The UW100 true wireless earbuds are the first wireless headphones from Astell & Kern, manufacturers of hi-res audio players and professional in-ear monitors (IEMs).
Astell & Kern UW100 review: price & release date
The Astell & Kern UW100s are £249 / $299 and were launched on 11 April 2022, although at the time of writing the UK A&K website is asking you to register your interest, while the US site is sold out until July 2022. These in-ears are sure to be popular!
Astell & Kern UW100 review: features
There are two crucial differences between these earbuds and other true wireless earbuds.
The first is that they have their own 32-bit DAC (Digital-to-Analogue Converter) instead of using the one in the Bluetooth chipset, which tends to prioritise energy efficiency over audio performance.
The second is that the drivers here are balanced Knowles armatures, something you normally only get in expensive in-ear monitors. Such drivers deliver very accurate sound reproduction with minimal power consumption, but they’re costly – which is why you don’t usually get them in consumer earbuds.
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The Bluetooth here is 5.2, with support for the SBC, AAC and aptX Adaptive codecs for the highest possible quality. The UW100s also support Qualcomm True Wireless Stereo Plus for more stable connections on compatible Android phones. The Bluetooth is multi-point so you can answer calls while streaming music from another device.
You’ll get up to six hours of battery life and another 18 courtesy of the charging case, and from flat you can get an hour of listening from just 10 minutes of charging.
There’s no active noise-cancellation here (typically known as ANC for short). Instead, A&K’s engineers have developed what they claim is best-in-class passive noise insulation. The five different sizes of silicone tips make it easy to get an effective seal that does a very good job of keeping the outside world out.
Although the UW100s don’t have ANC, they do feature noise cancellation and echo suppression on the built-in mics, helping to deliver clear speech in voice calls.
Astell & Kern UW100 review: performance
These are incredibly musical earbuds, delivering the kind of sound that you’d expect to pay considerably more money for. The soundstage is incredibly detailed and impressively spacious, and via aptX Adaptive they can stream music at up to 420kbps in 24-bit resolution – so they’re ideal for high-quality audio streams.
With lush music such as Roxy Music’s Avalon or anything by Talk Talk, the detail, clarity and positioning is extraordinary. Listening to the remastered version of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing is almost indecent. Tom Petty’s telecaster on Highway Companion is so clear it feels like you’re playing it yourself, and The Who’s Live at Leeds combines clarity and punch to great effect. Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live is a particular joy, its many musicians each given plenty of space in the mix, while Tony Levin’s subterranean bass rumbles beneath them.
When it comes to bass, the UW100s deliver punchy lows that never descend into muddy mush. The taut synth bass on The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face is impressively kinetic and very low, but it never overpowers the vocal or the luscious jazz organ stabs that punctuate the chorus. It’s a similar story with Robyn’s Honey, whose deep bass and fast-paced side chain compression – the effect that makes the song feel as if it’s breathing in and out – never overshadow her luminous vocal.
The decision not to artificially boost the bass means that older music can be a bit lacking in the low end, so for example some early rap and a lot of scratchy 1970s punk is a little light at the lower frequencies. That’s the recording rather than the headphones, though. You can increase the bass using one of the preset EQs but you lose some clarity as a result. And, realistically, you’re not buying these earbuds to listen to The Ruts.
The sound quality is excellent even at full volume, which is reasonably but not painfully loud; the only irritation is that when you turn the UW100s to maximum, the volume briefly cuts so a voice can tell you that you’ve reached the max.
Astell & Kern UW100 review: design and usability
The polygon-based design here ties in nicely with the look of A&K’s hi-res audio players and it comes in the same black and dark silver. It’s classy and futuristic, and the points where the faces meet on the earbuds make it easy to find the right bit to tap.
The only downside is that the smooth surface can be a bit fiddly to grasp when you’re trying to get the UW100s out of their case. Although they’re large they’re not heavy; each earbud weighs around 7g.
The case is 65g and a bit too big for a jeans pocket; there’s a USB-C connector on the back of it and a single LED on the front. That LED flashes blue when it’s charging the earbuds and green when the case is being charged; when both are happening simultaneously it blinks between the two colours. There’s no indication of charging progress, though: it’s either charging or it isn’t. The case is also compatible with third-party wireless charging pads.
Astell & Kern UW100 review: verdict
These earbuds don’t know they’re earbuds: the sound and stereo stage from the A&K UW100 is closer to a good quality pair of over-ear headphones that would cost considerably more, such as Apple’s AirPods Max.
The lack of active noise-cancellation (ANC) may be a deal-breaker for some, but the isolation here is more than okay and the ambient modes enable you to hear the outside world when you need to.
Other earbuds may have more features, so for example there’s no equivalent of Find My to locate the UW100s if you misplace them, and they don’t have the AirPods Pros’ seamless switching between Apple devices, but the focus here is firmly on that incredible sound.
Overall, the Astell & Kern UW100 deliver phenomenal sound, enabling you to hear detail that you may have missed in songs you’ve listened to a million times. You'll certainly want to consider these super in-ears if knock-out sound is your number one priority.
Astell & Kern UW100 review: also consider
If you’re on a budget then Cambridge Audio's Melomania Touch are very underrated: they sound tremendous, have first class battery life, and are only £99. The big-name competitors here are Apple’s AirPods Pro – which will shortly be superseded, so look for deals if you’re buying the current ones – and Sony’s exquisite WF-1000XM4. Both the Apple and the Sony earbuds have ANC rather than passive noise cancellation and Apple's buds swap seamlessly between different devices.