Astell & Kern probably wasn’t thinking the average listener when they made the UW100 earbuds. This is the company’s first foray into cutting all wires and true wireless connectivity, yet the focus is on sound above all else, and the hope is that it will sing better to the ears than your average pair.
The reputation is definitely there to pull it off. The Korean brand has built itself as a trusted choice for music lovers who will accept nothing less than the best sound for their money. The UW100 is a first, though, so its ability to start off strong here has a lot to do with how good the sound is no matter what you’re playing.
Astell & Kern UW100: price and availability
The Astell & Kern UW100 launched in March 2022, and you can find it for its original $300 price tag. These high-end audio buffers may hold up due to Astell & Kern’s audio reputation, although it’s unclear if they’ll come down in price in the short term. Availability from the company’s website has been limited and is expected to release this summer. You can also shop at B&H Photo.
Astell & Kern UW100: What’s good
When I come across a pair of earbuds that sound really good out of the box, I take notice. That’s how I felt about the A&K UW100, which has been so tastefully designed to deliver a clear, balanced sound level that I think anyone would easily appreciate.
The key lies in meds, which are often the first or next victim with wireless earbuds. A&K did this by prioritizing the very things that the average listener probably wouldn’t care about. For example, the UW100 has a 32-bit DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and balanced drivers from Knowles, another reputable brand for high-end audio. What this means is that the UW100 does not use dynamic drivers that focus on different frequencies, but instead on drives that generally provide better balance.
There are quite a few things going on under the hood, and you don’t need to know everything about them. The point is that everything just works, and that includes supported Bluetooth codecs, such as aptX Adaptive, which gives supported devices, like most of the best Android phones, the ability to play tunes in better 24-bit HD quality. You need a source to play at this level, as Tidal does with Hi-Fi and Master settings, for example, but the ability is there.
In general, Android phones support aptX HD, which, in theory, should run in 24-bit resolution, but it doesn’t always seem to do so. Again, it is important whether the phone and app you are using support this. Spotify hasn’t done that yet, while Tides does. Otherwise, the earbuds are compatible with the standard 16-bit resolution that aptX runs.
A&K says that will be fully tweaked with upcoming firmware updates, hopefully because the foundation is already great. I was expecting the A&K TWS app to offer a complete equalizer to take things to another level but it only came to terms with a few select presets. It’s pretty good, and it even includes a gaming mode, but I want a pair of audio earbuds to give me the tools to customize the sound with the precision I want.
The good news is that you’ll probably love how well the UW100 sounds with different musical genres anyway. Don’t worry if you like hip-hop or anything with bass because the bass focus preset gives a lot of love to the lows. If you prefer rock, jazz, house, pop, or something else, there’s a good chance these songs will sound great too. I just wish there were more options available within the app’s EQ.
I haven’t mentioned fit yet, but this plays a role. A&K includes five different sets of ear tips in the box. The earbuds themselves are larger than your regular pair, and this can be a problem for smaller ears. Despite this, they can feel quite comfortable when you find the right fit, the passive insulation is excellent – and most importantly, there’s no active noise cancellation (ANC) here.
Ambient mode has four levels to adjust when you’re on, giving you a fair amount of leeway for the amount of background noise you’re actually letting in. With one being the lowest and the four highest, there is some excellent clarity here.
Even the call quality holds up well. You don’t have ANC noise-canceling to make calls more audible at higher settings, but other than that, I found the UW100 to be perfectly fine for chatting on the phone.
The touch controls are easy enough to discover and hold, which is always nice, and with so much space to tap, mistakes are rare. The options are somewhat limited, but you can customize several different controls for either side.
Battery life is decent for up to six hours per charge, although volume levels will determine if you can go that far. I usually crack five hours on the test. The case has three additional charges for a total of 24 hours, and at once, you can plug in for 10 minutes to get up to an hour of playback. A&K includes support for wireless charging, too, for when you don’t want to plug in via USB-C.
Astell & Kern UW100: What’s Not Good
The lack of ANC in earbuds at this price is a scathing omission. Granted, sound quality is the primary focus, but A&K’s claims that passive isolation can provide similar results are simply not true. Warm fit? Sure, that’s more than possible, just there’s no way you can block out the same level of ambient noise.
Fit is also questionable when it comes to talking or chewing gum, as I found out when I did both at the same time. The UW100 wiggled a few times when I was talking and I had to be careful to put it back because on two occasions I accidentally ended the call when adjusting the right earpiece.
Then there’s the case, which isn’t pocket-friendly like other earbuds often do. It’s understandable to have a huge frame for the earbuds that have a slight heft, which isn’t the biggest case I’ve come across, but the overall size is noticeable. As well as the lack of an IP rating for water or sweat resistance. If you’re considering using them during workouts or running, be aware that they don’t guarantee they can handle it.
As mentioned earlier, the app can really offer more customizations than it currently offers. A&K probably thinks most people who wear it don’t want it, but I find it hard to see it that way. The sound, no matter how great, can reach new levels – and attract every type of user at the same time. As it stands, the EQ and touch control features are very restricted.
The entire DAC and hi-res mode also needs to be better focused. It’s great that they support aptX Adaptive (and AAC), but don’t immediately assume you’re getting the HD treatment right away. Future firmware updates will tell us more about how smooth all this is. If you’re not listening through Tidal or listening to high-resolution music, it might not matter, but part of the allure here is introducing people to better sound quality.
Astell & Kern UW100: Competition
The Astell & Kern UW100 is tough contenders when it comes to what they do best, which is playing great sound. Look at the best wireless earbuds, and you’ll find a good mix to choose from, although some of the options really stand out. The Sony WF-1000XM4 is easily among the best available and Act ANC offers, perhaps even better ANC, as our reviewer noted. However, the UW100 managed to hold out very well against them from an acoustic point of view.
The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 is among the best you can find for audio, with IPX4 anti-scattering, ANC, and wireless charging. If you’re looking for something with high fidelity support, the Technics EAH-AZ60 can handle LDAC streaming, as can the popular Bowers & Wilkins PI7 if you’re willing to pay more for another high-quality audio brand.
Astell & Kern UW100: Should You Buy It?
You should buy this if…
- You care about sound quality
- Want HD support
- You want a well surrounded situation
- You don’t have little ears
You should not buy this if…
- Want Active Noise Cancellation
- Want something smaller
- You need more app customization
- Prefer to spend less
- You intend to use these during workouts/running
The focus and purpose here is as clear as the sound from the Astell & Kern UW100. Audio fidelity trumps all other features, and for good reason, because these earbuds deliver no matter what content you choose to listen to.
You don’t have to be an audiophile to appreciate what you’re getting here because the results aren’t as subjective as you might think. You just have to realize that you are not getting some of the basic materials for other earphones.
However, these earbuds don’t offer ANC or any sort of water resistance rating, so if you’re hoping to block out sound completely or use them for exercise, you’ll probably look elsewhere.
However, these earbuds pack a punch when it comes to soft and smooth audio, and are also able to handle phone calls well.
The Astell & Kern UW100 takes sound more seriously than the others, and it shows as soon as you turn something on it. High definition support and durable build quality complement a nice pair of buds that are definitely worth trying.