Astell&Kern AK T8iE Mk II Reference Earphones
It has been a few years since I reviewed Astell&Kern’s then-flagship “ear monitors,” the AKR02 earphones. These ‘phones were true “ear-openers” as their performance readily exceeded anything that I had heard previously and opened up a new world of sonic vistas. As I have become better acquainted with A&K, I am quite impressed that this Korean audio company never rests on its laurels and is continually developing new and better audio components. The AKR02 was a joint effort between A&K and Final Audio Design; what made these earphones so special was their voicing specifically for A&K digital players. Time marches inexorably onward and the A&K folks have now teamed up with legendary German headphone company Beyerdynamic that make an innovative lineup of ‘phones with the “Tesla” designation for highly efficient drivers that enhance the musical dynamics. This technology has now been adapted to the earphone world and, by way of a birth announcement, has spawned the AK T8iE Mk II Reference Earphones.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
The AKR02 ‘phones used a balanced armature design (same as the one used in hearing aids) with multiple drivers to create highly accurate sound in a small package. The disadvantage of earphones with balanced armatures is their inherent deficiency in bass response that can have a deleterious effect on the balance of the entire sound spectrum. Beyerdynamics has vast experience with dynamic drivers that can leverage the movement of air, resulting in better bass response and warmer, more natural sounding audio. The knock on DDs is that they lack the recovery of detail that yields the “magic” that began in the recording studio. Beyerdynamics has climbed this mountain and planted its flag on the summit with its headphones. When I heard the AK T8iE Mk II earphones at the 2017 CES mated with A&K digital players, I was immediately smitten and a carefully placed hint to their PR man Jason Henriques sent a pair my way.
There has been considerable discussion about whether balanced headphones and earphones offer better audio performance than unbalanced (single-ended) ‘phones. Getting ahead of the story and having heard both, balanced is the way to go if you can manage it.
Setting the Stage
The AK T8iE Mk II earphones come in a deluxe box with multiple sizes of silicone earpieces and a separate compartment for
Comply moldable foam earpieces that can conform to the shape of your ear. There is an extra set of cables that can substitute a 2.5 mm balanced for a 3.5 mm unbalanced connection. It is a simple matter to pull off the earbuds from the cables to make the connection switch. A leather carrying case and label clasp complete the package. The A&K instruction booklet recommends draping the cable over your ear and believe me this is a prerequisite for getting the best sound. What the Mk II earphones has improved over the original Tesla earphone models is the provision of silver-plated fiber cables instead of plain copper cables, a new voice coil, gold-plated MMCX connectors, and a 2.5 mm 4-pole terminal for balanced output (the preferred connection).
Dancing Cheek to Cheek
There is a considerable advantage to voicing sound transducers to their sources and in this case, Beyerdynamic has made these earphones match the sonic properties of the current A&K digital player line up, ranging from the AK70 (subject of another review) to the flagship AK380.
Being dynamic drivers, I gave a considerable break-in to the T8iE MK IIs so that they could loosen up. Having both an AK240 and a new AK70, I turned the earphones loose on a variety of music and in balanced and unbalanced connections.
There are a many different cuts to assess bass performance and I went directly to a 44.1kHz/16-bit FLAC file of The Eagle’s “Hotel California” from the legendary Hell Freezes Over Concert. This cut has a gut-churning bass beat that resonates throughout the seven-minute selection. Another bass-heavy cut is the Reference Recordings download of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances that begins with a thrumming bass line and, once again, check. Another bass freak’s delight is Inutil Paisagem that has Esperanza Spalding trading lines with Gretchen Parlato over Spalding’s acoustic bass. This catchy Brazilian-American number had clean bass to spare with well-defined vocals to boot.
Voice is my ultimate test of sound sources, and one of the best of these sources is the Radkha Toneff/Steve Dobrogosz Fairy Tales CD. While “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is the go-to selection, the entire recreation of American songbook titles is a revelation. There was definition and air galore in this and the other selections in this album.
For me, the best indication of the quality of earphones is their ability to deal with fit and fatigue. Comparing and contrasting the foam and silicone options, I preferred the former but that will be a personal choice for listeners. These T8iE Mk II earphones worked perfectly with both the AK70 and AK240 players and drew out the best sound from each. Compared to the AKR02, there was noticeably better bass that improved the entire sound frequency response. In every instance, the balanced mode was a clearly better way to listen to music for its warmth, spaciousness and bass response.
The Final Assessment
Those who live their lives by earphones and portable media will be richly rewarded by this offspring of the Beyerdynamic-Astell&Kern relationship. This is not a surprise since loudspeaker and electronic companies often collaborate on similar projects. Granted that the price of admission is a bit high (although $500 less than the no-longer available AKR02), this is an instance of value perceived, value received.
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