Not just a tagline
Please note: this review isn't finalized and I plan on adding additional images and refining some sections shortly. However, my overall impressions are certainly final.
First, a disclaimer: I purchased the CKR9 ($150USD) with my own money after conducting my own research, and thus this is my unbiased (and highly subjective) opinion. A special thank you to @peter123 for his initial review and personal recommendation of these to me, as well as Stereo Electronics over in Singapore for excellent customer service.
With only one review prior to this one under my belt, I still have a lot to learn and as such any and all advice on how to improve this review or future others will be highly appreciated. I'll try to keep things simple, practical, and relate what I'm hearing to music that I hope others can recognize in order to put my impressions into context.
A little bit about me and my music tastes:
I only got into this hobby in late 2014, slowly working my way up from budget and entry-level cans in an attempt to find my "holy grail" like many aspiring victims of this rabbit hole tend to long for. I was going through a pair of full-sized cans every week or two and always finding something that I couldn't live with or found wanting after. It wasn't until January of this year I was blessed enough to stumble upon MrSpeakers and his very popular Fostex T50RP modification and pet project, the Mad Dogs ($279USD, discontinued). This headphone simultaneously addressed issues I had with comfort, build, and sound quality from the first time I listened to them until this day and hopefully for years to come. Needless to say, I dropped all interest in looking for other equipment and have been enjoying them since.
While I am still on the search for an in-ear headphone that can take what I love about the full-sized Mad Dogs into a portable solution, I am very happy I stumbled upon the CKR9 as a stepping stone on this path.
My music tastes vary widely, but I would describe myself first and foremost as a mid-head and female vocal lover. Thus any headphones that are known to showcase the mid-range in music and offer it up front and center pique my interest. Without further ado, on to the review!
Starting with the un-boxing experience things are unfortunately off to a lackluster start. While the packaging itself gives a hint towards the premium Audio-Technicatm listening experience you are in for, the included accessories leave much to be desired. The included leather carrying pouch is neither aesthetically pleasing (at least to me) nor pocket friendly. Matters go from bad to worse as you realize your tip selection is four sizes of generic silicone tips (XS/S/M/L) aaand... that's it. If you dislike silicone tips (there is not much to like about these tips even if you don't) then hopefully you have built up a small armada of different brands and styles of tips over your years of collecting and curating IEMs. No, but seriously, at this price point there should be a few more options especially with a consumer oriented product such as this one.
While these do fit standard T-400 Comply foam tips which are usually my go-to, I did not really enjoy the pairing as I felt it resulted in a bit of dampening in the high frequencies (a big no thank you for this earphone). However, throwing on some SpinFits not only allowed me to get a better seal which I will touch on later, but the sound was great.
Build / Comfort / Isolation
As far as the body of the earpieces goes, everything about them from the minimalistic black-on-machined-aluminum Audio-Technica logo to the slightly nostalgic looking L and R indicators scream Made in Japan. The bore itself is quite long but otherwise standard fare, although a little trickier to fit tips on and off than most I found. While I am a big fan of the overall aesthetic of this earphone that really do look like they cost more than they do, the positive things I have to say about the build end here.
The cable on this IEM is bar-none the worst I have ever seen. Seriously, the old Apple earbuds that came included with first generation iPods had a better cable than this, and those things would find a way to tangle the second you looked away. Where do I begin? The cable is extremely microphonic, to the point where the slightest bumping will cause unpleasant vibrations. It is also very susceptible to wind noise when outdoors, prone to tangling, doesn't have a chin slider (seriously?), and is made of cheap rubber that feels pretty awful in the hand. A cable of this quality would be excusable on a a pair of $10 earphones you'd find AliExpress, but not a $150 product. At the very least the silver lining is that they got the termination mostly right, it's a glossy right-angle affair with good strain relief and phone case friendly.
While I had pretty bad comfort issues with the stock silicone tips that caused my ears to sweat about halfway through an LP, this was not an issue with SpinFit tips. I also found that the large circular nature of the earphones body was causing hotspots on my antihelix, the SpinFits allowed me to angle the earphones correctly to prevent this without breaking seal. Isolation is pretty non-existant with the stock tips but slightly improved with the SpinFits.
Due to issues with the cable and tips I cannot in good faith recommend these earphones for those on-the-go, and they are more suited for a sit down at home listen.
If you've followed along this far you've probably noted that I haven't had too many positive things to talk about. This review is about to do a 180 however as it's all smooth sailing from here on out. If I had to describe these in two grammatically inappropriate words it would have to be "Sound Reality". Yes, Audio-Technica's own tagline here is more than just marketing speak as these are easily the most natural and lively sounding earphones, and perhaps even headphones in general, I have ever heard. Let me clarify for a second, since the word natural to some people conjures images of the soft-spoken HD600 or laid-back NAD HP50. The CKR9 is easily anything but, as a lively and accurate low end complements an even livelier treble both supported by a strikingly clear mid-range.
The benefits of the dual phase push-pull driver system in these is apparent from the first minute you listen to them. Reader beware however that I found a noticeable sound difference between these fresh out of the box and after they had been broken in a decent amount. While I don't normally believe in any form of burn-in past the often necessary mental type, the changes were mostly positive as the higher registers mellowed and evened out a bit, though still very much upfront and vivid.
I am confident at the time of this review that the CKR9 sports the best bass presentation of any IEM I have heard to date, with just the right amount of quantity and quality to satisfy all but the most extreme of bassheads. If I had to pick a word to describe the bass response it would be punchy. Two words: punchy & tight. Okay how about a whole list of wonderful adjectives everyone wants to hear: punchy, articulate, controlled, tight, well-extended, textured, fast. Forgive the superlatives, but sometimes the listener could feel as though they were behind the helm of the drum set themselves with each snap of the snare and kick of the, well, kick-drum.
"I told you 'bout the Seether before..."
While Chicago-based alt-rock production Veruca Salt didn't get the same critical reception to 1997's Eight Arms To Hold You as their freshman offering American Thighs it still holds some memorable takeaway tracks, and for our purposes an excellent demonstrations of the CKR9s low-end capabilities. Not the most well-recorded album in the world, I find drummer Jim Shapiro can sound if he's getting carried away on the set on anything but the most controlled bass presentations. Thankfully, the CKR9 suits this album wonderfully with every resonation of the toms and staccato snap of the snare on Straight and Volcano Girls being felt and heard while never overstepping their bounds. We also begin to get a taste of the crystal clear mid range on these bad boys as Nina and Louise compliment each other on tracks like Shutterbug and Venus Man Trap. I particularly love how the edge in Nina's voice is captured by this earphone as she tells tales of ex-boyfriends and the morning after without ever being unpleasant or harsh.
Regarding the highs, while I did say this was the best bass response I had heard in an earphone to date, I actually feel like the highs are the main strength of the CKR9 and make this earphone so special. Reminiscent of it's big poppa in the Sound Reality line-up, the ATH-MSR7($249USD) as well as it's twice-removed studio-capable cousin the Sony MDR-7506($79USD), this little fighter retains all the crystalline clarity and details present in those full-sized offerings with none of the often associated harshness or fatigue. The treble comes through loud and clear, lending many higher-pitched singers an ethereal or lively quality. Despite this I wouldn't call the CKR9 bright but rather balanced and tuned to the advertised slogan adorned on the box.
"Isn't it ironic, don't you think?"
Jagged Little Pill (1995) was the third studio album released by Canadian sweetheart Alanis Morissette, and is most likely the one she will be forever remembered for. A 12-track feature showcasing some of the slightly R-rated sides of show business and life taught us Alanis wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty, a formula that many an upstart singer songwriter would try to emulate for the rest of the late 90s. In Perfect, a point of view piece where Alanis takes on the depressing role of the parent of a child star to treble levels that border on ear-piercing, the CKR9 keeps things tasteful and stops in what feels like just in time. Three tracks down on Forgiven, another narrative about the prejudices of religion where the high notes can reach the imaginary ceiling of a Roman Catholic cathedral the CKR9 never gets unpleasant but instead stays eerily real as a head-bobbing 1-2-3-1-2-3-4 drum line carrys her confessions to our ears.
Well that just leaves us the mid range to talk about, and a self-professed mid-head you're probably wondering why I didn't talk about that first. It's not that I wanted to necessarily save the best for last, but rather I find the CKR9 so masterfully balanced it doesn't feel like the mid-range and treble are separate entities, but rather forces working as one in a seamless transition to deliver an excellent vocal experience. What the mid-range may lack in resolution versus earphones costing twice as much such as the Campfire Audio Orion ($349USD) it more than makes up for in tone and timbre. You can fancy this vocal lover as thoroughly impressed.
"Who made up all the rules,
we follow them like fools..."
Jemma Griffiths AKA Jem first wowed me with her wonderfully mastered debut album Finally Woken (2004) nearly ten years ago, and it has remained a steady favorite of mine to this day. This LP plays like a groove-riddled mixtape of chill-hop, electronica, lilting reggae and britpop. It's diversity and ability to switch between tracks as serious as 24, a ballad about the discoveries one may experience with only a day left to live, to more carefree but equally well-written tracks like Wish I and Just A Ride lands it a very special spot in my library. On well known opener They, a conspiracy-fueled introspective about the powers that be; a prominent and deeply satisfying bassline is played back with equal parts accuracy and fun by the CKR9, while Jemma's distinct voice effortlessly lets off the questions that keep us up at night. Gears are immediately shifted to a nearly-seductive but equally low-end dependent Come On Closer, and all that is really left for me to say is despite having heard this album more times than I can count I have never been so engrossed or engaged with it as I have with the CKR9. I guess you could say I was finally woken.
I wish this IEM did not have the physical shortcomings that it did, so that I could effortlessly recommend it to absolutely anyone and everyone seeking after a well-balanced and clear sound in the $150-$200 price bracket. Unfortunately while the sound reality may very well be there you will also have to live with the reality of a downright shameful cable and poor accessories package. If you can get over these drawbacks however, I believe the CKR9 is a great all-rounder and pretty much a no-brainer.
I would especially recommend these earphones to any aspiring audio lover who may not quite understand enough about their own personal preference yet to know exactly what to ask for, as that sudden euphoria when listening to them for the first time may drive anyone who has been living with inferior gear to ask "where have you been all my life?". A brief word of warning however, once you are accustomed to the CKR9 you may interpret some of your other gear as veiled or lifeless. Don't say I didn't warn you.