Compatible: All iPods, iPhones, iPads Except iPod shuffle 3G
Audio-Technica ATH-CKS77 + ATH-WS70 Solid Bass Headphones
It's been extremely easy for us to wax enthusiastic about Audio-Technica's headphones in the past: the Japanese company has produced in-ear and over-ear models that deliver such excellent performance for their prices that they've been no-brainer recommendations in their various classes. So even though we're not generally huge fans of the "overwhelming bass sound" they promised, we went into testing the company's new Solid Bass Headphones with open minds: if any developer could come up with a way to sonically elevate a category dominated by cheap, boomy-sounding audio, Audio-Technica would be it. But we weren't particularly thrilled by either the in-ear model ATH-CKS77 ($120) or the over-ear model ATH-WS70 ($150), which struck us as nice-looking but otherwise unremarkable new designs. Both use L-shaped, fully iOS-device compatible headphone plugs and simple black cords that do not include remote controls or microphones; these are simply for listening to audio rather than controlling or contributing to it.
Of the two models, the one we preferred sonically was ATH-CKS77, which uses a design we first spotted in certain Sony earphones several years ago: large 12.5mm drivers are inside of a plastic enclosure, their output channeled through small silicone rubber-tipped tubes directly into your ear canals. Audio-Technica’s twist is a double air chamber system that gives the drivers extra room to breathe, expanding the bass, while also making the earpieces a little more Frankenstein-like.
ATH-CKS77 avoids the “weird-looking but great-sounding” earphone trap in a few ways: the outer bolt-like chamber is capped with a diamond-cut ring of silver metal, and leads down in a plastic stem to the cabling. When they’re in your ears, the earpieces jut out only a little more than otherwise similar rivals, while the black and silver design looks classy enough not to draw giggles. Additionally, despite the significant prospect these earpieces might have for being tugged out of ears by their cables, the stem design and eartips—four sizes are included—help to keep them pretty secure. A soft carrying bag is included in the package, too.
For better or worse, ATH-CKS77 follows a path that earlier rivals such as V-Moda’s Vibe blazed, presenting music with enough of a bass push that it sounds at times as if the earphones are trying to flood your ear canals with sound. However, whereas many of V-Moda’s earphones went even further, creating club-like echoes and sometimes even stifling treble performance with what we’ve called Darth Vader-style midrange and bass emphasis, ATH-CKS77 preserves enough treble and mid-treble detail that you won’t so much feel as if you’re missing part of each song, but rather are just having the lower midrange and bass portions of it heavily pushed to the forefront. For movies and TV shows, we found the effect useful and engrossing, but for music—particularly for clubby tracks—it quickly became fatiguing to our ears. Serious bass fans may, of course, feel otherwise.
ATH-WS70 is part of the same Solid Bass family, and shares styling elements, but it’s a significantly different beast. Sold at a higher price, it uses circular swirled black aluminum housings with diamond-cut silver edges, acoustically sealed faux leather and foam earpads, and 40mm drivers—all held together by an adjustable black plastic and metal headband. No carrying case is included with this model. While the housings swivel inwards to let ATH-WS70 pack flat, and tilt to accommodate the shape of your head, their circular shape is somewhat unusual, borrowing only one of the less desirable design traits of Monster’s highest-end Beats Pro earphones. We found this shape awkward, as the circles aren’t shaped to evenly accommodate the more oval-like dimensions of ears, and depending on yours may well alternate between resting on and around them.
Modest discomfort aside, ATH-WS70’s headband and earpads did work pretty well in our testing to seal out ambient sound; there was a little more raw circumaural isolation than with the ATH-CKS77, though when music wasn’t playing, we were still able to hear some low-frequency ambient sound bleeding through—something that Audio-Technica’s generally great active noise-canceling headphones do a better job of mitigating. A bigger issue is the way music sounds through the headphones: combined with lower efficiency, such that you need to turn your device’s volume up louder to achieve the same level of amplitude, there’s more of the Darth Vader, ear-flooding effect at play here, creating a less dynamic-sounding and more compressed listening environment. While there’s still a midrange and bass push in the sound, the mids are dominant and sometimes sound like they’re persisting in your ears after the notes end, drowning the treble. But on a positive note, bass notes are crisper, with a little extra oomph that occasionally lets a growl or a bassline pop in a memorably way; some fans of low-end sound will like the effect when they hear it.
As between the two models, ATH-CKS77 is easier to recommend to iPod, iPhone, and iPad fans who like bassy music. With a superior audio balance, lower price tag, and far smaller profile, this pocketable Solid Bass version may be far from the least expensive bass-focused earpiece we’ve ever seen, but its unusual housing yields dividends in clarity and low-end strength. It’s worthy of our flat B rating and general recommendation. ATH-WS70 is a handsome enough but considerably larger, somewhat less comfortable, and more expensive alternative that didn’t do as much for us sonically, thanks to a greater tendency to flood the ear and a less impressive balance of highs relative to the mids and lows. Given the retail price, we’d call it C+-worthy, but if you can find it locally and want to hear what Audio-Technica’s doing with “overwhelming bass” headphones these days, it might be worth previewing on your own.