Pros: Remarkably realistic sound reproduction, beautiful depth, clean and crisp across the frequency range, fun and lively
Cons: Must be imported for best prices, would expect a little more from the cable of an IEM of this quality, slightly microphonic.
I've had my eye on the Audio Technica CKR series for a good while now. Reading reviews from Head-fiers earfonia and vlenbo had me as excited to hear them as I've been about any headphone. Since I've been exploring other AT products in recent months, including the excellent value IM50 and IM70, it only made sense for me to buy a pair of their higher end budget headphones and the CKR9 was just what I was looking for.
Audio Technica touts the CKR9 as having the world's first dual phase "push-pull" driver system. This means that rather than having the drivers in sequence like the "symphonic" drivers of the IM50 and IM70, the CKR9's massive 13mm drivers face each other and are wired out of phase with each other. This way, the drivers move in the same direction, while facing in different ones. As a result, Audio Technica claims, distortion is reduced and sound reproduction takes on a more natural and realistic quality.
I'd like to first point out to US and European based Head-fiers that the CKR9 will need to be imported from Japan in order to get the best prices. I believe this IEM will soon be or is currently available in North America and Europe, but at a higher price.
The CKR9 is packaged in a very nice box with multiple compartments and cutouts for the 4 sets of standard Audio Technica silicone tips, the sleek and professional looking snap leather carrying case, and the CKR9 themselves.
The design of the large shells CKR9 is plastic, but they look and feel sturdy enough for the price paid. It isn't as hard and indestructible feeling as the IM50 and 70, but I can't say it feels low quality in any way. The milled aluminum part of the housing feels reminiscent of a MacBook. It's got a bit of a thin feeling, but you'd have to hit it pretty hard to actually damage it. The cable is very simple and unremarkable. Two wires meet at an incredibly tiny Y split and terminate in a sturdy, very well relieved 90° plug. The cable is, again, very unremarkable, and while it doesn't bother me, some may be bothered by the fact that it doesn't have a chin slider.
The CKR9 is intended to be worn cable down, though some have said they can be worn over the ear. I can get a decent fit over ear, but the long strain reliefs make it difficult for the cables to sit properly. As such, I'd recommend them being worn in the intended configuration. The fit is great for me and I have no problem using them for hours on end. Smaller eared folk may find the large housings more fiddly, but I don't have any such issue. As a final note, there is some very mild driver flex, likely as a result of the large push-pull drivers. It's not as noticeable as with cheaper IEMs, but I did find it necessary to mention it.
Audio Technica has given the CKR series the tagline of "Sound Reality." If reality was their intention, I have to say they've got it pretty much nailed. The sound is warm and rich where it needs to be and transparent and sparkly where it doesn't. Everything sounds exactly as you would expect it to sound were you in a studio or live venue listening to it. The low end is fast and accurate, with beautiful texture and layering in drums and basses. The midrange is forward and features crystal clear vocals and instruments. The highs are sparkly and detailed with great extension and resolution. Unlike the IM series, the stock tips work perfectly on the CKR9 and I haven't seen a real need to change them. Finally, like other AT dynamic drivers, the CKR9 requires no amping and can be driven easily from any source.
The CKR9's low end is very tight and controlled. The attack and decay of drums are spot on, whether bass drums booming, toms resonating, or snares popping. Nothing is wasted and nothing bleeds or echoes where it shouldn't. The sound is reminiscent of and the GR07's papery, crisp textured drum sounds. Listening to the fastest metal beats and the boomiest EDM tracks are no sweat at all for these IEMs. At times, the listener will feel as though they're sitting behind the drum kit themselves. Basses and Bass guitars are full, rich, and detailed. Again, nothing bleeds into the midrange further than it needs to and basses never com across as too forward, but rather, complimentary. Reverberations and resonances from symphonic instruments like contrabassoons, double basses, pianos, et al are well replicated and give a great impression of the halls and chambers they are recorded in.
This seems to be an area where several of the newer Audio Technica IEMs are focusing their efforts and the CKR9 is no exception. The midrange once again pays respect to the moniker of sound reality with ethereal vocals, pianos, and guitars that put the listener right in the midsts of the performances. Female vocals are angelic, otherworldly and crystalline in texture. Male vocals don't take a backseat as they often can, instead sounding full and weighty. Guitars sing with the sense that you could almost pick out sound traveling up the strings. Pianos resonate in such a way that one could almost identify the type of wood they're made from. Those descriptions may seem idyllic and full of hyperbole, but the instruments and sounds in this register leave me feeling positively charmed by them. The naturalness and timbre of the middle registers has me grinning from ear to ear every time I put these in.
Another note on the mids; I've heard a few people mention that the mids are too forward and detailed for them, almost to the point of fatigue. I did find the mids particularly forward and intense, but got used to them quite quickly and haven't had any such issues aside from a few shouty J-Pop tracks. Having said that, if you find yourself sensitive to such things, take note.
The CKR9 features a very detailed treble with plenty of clarity and sparkle. I've heard some compare the CKR9 to a hybrid IEM given its rich realistic low end coupled with a detailed treble and I can definitely see where those people are coming from. Again, nothing sounds artificial or wasted. I'm particularly sensitive to how cymbals and rim noise resonate from drums and don't have a single complaint about how the treble handles itself. Whispers, breaths, and instrument noise are readily apparent in classical pieces and vocal-centric songs. This treble, for me, strikes the perfect balance between the smooth and relaxed IM70 and the energetic and detailed GR07. I only very rarely detect sibilance or offensive percussion and this is more often than not a mastering or file quality issue rather than a fault of the IEM.
Soundstage and Image
In terms of width, the CKR9 is on the intimate side of things. It's not a particularly wide soundstage though it can definitely reach out of one's head if the recording is so inclined. Depth is wonderful. Notes and resonances seem to travel forever in front or behind. Height is very realistic and it's easy to pick out the ceilings and floors of venues or studio rooms. Overall the soundstage is intimate but very three dimensional with as many layers as your favorite cake. Imaging is very good to my ears, with placement of instruments being easy to pick out down to their height and depth.
EDIT: Using Auvio Hybrids or JVC Spiral Dot tips opens these up quite a bit. Quite a bit more spacious than the stock tips.
(The usual disclaimer here that YouTube often isn't the best option for hi-fi sound, but these are mainly for reference.)
This song is all about realism, from drumsticks tapping on the rims to the fingers against the guitar strings to Billy Gibbons' voice sounding as though he were standing right behind you. The texture and impact of the drum fill when the full band comes in reinforces the feeling that you're sitting in a small room listening to the band play. This entire album is wonderful, but this tune in particular give me that feeling of realism that the CKR9 so wonderfully replicates.
A live number that can put you right on stage at the club Kimiko is performing at. The image of the piano, bass, and drums in different spots can be disorienting, but showcases how the CKR9 handles placement of instruments. Female vocals also showcase very nicely on this track. This kind of thing is where the CKR9 can really shine.
This is one of my go to tracks for a test of speed, control, and separation. Machine gun bass drums, chugging guitars, and growling female vocals. It can get very bloated and details get lost easily on many headphones. The CKR9's midrange can almost make Angela Gossow's death growls sound pretty. Almost.
A double feature of one of my favorite Vocal Trance groups. The CKR9 shows that it can do electronic music as well. This track demonstrates how low the bass reaches and how big it can get when needed. A display of both the bass dynamics and midrange. The treble extends well and gives the extra energy up top that's needed with EDM.
Youtube doesn't really do this recording justice, but with a good file this is beautifully replayed on the CKR9. It loses some of the raw width you'd get from an open back headphone or a higher end IEM, but makes up for it with hearing cues based on the hall's reverberation. It ticks all the boxes in terms of dynamics, room size, texture, and so on.
To sum it up, Audio Technica has succeeded in developing an IEM that can deliver wonderfully realistic sound reproduction and which can be had currently for under $200. At its price point the CKR9 is a very compelling option for those seeking realism in their music. There may be a few faults or missteps in the design of the cable, but with deep and detailed bass that shines in any genre of music and an emotional and life-like midrange, it should be on anyone's shortlist for a sub-$200 IEM. It may not be the endgame IEM, but it certainly might be for many budget conscious audiophiles.