Astell & Kern UW100 Review: Best Wireless Earbuds for Audiophiles

Do you remember the first time you tried something other than the crappy plastic earbuds that came with your mobile device? I remember reading a forum post online, buying Shure headphones that cost $100 at the time, and being shocked when I put them on my iPod Nano.

That’s the thrill you get when you move from entry-level wireless earbuds like AirPods to a premium pair like the new Astell & Kern UW100. With excellent digital-to-analog conversion, custom drivers and a sleek design, I can see this is an easy entry point
for ambitious audiophiles.

It took a while for high-end wireless earbuds to do anything special except look better than the versions from Apple, Samsung, and others. The UW100 prove that we’re finally getting better sound for our extra dollars, and they might make a few audiophiles cut the cord when they’re out and about.

Form and function

Photo: Astell & Kern

If you don’t like hoarding FLAC files and want to spend thousands of dollars on beautiful digital players, you’ve probably never heard of Astell & Kern. The small audio brand has been making acclaimed digital-to-analog converters, headphone amplifiers and portable players for the Rolex class for years, but only recently has it taken a deep dive into cutting-edge mainstream audio products.

When it comes to both design and audio performance, the technological drop is obvious. Astell & Kern is now willing to sell products for less than $500, but the engineers are still not willing to sell bad-sounding products.

The jagged, gem-like exterior of each earbud immediately stands out amid a number of wireless buttons that look like golf tees. They’re like something you could see in a Star Trek spin-off, which doubles as fancy space-age communicators. That’s not to say the tops don’t look and feel elegant, but unless your personal style is very modern, you might find them a bit flashy.

Such visual cues are part of Astell & Kern’s course, which uses jagged edges as the centerpiece of its design language. However, the case is a bit large and very plastic-like, which I wouldn’t expect from buttons that cost almost twice as much as AirPods. I may not like Apple’s basic buttons, but the case is twice as slim and half the size.

Despite not having ear fins, the UW100 fits my medium-sized ears extremely well. I’ve been able to get them on long runs, doing yard work, and generally pottering around without ever popping a bud. That’s partly a fluke, of course: Unless your ears are identical to mine, your mileage may vary. But as long as you don’t have small ears (these are on the medium-large end of the spectrum, but not insanely large), they should fit you just fine.

Well sorted

However, the sound quality is the real showstopper with the UW100. A 32-bit digital-to-analog converter and custom balanced armature drivers combine with support for the aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codec to deliver the cleanest, most detailed audio I’ve ever heard from wireless earbuds.

A wide soundstage and assertive (but not overly booming) bass are aided by the headphones’ excellent passive noise isolation. Sometimes I swore these earbuds had active noise cancellation because they block out the outside world so well. This is a fact that Astell & Kern’s engineers also clearly acknowledged; you can activate Ambient mode with a tap on an external touch sensor, and you’ll find yourself using it when you buy these buttons.

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