Airpods are a page out of the tried and true Apple publicity playbook -- take an existing technology used primarily by a tech-interested audience, paint it sheer white, simplify and announce it like it’s a bold new step into the future. Despite the initial ridicule they received, Airpods were inevitably a giant hit, leaving premium audio scrambling to respond. Audio-Technica have made their commercial reply with the ATH-CKR7TW and SPORT7TW True Wireless in-ear headphones, marketing a superior Japanese pedigree.
Out of the box, the design brief is grace and simplicity, arriving in black or grey. Both models bear the Audio-Technica stamp on the side, though the CKR has a deeper visible imprint than the SPORT. The CKR is larger than the SPORT, though both are relatively compact considering the electronics they house. The SPORT is more ovular, with ridges around the sides of the edge of the ear buds. Most of their bulk is relegated to their girth, due to the separation of the electric circuitry from the acoustic space. Their chunk admittedly doesn’t make for a 21st century look, but it’s not trying to emulate Airpods.
One of the most frustrating elements of the market’s pivot to battery powered Bluetooth headphones is the constant monitoring of charge. Audio-Technica have latched onto this misgiving and tackled it two-fold: battery life and a portable charger. The CKR markets six hours of charge on continuous use, while the SPORT claims three and a half. Both figures seemed relatively close to the practical truth, getting five and three hours in testing respectively. This alone is enough for intended use (work, school days and average exercise), though the inclusion of the portable charger makes them unbeatable. It’s a cool little case too, allowing you to click the headphones in with a simple magnet and supplying nine hours of charge for the CKR and a staggering 14 for the SPORT. After that, a simple USB cable charges the portable case.
I initially had difficulty getting the CKRs to stay steady in my ears, an issue made more obvious by how well the SPORT sticks. The “3D Wings” or attachable rubber wings included definitely make the fit a little easier, as do the range of ear tip sizes. It is worth finding a fit without the 3D Wings if you’re planning on a longer listening session, as they can grate on your ear. The SPORT could not be an easier or more comfortable fit, with additional ear fins to ensure they don’t fall out, regardless of activity. Sport Pro ear tips with a sweat guard are included, and you may want to reorder these; after a run without them, you don’t exactly want to share the headphones around.
Both models have a superbly intuitive touch control that make them viable for any kind of listener; a single button controls playback, calls and volume adjustment on either side. To begin with, particularly on the SPORT, you will probably engage every feature apart from the one you want, highlighting the importance of the old-fashioned instruction booklet.
Audio-Technica recommend you download their “connect” app to gain further customizability, though I found the addition of the SBS codec for a high quality connection more hassle than the average consumer is willing to handle, particularly if setting out for a run or morning commute. Conversely, the difference in quality is audible, so if you’re committed to the high fidelity, the option is there.
The lack of voice control in both models is a glaring lack of future-proofing that some might balk at, though it’s likely Audio-Technica are allowing room for succeeding editions. The frenzy in true wireless headphones has been quick, so perhaps they’re not too keen to commit all of their tech quite yet.
Both headphones design in includes the same Digital-to-Analog-Converter (DAC) ilk, though the CKR’s drivers are about double (11mm) the SPORT’s (5.8mm). The CKR’s 11mm drivers sit alongside a carbon coated diaphragm, pure iron yoke and brass stabilizer -- highly sophisticated headphone tech, reflected immediately in the sound. Tested with a variety of music, the CKR beats any in-ear headphones at the price point. For rockier material, I tested them with Mitski’s garage rock record Bury Me at Makeout Creek -- it was able to convey clarity across the trebly highs and a solid bass response that doesn’t verge on overbearing. Panda Bear’s Buoys showed it could replicate house sub-bass competently, though it was Pusha T’s highly produced hip-hop LP DAYTONA that best demonstrated its strength; lows, particularly the snares had a kick, while the mids emphasised extremes. The highs are clear, but sit back in the mix comparatively.
Provided you can correctly position the buds in your ears, the CKRs sound staging contains strong contrasts across a wide spread of frequencies. The strong spread also provides adequate noise-cancellation, along with the strong seal the headphone make in ear.
The SPORT is equally as excellent for its intent -- though its drivers don’t match the premium standard of its stablemate, it has been calibrated for a bassier, more active sound. The SPORT presumably corresponds to the hip-hop, house, etc more typically matched to exercise, though it also appeals to those who prefer booming lows. Used first in an exercise context, I found it impossible to discern the difference in sound quality - it was only when used at home that the distinction between the two models became clear. The SPORT also carries a neat “hear-through” function, using the side-button to briefly pause your listening to hear your surroundings via the microphone. It is useful, albeit easy to accidentally engage.
Audio Technica have smartly made a two-pronged attack in the true wireless market with the CKR7TW and SPORT7TW. Although not perfect, they make a strong premium alternative to the tyranny of Airpods, with a swathe of extra features poised for updates.
Hits and Misses
Impressive 9 and 3.5 hour battery lives respectively (CKR7TW & SPORT7TW)
Premium, high fidelity sound
Support for SBS, AAC codecs
SPORT performs very highly for its price-point and purpose
SPORT’s “hear-through” function
Inclusion of range of ear-tip sizes and 3D Wings for comfortability
CKR7TW difficult to fit into ear, affects the soundstaging
No voice control