There are people, known as “audiophiles”, who live and breathe in the music they listen to and the sounds they hear. Often times they have a profession that relates to sound in some way and (if stereotypes are to be believed) they always only use the highest quality audio equipment, no matter the cost.
Then there’s the rest of us who use the ear buds our phone came with long after we’ve managed to destroy them by throwing them in the bottom of our backpack. When our headphones have finally gone past the point of no return, we “audio philistines” typically go out and buy whatever cheap set we think looks decent enough to wear around. But what are we missing out on?
As it turns out, we could be missing out on a whole lot!
For those of us not aware, Audio-Technica is a heavy hitter in the audio world. Founded in 1962, they have been the ones providing audio equipment for the Grammy Awards, TV studios, and the Olympic Games for many years. They are also the company responsible for developing microphone technology that is resistant to RFI (radio frequency interference) from cell phones, Bluetooth, walkie-talkies, and other such devices. Put simply, they are the reason you can have a microphone next to any modern mobile device and not have it go nuts!
At CES this year, we had the chance to see what Audio-Technica could do in the more “consumer” space. Their answer was the SonicFuel line of headphones and ear buds.
What Are They?
While the SonicFuel line has many different options, this review is specifically about the ATH-CKX5iS model (pictured above). The CKX5iS are an in-ear style bud with two innovative features that might seem odd at first, but will make you never go back to any other type of design.
First, and most noticeable, is the hook style molding on the upper part of the bud, called a “C-Tip”. This is designed to fit up into the fold in your ear and hold it in place, even if you are doing something active.
I’m not entirely sure how “active” these buds are meant to be tested (pictures at their booth had people using them while flying down a ski slope, upside down) but I have used mine at the gym and had no issues with them moving or falling out.
The second feature that really makes these ear buds stand out is a unique ball and socket style design that allows the bud itself to move independently of the rest of the housing. This is a godsend for people (like myself) with oddly shaped ears, as it allows the headphones to aim the sound right at your ear without needing to twist the rest of the headphone in a strange way that inevitably makes it fall out!
As if these ergonomic features weren’t enough for you, there’s 4 different sizes of both ear tips and C-Tips that can be mixed and matched on both sides separately. This is another awesome feature for us “oddly eared” persons.
This particular model also has an in-line microphone with volume and playback control.
Plain and simple, these things feel better in my ears than any other headphone I’ve ever used. Period. While in Las Vegas, I borrowed Dr. Squishy’s pair of Bose IE2 ear buds with a similar style C-Tips to compare the feel and the Audio-Technica’s left his in the dust!
I do have to point out that while the fit and feel of these headphones is amazing, it does take some trial and error. The weirder your ears are, the more time you should take to try out different combinations of tips to make sure everything fits correctly for you. In the end, your ears might surprise you with what fits best for them (I’ve always thought I have HUGE ears, but in the end I had a medium c-tip for my right and a small in my left, with large ear tips in both).
If I’m being perfectly honest, the in-line control module leaves a lot to be desired. While the mic is strong and clear, with people being able to hear me very well, the control button and volume slider are a disappointment. Instead of a digital control (where you can click a button to move the volume), Audio-Technica instead opted for a sliding potentiometer-style volume control. This style of control is fine in high end units or larger devices that can fit the design; in a smaller device you know it’s going to be the first thing to give out.
When I first received the headphones, in fact, the sound was so terrible that I was unsure why Audio-Technica would even release them. Thinking it must be some kind of mistake, I brought them back and received another unit that worked much better. The original set had a short in the volume control, which is something slider-type controls are prone to.
The control button itself works, but is a bit of a cypher to use. Press once to start/stop music or answer/hang-up a call, long press to activate the voice commands on your phone, double press to skip to the next track, and triple press to go back. Also, be sure to remember that the commands aren’t instantaneous so you might click it more times than you needed if you’re the impatient type. You may or may not feel like a telegraph operator while you get the hang of it.
In the end with headphones, none of the fancy features in the world will matter if they don’t sound good. In this area, I’m very happy I didn’t rush this review. When I was given the second pair of CTX5iS, I was worried that they were also defective as the bass was almost non-existent and everything sounded a little muted. I was (and still am) convinced that something about the rotating socket was blocking the sound and was making it difficult for it to make it into my ear.
I kept using them anyway because they were just so comfortable.
I’m glad I did, because the strangest thing happened after using them for a couple days; they got better. Just like many instruments will “settle” over time and use, these headphones did the same thing the more I used them. I noticed the volume first as it got louder with each use, and then the tone itself started to get richer and fuller. Bass was still a concern until I noticed on one song that I actually had to turn down the volume because of the intensity of the drums.
Unfortunately with headphones, performance is almost entirely anecdotal (unless someone wants to donate some high end sound analyzing equipment). I can say with utmost certainty that these are the best pair of headphones I’ve ever owned now. The highs are clear and bright while mid-tones are easily distinguished and really help fill out the sound. The bass is probably where most people will complain, as it isn’t as loud compared to other brands. Not because it’s bad by any means, but because so many other headphones either increase the bass to make you feel like you’re getting a fuller sound, or use cheaper materials that muddy the end product. With the SonicFuel ear buds, however, the bass is clear and actually becomes its own part of the music instead of a overwhelming drone.
Another area where the SonicFuel buds really excel is sound isolation. Many headphones not only allow so much outside noise in that it oftentimes ruins what you’re listening to, but also allow so much noise OUT that everyone else around you is also forced to listen to your music as well. By offering better sound isolation, not only are you getting a better sound from these ear buds, but you also don’t have to turn them up as loud to hear your music, thereby saving your hearing. The isolation in these buds is SO good, that they have become my go-to headphones for monitoring when we record our podcast, as I know that my studio mic (also an Audio-Technica, coincidentally) won’t pick up the sounds I’m hearing and ruin the recording!
So, you’ve heard the good and the bad, but don’t know if these are worth it. That’s a valid point if you’re only used to buying some super cheap headphones from a celebrity name. However, being able to wear a set of quality headphones from one of the biggest names in the industry that not only feel incredible but also sound amazing should make up for it all. At $49.99, the CKX5iS model is the entry point into this design. If you want something with a bit more power to the speakers, there are other models going up to the $99.99 CKW9iS which is still a great value for this amount of quality.
The one sticking point is that in-line control module, which a quick search online proved that other customers had issues with it too. Thankfully, if you don’t need a mic or in-line volume control, you can sidestep that weak link by simply getting the CKX5 instead (which is the exact same product, only sans in-line module).
In the end, I would highly recommend these to anyone who is looking for in-ear headphones. Their sound and comfort make them an incredible value. Just be sure to let them break in for a few days!