Audio-Technica ATH-CK3TW review: Decent, affordable true wireless earbuds

However, there are some caveats.

There's no denying the ATH-CK3TW was Audio-Technica's most interesting announcement at IFA. The prospect of $99 true wireless earbuds from a company you could trust to deliver decent sound could have a huge impact on the competition. And even though the company increased the price to $119 before they went on sale, the point stands. Audio-Technica already has premium and mid-range options. Now it's trying to bring its true wireless formula to a budget device. And as you might expect, a cheaper price comes with a few sacrifices.

The ATH-CK3TW is slightly smaller than Audio-Technica's ATH-CKS5TW that I reviewed in December. The new model still has the longer extension that sticks further into your ear. But, the overall size is reduced, making the ATH-CK3TW a bit more discreet. That Audio-Technica opted for an oval-shape instead of the large circles of the CKS5TWs probably helps too. The reduced size is probably part of the reason the company opted for touch functionality, instead of keeping the physical controls, with the sensors to accept your taps positioned on the outside of both earbuds.

Audio-Technica says the ATH-CK3TW is IPX2-rated against dripping water. That's in stark contrast to most of the competition that usually goes the extra mile for IPX4 or IPX5. Devices with those ratings can withstand splashes or low-pressure spray, respectively. What's more, Audio-Technica warns that the tip, or section that goes into your ear, isn't drip-proof. That protection only applies to the outside part of the earbuds. There's no mention of sweat, and due to the IPX2 rating not covering a key element, I'm not entirely sure these could withstand regular sweaty workouts. Basically, the outside is protected against rain, but that's about it.

Audio-Technica ATH-CK3TW review

The charging case is different, too. For the ATH-CK3TW, Audio-Technica constructed a taller flip-top holder that stands upright on its own -- even when it's open. The competition doesn't always achieve this, and when they don't, it's frustrating. Most of the time you have to put earbuds in a specific spot to get them to snap into place in a case. With the ATH-CK3TWs, if you get anywhere close the hardware finishes the job for you. The magnets are noticeably stronger than normal. This isn't something that should sway your buying decision, but it's a design choice that's worth pointing out.

There's a USB-C jack on the side for charging, with a single red LED indicator that lets you know when the whole set is powering up. It doesn't flash or offer any other kind of status update that's common in cases like this. There's a white light on the buds themselves as well, but again, it only tells you when they're actively charging, in pairing mode or connected to a device, not how much battery they have left.

Like the ATH-CKS5TW, the part of the ATH-CK3TW earbuds that goes into your ear is slightly longer than other models I've tested. To me, that makes them a lot less comfortable. I felt the same way about the Klipsch T5. Even though the buds feel lighter than the previous model, I still experienced serious discomfort in my ear canals. And in less than an hour, I felt like I needed to take a break. Of course, all ears are different, and you might not have the same experience. But I found the ATH-CK3TW noticeably less comfortable compared to the likes of the Jabra Elite 75t and the BackBeat Pro 5100 that are small, light and painless.

For those touch controls, Audio-Technica put volume adjustments on the left side and track controls on the right. A single tap on the left earbud increases volume while a double tap will lower it. This sounds simple enough, but when you want to turn the audio way down, and you're in a hurry to do so, it feels like you're tapping forever. Not to mention that you have to be careful to double tap each time. On the right side, single tap for play/pause, double tap to skip tracks forward and triple tap to skip tracks backwards. This works better than the volume control, but mastering that triple tap takes some practice. A long press on the right earbud will activate you voice assistant of choice.

Audio-Technica did include one feature I don't always see on mid- to low-priced earbuds: automatic pausing/ear detection. For some reason it isn't enabled by default, and turning it on is a guessing game that took me a few tries, but it's there and it works well. If earbuds don't automatically pause when you remove them, it usually means you have to scramble for your phone or deal with the low hum of audio while you have a conversation. It's not ideal, so I'm glad to see a handy feature like this make the cut on a $119 set.

In terms of sound quality, the ATH-CK3TW is a mixed bag. There is some of the "trademark" Audio-Technica audio profile here: great clarity and a warm overall tone. Treble, mids and bass stand on their own, but never overpower one another. Unlike the ATH-CKS5TW, that remains consistent even at high volumes. In other words, treble doesn't begin to dominate the mix to the point of becoming unpleasant. My main gripe with the sound on the ATH-CK3TW is that it feels flat. The audio doesn't have the openness or depth that the best true wireless earbuds offer. Here, bombastic metal like Gojira or ambient rock like Caspian loses its teeth, and it's left sounding compressed, lacking the energy or texture I know the music exhibits.

Audio-Technica ATH-CK3TW review

Audio-Technica is promising six hours of battery life on the buds themselves here. In 2020, that's ... fine. A lot of the competition now offers around 10 hours, and A-T itself has a model that can manage over 15. Of course, these are firmly a budget option, so I'm willing to forgive this figure a bit. Indeed, the ATH-CK3TW lasted just over seven hours during my tests. What's more, the included charging case holds 30 additional hours of play time. That's five full charges. Most of the competition only offers two or three. Based on my experience, you won't be reaching for a cable very often.

At $119, Audio-Technica is offering a much more affordable option than many of the big names in headphones. Before now, its cheapest set was the ATH-CKS5TW at $169. Those earbuds do have insane battery life, but as I've already mentioned, the overall audio quality was disappointing. Jabra's Elite 75t is another great option, but they're even more expensive at $180. And the best is still Sony's WF-1000XM3, which goes for around $230 (unless you can find a deal). There are clear caveats with the ATH-CK3TW, but if other companies follow suit, hopefully we'll see some compelling mid-range options from the likes of Sony, Sennheiser and others.

The Audio-Technica ATH-CK3TW has a very important thing working is its favor: price. Even though Apple has helped make true wireless earbuds a popular accessory, the cheapest AirPods still start at $159 (barring a sale). If a company can knock an additional $40 or more off the asking price and still muster good sound, solid features and decent battery life, that's huge. Audio-Technica gave that endeavor a valiant effort, but unfortunately you'll have to decide which, or how many, sacrifices you're willing to live with in the interest of saving money.

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