Astell & Kern AK UW100: One Minute Review
The Astell & Kern AK UW100 are the debut true wireless headphones from one of the true heroes of portable audio – or, at the very least, A&K is a true hero as long as you have good enough. Its portable digital audio players are second to none, but unless you’re willing to spend a significant amount to find out, take our word for it.
The Astell & Kern AK UW100 earbuds aren’t priced as stratospherically as its music players, but they’re nonetheless priced to meet the best true wireless earbuds for audiophiles. And while in some respects they are more impressively specified than the models they intend to appropriate, they lag somewhat behind in other features.
But if pure sound quality is more important to you than checking every box on the spec sheet, the UW100 is approaching ‘no-brainer’ status. In audio terms, they are among the most successful true wireless earbuds out there – they impress in every meaningful sonic sense. Detailed levels, dynamics, soundstage, tonality, attack, you name it.
The UW100 are impressive across the board, and as long as their physical size and weight (both a little above average) don’t put you off, they definitely demand to be put on trial.
Astell and Kern AK UW100: Price and Release Date
- $299 / £249 / AU$399
- Released April 2022
The Astell & Kern AK Hi-Fi TWS UW100 (to give them their full and hugely unwieldy model name) true wireless in-ear headphones are now on sale. In the UK they cost £249 while in the US they cost $299. In Australia, you’ll have to forgo AU$399 to get your hands on a pair.
It hardly needs to be said that this is serious money when it comes to true wireless earbuds, and any number of alternatives from some highly regarded brands can be yours for very similar expenses.
Experienced specialists including (but not limited to) Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Grado, Sennheiser and Sony all have acclaimed models ready to beat the UW100. Heck, even Apple has a dog in the fray.
In short, Astell & Kern couldn’t have picked a tougher side to try to crash. But it came prepared.
Astell and Kern AK UW100: Design and Features
- Some spec highlights, some spec omissions
- Relatively large and heavy
- Good battery life, fast charging
You must hand it over to Astell & Kern. In a product type where ‘design’ takes a backseat to ‘function’, not only has it managed to make the UW100 look a little different, but it has managed to make them look like an Astell & Kern- product. The angular ‘shadow and light’ design is instantly recognizable on the company’s digital audio players.
However, this very welcome touch of individuality doesn’t come for free. The UW100 are quite large earbuds by current standards, and at 7 ounces each, they’re far from the lightest out there – Apple AirPods Pro are 5.4 ounces each, but comparison, which makes a big difference. Still, the choice of five different sizes of earbuds in the box means a comfortable and secure fit isn’t an issue.
As befits a company that likes to over-spec where possible, Astell & Kern has gone to town where the key elements of the UW100 are concerned. For example, wireless connectivity is via Bluetooth 5.2 and includes support for the aptX Adaptive codec. Incoming digital audio information is processed by a powerful AK4332 32-bit digital-to-analog converter that is (unusually in products like this) separate from the Bluetooth chipset. And once digital has gone analog, sound is sent to the wearer’s ears via a pair of balanced armature drivers supplied by specialist Knowles.
Battery life is a very respectable six hours from the earbuds themselves, plus a further three full charges in the (necessarily sturdy and equally noticeable) charging case. If you manage to drive for 24 hours without visiting a charger, a 10-minute pit stop will keep you hooked for another hour. The UW100 supports wireless charging via any Qi-certified pad, as well as USB-C connectivity.
Unlike virtually every rival (except notably the Grado GT220), the UW100 does not have active noise cancellation. The company is optimistic about the effectiveness of the passive noise isolation these earbuds provide, but it seems likely that some potential customers will see this as a shortcoming.
Mind you, Astell & Kern is so convinced of the passive noise-blocking efficiency of its earbuds here that it offers four stages of ‘ambient mode’, accessible through the control app or the capacitive touch surface on the earbuds themselves, so you can hear the outside world. The UW100 uses an Alango microphone array to amplify external sound and ensure clear, coherent call quality.
What those microphones don’t do, however, is interact with voice assistants – operation is solely via the touch surface on each earbud. Oh, the control app comes in handy for checking battery status, choosing between five EQ settings, rearranging the functions of the touch controls themselves, and choosing the level of ambient sound you want to hear (or turning that feature off altogether). ) – but as for actually controlling playback, it’s touch controls or your source player. That’s your fate.
Astell and Kern AK UW100: audio performance
- Richly detailed, especially in the mid-range
- Big, believable and absorbing sound
- Passive noise isolation is less successful than audio performance
Simply put, the Astell & Kern UW100 are excellent sounding earbuds, rivaling the very best (which to me at least, as far as pure performance is concerned, probably means the Grado GT220).
The sonic talent on display here is profound. Probably the most immediately impressive aspect of the way the UW100 sound is is its mid-range reproduction: it’s detailed to an almost improbable degree, capable of revealing the barely there information and most fleeting transients in a vocal performance. John Wayne Gacy Jr. by Sufjan Stevens sounds immediate, intimate and excitingly realistic – the close-mic’d recording of his voice means the Astell & Kern are able to reveal the little secrets of his technique, breath control and phrasing, as well as staggering for several minutes at the end of comments lesser earbuds just don’t pay attention.
Acoustic design: Closed
Weight: 7g per button, box of 65g
Drivers: Knowles Balanced Armature Driver
Battery life: 6 hours (earbuds) 24 hours (charging case)
Additional features: touch controls, iOS and Android control app, aptX Adaptive
And once you’ve assimilated this frankly astounding level of midrange fidelity, the rest of these earbuds’ talents come into play. The UW100 is a spacious, open listening experience, creating a soundstage that is defined, separated and focused all at once. There is breadth and depth in the Astell & Kern presentation, a space for everything and everything in its space. But the unity and coherence of an overall recording is never ignored – in fact, it is emphasized. And the result is a sound that is easy to follow and investigate in forensic terms, but as easy to enjoy as a consistent and convincing performance.
From Nils Frahm’s solo piano the bubbles to Kate Bush’s ‘everything including the sink’ overload sat on your lap, the UW100 are a vibrant and compelling listening experience. Bass is deep, clean and controlled, packed with harmonic and texture information, while at the other end of the frequency range is an enthusiastic bite – but with substance and, again, sky-high levels of detail to keep it from getting harsh or fatiguing. The entire frequency range hangs together smoothly, without areas coming to the fore unnecessarily.
Dynamic headroom is significant, so when a recording really attacks on volume, the UW100 faithfully follows. The harmonic variations visible in unaccompanied pianos are identified and delivered, but not exaggerated – the Astell & Kern just give them the weight they deserve, and as a result they sound wonderfully natural.
Cons are few, and none of them have anything to do with the sound the UW100 makes. For example, Astell & Kern’s claims about the power of passive noise isolation are rather exaggerated: the UW100 ignores a degree of external noise, but anyone expecting performance comparable to an ANC system will be disappointed. And while the noise reduction during calls is decent, it’s hardly class-leading – you’ll need Bose QuietComfort earplugs for that.
That’s it for grumbling though. The Astell & Kern UW100 are highly accomplished true wireless earbuds, and they let you listen to familiar recordings as if it were your first time.
Should I buy Astell and Kern AK UW100?
Buy them if…
Don’t buy them if…
Think the Astell & Kern AK UW100 is not right for you? Here are three alternative true wireless earbuds that might be just what you’re looking for.
First assessment: April 2022