TBH, I haven't been the biggest fan of Astrotec --- they always seemed to have great potential, but again always seemed to deliver just short of that promise.
I've also not been a great fan of hybrid dynamic/BA IEMs. However, ever since the AKG K3003 released in 2011, it has set the portable audio industry and its peripheral blogsphere ablaze --- from its price to its hybrid dynamic/BA form factor, it has sparked discussion and even controversy. There’s no denying that the K3003 is a landmark earphone, for better or for worse. Companies have been using it as both a technical and pricing, spawning multiple $1000+ flagship IEMs in recent years. However, at their core, hybrids prove to be really difficult to pull off well, and really only the $1000+ models (e.g. AKG K3003, Tralucent 1Plus2) seemed to do well, and even they have exhibited some shortcomings.
I was hopeful, however, when VSONIC announced that they were working on their own dynamic/BA hybrid model. Then, like with many of their products, they pulled the chair out from under us. Through some acquaintances, I learned that the likely reason was that Astrotec had actually patented the dynamic/dual BA design in China already and could potentially block sales of VSONIC's product in China. Months later, the AX60 was announced, looking a lot like the AKG K3003.
The Astrotec AX60
The AX60 utilizes the same configuration as the K3003, but with a few differences. It too uses a TWFK driver from Knowles, though it is a custom-ordered version exclusive to the design of the AX60. The 10mm dynamic driver, according to Astrotec, is also custom developed for the AX60 to bring maximum synergy between it and the balanced armature drivers. In addition, the earpiece shells themselves are rumored to be produced by the same company that produces the earpiece shells of the K3003.
Astrotec's history of being "almost there, but not quite" made me have my doubts about the AX60, and the funky-looking strain reliefs, as well as the clear, amateurish-looking cable gave me pause, but morbid curiosity took over and I took the plunge for one. I didn't buy it at full cost (full retail price is 1999 RMB, which is approximately $325 USD), as it was a open box item that was missing a few accessories, including the second set of exchangeable filters, so I thought it was at least worth a try.
To me, the main design differences between the AX60 and the K3003, aside from the BA and dynamic driver core technologies, were the housing shape (tapered reverse horn versus stepped design), and the acoustic tubing extension from the BA driver to the nozzle exit ---- things that would certainly create differences in sound signature, but also translate definite similarities as well. At the asking price of 1999 RMB, the AX60 is also the most expensive of the "K3003 clones" (like the T-PEOS H-200 and DUNU DN-1000) that have come out in recent times, but also seems to be of the highest quality.
The Astrotec AX60 is very similar in design/construction to the AKG K3003.
I don't have the time/energy to provide a full, coherent review, but my full, private thoughts, slightly reorganized for better readability are here:
Click to Open (Click to show)
These thoughts will sometimes end up sounding more like a rant. But I do it out of love! Really! I want Astrotec to succeed.
In a nutshell, they are... not nearly as good as I hoped.
It's not a "bad" product at $325 (still a premium, but hardly top-tier price). Yet, the AX60 seemed to be a product that wanted to be a "bang-for-buck" king, and to that end, Astrotec had higher aspirations than merely being "a good mid-range product". Thus, I put it up to the highest of standards.
First off, to me, they seem very bassy (is this the "bass boost" filter? decent sub-bass performance though). I hear a bit of a time delay between the dynamic and BA; midrange is warm and enjoyable, good for many people, certainly not "reference", but details are good, and decent soundstage. Nice and expansive feeling, though not overly large. Overall, and pretty clean-sounding midrange with good body. However, under direct A/B against the K3003, it's easy to hear the K3003's superiority. The background is blacker, the notes are more precise, there's less distortion, and there isn't a perceptible "veil" like there is with the AX60. Listening to the AX60 alone, it's not a big deal.
Nevertheless, I'm still a bit disappointed, as I hoped the dynamic driver would sound faster/tighter, but instead sounds looser/slower than the K3003, which IMHO is already loose enough for a purported neutral design. If Astrotec is going to go with a fun, bass-boosted signature, then they should at least make it tight and super-textured, like the Tralucent 1Plus2. Overall, the bass, while fun-sounding, is a tad too slow with its decay, detracting from top-tier level of transparency. The time delay, is worse --- it at times makes the bass feel half a beat late. I crave the immediacy of a bass line, like that coming from a Sony EX1000, or even the similarly hybrid 1Plus2. If we did electroacoustic measurements, they would probably reveal a slow-decaying bass CSD that extends way above 100 Hz and time delay between the two drivers. As I mentioned, the sub-bass <50 Hz is good, >150 Hz, not so good.
The highs are not so bad. They can get a little sharp sometimes, but not particularly in the sibilant region, at least not to my ears. Overall, it lends a good balance to the boosted bass that I hear. The overall sound signature of the AX60 is one of a more U-shaped K3003. I'm sure the FR will reflect that. On A/B testing with the K3003, even though I think the peaks/valleys response of the K3003's treble is weird, it actually sounds cleaner, lending more black space between instruments. However, it's probably precisely because of the peaks/valleys response of the K3003 that it sounds like that. Even with the weird behavior, the TWFK driver in the K3003 still reigns supreme. How much did it cost for AKG to get Knowles to design that driver? That thing is seriously the best performing TWFK --- ever. In the AX60's defense, the TWFK used inside isn't bad at all. It's just not as good as the K3003's. Under A/B with other earphones, my guess is that it's going to be pretty good. The midrange in particular is good --- if only the bass driver didn't interfere, my guess is that it'd be just about as detailed as the K3003's midrange!
The anodize of the Y-split and 3.5mm plug are different from the earpieces', as can be seen in this picture.
Cable is flexible, quite good ergonomically at least, no real memory characteristics, and seems strong, but the aquamarine tint is... Why does it have an aquamarine tint?
Okay, the Y-split and 3.5mm plug aren't ugly and are of adequate build quality, but the finish of the anodize is of different color/quality from the earphone shells --- the earpiece shells are of much higher quality anodize, with a very nice textured brushed metal look. Overall, the finish of the cable is just not consistent. I guess I shouldn't be too picky at this price ($325), but I expected more.
Heck, if they actually went cheap and used a plastic ring for the shell, plastic Y-split, etc. they probably could've easily matched colors. But they went with metal, and that requires precise color matching, like automotive paint. They didn't do that. I wouldn't complain if they went for the less pricey alternative and just did soft plastics (still somewhat acceptable at this price point), but they tried to pretend to go for a "luxury" look, and the inconsistency will backfire on them. If they want to go for the luxury look/feel, they need to make sure they go all-out, and not halfway. Going halfway just makes things look silly. Go big or go home.
Anyway, all "Astrotec" labels, and all model labels, whether it's "AX60", "AM70", "AM800", etc. should all be consistent. It should either all be Helvetica, like the old style, or completely switched over to their new "space age" typeface. And they didn't need to label the Y-split "AX60", like people can't tell from looking at the shape. Just print the new ｢a*｣ logo and it'll look really nice. I know the Chinese don't really care about small "trivial" things like this, but if they intend to officially sell this model overseas, they better make some changes! Isn't this how they're getting all this excess money? The Chinese government is pouring money into special industrial sectors to help develop them to "world class" standards, so they have a fighting chance on the global market. The only issue now is for Astrotec to higher some competent marketing/PR people to work alongside the industrial designers.
The filter design is interesting. It doesn't attach dampers to the head like the K3003 does. The K3003's reference filter is really a green 1680 ohm filter that covers the TWFK. It looks like the AX60's TWFK has internal Type II damping and the front of the exit spout. The filter that I have has some material on the sides of the grill cover, so I assume that it's actually damping the bass driver rather than the TWFK. Still, it's a little confusing. Maybe I just need to hear the other filter. But I don't have it. Oh well.
Oh, and speaking of filters, because the filter isn't padded with a rubber O-ring, sometimes the friction of metal-on-metal gets too tight, and because the rim doesn't have grips, it can get really hard to remove the filters by hand. I can envision a hot/cold environment, and someone having to remove filters with a pair of pliers or something, ruining the nice paint job.
The anodize on the earpiece shells is of very high quality, and the filters are well-made, but lack a rubber/silicone O-ring to keep it from screwing on too tightly.
And look, the AX60 also has a front vent to keep the driver from over-pressurizing, just like the K3003. It does also have a back vent (not shown in the picture).
I tested the sound of the AX60 without the filter --- it actually sounds better! Better tonal balance, a more prominent midrange, surprisingly (maybe the dynamic driver added to it?), and a slightly more aggressive, edgier sound in the highs, similar to how the 1Plus2 performs in this region. It's too bad not using the filter is basically an invitation for filling the guts of the AX60 with earwax and gunk...
Am I being too harsh here? I am comparing a $325 earphone against the pantheon of high-end earphones --- the AKG K3003, the Tralucent 1Plus2, and a TOTL from just a few years ago, the EX1000. Is that asking too much?
All in all, I think it's a good K3003 clone-ish for the masses, but it isn't quite high-end. Kids in China will like the bass and it'll sell well domestically (my guess), but people overseas don't buy Astrotec for the bass, they buy it because it's an approximate imitation of the K3003, and the people looking for a "reference sound" will probably think it has a little too much bass. However, bass response aside, driver coherence is the big issue. The "half a beat late" sound is the big problem for me. Then again, other people that I've showed the AX60 to don't have much of an issue with that problem when I don't tell them. I think this current sound is good for most average buyers looking to upgrade from an earphone between $100-$200 or something, but it's not good enough as a "budget" companion for experienced listeners with scores of TOTL IEMs and CIEMs.
Honestly, they could've charged a slightly higher premium $399, $449, $499, made the anodize consistent, put some cloth sheathing over the cable (or at least not use that weird aquamarine/clear insulation! Black is okay! Just don't make it sticky and nasty, keep it in the same texture as you guys have it now --- I don't even demand that you give it MMCX removable sockets, though that'd be super easy to implement on the ring sleeve design of the AX60), tightened up the bass response to levels at least like the K3003 (but hopefully to 1Plus2 or EX1000 levels), and did something about the time delay issue, it would be a phenomenal earphone. Nevermind that the earpieces aren't as comfortable as the K3003's, nevermind that there's a funky acoustic tube in the middle of the exit port, and nevermind the fact that it's from China, if they made these changes for <$500, every head-fier would be clamoring for a pair. I actually think it's doable. Tightening up the bass response and time delay will probably be the most difficult thing to do, and even if they kept the sound signature as is, polishing up the exterior elements of the AX60 would warrant a $399 price, and it'd be a firesale of an item already. The overall SQ is enjoyable and can be pretty good at times --- the detail level is definitely on a higher level than the $300-400 category, and plays more with the folks in the $500+ category. The U-shaped response, despite being slightly bloated for my personal tastes, sounds very good with movies and popular music. Just don't expect your audiophile test CDs to sound optimal.
But alas, this is the story of the AX60 (and Astrotec in general) --- close, but no cigar.
The short summary is that the Astrotec AX60 has an enjoyable sound signature that will most likely appeal to the mainstream audience, but won't satisfy those looking for a true flagship experience a la K3003 or Tralucent 1Plus2.
The Astrotec AX60 is not quite my preferred IEM in signature, finish, and form factor, but I've noticed many people that I've let listen to it have remarked that they enjoy it a lot, some even more than the K3003. So, rather than have it sit on my shelf collecting dust, I've decided to organize a tour. I have access to a K3003, but do not own one, and thus my comparisons between it and the AX60 will be inevitably less mature than those of members who are actual owners of the AKG flagship. I also spoke with an Astrotec representative about this tour idea and they've graciously offered to swap out my open box item for a full retail item, which I'll be passing around on the tour in lieu of the old item.
- First priority is given to owners of the AKG K3003, as the AX60 is really an homage to the K3003.
- Second priority is given to owners of the Tralucent 1Plus2, Aurisonics AS-2, T-PEOS H-200, as well as any other TWFK/dynamic hybrid IEM, like the DUNU DN-1000 (though I doubt anyone has this model yet, unless you live in China).
- Special exceptions are given to members that I personally am acquainted with, have very good reputation on this forum, and have high levels of buyer/seller feedback.
- To keep things flowing, tour length for each member is a maximum of ten days (excluding transit time). Members will be given an additional two-week period to post thoughts. Longer lengths will be granted on a case-by-case basis for members desiring to write lengthier thoughts (>5000 words).
- Tour Impressions are free for members to divide and format, though I hope that members can give an assessment on the overall value of the AX60. As can be expected with "common sense", impressions should be qualified by logic and reason, underscored only by hints of gut instinct and emotion.
Terms and conditions of the tour are subject to change at the owner's discretion.
To sign up for this tour, please PM me with the subject line "AX60 Tour", with your location, and "qualifications" (i.e. own K3003, etc.) in the body of the message.
A maximum of 10 members will be included for this tour, with the option for more after the conclusion of the initial tour batch.
- Rin Choi's (udauda) Electroacoustic Analysis of the Astrotec AX60
- iMP3.net - Review (Simplified Chinese)
- iMP3.net - Impressions (Simplified Chinese)
- iMP3.net - Comparisons of the AX60 against the DUNU DN-1000 (Simplified Chinese)
Edited by tomscy2000 - 6/11/14 at 9:21am