To help us provide you with free impartial advice, we may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site. Learn more

Astell & Kern AK UW100MKII review: High quality but low appeal

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £269
inc VAT

The Astell & Kern AK UW100MKII deliver exceptional audio for true wireless earbuds, but the lack of ANC will likely put off a lot of people


  • Authentic and expansive audio
  • On-board DAC filter
  • Decent battery life


  • No active noise cancellation
  • Bigger and heavier than average
  • Overly sensitive wear detection

The Astell & Kern AK UW100MKII are the latest true wireless earbuds from the South Korean brand, and like the MKI before them, they’re a big swing. Not because they do something drastically different from other earbuds, but rather because they consciously avoid following an industry trend.

Active noise cancellation (ANC) is a banner feature in just about every pair of flagship earbuds, and is becoming more common among cheaper models as well. So a pair of earbuds at this price that don’t offer ANC in any form is, again, a big swing.

READ NEXT: Best wireless earbuds

The reasoning behind this omission is apparently to focus purely on audio quality, without the interference of a noise-suppression algorithm. That leaves a lot riding on the sonic prowess of the AK UW100MKII, not only to compete with the market’s heavy hitters, but also to compensate for the lack of a popular and prevalent feature. So do they achieve their goal, or is skipping ANC unforgivable these days? Read on to find out.

Astell & Kern AK UW100MKII review: What do you get for the money?

The Astell & Kern UW100MKII have a list price of £269, which puts them in direct competition with industry heavyweights such as the Sony WF-1000XM5, Bose QuietComfort EarBuds II and Apple AirPods Pro 2. Where those three operate over the newer Bluetooth 5.3, the AK UW100MKII are still on Bluetooth 5.2, with support for the SBC, AAC and aptX Adaptive audio codecs. They also offer multipoint capabilities, allowing you to connect to two devices at once.

Design-wise, the AK UW100MKII are dead ringers for the MKI, with gunmetal grey drums, silicone ear tips and a stylish geometric design adorning the outer shell. These aren’t the most discreet of earbuds, with the chunky drums protruding a fair way out of your ears, and they’re a little on the heavy side at 7g apiece, compared to the 6g Sony WF-1000XM5. This weight doesn’t make them uncomfortable to wear, but I did find myself frequently adjusting them in my ears during testing.

The buds may be near enough carbon copies of their predecessors, but the charging case has had some design tweaks – it’s still a stout grey rectangle, but where the MKI’s charging case had rounded sides, this one throws in some more angles, tying into the overall geometric aesthetic. The thick, glossy plastic feels cheaper than you’d expect at this price, and it’s quite prone to marks and scratches. At 65g, it’s also one of the heavier cases out there, quite a bit chunkier than the 39g case that comes with the WF-1000XM5, for example.

The charging case at least puts its extra real estate to good use, providing respectable, albeit not outstanding, battery life. The buds themselves should last around nine-and-a-half hours in-ear, which is reasonable enough, but still falls a couple of hours short of the WF-1000XM5, which can stretch to 12 hours with ANC disabled. Throw in the charging case, and the AK UW100MKII’s battery life climbs to a total of around 29 hours, which puts it an hour under the total offered by the Apple AirPods Pro 2.

While the geometric shapes on the outside of each bud are definitely there for style points, the lower halves of each also serve as the touch control receptors. The default settings give you options for playing, pausing and skipping audio, adjusting the volume, hailing your phone’s voice assistant and cycling through the four levels of the transparency mode. You can tweak the controls in the AK Control app, but options are fairly limited. Still, the standard setup covers enough bases that you aren’t left without something crucial.

The AK Control app also lets you enable and adjust the strength of the transparency mode, toggle wear detection and tweak the equaliser. This can be done either by adjusting each level of the ten-band EQ yourself, or selecting one of the six preset tunings. As these earbuds have a built-in DAC filter, you can also tailor that to your tastes, with options for sharp, slow and delayed roll-off. Of all the audio tweaks, these are particularly subtle, but it’s still a welcome inclusion for those who prefer granular control over their audio.

READ NEXT: Best cheap wireless earbuds

Astell & Kern AK UW100MKII review: What did we like about them?

For the most part, I felt little need to tinker with the EQ and DAC options, as the standard setup already sounded terrific. In addition to the DAC filter, each earbud houses a balanced armature driver, and the combined efforts of both deliver expansive and articulate audio.

Kicking testing off with the 2012 remaster of David Bowie’s Starman, I was impressed with the width of the presentation: opening guitars sounded off to my right, with subtle individual strums on the left, before the drums danced around behind my head and the vocals came in strongly front and centre. With everything chiming in together for the chorus, the soundstage isn’t the most vertical I’ve ever heard, but it’s far from cramped, with pinpoint positioning keeping each element from stepping on the others’ toes.

You can really appreciate this accurate organisation when listening to a richly layered track, such as the main theme from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, as delivered by John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra. With some 87 pieces to wrangle there’s a lot of opportunity for individual instruments to be lost in the fray, but I found that I was able to easily hone in on the twinkle of a xylophone or the steady plodding of a tuba, even from behind the urgent violins and triumphant trumpets.

The Weeknd and Daft Punk’s Star Boy has a solid beat thumping away throughout, and the AK UW100MKII delivered it with a satisfying sense of weight, while still keeping it tightly controlled. The end result was punchy bass that hit hard before moving out of the way, never overstaying its welcome. On the other end of the spectrum, the lead vocals pushed up into the frequency stratosphere, with crisp, clean trebles that shine just as bright as you’d expect from a Star Boy.

The last thing to talk about here is the transparency mode, which wasn’t my favourite part of the AK UW100MKII, but did its job well enough to remain in this section. On the lowest strength, don’t expect to hear much more than a car honking, but crank it up to maximum and you’ll at least be able to catch people calling your name. As with most transparency modes, the audio that’s filtered in isn’t the clearest, so you might struggle to hold a full conversation without pausing your music or turning the volume down considerably, and at that point, you’re better off simply removing the buds.

Astell & Kern AK UW100MKII review: What could be improved?

You’ll likely have gathered from my introduction that my biggest issue with the AK UW100MKII is their lack of active noise cancellation. The passive noise isolation achieved by the fit is decent enough, and when listening in the comfort and quiet of your own home, you can truly appreciate all of the impressive detail in the presentation. Take them on the go with you, however, and it becomes tricky to appreciate that artistry.

I wore the AK UW100MKII on my commute, and the results were a very mixed bag. On a quieter day in the office, the passive noise isolation was enough to keep me focused on my music, but the journey there and back was more challenging. There was a fair bit of wind noise on my walks to and from the office, and on the busy train home I had no chance of focusing on my audiobook. After getting used to doing these trips with ANC earbuds, it ultimately felt like a step backwards using the AK UW100MKII.

Other issues feel relatively small fry compared to the lack of ANC, but a couple of them were still irksome enough to warrant a cautionary mention. Reiterating a point made above, I found myself having to adjust the buds in my ears far more often than I’d have liked. The above-average weight, and potentially some uneven distribution thereof, meant that gravity was always slowly but surely trying to tip the buds out of my ears.

Which leads me to the next problem. Usually, I’m a big fan of wear detection – swiftly pausing audio when you remove an earbud and restarting it when you put it back in is an extremely useful feature – but it’s not implemented particularly well here. When you mean to take a bud out, it’s efficient enough, but too often I found my audio errantly pausing when I adjusted the buds in my ears. It quickly got to the point where I just disabled wear detection completely, as it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Even then, the earbuds would often forget that I’d done this, so I’d have to go back in the app and turn wear detection off again, sometimes multiple times per day.

Finally, the unstable fit already makes the AK UK100MKII an iffy choice for working out, but even more concerning is the complete lack of an IP rating. Without this certification, you’ve got no guarantee of their ability to withstand particle and liquid ingress, meaning that an errant bead of sweat could well get into the buds and damage the internals. That’s not likely, but with earbuds that cost this much, I certainly wouldn’t risk it.

READ NEXT: Best bone-conduction headphones

Astell & Kern AK UW100MKII review: Should you buy them?

I’m of the opinion that earbuds that cost this much shouldn’t omit features that you can find readily available on sub-£100 models, even if it is in the name of sound quality. Including top-notch active noise cancellation hasn’t stopped any of our favourite true wireless earbuds from meeting our expectations in the audio department, so it’s not an excuse I’m prepared to accept here.

That being said, if you’ve got the cash to spare, and want some of the most natural, accurate audio available from your true wireless earbuds, there’s certainly a case to be made for the AK UW100MKII. Audio is some of the most authentic and engaging of any earbuds I’ve tested, with plenty of customisation options ensuring you can find the perfect tuning for your ears. Furthermore, the decent overall battery life means you’ll be able to enjoy extended at-home listening sessions.

There’s no world, however, in which the AK UW100MKII are going to be your sole pair of earbuds. The inconsistent fit and lack of any official IP rating disqualify them from being ideal for working out, and you’re really going to start yearning for that active noise cancellation when you’re on a packed train. If you don’t already have other buds that can cover these eventualities, you’re much better off sticking with one of our favourite all-rounders such as Sony’s WF-1000XM5, Bose’s QuietComfort EarBuds II or Apple’s AirPods Pro 2.

Read more