In the recent tidal wave of new earphones hitting the market, it can be hard to tell the newcomers from more long standing brands who have simply been enjoying a lower profile until we suddenly all decided that that we weren’t going to listen to freebies any more. It's hard to tell because some brands have been quite adept at creating really convincing backstories as to why they have suddenly started making earphones while some of the companies that have been at it for years haven’t gone to the same lengths to tell people that they’ve been doing just that.
The latter is the case with Audio Technica. The Japanese company which straddles the domestic and professional categories has been in business for over fifty years. Headphones became a product category in the seventies and the company has also been producing in-ear designs for many years as well. Despite this, in the short time I’ve had their flagship ATH-CKS90, a fair few people have expressed surprise at their existence. With literally dozens of brands to choose from at the £120 asking price of the ATH-CKS90, is the Audio Technica worth seeking out?
The ATH-CKS90 is more conventional on paper than it actually is in reality. The decision to use a pair of dynamic drivers at the price point is notionally quite conservative as £120 is approaching the level where more sophisticated armature designs start to become available but this doesn’t tell the whole story. The first is that in the last year or so, the price that dynamic driver designs have been made available at has increased considerably as the technology going into them has improved to try and counter the downsides of these drivers but the second is more interesting.
Audio Technica has gone about housing and mounting the drivers in a different way to most other earphones on the market. Conventional earphones mount their dynamic drivers at the end of a chamber that provides an area where something approaching a soundstage is created and to effectively act as a port to augment the bass. The ATH-CKS90 goes a stage further by using two chambers per enclosure. The drivers are mounted conventionally enough and work into a chamber like other designs but there is a second chamber designed specifically to augment the bass response.
This means that the Audio Technica should be able to provide meaningful low end extension without overwhelming the rest of the frequency response and also means that the ATH-CKS90 doesn’t have to use very large drivers to achieve the same end. The good news for those of you who don’t like being beta testers for untried ideas is that Audio Technica has been using this technology for some time and it features in a number of models in the range.
One thing I am not immediately sure about is whether the dual chamber arrangement it responsible for the appearance which is pretty distinctive. The ATH-CKS90 takes a slightly different approach to the business of mating cabling and housing to create a comfortable earphone. The Audio Technica is not a conventional ‘bullet’ but instead mounts the actual earbud (and presumably the chamber for the upper registers) at an angle to a second assembly that is designed to sit within the Pinna of your ear. This in turn is then mounted on a hinged assembly that allows the cabling to arrive at the earbud travelling up and down rather than being bent at an angle.
In the time I’ve spent with the ATH-CKS90 I can’t immediately decide whether this is a very, very comfortable earphone indeed or not. The most important thing to bear in mind is that if you are someone that often has one earbud unplugged, these are not the ones for you. The Audio Technica seems to work by balancing the load equally across both ears and feels a little awkward when not used in this manner. The weight itself is also distributed on the outside of the ear rather than the canal which feels a little odd at first but does have some benefits in terms of long term comfort. You can use the ATH-CKS90 for a long time without them feeling heavy or bulky.
The general construction of the ATH-CKS90 is very good. I don’t recall ever being sent a piece of Audio Technica equipment that wasn’t built to a high standard and this is no exception. Given that the housing has multiple angles and points of potential weakness, it is as well that they’ve been built by a company that knows what they are doing. The brightwork and AT logo on the vertical part of the housing also looks pretty smart and the ATH-CKS90 treads a neat line between looking suitably subtle and feeling special enough to make you feel like you’ve got your money’s worth.
Some aspects of the design are less appealing though. The first issue is that changing the earbuds is very (very) hard. Obviously, you don’t want a rubber dome to be so easy to remove that it might come away of its own accord but the ones that Audio Technica supplies for the ATH-CKS90 are nigh on impossible to remove - make sure you’ve a spare thirty minutes before trying. The other problem is the carrying case is not one of the more practical designs that I’ve ever seen. The case itself is lovely - a genuine leather holder with plenty of space inside - and it seals with a popper but it is slightly too large to fit effectively in a pocket. This matters because the ATH-CKS90 is capable of magic if placed in a pocket without the holder. Wind the cabling up and place them in a pocket and wait thirty seconds before taking them back out again. It doesn’t matter if you stand still or have nothing else in the pocket, they will be in a Gordian knot when you take them out again. Teflon coated cables work and the ATH-CKS90 could really benefit from them.
A quick note for people interested in the ATH-CKS90. The model tested here is the ‘straight’ earphone with no inline remote. If you're an iDevice user, the CKS-90i exists with remote and microphone and is yours for an extra £19. After some years of using earphones with an inline remote, I’d say the 90i is worth the extra but equally for other O/S users you do at least have the opportunity to buy a pair without a superfluous remote control. Some of the images in the review show this model.
My time with the ATH-CKS90 has been comparatively brief but fairly intense as they were the earphones I took with me to the recent Munich high end show. This means that as well as home listening, they have been used on the move, on trains, tubes, aircraft and to try and keep the man in the hotel room next to me with the nasal cavity the size of cheddar gorge from keeping me awake indefinitely. Equipment used included my Lenovo ThinkPad running Spotify and Songbird with and without a Furutech ADL Cruise USB headphone amplifier, my iPhone 4 and iPad 3. Music included lossless and high res FLAC and compressed material including Spotify and internet radio services.
Whenever I receive a product that indicates that it has been specifically tweaked to achieve better bass performance, there is always a concern that the performance is going to be absolutely dominated by the resulting low end. Equally, I have never tested anything - headphones, earphones or phono cartridge - from Audio Technica that has been anything other than impressively well balanced and I am pleased to report that the ATH-CKS90 falls firmly into the balanced category. That isn’t to say that there isn’t some impressive bass performance here because there is but the good news is that bass isn’t the only thing on offer.
Instead the ATH-CKS90 has more than a little in common with the A500X full sized headphone I reviewed as part of a headphone group test a year ago. Unlike some of the more determinedly ‘pro’ headphone and earphone companies out there, the balance of the ATH-CKS90 is not completely flat but unlike some of the more overtly ‘fun’ headphones out there, the tweaks are not obvious from the outset but they are there sure enough. If you listen to the unexpectedly wonderful unplugged version of Telescope from the Nashville soundtrack, you begin to realise that the rich and detailed vocal performance comes from a subtle lift at the upper midrange point that brings voices in particular into impressive relief. To be completely clear, this lift is far less pronounced than you’d find in many conventional (and highly regarded) pairs of loudspeakers but against the otherwise fairly flat response, it is fairly noticeable.
So if the rest of the response feels flat, what is this special bass chamber doing? Instead of using it to boost bass response to the point where it dominates, Audio Technica has used it to ensure that the ATH-CKS90 has bass which for the want of a better description is effortless. It doesn’t really matter whether you are asking the ATH-CKS90 to replicate a double bass or drum and bass, the low end response is full, detailed and feels well integrated to the rest of the performance. The impression is that the additional chamber has been used to ensure that the driver doesn’t have to be worked to within an inch of its life to achieve deep, clean bass. The result instead is rich, realistic and generally very enjoyable.
Time spent with the Audio Technica suggests it is a design that is easy to listen to as it is comfortable to wear for long periods. This does come with a small and relatively unusual provision that I’ve not seen in other earphones I’ve reviewed recently. The ATH-CKS90 has a fairly small ‘operating window’ in that they are not hugely sensitive so need a reasonable amount of volume to deliver the goods but apply too much and they harden up noticeably. As isolation from the outside world is pretty effective, you don’t need truly enormous amounts of volume from them to be convincing but if you are the sort who listens loud and believes that the health warnings on these product are a dare rather than a warning, these are probably not the earphones for you.
The other area where the ATH-CKS90 is at a slight disadvantage is in terms of timing. The Audio Technica is by no means poor in this area- it never feels sluggish or lacking in agility but compared to the speed and excitement of the Musical Fidelity EB-50 (which if you are looking at the iDevice remote of the ATH-CKS90 is only £10 more) the Audio Technica can feel slightly restrained by comparison although it is worth pointing out that the Musical Fidelity’s performance is absolutely predicated on getting a decent seal between the ear canal and the outside world, whereas the ATH-CKS90 is far more likely to work for more people as part of the seal is being achieved the secondary housing itself. If you solely listen to more high energy music, the Audio Technica might not be the perfect fit for what you need but as an all-rounder, the unforced performance is rather more appealing and this is in keeping with the behaviour that other Audio Technica products have demonstrated in the past.
- Detailed, full and balanced sound
- Comfortable when worn correctly
- Excellent build
- Limited sensitivity
- Very prone to tangling
- Will take a little time to get used to wearing
Audio Technica ATH-CKS90 In-Ear Earphone-Review
The ATH-CKS90 is a little bit of an oddity. In a market that is expanding like crazy in front of our very eyes, this is an earphone that has been designed and engineered with almost no concern for what anybody else in the market is doing. Audio Technica has reached different conclusions about form and function to almost everybody else. At the same time, nothing is different for the sake of being different and the result is an earphone that does a number of things exceptionally well. This is a very comfortable, well built and innovative design that offers an extremely engaging musical performance that should work extremely well across a very wide variety of genres. This is not an earphone that will blow you away in the first thirty seconds of listening but will instead demonstrate an ability over a day or two that makes a number of other designs seem a little fatiguing.
The size of the market and the attention being lavished on it by newcomers does mean that the number of other designs at or around the price are now well into double figures. There are also more exotic materials in use at this price point as well as designs that are less likely to twist up into a mass of knots in contact with a pocket and there are definitely designs that can be driven harder. Few can touch the ATH-CKS90 for the simple ability to generate musical enjoyment and allow you to forget you are wearing earphones though. The Audio Technica is an earphone that the longer you listen to it, the better it gets and this is surely something to be celebrated.
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