I entered the head-direct contest for this pair partially because I was interested in purchasing a pair of these but hadn't seen enough reviews to make a selection. I think some more sentiments have bubbled out since then but these are very interesting ear buds and I had promised to write a review if I received them - so here we go.
First, and let's be frank, I won these – thanks to the generosity and smart marketing from head-direct and that means I'm probably biased towards them (doesn't the piece of candy you swipe from your neighbor at work always taste better than they piece you buy yourself?). But I am trying to be objective when I say that these are one very fine pair of headphones, especially un-amped from a DAP.
First, why would anyone drop serious money on ear buds? Isn't that the domain for gilded IEMs where isolation allows connoisseurs to appreciate the subtle nuances of hi-fidelity? At least with IEMs, a section of the public appears ready to plop down full-size cash on little listening devices. So why not with buds? If you follow the threads here carefully, particularly the portable audio forums, your ears are probably still ringing from a resounding chorus of people clamoring for a descent ear bud. About every other day someone asks: “Hey, is there a descent sounding bud out there?” Typical responses include: a) try an IEM; b) the senn is a good cheap bud; c) AT makes a pretty bud, supposed to be good too; d) why do you want a bud anyway?
Let me tackle that last one. I use buds a lot. In an office I have to be able to hear a colleague. At night it's helpful (sometimes) to hear a spouse when she's trying to talk to you. During the day it's helpful to here approaching cars as you're about to step off a corner onto the street. Basically it's nice to be able to rapidly insert and remove a bud. I also find them much more comfortable than any IEM I've ever tried.
So why spend so “much” money on an ear bud? Well that's relative. Let's say most of your listening time is spend with a bud (about 80 of my listening time is in the office). Maybe allocating some funds for a pair of buds you'll use every day isn't such a bad idea, especially if you just dropped some real money on a new DAP. Maybe a good set of buds could compete (not win but compete) dollar-for-dollar with full size cans. Maybe you want more head stage than most IEMs. Again, both the PK 1 and 2 are less cash than most good IEMs
Okay – there's a market segment. But can the PK2 fill it? How does it sound? In a word, “musical.” Okay another word: “fun.”
Tone and timbre is where this little bud excels. Let me give an example. Sitting at a desk listening to the conclusion of a Bach piece, the audience claps. I sat up and looked around assuming someone had done a presentation in the office somewhere and I was hearing the clapping echo. Same sort of thing occasionally happens with my Beyer 880 – but this is a little bud!
It does, however, have some weaknesses – nothing is perfect. Treble is smooth but not as detailed as it could. Bass doesn't have a terrible amount of impact either. Lower treble and upper bass is thick and luscious but also slightly overemphasized, making some singers sound “real” and “present” but slightly “fat” and “buttery.”
Let's do some compare and contrast with the AT buds. The AT CM7. People of comment on the build quality of the ATs very positively. I prefer the PK2. Yes, it looks like inexpensive, but it doesn't draw attention. And those metal pieces on the CM7 are connected with thin little wires, which concern me more. The PK2 is a j-cord, which is a huge mistake for the American market – do a poll on head-fi and see how those results turn out. The PK2 has a nice presentation - comparable to the CM7 – a solid gray box, and little film canister –container, both are certainly more usable than the CM7 “wallet." The PK2 also has a reasonable cable length whereas the CM7 has a cord that's too short for anything but an arm band and an extension cord that is a little too cumbersome (remember, buds are supposed to be easy and portable).
Straight from a PCDP or DAP the PK2 clearly has the better midrange, is smoother and is far more musical. The CM7 has more bass and better resolution. For example, with string pieces you can hear secondary harmonics with the CM7 hardly present with the PK2. The CM7, however, is fatiguing whereas the PK2 is anything but. That's crucial for long listening sessions (like at the office).
At this point I'd say it's a matter of preference. The only thing is the PK2 is half the price of the CM7. The PK2 scales just as nicely as the CM7 when amped (at least with a Pimeta). Makes me wonder what the PK1 could do. Or maybe an Ety 75 ohm adapter cable with the PK2 could give you the best of both worlds.
When comparing the PK2 to an ear bud in its price range like the AT CM5 (no longer made), the PK2 simply destroys it in every phase, making the CM5 sound like a tin can.
Okay – what about compared to a perennial favorite around here: the Koss KSC? My take – the PK2 wins. Less bass but more refined. Smother midrange and more balance – but overall still a fun phone. More portable too.
The best way to think of the PK2 is as a Fostex speaker (Cain and Cain, Omega, etc.). It's fun and musical and sounds realistic. No, it won't do crazy bass, and no it won't hit the highest treble or give the most detail in complex passages, particularly orchestral. But it sounds “right” and makes music sound like music and you can listen to it all day long. And you won't get odd looks or get run over by a car when wearing them.
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