Review: Audio-Technica ATH-CM3 Earphones
Pros: iPod mini-matching earbuds with great style, color options; detailed, clean, and dynamic sound for the price; two-piece cord.
Cons: Don’t isolate from outside sounds, bass response isn’t as heavy as in some other low-end headphones.
Headphones and speaker systems tailored to the full-sized iPod are now numerous, but only a few companies have developed products specific to the iPod mini. And that’s a shame, because we have actually really liked - and actually in a few cases preferred - the mini-specific products to their full-sized iPod equivalents.
The five different versions of ATH-CM3 Stick Earphones ($53.50, available from Warehouse123.com) are a primary example of this phenomenon at play. Japan’s Audio-Technica released them specifically to match the various iPod mini colors Apple released as first-generation models, and they’ve continued to be popular for the present day second-generation models.
It’s easy to understand why: by comparison with many of the iPod-matching earbuds we’ve seen, they look and sound good, and spice up your iPod mini without using any of the telltale white plastic found in Apple’s packed-in earbuds. Each ATH-CM3 features rubber-edged, mylar-centered earbuds attached to gray cords by iPod mini-matching metal stalks that are visible and attractive in your ears. Our review sample came in a nice silver, which while not as distinctive from generic silver buds as are the company’s blue, green, pink, and gold versions, still looks great in the ear and conspicuously displays a sense of style lacking in cheaper buds. They even come packaged in a cool tube casing, a design we really liked.
We also generally enjoyed the sound from the CM3s. On the strongly positive side, they offer a bit more clarity than Apple’s stock earbuds, with crisper definition that’s especially noticeable in the highs and mids. And bass response is different from the heavy, overbearing bass some people prefer: different bass notes are better defined instead of sounding like similar muddy bumps. There’s no doubt that bass heads won’t be thrilled by comparison with phones like the Sony MDR-EX71s, but others - particularly those who appreciate a bit of detail - will like the sound.
In addition to the various individual tracks we run through our headphone tests - smatterings of Beck, Edwyn Collins, 50 Cent and 2nd II None amongst others - we’ve recently been testing earphones with Indian Bhangra music, because it provides a nice test of dynamic range, with high and low drum thumps mixed with interesting high and low voices and string instruments. We very much liked how the CM3s sounded when challenged to display a wide dynamic range, with a fairly low apparent distortion level for the price.
That said, they’re not perfect. When used indoors or outdoors, they provide more than sufficient volume and punch to let you appreciate your tunes, but because of their earbud design, they don’t isolate like the Sony earbuds we have preferred in their price range. Their bass suffers most because of the lack of isolation and their inability to capitalize upon your ear canal to create richer sound; they just weren’t a tight, isolating fit in our ears, and didn’t include foam covers to help fake that. The Sony MDR-EX81 earphones we’ve previously reviewed deliver more isolation, and consequently more bass-richness.
Like many imported Japanese earphones, the ATH-CM3s have some cord idiosyncracies that may unnerve some users. They include a two-piece cord with gold-plated stereo minijack connectors, which is generally a good thing. And there’s an uneven separation of left and right earbuds, which sometimes puts people off, but Audio-Technica thankfully made each side long enough to avoid uncomfortable tugging or pops out of our ears. The only real issue is that the extension cord is much longer (42”) than the main cord (18” before the Y-split, 29-36” total). This compares with a 46” length for the iPod’s stock earbuds. Unless you have an iPod Remote, you’ll absolutely need to use both of the ATH-CM3’s cords together, which will give you a foot or two of extra cord dangle compared with Apple’s buds. But if you have an iPod Remote, you’ll prefer the ability to split the cord in two.
Overall, we liked the ATH-CM3 earphones for the price, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to iPod mini owners who are looking to get away from the “white plastic” look while still matching the colors of their minis. Isolating in-canal earphones might be better for some users, but others will prefer the look and fit of Audio-Technica’s multi-colored offerings.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.