With the release of the CK100, Audio Technica have reinvented the inner earphone. Their former flagship portable, the dual-driver CK10 is a thing of neutral, fast, and airy beauty. But no matter how good it is, its younger, pricier sibling hurdles it in every imaginable way. The CK100 houses 3 balanced armature speakers per earphone from which a brilliant atmospheric sound haunts. For audiophiles looking for a high-quality, good-sounding inner earphone, there is none better for the price.
- Model number: ATH-CK100
- Weight: 4g
- Impedance: 23ohms
- Sensitivity: 113dB
- Power Handling: 3mW
- Open/Closed: Closed
- Transducer type: Triple Armature
- Ear Coupling: Intraaural
- Frequency response: 20 – 18,000Hz
- Cable length: 1.2m
Fit and Package
Audio Technica left the gaudy gloves at home when designing the CK100. Every line is methodical and pragmatic. The titanium shell faces outward when worn naturally and the cable loops over the ear similarly to the q-Jays and EarSonics products. But the CK100 can also be worn with the cable down, though it is more awkward. And yes, you can sleep comfortably whilst wearing it.
In the box are: 4 sets of earpieces, a high-quality pleather carrying case and loads of pricey air. The pleather case looks great, but isn’t the best item to protect the earphones – Audio Technica’s CK10 hard nylon case is much more protective in its zippered, moisture-wicking shell. Typically well thought-out, the CK100 packaging is finger-friendly and can be recycled. Inside are a total of 4 earpiece sets: one in hybrid foam and 3 in silicon. The latter aren’t as comfortable as Maximo’s excellent soft flanges, but the former are fab – they effectively block out a lot of outside noise, and with heat-activating technology under the belt, are soft and comfortable for long listening. Neither should need to be replaced often.
Build Quality and Cable
The Japanese audio company have cranked things up to 11. The CK100 is a veritable tank in comparison to even the finest of professional monitors from Westone and EarSonics. Firstly, the polished titanium shell is practically bulletproof in polished titanium and thick impact plastic. Moving inward, Audio Technica have confronted the time-honoured tradition of housing expensive internals with thin, breakable plastic. The entire earphone sports thick walls which should survive inordinately violent abuse and neglect. Rivals’ products, on the other hand, constantly suffer from breakage problems. The CK100 will not. But the kick-your-ass construction quality doesn’t end there: the cable is fastened very well by a hard, well-anchored rubber grommet which is just shy of perfection: it should have a softer top-end to properly support the cable. Connection quality, on the other hand is head and shoulders above the competition. The right-angled plug is both well-relieved and securely fits even the original iPhone’s awkward headphone port.
But as good as the housing is and connection quality is, Audio Technica’s cable shows it up. It is light, supple and even more resistant to the deleterious effects of sweat and body oils than its professionally-targeted rivals. Westone and EarSonics, two companies who make nearly faultless cables, could learn from Audio Technica’s strong, channeled cable. There is no manufacturer, custom or otherwise who provide as fully-realised OEM cable for portable electronics. It is strong, resilient, light and quiet.
But nothing is perfect. Audio Techica may have engineered the perfectest of cables and housing, but they didn’t include a wax-loop or filter replacement tool. The filters are sit level with the sound tube’s opening and can become clogged by debris and ear wax.
Ice Cube – Raw Footage
Again this album debuts to test a new earphone. The reason isn’t just because I am a fan of Cube’s smart, egotistical lyrics. Like a lot of contemporary American rap, it is completely low-fi: chalk full of poorly extended instruments, duffy bass, and to a fault, vocal-focussed engineering.
MC Solaar – Mach 6
This album remains my benchmark for well-engineered hip-hop. It is quick, lyrically tight, and varied in speed with a good selection of instruments and vocalists without throbbing for bass. Headphones should be able to jive with this album, but if they don’t it is because they are engineered for Ice Cube.
Braveheart – The Soundtrack
At once soft and tender, at times, this album crashes violently in sudden thundering crescendoes. Braveheart needs a delicate, yet mid-oriented earphone whose head stage is above-average and which renders bass deeply. But overstepping low notes will crash the delicate midrange – headphones must step lightly around this otherwise powerful album.
Phantom of the Opera – The Original Canadian Recording
While the London recording is good, the Canadian version, which debuted with Colm Wilkinson and Rebecca Caine is superior. Wilkinson’s Phantom: pained, wispy and haunted is translated admirably. There isn’t a better Phantom than in the Canadian cast.
Marcus Schulz – Progression
It is hard to recommend a better benchmark trance album than this debut by the American DJ. From the deep introduction in Mainstage to the gripping melodies of songs such as Spilled Cranberries, this album is a winner in the world of trance and a great benchmark for just how well a headphone handles tight melodies.
As a typical balanced armature earphone, the CK100 performs best when driven by a portable headphone amp in between it and the source. But even when fed naked from an iPod or other audio player, it sounds fab. The problem is that the language it uses in conveying music can at times be confusing. Where its design is solid, its voice is capricious. Its output isn’t flat; upper mids and lower highs are atypically enhanced by a fistful of decibels. Often, earphone manufacturers elevate bass or mid-tones, but Audio Technica’s decision to double up on tweeters leads to nothing less than an atmospheric sound.
Let’s start off with bass, the CK100’s likeliest weak point. There is an appreciable low end roll off of ~5 decibels where extremely low notes are swallowed by mids and trebles. Needless to say, there isn’t a hint of flab or bloat in the signal. Low notes punch with the calculated impact of a welterweight boxer; and they recoil with the same poise, speed and control. Fans of the q-Jays will find solace here, but should be surprised by the CK100’s liquidy-smooth grain-free bass. Trance fans like myself who enjoy space and speed will enjoy the CK100 with any flavour of electronic, but those who a crave fibrous, gritty, full-mouthed low end should probably check out the EarSonics SM2.
Though ultimately less bombastic than the Shure SE530, the CK100’s midrange is tailored. Sure, the extreme low-end dips downward, and treble and high mids are hot. But Audio Technica have a magical concoction together in the works. One thing I lament in many balanced armature set ups is a lack of ring, shimmer, and sonorous echo in the midrange. CK100 doesn’t score high on impact or tangible texture, but its sound, likens in one respect to the typical dynamic earphone; there is emotion and durst I say it, a hint of splash. Purists will probably decry the earphone as hot or tempered; audiophiles may love it or hate it, but ultimately, Audio Technica have done their homework. Its sound is in a word, ‘HiFi’ and certainly a pleasure to accompany strings, piano, and even the fast tweaking of computers and drum sets. In particular, the CK100 sets a new standard for beautiful, if hot strings and guitar.
Apart from the SE530 — and indeed, voiced with better extension and air than that earphone — the CK100 is one of the most beautifully adapted balanced armature earphones for any kind of vocal, any type of jazz, and despite somewhat splashy highs, classical music. More so than male, high female vocals are special, especially when accompanied by high-voiced instruments. They shimmer on edge and grow into previously empty spaces. The effect is live, big and enraptures the listener.
Still, I would not recommend the CK100 to fans of slow, heavy music. To be sure, the vocal portion of rap and hip hop sounds great, but the soul of that music is the phat bass which rattles windows and old Cadillacs. Rock fans may love or hate this earphone. Though there is a good sense of space, its hot high-mids applies a ‘live’ sound to your favourite heartthrob where hard grit and edgy lines are superseded by shimmer: by atmosphere.
Amped, treble output is more linear and bass catches a firmer handhold, but the CK100 remains above all, uniquely tempered. The iPod touch 2G defines a harder edge with the CK100 than another excellent-sounding portable, the Sansa Fuze, but overall, its sound says ‘flagship’ from any source. It is rich and exciting, but prefers the high end. It also picks up hiss as readily as many colleagues meaning that even good sources and amps will hiss slightly. Indeed, even the nearly silent iPod touch 2G whispers slightly in between tracks and in silent passages.
Out and About
With such a strong and light design, the CK100 is simply the perfect earphone to slave into active uses. There is nearly no touch noise, and the earphone can take accidents better than any competitor. Go ahead: jog, bicycle, walk and exercise; run bombs if you have to. The CK100 is perfect. The only thing to keep in mind is that the case isn’t the model of perfection that the earphone is. But with that small caveat aside, it isn’t hard to admit that the CK100 is THE benchmark for inner earphones. It says “made in Japan” better than any product I have ever used.
Keeping in mind that the CK100 may be best-tuned for acoustic and vocal music, it is a star performer with any genre. Apart from an exciting rise in the upper mids, its output reins in just shy of neutral. And forget treble-fatigue; with a detailed yet smooth high end, the CK100 is extremely well-tuned for long listening. I will admit to missing a few decibels in the ultra low-end, but that is personal; Audio Technica designed the CK100 with a unique sound character in mind. Listening pleasure is only eclipsed by the earphone’s excellent build quality which for the most part, completely embarrasses similarly priced professional earphones from industry rivals.
So have Audio Technica built the perfect earphone? Within reasonable bounds, I think they have. Like most triple-driver earphones, it doesn’t come cheap, but unlike its colleagues, its gobsmacking quality truly reminds that worthwhile investments are still to be had in the stodgy world of inner earphones.
|Title:||Audio Technica CK100||Developer:||Audio Technica
|Price:||~550$ MSRP, ~380$ at Seyo-Shop||Notable Features:||Triple Armature Technology|
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