Clip-on headphones don't get much respect. The category is synonymous with cheap models targeted mostly to joggers. So while Audio-Technica's ATH-EW9 is most definitely a clip-on design, the similarities to other sports headphones end there. It's not just the ATH-EW9's gorgeous, polished cherrywood earpieces that set it apart from the crowd; every detail of the design exudes sophistication. The headphones top Audio-Technica's Import Series line, which was previously available only in Japan. The $329 list price is pretty steep, but the ATH-EW9 is heavily discounted online.
Audio-Technica's ATH-EW9 earpieces are crafted from Japanese Hokkaido cherrywood, polished to a medium-gloss finish, and mounted on metal swivel clips that click into position on a vertical hinge. The ear pads exert minimal pressure, and since the ATH-EW9 weighs next to nothing (1.1 ounces), comfortable long-term wearing is assured. Even the minijack plugs are classy; instead of the usual molded plastic fittings, the ATH-EW9's are beautifully finished metal pieces. Nothing about the aesthetics of the design is less than exquisitely presented; even the padded travel pouch feels special.
The Audio-Technica ATH-EW9's Y cable is just 4.5 inches long on the left earpiece and 22 inches on the right earpiece. The overall length is pretty darn short--just 42 inches--so we had to carefully "dress" the cable to avoid snags; Audio-Technica includes a 40-inch-long extension cable.
The tiny 1.5-inch-diameter Audio-Technica ATH-EW9 earpieces don't offer much isolation from outside sounds, so we had to turn the volume way up on the NYC subway and busy city streets to hear our music. They leak sound and might be annoying to anyone nearby if you crank your music up. Ergo, the headphones seem best suited to indoor use.
Sound quality is, in certain ways, spectacular. Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" was the perfect way to get acquainted with the Audio-Technica ATH-EW9's charms. Simon's voice and guitar were richly balanced and ultraclear. The music sounded remarkably open and never exhibited the trapped-between-my-ears sound we get from most headphones. Comparisons with our Etymotic ER-4P in-ear headphones ($330) put the ATH-EW9's sonic charms in perspective. The ATH-EW9 had greater clarity, but the ER-4P solidified the bass, which was deeper and more powerful.
The Audio-Technica ATH-EW9's bass is as pure as its treble, but the lightweight sound won't rock anybody's world. Whether Radiohead or Aerosmith was playing, the sound was too insubstantial to be believable. When we switched back to the ER-4P, the sound kicked butt. Classical music was thrilling over the ATH-EW9, where its purity of sound came to the fore. Acoustic jazz was also excellent. During sax master Gerry Mulligan's live CD, At the Village Vanguard, the ATH-EW9 revealed intricacies of individual player performances in the big-band brass section like no other headphones. The detailed sound could be a bit much at times; for example, when the band turned up the heat, the sound had an aggressive edge.
In short, the Audio-Technica ATH-EW9 will appeal to listeners who crave a highly detailed sound or folks searching for elegantly designed headphones.