Do you remember the first time you tried something other than the crappy plastic earbuds that came with your mobile device? I recall reading a forum post online, buying a then spendy $100 pair of Shure headphones, and blowing my own mind when I plugged them into my iPod Nano.
That’s the sensation you get when you jump from entry-level wireless earbuds like AirPods to a premium pair like the new Astell & Kern UW100. With excellent digital-to-analog conversion, bespoke drivers, and a sleek design, I can see these being an easy entry point
for aspiring audiophiles.
It’s taken some time for high-end wireless earbuds to do anything special, besides look better than the versions from Apple, Samsung, and others. The UW100 prove that we’re finally getting better sound for our extra dollars, and they might make a few audiophiles cut the cord when out and about.
Form and Function
If you’re not into hoarding FLAC files and dropping thousands of dollars on gorgeous digital players, it’s very likely you’ve never heard of Astell & Kern. The small audio brand has made acclaimed digital-to-analog converters, headphone amps, and portable players for the Rolex class for years, but only recently has it taken the deep dive into higher-end mainstream audio products.
When it comes to both design and audio performance, the technological trickle-down is clear. Astell & Kern is willing to sell products for under $500 now, but the engineers are still unwilling to sell bad-sounding ones.
The jagged, gem-like exterior of each earbud immediately stands out amidst a bunch of wireless buds that look like golf tees. They’re like something you might spot in a Star Trek spinoff, doubling as fancy space-age communicators. That’s not to say the buds don’t look and feel elegant, but unless your personal style is very modern, you might find them a bit flashy.
Such visual cues are par for the course from Astell & Kern, which utilizes jagged edges as a centerpiece of its design language. However, the case is a bit large and very plasticky, which I wouldn’t expect from buds that cost nearly twice as much as AirPods. I may dislike Apple’s basic buds, but the case is twice as sleek and half the size.
Despite having no ear fins, the UW100 fit extremely well in my medium-sized ears. I’ve been able to take them on long runs, do yard work, and generally putter about without ever dropping a bud. Of course, that’s partly a fluke: Unless your ears are identical to mine, your mileage may vary. But as long as you don’t have small ears (these are on the medium-large side of the spectrum, but not crazy huge), they should fit you just fine.
Sound quality is the real showstopper with the UW100, though. A 32-bit digital-to-analog converter and custom balanced armature drivers pair with support for the aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codec to deliver the cleanest, most detailed audio I’ve ever heard from wireless earbuds.
A wide soundstage and assertive (but not overly boomy) bass are aided by the headphones’ excellent passive noise isolation. At times, I swore these earbuds had active noise canceling, since they blocked out the outside world so well. This is a fact that Astell & Kern’s engineers clearly recognized too; you can activate Ambient mode with a tap of an external touch sensor, and you’ll find yourself using it if you buy these buds.