A Note to the Reader: In over 6 years at Epinions, this is only my 35th review, and I haven't submitted anything in the longest time, but I hope this review will still turn out to be readable and informative. Although sound is very difficult to describe accurately and in an unambiguous fashion, I will refrain from being vague as far as possible, especially since I am not an audio expert either.
Recommend this product?
A Passion for Good Sound
It was on a lazy, hot Sunday afternoon that my passion for sound and good music was revived. I suddenly recalled that it had been a very long time since I last plugged my old earphones into my MP3 player, or even my CD player for that matter, and had an intimate listen to every nuance and every beat. My aged and worn earphones were a model known as 'The Plug', made by Koss which I bought while studying in Australia close to 5 years ago. The earphones were only half working since my laptop burnt out the right side as a result of a strange electrical current phenomenon, leaving the sound muffled and the bass considerably subdued.
Excellent, I thought. After using these half-dead earphones for so long, now the time had come to find a replacement and archive the old Koss forever. The greatest trouble was that I had no idea of what I should buy. There were countless brands that I had already seen, and dozens I had not even heard of. So I put up an enquiry in the off-topic subsection of a local photography forum and had a full discussion going in under 5 minutes. The Westone UM-1 was given the thumbs-up by a number of people at the forum and I considered this to be the 'best' buy, or at least the 'safest' buy. But someone advised me to go down to a specialty shop and look for 'Uncle Wilson', who would let me test out various headphones before purchase.
At the store, Jaben Networks (in The Adelphi, Singapore), I introduced myself to Wilson and told him I had come to buy the Westone UM-1. He then motioned me to a desk where a number of earphones were already laid out and advised me to test them.
He said, "Have a listen and decide which one you like, and then we'll talk. I am apprehensive about identifying brands and model numbers of these headphones because people always get carried away by names and numbers, which really don't matter." So I took his advice and sat there, listening to the handful of headphones hooked up to my CD player for over two hours. During that time at least another 4 customers had bought their stuff and left.
With the current knowledge of the actual brands and model numbers of the earphones, these were what I remember listening to. The names in parenthesis are abbreviations that I will use when referring to them throughout the rest of the review:
-Audio Technica ATH-CK7 (CK7): This was the one I liked least amongst all the earphones on the first round of listening. "Too bright" was my main complaint.
-Westone UM-1 (UM-1): Sound from this pair sounded 'fuller' and warmer, possibly because of the way the middle tones were rendered. Emphasis was not placed on bass nor treble, resulting in a very 'even' rendition of tones across the board. The key issue I found with this model was that the bass sounded too much like a drone when I boosted the bass output on my CD player.
-Westone UM-2 (UM-2): This one produced a sound that was even warmer than the cheaper UM-1, with stronger and yet more pleasant bass. Rendition of tones was still quite even across the board, the treble still sounding muted compared to the 'brightness' of the CK-7.
-Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 3 Studio (UE 3): Put simply, the output from this model was instantly comfortable to my ears. It reminded me of the Koss headphones I had listened to for such a long time. Treble was muted (perhaps even more so than the UM-1) but comfortable and natural. Bass was smooth, weighty and strong even when no bass boost was used. It became overpowering when bass was boosted.
-Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5 EB (UE 5): Described by Wilson as the bigger brother of the UE 3, the bass from these 'phones were incredible, akin to wearing a subwoofer over each ear...it was too much for me.
-Etymotic ER-6i Isolator (Etymotic 6): This was a very sweet-sounding pair of 'phones, with all treble and mid tones well-separated and rendered beautifully, like individual brush strokes of a painting. For a moment I thought I had grown a new pair of ears. Unfortunately the bass was too recessed for my taste.
As I listened to these over and over again, playing the same song through my CD player, I grew increasingly attached to the CK7, which is very surprising given that this was the one I really didn't like on the first round of listening. I completely fell in love with it and went home with these 'phones at the end of the day. Now I'll have to phrase this carefully: I picked the CK7 because it was the one I found most suitable for my choice of music and my ears. The CK7 is however neither better nor worse than any of the other earphones I tested that day. But how is this so? Please read on.
The CK7 is a very small pair of earphones that comes packaged in a very unassuming fashion in an equally small package. It comes with 3 pairs of ear pads, each of different size (one pair already attached to the phones), a soft pouch and a brief sequence of instructions. Each earphone has a forged titanium body and a protruding end covered by an ear pad which fits snugly into the ear canal, blocking out much extraneous noise when fitted properly. It does so without giving the feeling that the ear is being 'invaded' by a foreign object, but do be alert when using these phones because you probably won't hear people even if they were speaking to you.
The titanium body explains why it feels so weighty despite its small size, and this is a pleasant surprise because I thought the body was made of a cheapy metal electroplated with chromium. Each 'phone contains an 11mm driver (larger than the usual 9mm kind) with an expensive neodymium magnet, capable of pumping out an impressive frequency range of 12 - 24,000 Hz. Sensitivity is 104dB and impedence is 16 ohms.
The cord is 1.2 meters long, which is comfortable, long enough for devices in the pocket or those placed on a bedside table whilist leaving some room for head movement. The cord is flexible and does not tangle easily if appropriate care is taken not to jumble them up and toss them straight into a bag after listening. Because of the small size of these earphones they are comfortable on the ears and draw little attention. That said the highly-polished, reflective surface of the 'phones is very attractive (albeit still less so than the transparent UM-1 in my opinion), though it may be easily scratched and marred. Be sure to keep these 'phones in a solid case when not in use, and avoid jostling it around during transport.
The reason why I disliked these during the initial listen was because they sounded bright as a bell compared to the old Koss I was accustomed to. Treble was clearly defined, with vocals sounding very crisp and clear, while sounds of other percussion instruments and string instruments such as guitars felt very close to the ear. Every rasp and click on the strings was rendered crystal-clear. Subjectively the treble on these phones was even clearer than that I had heard on most of the other earphones at the store, save for perhaps the Etymotic 6. The latter also gave better performance when it came to middle tones.
Coming to bass, it sounded muted on the CK7...not as weighty as that on the Koss or the UE 3, but it was stronger than that I heard on the UM-1. Good news is that it did not overpower the other tones in the same way that the UE 5 appeared to do. With the comparatively subdued rendition of the bass on the CK7, it becomes obvious that there is an emphasis on treble on these 'phones which allows enjoyment of the details of a song at low volumes indoors. Outdoors, where the roaring traffic threatens to intrude on the music, I've found that pushing up the bass 'fills in' the sound and becomes perfect for me in those situations.
I found the CK7 to be excellent for the purposes of Bossa Nova and Jazz, some of my favorite genres of music. To my mind, clear trebles and mids bring 'immediacy' to music. It allows me to hear a song as if it were played by a band that is physically in front of me, rather than being in a far-off stage. I also enjoy a degree of bass but do not want it pounding in my ears. It is precisely the occasional bass in Bossa Nova that appears to give it the smooth groove, making me think of swaying palm trees, clear waters and a salty sea breeze on a very fine day. And in Jazz, bass allows me to imagine being in a fine lounge, seated on a couch with a drink in hand while watching a live band.
To my ears, the CK7 seemed to offer everything that I desired, and with the correct balance of qualities. When I plug these in my ears and get the music going, I almost feel that I am somewhere else. The effect of the Singapore heat and stifling humidity is reduced, and when I miss the public bus or train, I am simply contented to wait. I now listen to my music on my earphones whenever it is convenient and polite to do so. In my opinion, having music on the go is a healthy and easier way to live a life that is based on a hectic schedule.
In the end, it was a very close fight between the UE 3 and the CK7. I loved the sound of the UM-2 as well but it was too expensive for me to justify its purchase. Package-wise, the UE 3 comes with a nice metal case with a plush interior, a two-year warranty (compared to just 1 year for the CK7), and the option to replace the cords should they break or wear out. The CK7 on the other hand, only comes with a soft draw-string pouch that feels is on the verge of falling apart anyway. That said, the CK7 is also S$55 (US$35) cheaper than either the UE 3 or the UM-1.
I also picked the CK7 because it was less prone to tangling up than the UE 3. A short portion of the cord exiting from the 'phones of the latter is stiff and slightly kinked, allowing it to catch onto other things, including itself. I also found the CK7 to be more comfortable to wear since they were smaller. I would have liked to have a cleaning pick included in the package just as is present with the UE 3 and the UM-1, but I found another way around that.
The small swiss army knife that came as part of the standard issue during my military service carries a small, white plastic toothpick/ fingernail cleaner. I never used it before, so out it went and into my bag as a cleaner for the CK7!
Ending with a Song
Once again, sound is itself an enigma, difficult to quantify and hard to describe accurately. When it comes to 'phones and sound systems, everyone will have a different idea of how they want their music to sound, just like I did, and even then notice how much my impressions of the CK7 changed from the initial listen till the time I bought it. I strongly recommend any potential buyer to first seek out opinions on the 'best' or 'safest' buy, and then go to a shop that will allow you to test out various products (without identifying them) before you buy. It is so important to avoid choosing based on brands and public opinion because what is right for others may not necessarily suit you.
Although the UM-1 was a hot seller, I still preferred the CK7 to it, not because of the price but because of the way it renders sound. In fact, I am rather surprised at how few writeups exist on these 'phones. I also recall how the store keeper told me that out of every 10 buyers, only one of them picks the Etymotic 6. And after hearing it I understood why. It takes a very special taste and purpose (vocals, instrumental audiophile listening and opera perhaps) to fully exploit the strengths of this product.
Here's what Wilson advised me, "Get the headphones that sounds right for your ear, matches your choice of music and is right for your intended purpose." Indeed there is much truth in that statement. But for me (and my limited budget), the CK7 is a perfect hit, and I will not hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a quality product that is also a great bang for the buck, especially if he/ she listens to Jazz and Bossa Nova.
Remember that all such products will be touted as being able to pump out convincing bass and crystal-clear trebles and mids, but how much of each will you consider to be enough? And when do these qualities actually become too strong for your tastes? So let your ears do the choosing. I know it worked for me!
Read all comments (8)