Review: Audio-Technica ATH-CKP500 SonicSport In-Ear Headphones
Compatible: All iPads, iPhones, and iPods except iPod shuffle 3G
Numerous middle grounds exist between completely waterproof and non-waterproof accessories, generally measured by IPX ratings from IPX0 -- no water protection -- to IPX8, which is suitable for continued submersion in water. Audio-Technica's new ATH-CKP500 SonicSport In-Ear Headphones ($75) are certified as IPX5, which is to say that they're capable of withstanding pressurized water jets for three minutes at a distance of three meters, as well as any less powerful splashing, spraying, and falling water, but can't handle stronger water pressure, short-term full immersion, or continual submersion in water. In short, IPX5 certification means that ATH-CKP500 is capable of working as a reliable athletic accessory through rain, sweat, and tears, but shouldn't be taken in a swimming pool or ocean; still, it can be washed after use without fear of damage.
Apart from that IPX5 certification, ATH-CKP500 has two other advantages relative to most inexpensive earphones: in-ear stability and sound quality. On the first front, Audio-Technica ships these earphones with one of the largest collections of silicone inserts we’ve seen with a low-end earphone model, including three different sets of hook-shaped stabilizers, four different sets of isolating tips, and three sizes of star-shaped tips deliberately designed not to isolate your ear canals. They’re soft and fully flexible, yet have ridges that practically guarantee that the tips will not bond fully with your ears, allowing outside sound in alongside your music. Bikers, joggers, and other athletes seeking to remain in touch with their environments will instantly appreciate the option, though choosing these tips has a predictable effect on perceived sound quality: bass disappears almost completely from your music, leaving highs and mid-highs dominant, and of course enabling you to hear whatever’s around you. The effect is comparable to wearing any pair of ill-fitting earphones you can think of, only without the risk that the earphones will fall out of your ears while working out.
Audio-Technica notably separates the tips from the stabilizer hooks, letting you choose to leave the stabilizers on or off as desired, and install whatever type of tip is best for your ears and needs. The tips are a little challenging to install—possibly to keep them firmly in place even when water jets are blasting them—but when they’re on, they’re firmly on. The rubber stabilizers also work to comfortably secure the earphones in your outer ears, and Audio-Technica uses asymmetric cabling to reduce strain from inadvertent tugs. Users needing even more cable reinforcement can attach an included shirt clip, or change the cable’s length by splitting it in two pieces. A 26.5” extender is in the package, lengthening the 27.5” earphones as needed; the base length felt a little short to us, and the extended length was a little long, but differently-sized users might feel otherwise. It’s also worth mentioning that ATH-CKP500 is offered in four different colors: black, red, white, or blue.
ATH-CKP500’s overall sound quality is a step up from most of the $50-and-under headphones we’ve tested. Though the signature leans warm, trading particularly crisp treble away for deeper, richer bass, the lows feel more controlled—better defined—than on common budget earphones, and the warmth makes songs sound lifelike and engaging. Passive ambient noise isolation with the eartips designed to be isolating is solid, and despite ATH-CKP500’s somewhat unusual glossy, angular extension arms, they’re comfortable to wear.
Only two things are conspicuously missing from the ATH-CKP500 package. We’ve seen many earphones in this price range adopting Apple-designed three-button remote and microphone capsules, but none is found here; consequently, these are solely for listening, not making phone calls or accessing Siri. And there’s no carrying case in the package, which will leave you with a lot of spare rubber and plastic parts to manage on your own. These factors undermine ATH-CKP500’s value, but suggest that Audio-Technica opted to spend its dollars on the IPX5 certified water resilience and audio drivers rather than extras. Based on the company’s track record, a sequel with at least integrated microphone support might not be terribly far off in the future, but that’s just a guess based on the company’s track record.
Overall, ATH-CKP500 is a good new option for athletic users, combining pleasant-sounding drivers with nice stabilization and isolation alternatives. The water-resilient housings are likely to be their biggest selling point, while cable and microphone limitations might put off users who might otherwise be excited by the design. ATH-CKP500 merits a B+ rating on the strength of what it offers for the $75 asking price; we wouldn’t mind seeing an upgraded model with enhanced frills.