Astell & Kern T9iE IEM Review

I’ve known of Astell and Kern for a while, in fact they were an early presence over nine years ago at one of the first head-fi meet ups I attended, the summer before my second year of high school. While their gear has always been very cool, the price tags were simply so beyond my budget at the time that I had little interest. Add in the fact that my most sophisticated listening device at the time was an iPod Shuffle and most of my listening was still done via CD and A&K remained a very cool diversion in the headphone audio realm for me.

Fast forward to the present day, and Astell & Kern is a significantly more mature company with offerings not only at sub $2,000 USD prices but also sub $1,000 USD prices. While I’m still not much of a DAP user – my phone with streaming or downloaded mp3s is plenty for me, as I tend to listen most on airplanes – A&K is several generations into collaborations with JH Audio and Beyerdynamic, and the T9iE is, I believe, the newest member of the family.

Coming in at $1,299 USD the T9iE is right around the top of what I’d consider paying for a flagship IEM. This price point is seeing some stiff competition from the likes of Campfire, Meze and others who have released a slew of stunningly good IEMs in the last few years. I recently reviewed the Meze Rai Penta, and was seriously impressed by it, so I’m eager to see how the T9iE holds up.

Looking at internal-shots between A&K and Beyerdynamic’s websites seems to indicate some similarities between the Xelento and the T9iE, but with enough additions that this is very much it’s own IEM. Of particular interest to me is that Astell and Kern indicate repeatedly that the new venting port is a big part of the bass response of the T9iE. They also mention a two-layer acoustic filter and that it uses a Beyerdynamic Tesla magnet. They describe the sound signature as ‘extremely neutral … with soft treble, linear midrange and slightly elevated bass.’ I was rather surprised to find a company so openly willing to talk about sound signature, a topic many companies avoid in favor of a ‘listen and see for yourself,’ approach. However, in this case I actually think A&K’s description isn’t far off, but I’ll discuss that more in a moment.

Build and accessory-wise these have the same nice trimmings as Astell & Kern fans will be used to by now, the case is a somewhat larger clamshell style case, which is too big for a pocket, but easily fits into a backpack. The tip selection is plentiful and includes the Xelento style ultra-shallow insertion tips, which I actually love. They sit quite securely in my ears, never have deep-insertion discomfort issues and somehow don’t seem to shift around as much as regular tips.

The IEMs themselves have an attractive sort of fractal-type look to the back faceplate, otherwise they are quite smooth, sort of a metallic grey color and very small. One of the smaller high-end IEMs I’ve tried, and I ultimately found the form factor more comfortable over long-term listening than some of the moulded shapes of larger IEMs. Cabling on the T9iE is a very high purity Silver and OCC Copper hybrid 4-pole design carried over from last generation’s T8iE. The cable is quite thick compared to many IEM cables I’ve experienced and I personally would prefer something a little thinner for truly portable use, but for my purposes of airplane and seated listening, I had no issues at all with this cable. I will say that as thick as it is, this cable is remarkably flexible.

Overall form factor and finish of everything are understated but, luxuriously soft and easy to use, as A&K customers are probably also used to by now. I quite like this over flash faceplates and the like, for me an IEM is at its best when I forget I’m wearing it. So the tactile experience is great, how does the T9iE actually sound?

In a word, just like A&K described it. Mostly neutral with a slightly soft treble and slight bass emphasis. I have to say, the bass emphasis is really very slight, is so subtle and broad that it doesn’t feel like an actual bass shelf, rather just a slight warmth to the lower frequencies, and I could actually see many people preferring a dB or two more bass. I never felt there was too little bass, but at very quiet listening levels, which are my norm, a tiny bit more bass wouldn’t have been out of place. At what are more usual listening levels for most listeners, however, I think the tuning of the bass is just about perfect. We are firmly out of bass-cannon territory here.

The treble softness mentioned is interesting, as a lack of clarity or ‘sparkle’ in the treble can be dangerous when it comes to dark recordings, which may sound dull on transducers tuned this way. However, I found that much like some of the other very well-vented IEMs I’ve tried recently, the sound of the treble rather than being overly dull is simply lowered a few dB and has some of the transient ‘edge’ taken off. I suspect proper damping has a lot to do with this, but much like the bass, the treble is down by just a few dB but retains plenty of information, and this really is a very gentle and largely neutral tuning. The way they’ve tuned the treble and bass shelves makes it very easy to listen rather loudly, and as I increased volume I simply got more information without the midrange being thrown out of balance by the treble or bass.

Midrange at all volume levels was very balanced and had a great balance of clarity and richness. Overall punch was in the middle of what I’ve tried at this price, neither the absolute punchiest, nor the softest sounding. There was an ultra-smooth almost velvety quality to all the frequency ranges that meant no music every really sounded unpleasant with the T9iE. There was great clarity, and while the smoothness didn’t seem to cover up or smother detail, I didn’t feel it was the absolute most detailed IEM I’ve used at this price, which I suspect will mean it works  great with the kind of mobile, ever-so-slightly-warm listening A&K has designed this IEM for.

The T9iE doesn’t have a ton of ‘wow’ factor – I felt mildly positive about it when I heard it at RMAF 2019 last year. That said, I love gear that rewards being lived with, too many times ‘wow’ factor gear turns out to be uncomfortably bright or simply disappointing once you’ve taken it home and sat with it for a while. The T9iE is an IEM I’d be happy to live with as my only transducer if I absolutely had to, and that most certainly is something to get excited about.

  • Transducer Type: Dynamic, Moving-Coil
  • Operation Principle: Closed
  • Frequency Response: 8 – 48,000Hz (TBD)
  • Impedance: 16 Ohm
  • Total Harmonic Distortion: < 0.2%
  • Power Handling Capacity: 10mW
  • Sound Coupling to the Ear: Intra-aural
  • Cables: 4N pure silver and 7N Copper hybrid 2.5mm 4-pole cable, 2.5mm to 3.5mm interconnector

Astell & Kern
19600 Fairchild Road, Suite 125, Irvine, CA 92612
(949) 336-4540/4541

Simply Nobody's picture

Meze Rai Penta may be a good IEM to have as a reference point, for reviewing and comparing with any future IEM reviews :-) .......