As numerous and popular as they are, inexpensive earphones are challenging to review for a couple of reasons: first, cheaper earphones tend to receive less attention in the quality control department, so they’re often easy to damage and sometimes don’t even sound the same from unit to unit, and second, their sound quality tends to be unremarkable — the major differences between them are in looks, features, and frills. With these caveats in mind, we’re briefly reviewing a collection of four recently-released and relatively inexpensive earphones today: Altec Lansing’s Bliss Platinum ($70), Audio-Technica’s ATH-CK400i ($60), Incase’s Capsule ($50), and Ultimate Ears’ 350vi ($60). They’re all from major manufacturers who we’d trust to produce at least reasonably consistent earphones from unit to unit, and though none is a blockbuster, each has a couple of features that set it apart from Apple’s free iPod and iPhone pack-ins.
Years ago, Audio-Technica was one of the first companies to create inexpensive, color-matched earphones for Apple’s then-popular iPod mini, and ATH-CK400i is the latest heir apparent to that concept—there are actually six different color options ranging from jet black and pure white to versions with blue, red, and pink housings and cables, plus a green-cabled version with black housings. None is specifically color-matched to Apple’s latest devices, but the colors are perennial favorites, and each has the same general components—an L-shaped headphone plug thin enough to work with virtually every iPod, iPhone, or iPad case, plus a three-button remote control and microphone capsule that dangles from the right earphone. Made from glossy plastic, the remote offers extruded + and – volume buttons that can be detected by touch, and a recessed central play/pause/call button in the middle. While the remote’s location remains sub-optimal for remote access, microphone sound quality is just as good as on Apple’s remote-laden earphones, which is to say clean and very intelligible; they almost certainly use the exact same parts.
What’s otherwise unique about ATH-CK400i’s design relative to the other models we look at today is Audio-Technica’s use of a hybrid earbud/canalphone-style housing. While Audio-Technica has used these on a variety of other recent earphones, including the ATH-ANC23, the housings on ATH-CK400i are amongst the smallest of this sort that we can recall seeing: relatively small 8.8mm drivers are housed in what look like mushroom caps between a chrome-capped stem that connects to the cables, and a pipe that’s covered with your choice of four silicone rubber ear tips.
Many companies would have just gone with a different and simpler shape to hold these drivers, but Audio-Technica apparently likes the pipe-atop-mushroom housing design, which pops the rubber tips into your ear canals while allowing the rest of the earphone to sit in the nook of your outer ear. Regardless of whether you’d like larger hybrid earphones of this type, these housings are small and light enough to be inoffensive in virtually any ear. Unusually, however, they’re bundled with only one frill—a plastic cable manager—and no case, putting them at a small disadvantage relative to comparably priced peers we look at today.
Sonically, ATH-CK400i is what we’ve come to expect from Audio-Technica: a relatively detailed earphone for its price point that compromises on the bass. Though they’re all in the same general ballpark in audio performance, we were immediately struck by the differences between ATH-CK400i and its $50-$70 peers in emphasis: whereas these and most other earphones attempt to beat your ears with low-end beats or massage them with warmth, Audio-Technica renders songs here in a manner that makes them sound crisp and more interesting, though more than a little anemic in the thump department—a difference that’s not problematic when you listen to ATH-CK400i by itself, but potentially profound when you start doing A-to-B-to-C comparisons. At that point, you’ll realize that you’re only hearing part of your songs, and though there are compelling intricacies in those layers, the part that’s left out is important, too. More than other options, ATH-CK400i truly depends upon you to select the correct pair of silicone tips to fill your ear canals, or the bass will sound objectionably modest; with the right tips, the balance is much better.
All in all, ATH-CK400i is a good earphone for its price tag, though as with the other earphones we’ve reviewed today, it has definite strengths and weaknesses. If you’re looking to hear details that were hidden in your songs when heard with lower-end earphones, or particularly prize the ability to choose from a wide variety of different colors, ATH-CK400i is a nice pick, though fans of bass will find it to be somewhat lacking, and the absence of a case is another clear miss. For $60, Audio-Technica is offering a respectable combination of features, design, and sound quality, while leaving opportunities for improvement in each category.
Company and Price
Compatible: All iPods, iPhones, iPads