Astell&Kern refreshes its UW100 wireless earbuds

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Astell&Kern UW100 MK II wireless earbuds and charging case.

We’re guessing Astell&Kern (A&K) must have been pretty happy with how its first wireless earbuds — the A&K UW100 — worked out because the company has just announced a second generation and you’ll need to look very closely to find the changes. The Astell&Kern UW100 MK II will be available in September for the same $299 price as the original.

On the outside, the MK II look exactly the same as their predecessors. A&K has kept the same two-tone, rounded pentagon shape, which, while a bit on the big side, has still proven to be quite comfortable. Even the internal components are unchanged — A&K has kept the single full-range Knowles balanced armature (BA) driver, which it powers using a combo of its own amp technology and an Asahi Kasei AKM 32-bit Hi-Fi digital-to-analog converter (DAC). The earbuds make use of Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codec to deliver up to 24-bit/96kHz hi-res audio when used with a compatible Android smartphone.

Woman wearing Astell&Kern UW100 MK II wireless earbuds.

The biggest difference seems to be a repositioning of the BA driver with the acoustic shell. It’s been moved towards the inside of the ear, which A&K says will better deliver finer audio details more directly. The acoustic chamber structure and mesh size have also been re-designed “multiple times” to work with the new BA driver position.  The new design took “numerous attempts to minimize sound diffusion to provide a more delicate and dynamic performance and a richer high-frequency expression,” according to the company’s press release.

As with the first-gen, A&K has consciously avoided integrating active noise cancellation (ANC) into the MK II, sticking instead with the earbuds’ passive noise isolation (PNI) capabilities. The company argues that unlike generic ANC, which it says normally concentrates on canceling low-frequency noise, PNI can efficiently cancel unwanted ambient noise in the mid and high ranges, as well as higher-pitched sounds. A transparency feature with four mode options lets the outside world in when you need it.

Astell&Kern UW100 MK II wireless earbuds held in hand.

Though A&K didn’t specifically call them out as new features, the MK II appears to have a few other tweaks to help differentiate them from the originals. Battery life is now better — instead of six hours of use on a single charge and up to 24 hours when you include the case, A&K says you’ll get 9.5 hours and up to 29 hours respectively.

Speaking of the wireless-capable charging case, it has also received a small redesign. It now features a hexagonal shape, with a larger LED indicator on the front.

When I tested the first-gen UW100, I noted that call quality was especially disappointing given how much better earbuds that cost less than a third of the price perform on this task. The new version uses Qualcomm clear voice capture generation 8.0 technology, which A&K says should improve the calling situation. The MK II also benefit from Google Fast Pair support.

Finally, the new earbuds get a feature I hoped to see added to the first-gen: full manual control of EQ within the A&K mobile app. The custom setting is in addition to the existing EQ presets from the first generation.

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