this article together with the first part in which we talked a lot about sound creation for FFXIV, you will understand the appeal of the ATH-R70x more deeply. Please check that out as well.
Let me ask you frankly, why did you choose the ATH-R70x for your music production?
Mr. Soken (the following, honorifics omitted)It all started when we were testing the Audio-Technica "ATH-G1" headset for the Officeial recommendation of FINAL FANTASY XIV ONLINE, and one of the headsets they brought to us, saying “We also have this,” was this ATH-R70x. I thought that open-back headphones were rare, but I was so busy that I let it “sleep” for a while (laughs). One day I listened to the sound with those headphones and was amazed. When I was working on the development of immersive audio, where the surrounding environment was reproduced in immersive audio either with or without headphones, there were times when I couldn't tell whether the sound was coming from the headphones or speakers. It was a perfectly tuned room, and that was the only time I was surprised with the headphones on. When I put on the ATH-R70x, at first, I thought I was listening through speakers, because they didn't sound like through headphones. Generally, the sounds coming from speakers and those from headphones are absolutely different, but they were the same. I was like, "What the...!? " There are times when I can't use speakers because of the production environment, but I suddenly thought that I could use the ATH-R70x for monitoring. When I tried it, I felt like, "I don't need speakers anymore." I haven't been able to live without them since then. It's hard to describe in words, but they really do sound just like speakers!
Why do they sound like that in terms of mechanism, Mr. Suzuki?
Mr. Suzuki (the following, honorifics omitted)I’d love to know that, too.
SuzukiThis is going to be a technical term, but the feeling that Mr. Soken mentioned, "When listening with headphones, the sound seems muffled," is something called in-head localization, which is common when using headphones. It's always the case with 2ch stereo headphones that the sound feels like to be played inside our heads. Some people, mainly Europeans who find it weird, especially veteran sound engineers, hesitate to use headphones, and some of them still call open-back headphones “ear speakers.” I think it is connected to what Mr. Soken said.
SokenRight. In the previous interview, I said that the way we listen to music and sound effects is different, and that's exactly what I meant. When it's localized in my head, the sense of right and left is not weird because it's also explained by the picture. But for music, we should listen to it not just with our head, but with our whole body. It’s easier to listen to and take in. So, I guess there's a big difference. When I compose a song, it's easier if I listen to the music with my whole body rather than just in my head. In that situation, I really want to listen to it out loud with speakers at the final stages of making music.
But it's hard to do so, especially in the current situation, and when it comes to a situation where "I just can't listen to it out loud with speakers!", the ATH-R70x solves everything. For example, it costs a lot to create an environment where the sound can be played properly. It's a hassle to install sound proofing panels to a room to prevent reflections from the corners. But for the ATH-R70x, I just put them on, and that’s it! It's such magical headphones (laughs).
SuzukiI think a big clue is that feelings can't be expressed without vibrating the air with the sound. As open-back headphones are not sealed, their mechanism is to use the surrounding air without hindrance to transmit sounds through the driver unit. Unlike closed-back headphones that vibrate a small amount of air, they use the surrounding natural air to transmit sounds. I think that's how feelings are expressed.
SokenYes, that's true. Also, it's convenient to use open-back headphones because I can hear if someone calls me, "Hey!" (laughs). When we're concentrating on a production with closed-back headphones, we can't hear the outside world quite often. So, even if the alarm for the meeting time goes off, we neither hear it nor notice it at all. So, many of the members of the sound department tend to be late for meetings (laughs). I can’t deny that we are not punctual, but we work with closed-back headphones most of the time, and when we concentrate, time flies by and we are tardy before we know it.
Anyway, it's a great feature that lets us listen to music through headphones as if we are listening to it naturally through speakers. I think it's an excellent environment for listening to music.
Is the coronavirus pandemic one of the reasons that you have to use headphones?
SokenThat's true. I also think that there are many creators who have to create within constraints. Fortunately, as we have a sound department, not many staff members complain even if I bang out sounds. However, there are quite a few companies without a sound department, or developers who have to do everything by themselves. If there are programmers, designers, and planners around them, or if they are working at home where there is no soundproofing, it would be annoying if one of them bangs out sounds (laughs). However, there are many cases where they want to review the sound with speakers, and I think the ATH-R70x will solve this problem.
Also, on a personal note, I was working while in the hospital for my illness. Of course, it wasn’t possible to bring in speakers to play in the hospital room. If I did, people would have said, "What the hell are you doing?” (laugh). The ATH-R70x was very useful and helpful even in such an environment. Of course, with the current situation under the coronavirus pandemic, there are many staff members who cannot play sound or use speakers at home. We introduced the ATH-R70x to all the members who said, "I want to play it with speakers." To be honest, we have quite a few members, but I think it was a necessary investment. It is much less expensive than preparing a set of speakers and sound proofing materials to set up a production environment for each member. To be honest, as a sound creator, I think that everyone should buy one. It's such a good product that I feel like "If there is such a good product, why not just have one?"
By the way, while many open-back headphones don't reproduce bass sound well enough, the ATH-R70x reproduce it clearly from low to high frequencies......How did you realize it with a unit that size?
SuzukiWell.......One day isn't enough to talk about it. But The history of open-back headphones has been pioneered by European manufacturers such as Sennheiser and beyerdynamic, who originally made open-back headphones their major products. As a latecomer to the market, Audio-Technica had been trying to follow the manufacturers and grab a chance for more than 20 years, but it was difficult to do so. I think not many people know this, but in fact, we've been in the process of trial and error for open-back headphones for about four to five generations since our first pair of headphones. Actually, I was the one who suggested the idea of the ATH-R70x. I was able to do so because at the time, there was the ATH-M50, closed-back monitor headphones that are now used by professionals around the world.
Miwa It's a product one generation before the one I'm using now.
SuzukiThank you very much. The ATH-M50 is a product that motivates singers and performers, while at the same time making it easy to capture the sound you want to monitor. It is the basic principle of monitor headphones. It was completed by a veteran engineer in charge of development at the time, who was on the verge of retirement. He said, "This will be the last model I'll ever be in charge of, so I'm going to make monitor headphones that I can embody with my entire career!" We have taken over his legacy and evolved the ATH-M50 to the ATH-M50x, creating the groundwork for Audio-Technica's studio monitors.
Thanks to this groundwork, I was able to appeal directly to the company saying, "Let me do the open-back monitor headphones." Audio-Technica is a unique company among headphone and microphone manufacturers today in that we design and produce our own driver units. I was stuck in the final stage of development, and when I was talking with the chief engineer in charge of the project, he picked up on a casual comment I made. One of the two prototypes that came out of that clue was the ATH-R70x which is now on the market. However, I am not sure what conversation at that time gave us the clue, so no one can exactly answer the question that Mr. Soken asked earlier, "Why does it make this sound?" (laughs).
By the way, I often hear people say that open-back headphones can't reproduce low frequencies. That's because they're not real open-back headphones, from the perspective of the headphone engineers of the world.
SuzukiIt's the same as speakers. There are many different methods and various sounds. The same goes for headphones. It's not logical to say that closed-back headphones can reproduce this sound and open-back cannot. If we vibrate the diaphragm properly and control the movement of the air, the sound will surely come out as it should. However, if there is a loss or insufficient control somewhere, the sound does not come out. I think we also talked about it when we were developing the product......
SokenSo, you say that the ATH-R70x is the result of somehow managing to do something that couldn't be done even if you took that theory seriously (laughs).
SuzukiA few years after the release of the ATH-R70x, we released the flagship model of our open-back headphones, the "ATH-ADX5000." This flagship model of open-back headphones was completed because we were able to use our experience gained through the production of the ATH-R70x. I'm sure that something was passed on, but even now, we are not sure about what I said and what the engineer received from it to help the ATH-R70x reproduce low frequencies perfectly. Sometimes, we still talk about it over a drink, and we say, "What was it......?" (laughs)
Miwa I know that Audio-Technica mainly makes closed-back headphones, like the DJ series and the M series. Was it quite challenging to make the ATH-R70x?
SuzukiNo, no. People tend to think like that, but I wonder how long we've been making them.......We've been making open-back headphones under our own brand for over 40 years. Our first major product was closed-back headphones, but we've also been making open-back headphones since the beginning. However, before headphones became as popular as they are now, they were treated as an add-on to an audio component set. They were an "extra" that came with an audio set or a mini component to listen to music without leaking sounds when it was not possible to use speakers due to the housing conditions in Japan. I think that's why closed-back headphones are recognized as the regular headphones in Japan.
SokenRelatively, gamers have no borders. In that sense, gamers also choose only closed-back headphones, don't they?
SuzukiThat's true. But there are open-back headphones, the “ATH-AD700x,” which we've been making for almost 10 years, and it's still being sold in some areas. This is because gamers in a certain area have asked us to never stop producing them as they want to keep using them. They are using the headphones in a local tournament for a certain game title, and they said that they just can't get localization without these headphones. It's not selling very well, but they wouldn't let us discontinue the model (laughs).
SokenIsn't it a good thing (laughs)?
Miwa It's no exaggeration to say that you support the ears of people all over the world.
SuzukiIt seems like we're serving people pretty well worldwide, but we haven't been able to become a major brand (laughs). We would like to do more marketing.
SokenIn the production field, there is a culture of "Follow the majority," isn't there? It's like, "Well, we have Pro Tools. We have GENELEC." I think this is seen only in Japan. In other countries, there is equipment that are optimized for each studio. On the contrary, in Japan, there is an atmosphere that says that the studio isn't good unless it has certain equipment. Why don't you take advantage of that kind of culture to make the ATH-R70x a de facto standard?
SuzukiWell, I guess you could say that.
SuzukiHowever, even if we do that in Japan, the Japanese music scene or the industry as a whole are rather susceptible to imported technology and equipment. When they hear about equipment used by famous engineers in foreign studios, they tend to follow the majority, just like you mentioned, and it's not always easy to get recognition. Audio-Technica also manufactures and sells microphones, and the AT40 series has become the de facto standard. I think we have created a situation where every studio has at least one of these microphones.
On the other hand, there has been a generational change among the sound engineers recently, and a new generation of engineers is starting to build new studios. I think that the generation, which does not follow the majority, is beginning to choose Audio-Technica products because they want to use what they like and what they have tested with their own ears.
SokenSo, it's spreading like a grassroots movement?
SuzukiIt's really grassroots (laughs).
SokenIn terms of grassroots, many of the sound staff at SQUARE ENIX didn't know about the ATH-R70x either, so I told them “Trust me and listen to it,” and not one of them said the product was bad. I'd be presumptuous to say that I was the catalyst, but I think I could have helped you with the grassroots activities (laughs). There are many audio reviewers who want to criticize audio products saying that something is not good here, but there is really nothing to criticize about this product. It's just amazing.
SuzukiWe aren't really good at promoting our products. We've been quietly making headphones and microphones at our factory every day, hoping that someone will notice our products (laughs).
SokenHowever, I think there are pros and cons of using this as a gaming headset. Gamers who have been using closed-back headphones for a long time and are familiar with their sound localization may feel uncomfortable when they use open-back headphones. However, from the producer's point of view, we all know how important it is to play the sound and music out loud with the speakers in the final stage. That’s why we sometimes spend a lot of money to do just this one step. Going all the way to an outside studio to use speakers is essential to deliver better sound. I think we should at least once try a product that helps us do this process easy.
SuzukiI'm mainly in charge of consumer products now, but until seven or eight years ago, I was in charge of professional products, and I worked on the ATH-M50x at that time. As I had many opportunities to meet with sound engineers, I went around asking them what kind of headphones they wanted. They told me that there were many people who wanted to make a living from music but couldn’t become a major player that easily, and they basically had to compose music at home, in what is called a bedside studio, where they had to work with computer music next to their bed. We came up with the ATH-R70x by also listening to the needs: "We have to check the sound with a boom box in the end, but we can't really be sure unless we use the large speakers in the studio. We wonder if we could somehow do that in our home."
To get to that point, we made the ATH-M50x and the ATH-M70x. I think there are many cases where you want to use specific tools to check specific points for each scene. There is no need for you to choose only Audio-Technica products. We make our products hoping that you will find an alternative environment for your speakers eventually by trying a variety of products. I'd be happy if you could choose our product as one of those tools.
To be honest, we were not making the ATH-R70x expecting that people would be so happy with it (laughs). In fact, there are very few people who understand open-back headphones. Even among engineers, there are many who are used to creating sound with closed-back headphones and they might lose localization if they use open-back headphones. They were worried that they might deviate from the sound field they know because it would suddenly spread too far.
In addition to the differences in ear structure and how they hear, people in Europe speak different languages and have different music cultures, and many of them feel uncomfortable with closed-back headphones. I think that's why long-established manufacturers that specialize in open-back headphones, such as Sennheiser and beyerdynamic, have been the mainstream. beyerdynamic's DT990 and DT880, and Sennheiser's HD560 and HD600 have been made in the same style for more than 40 years. I think there is a de facto standard for open-back headphones in Europe that cannot be changed. We would like to grab the chance there.
SokenI think culture is another factor. In Japan, there are many generations that enjoy cultures of listening to music from the Walkman (digital music player) or earphones. So, I have the impression that listening through speakers is becoming less and less popular.
Miwa In Japan, basically, we can't make noise because of the housing situation. A culture that doesn't tolerate sound leakage.
SokenIn the past, there used to be big speakers, though. You’re right.
SuzukiAlso, consumer game consoles are almost always connected to a 4K TV these days. In that case, everyone uses the speakers of the 4K TV to play sound, right?
SokenI think it depends on how they play games. I use different types of headphones depending on the genre of game I play. For example, I use closed-back headphones for FPS games, and speakers for RPGs. I think it also depends on what kind of environment you want to listen to the sound in. In FPS, the sound information is only for winning. But in RPGs, it's important to have a feeling of being immersed in the world, or to be able to interactively experience a dramatic story like a movie. That’s why I think the nature of sound is different. In FPS, information such as where the enemy is and whether you can hear footsteps behind you is important, but not presence.
Miwa I agree.
SokenI use visual information to find out where enemies are. I also use sounds to detect if they are behind the wall. I have the impression that the information I process varies depending on the game I play. What do you think? Are the gamers in the world today mainly using headphones or speakers?
Miwa I am not sure.......I think that people who play console games such as PS4 and PS5 play them on their TV against our expectations. But in FPS, professionals in the competitive scene often wear earphones.
SokenThey are a canal type, right?
Miwa Yes, and most people use a single headset or a pair of headphones, and a condenser microphone if they broadcast. I still use the ATH-M50x with the AT4040.
SokenWe don't see many people using open-back headphones, do we?
Miwa I don't see many, but there are some overseas broadcasters who use open-back headphones...like beyerdynamic. I don't want to mention a name of other company in front of Audio-Technica (laughs).
SuzukiThat’s all right (laughs).
SuzukiIt's better to break into that market......, right (laughs)?
SuzukiAbout the ATH-R70x, we're not trying to break into that market at all. We're making the R and M series so that people who make a living from sound creation can choose them as their tools. We are very happy if the end users become happier by using them as well, just because the professionals use them to create the original sound. But they are basically for professional use, so it's very rugged and there are no decorations. They don’t even glow...
SokenThere is also the issue of impedance, right?
SuzukiThere is also the environmental issue of the equipment to be used.
SokenWe think that these headphones are the best solution for production site, as a tool for listening to music and also for monitoring. I hate to say this in front of Audio-Technica, but I don't expect players to play games or listen to music in a certain environment. I just want them to do whatever they want. I'm not using the ATH-R70x because I want players to listen to it in the same environment as mine, but as a reference model.
The bigger the game production, the more likely it is that the person working on sounds, both inside and outside, will not be able to complete the project alone. In addition, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, it became difficult to gather in the studio to monitor together and have conversations such as, "Bass is a little too strong here. The back is too strong, so let's not do that." It has become more and more difficult to find an environment where we can listen to the sound on the same scale while working in different home environments and spaces. But when we said, "Low frequencies are not sufficient. Let's make it richer," we were able to have the same experience by putting on the ATH-R70x together. This was very helpful to me. I felt that the ATH-R70x would be effective in a production site.
SuzukiWhen you use near-field monitor speakers, even if it’s the same model number, the sound changes depending on the size of the room and the material of the walls. By the way, Mr. Soken said a very good thing. The R in the ATH-R70x is the R in Reference. So, it's a great honor for the manufacturer that you use it as a reference model.
SokenSo, I've been using it correctly (laughs).
Miwa In my case, I write and release songs by myself, and I also do mixing and mastering for other people. Right now, I'm using the ATH-M50x as the main device, and I recently bought the ATH-M70x as a sub. What you just said made me think that I should have bought the ATH-R70x.
SuzukiDon't worry. I think it would be better to use the ATH-M50x to adjust the overall mix balance. The ATH-M70x is made with a very tight low frequencies for detail adjustment. So, if you adjust the details and then use the ATH-M50x for the final touches, the bass sound should blend in and sound more extended.
Miwa Yes, it is. It's definitely extended.
SuzukiIf you think of that sound as the overtones you hear in a monitor room, it will be relatively closer to the sound you hear from the GENELEC speakers in the studio. We are happy if you use it that way. We have to properly advertise such usage......(laughs)
Miwa But I still think the ATH-M50x perfectly delivers sounds from low to high frequencies. I have the impression that the ATH-M70x delivers sounds very much like those from monitor headphones.
SuzukiHowever, ......as for how we humans feel the bass sound, I think it varies even between fat people and slim people. That's not because we hear the primary resonance from the speakers, but because we keep feeling the bass sound in our body from various directions, such as the secondary and tertiary resonances. So, the way we feel it should vary from person to person. That’s why I think it's better to use the ATH-R70x as just a reference model.
Miwa You mean I should buy this one as well?
SuzukiWell, yes. We also have balanced-armature in-ear monitors called the ATH-E7. If you have all of them, you can even do an "EarPods check" which is popular today.
SokenI'm using the ATH-E70. It's great.
SuzukiThank you very much. You're using many of our products (laughs).
SokenI can use them for monitoring and also for listening. They are really good. But if I suggest, I'd like you to add one more type of foam eartips that come with them......
SuzukiSorry, we had a cost issue with that one.......
SuzukiI remember when I was talking to a French DJ at a trade show, he said, "I don't like overhead DJ monitor headphones." I asked him how many people think like that, and he said, "There are a lot around me." Then we created the ATH-E70.
Our company has a philosophy of reproducing the original sound. Reproducing the original sound means "reproducing the intention of the people who tried to create the sound as it is." I think localization is definitely one of the essential elements to realize this. Since we want to respect the intentions of sound creators and reproduce the original sound properly, we have been making our products for the past several decades focusing on the localization very carefully. The sound field changes greatly depending on the localization.
Let me back up a bit. You mentioned a reference model. What deciding factor did make the sound of the ATH-R70x a reference model?
SokenIt's more of a feature of the tool rather than a deciding factor. Because of the pandemic, each staff member shifted to working from home. Since each member's production environment was different, we needed to exchange information in a certain range of sound quality to avoid disparities. In such a situation, by having everyone use the same product, we can create a condition where everyone can hear the same sound without being affected by factors around them. Not many such tools existed. That was the major reason.
On the development side, what did you keep in mind to make sure they reproduce neutral sounds?
SuzukiBasically, open-back headphones only have a flat (neutral) frequency response when made properly. So, the more properly made open-back headphones are closer to a flat frequency response, with just a few nuances that vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Our products may not be able to reproduce a particular sound that other companies' products reproduce, but on the other hand, there are some sounds that only our products can reproduce. So, we let our customers choose one from our products according to their preferences. As the frequency response of a properly made open-back headphones is basically straightforward, it is perfect for you to use as a reference model.
SokenThere's another reason why I choose it as a reference model. Overseas products often have variations in individual products. But Audio-Technica has very little variation in its products. The major reason was that I could trust your product quality as a reference model.
Miwa Audio-Technica reproduces very musical sounds, doesn't it? It's so easy to get into a groove or to create a sound.
SuzukiAs I mentioned earlier, I think you're playing right into the hands of the developers of the ATH-M50x.
SuzukiI think it's because you feel the sound of the ATH-M50x which motivates people in the production environment. I think the people who made it are happy, too (laughs).
SokenWhen I use closed-back headphones, I use Sony’s MDR-CD900ST. But when I listen to them after Audio-Technica's products, I hear V-shaped sound very much.
SuzukiI understand that it is a tool which is completely focused on confirming the details that tell you that the signals you want to know are here.
SokenExactly. It's to check each instrument. It's necessary to distinguish if it's too much, if we need to add more wet sounds, or if we need to raise treble of wet sounds, etc. It's totally different from how I use the ATH-M70x. I use the MDR-CD900ST is for checking instruments, and the ATH-M70x for checking the overall sound. Am I using them correctly?
SuzukiNo problem. You are absolutely correct (laughs). That would be perfect if you could check it out with the ATH-R70x at the end (laughs).
SokenBut it's difficult to do everything with just one device, isn't it?
SuzukiThat's probably the ultimate in monitor headphones, but it's difficult to realize. It has to move the air in such a large space. Also, human ears and perhaps bones and diaphragm feel the law frequencies. Therefore, it's difficult to do it all with just one device.
Miwa Even though I've used products from many different manufacturers, I still not be able to find one that does everything I want. I guess it can't be helped.
SokenBut isn't it fun? There are so many different products, and even a single resource can sound different. I think it's more fun to have a variety of products with different approaches to find the sound I like.
Miwa It's definitely fun. But, as I said before, I will be in trouble when the device gets discontinued. I can't fix it! (laughs).
SuzukiProducts that are discontinued, especially those for professional use, are products that were not well accepted by the public......I think it's because they didn't have a strong fan base, so they had to be discontinued. Audio-Technica still has many engineers of my age, so we will continue to evolve.
Audio-Technica is one of Japan's leading audio equipment manufacturers. It is no exaggeration to say that the products they make support not only the sound aspects of FFXIV, but also the entire sound industry. With the increase in the number of bedroom studios, it may be a good idea to try to create a higher grade of sounds by using the ATH-R70x, which was developed to serve as a reference model, as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates the shift to working from home.
※この記事の日本語版は こちら 。