AUDIO TECHNICA ATH-AWAS ASADA ZAKURA Review – Become a Woodentop!

Martin Pipe listens to Audio Technical Asada zakura hi-end headphones, boasting exotic wood earcups. Read our AUDIO TECHNICA ATH-AWAS ASADA ZAKURA Review.

For the best part of a quar- ter-century,Audio Technica has been selling closed- back dynamic headphones that make use of unusual varieties of Japanese wood in their construction.The first such model was 1996’s ATH-W10VTG, key parts of which were made of alpine cherrywood.These natural materials are carefully picked by Audio Technical acoustic engineers for their excellent tonal properties – their internal structure, for example, is effective at damping unwanted resonances – but they look pretty good too. For similar reasons, you’ll also find them in musical instruments like woodwinds and pianos. Hand­made and hand-finished in Tokyo, the ‘phones built around them by Audio Technica and form part of a specific Wooden range pitched at the higher end of the market.

Audio Technical latest models are the Kokutan, and the slightly more affordable Asada Zakura that I’ll be examining here.These unusual nicknames (model names ATH-AWKT and ATH- AWAS aren’t quite as romantic!) come from the specific woods they employ. Kokutan is a distinctive black­brown striped high-density hardwood from the yeddo hawthorn, while asada zakura (also known as ostrya japonica) is a durable hardwood derived from the East Asian hophornbeam tree.

Acoustics apart, one of the selling points is that every pair of Audio Technical Wooden headphones is as unique as a fingerprint or snowflake, on account of the distinctive patterns of the grain.

But there’s more to them than the wood. Audio Technical proprietary Double Air Damping System (DADS), found in all the firm’s closed-back headphones, internally- divides the earcups into two separate acoustic chambers. Doing so, we’re told, ensures “smooth bass reproduction”.

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Joining said cups to the adjustable headband are light but strong magnesium-alloy arms that can be angled to provide optimal ear contact. Also playing a key role in the 395gm Asada Zakura’s sonic presentation are 40 Ohm 53mm drivers. Contributing to a sensitivity of 99dB/mW these “diamond-like carbon-coated” marvels are said to bring to the listening experience “rich overtones, gentle low range, and well- defined middle-to-high frequencies”.

The generously-proportioned earpads and headband are covered by a synthetic-leather material for comfort.As one might expect from headphones of this stature, their packaging is suitably luxurious and the natural half-gloss finish of the earcups impeccable.

Audio Technica have also paid attention to the cabling.Two 3 metre sets of high-purity copper cables, which plug into A2DC connectors on the earcup bases, are supplied.

“rich overtones, gentle low range, and well-defined middle-to-high frequencies”.

One is terminated in a 6.3mm plug (a cumbersome 3.5mm adaptor, not provided, would be necessary for portables), while the other has a 4-pin XLR plug for headphone amplifiers that make provision for balanced outputs – again, you’ll need an adaptor (XLR socket to 2.5mm) for portables with this type of interface. Balanced connections can deliver benefits in terms of dynamic range and channel separation, if implemented correctly.And with headphones like this, the difference should be audible!

PERFORMANCE

Thanks to the design of their frame and earpads, these ‘phones are a good fit and isolate well from external noise.Their half-kilo weight isn’t a problem, but over time your ears can get warm on account of the intimacy that aids their performance. I found the sweat that accumulates to be a mild annoyance on occasions. But does the sound compensate for this?

Helping me answer the question was hardware like the FiiO K5 Pro also reviewed this issue, in addition to more familiar headphone DACs like my Chord Hugo TT and Prism Callia.The sources driving these units included a Cambridge CXN (fed with CD and hi-res FLAC material, as well as DSD and 320kbps streams of BBC Radios 3 and 4) and a vinyl playback system comprising a Technics SLI200 Mk3 with Audio Technica AT440MLb MM cart and Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Ultra. In all cases, I relied on the unbalanced 6.3mm connection.

If you’re splashing out more than a grand on a pair of headphones you have every right to expect something special. The fine detailing and layering are of a very high standard, and it’s possible to hear the differences between the three headphone DACs outlined above – the Asada Zakuras played to the strengths of each – for example the Chord’s organic flow and the sheer resolving-power of the Gallia.

At no time did I detect any fatiguing strain, the tell-tale sign of drive difficulties. In the FiiO review, I noted how good these ‘phones sounded with the Penderecki/Polish NRSO/Gibbons performance of Gorecki’s “Sorrowful Symphony” (FLAC CD rip).The strings of the first movement were rich and vibrant – the virtues of Audio Technical choice of wood, maybe, although Gibbons vocal sounded a tad ‘warm’ (as did Radio 4 speech).

Emily Palen’s solo violin, as heard in the DSD recording Light in the Fracture (DSD64) was imparted with astounding realism and insight, and although imaging isn’t quite up to the standards of the world’s best headphones – a frequent criticism of closed designs – you’re still given a good sense of the performance space. Orchestral composition is also evident, with no ‘holes in the middle’.

Electronic (Kraftwerk’s Man­Machine, CD rip), dance (a collection of classic ‘80s house, CD rip) and rock (a CD rip of Steve Hackett’s Voyage of the Acolyte, amongst other albums) benefit from the Asada Zakuras’ rhythmic snap and punch, tracks being driven along with clarity, verve and pace.The bass synths and/ or guitars that you’ll usually find in such music were taut and bestowed with the depth they need – no flab here.

CONCLUSION

These big and beautiful headphones were at home with a wide variety of programme material.Apart from those traces of vocal warmth, the Asada Zakuras are neutral;Audio Technica has, thankfully restricted sonic character to that unique real- wood finish – no two pairs are the same.They’re comfortable, and a good fit, but sweat can be problematic. In all though, an impressive package.

OUTSTANDING – amongst the best.

VERDICT

8 Total Score
AUDIO TECHNICA ATH-AWAS ASADA ZAKURA Review

Very musical in nature, and with a ‘wow’ visual factor.

PROS
  • dynamic and responsive across the range
  • superb with strings and piano
  • a good, comfortable fit
CONS
  • traces of warmth
  • heavy/sweaty
  • not for portable use
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