Review: Astrotec AX-30
Tuesday, April 15th, 2014
by Bowei Zhao & Ethan Wolf
For several years now, Astrotec has been a name familiar to enthusiasts as a manufacturer of value-conscious, yet quality-engineered, balanced armature IEMs. This past year, they began shifting over to hybrid IEMs en masse.
As the smaller sibling of their AX-35, the AX-30 stands out, being comparably built for only $70: significantly less than the triple-digit MSRP that its big brother commands. Will it sound anywhere near as good?
The first thing you'll note about the AX-30s – besides the sleek name – is they are compact in almost every way. The box for the IEMs is the size of an ink bottle, and a bit substandard. The construction of the box, and its feel was less than impressive. Ethan's box showed up ripped, and my own had scratches and crinkles around it. Needless to say, the box's construction quality and printing isn't comparable to most retail packages on the market right now.
Inside, we are met with foam packaging, the IEMs, extra ear tips – including a set of Complys – ear guides, and a manual; pretty standard in accessories. There isn't anything particularly noteworthy about the accessories besides the Complys and the ear guides; these are a treat to get. The foam tips aren't fully compatible with the AX-30s – there is a bit of freeplay in its fit – but there aren't any problems once they are in your ears.
The AX-30 sports an athletic build that looks similar to a piston. I'm immediately impressed with the AX-30's build and look. It's minimal, but also aggressive. The cable is lightweight and thin, terminating in an equally thin jack. The aluminum on the Astrotec has an amazing luster to it, a milled look encapsulates the unit. There is a smooth ring at the back of the driver that finishes off the bold look. In the right light, you can't help but feel authority coming from the AX-30. The problem is that I can't see the AX-30s having a long life span. There is no way of telling what the durability of the AX-30s are. Only time will tell. But the thin cable, small termination jack, and minimal strain-relief on the unit worry me.
The Astrotecs have a clean sound that is worth more than its asking price. The AX-30 is on the neutral side of the spectrum with forward vocals, a slight bass punch and clarity throughout the rest of the spectrum. The mids have a feathery timbre that isn't too heavy; excellent in their sonic reproduction. The overall frequency response features great synergy without thickness from overlap. This is getting rarer in the audio business.
The sound signature of the Astrotecs are similar to reference cans. The sound is light without too much reliance on a heavy hitting mid-range or bass. It's focused more on reproducing the music as designed, rather than adding its own remix. But this signature is a double-edged sword.
While it is more accurate at reproducing music than other IEMs in this price range, this signature is also one of the least fun to listen to. The presentation doesn't engage the listener as much as something like the Brainwavz S1. This is a problem because the AX-30 leaves the impression of being a portable get-up-and-go unit, except it won't get down and jam with Macklemore.
I find the sound quality of the AX-30 - while terrific - is betrayed by its design. The unit looks and feels like something that will rock-the-boat, except that it doesn't. Its build targets one market while the sound targets another. This isn't a problem for those that want the neutral sound signature, as much as it is for people who buy this based off preconceptions based on the components aesthetics.
Starting off with the aesthetics of the AX30s: I would describe them as clean and simple. Theres no writing on the IEM, other than Astrotec. The aluminum is very pleasing to the eye. Furthermore, the aluminum is also very durable, however, the cable is a little thin, and it may not last long. I cannot comment on their long term durability though, as I haven't had them for long.
Don't be an idiot like me, and not search the box by the way. The accessories are in a secret compartment, under a lot of foam. I almost missed them. The accessories that come with this IEM are: small, medium, large tips and one-size-fits-all comply tips. Also, there are adapters to change the AX30s to over ear IEMs, which I find work very well. The tips work perfectly too. I do not have the same problem as Bowei with the Comply foam tips.
As a huge fan of cables, I like the stock cable. It's very attractive, with a small y-split; it's built out of aluminum, akin to the jack. There are no microphonics, which is an accomplishment. Some headphones priced much higher have problems with microphonics. The cable is a little over 3 feet long. That's a good length for portable use. But the cable, while very attractive, is fragile. It's very thin, and is a point of concern for durability.
The isolation, with the supplied rubber tips, is mediocre. They do not offer the best seal. However, the isolation with the Complys are much better than the rubber tips, and I also prefer the sound with them. They make the signature darker, though Bowei warned me that this is a normal characteristic of Comply tips.
Continuing on with the differences between the tips: I found that the AX-30 was too analytical for me with the rubber tips. The Complys remedied this situation a little, but not completely. One of the most important aspects for a headphone, to me, is that it has to work well with poor recordings. Unfortunately, the AX-30 doesn't. Some of the pleasure music I listen to is horribly recorded and mastered, which requires a smoother headphone than the AX-30.
Looking deeper into the sound, the lows presented are tight and fast. The bass goes fairly deep, however, you will not hear much of it. This IEM is neutral. Listening to the song, "Once In A Lifetime" by The Talking Heads, the mids overshadow the bass. It's not too obvious, but it's noticeable. Looking at mid-bass on the song "Ben's My Friend" by Sun Kil Moon, it's detailed and clean. Yet, again, it can be a little overshadowed by the forward mids.
Moving onto the mids: they are the most noticeable part of the AX-30. Luckily, they are also the best part of this IEM. Listening to Radiohead's "Subterranean Homesick Alien", Thom Yorke's voice is presented cleanly and full of detail. To test the speed of the mids, I queued up the song, "Chain Smoker" by Chance The Rapper. The speed could be better. It isn't very fast. It's not agonizingly slow, but it could be faster.
The soundstage of the AX-30 is good. I never felt like it was in my face. The imaging, for the most part, is on point.
Lastly, the highs are smooth and detailed. They aren't aggresive, which is a positive thing. Who wants their ears to hurt? St. Vincents, "Chloe In The Afternoon" was presented smoothly, and the highs were in a good position in correlation to the mids.
The Astrotec AX-30 may not seem like much with its subtle looks and retail box. But don't fret, this IEM is fantastic.
Coming in at $70, it presents a detailed sound signature, hinting a bit on the analytical side.
The retail packaging of the IEM is a bit lackluster for the price though, considering that it ripped easily.
Despite these shortcomings of the AX-30, this is a good sounding IEM that comes with a plethora of accessories for close to every situation.