When it comes to in-ear headphones priced above $100, often the question is not if they are good or bad, but rather how good are they and if they represent a good value in terms of their price to sound ratio. The price is often dictated by a number of drivers used in a design, typically in $100-$200 range for a single BA driver and then approximately $100 more for every additional driver. The sound quality is not as predictable and left to manufacturer interpretation of how they think it should be reproduced and delivered to your ears. In my opinion, sound quality is the most important factor, though we would like price to be reasonable too. That is why after careful examination of Audio Technica's new line of IEMs ATH-IM01/02/03/04, I decided to review their dual driver IM02 model. It was a step back from my previous reviews of quad driver models from UE and Westone, but I found it to be an excellent decision, and after a few days of testing I can confirm they deliver an excellent value if you are serious about stepping into a world of audiophile sounds. Here is what I found.
I always start with a packaging of the product, and here Audio Technica didn't disappoint. Beside high quality images, full list of included accessories, and spec in both Japanese and English, it also includes an internal component breakdown to show you in details every piece of the design. I find such presentation to be very educational. Speaking of accessories, IM02 includes 3 pairs of silicone eartips, one pair of Comply foam tips, and a quality storage case. Though I don't consider cables to be an accessory, the new IM line of AT headphones now feature detachable cables which can be replaced in case of failure. As we all know a cable failure is very common with headphones, so being able to replace these is a big bonus. Here, AT decided to use 2 pin connector which is key-shaped to be attached in only one way with a very secure snap. To assist with behind the ear fitment, the only way these could be worn, there is a memory wire portion right after the connector to form a secure and comfortable loop. The same goes for the headphone earpieces itself, I found the design to have an ergonomic shape with a very comfortable fitment inside of my ear.
Doesn't happen often, but I was actually very pleased with a storage case included with these headphones since it has a generous rectangular shape to fit headphones with cables without a need to bend pre-shaped memory wires. Nothing is more annoying than spending time re-shaping the wire every time you take it out of the storage case when it's too small. The wire itself is very high quality, almost reminding me of electrical appliance shielded wires, but obviously thinner and more flexible. There is also a chin slider after the y-splitter to enhance behind the ear fitment. At the end of the wire you have 90 degree gold plated 3.5mm connector. There is no in-line remote/mic, but since this cable is replaceable I hope they will offer it in a future.
As I mentioned before, the sound quality is the most important factor for me. I didn't know what to expect since my previous experience was either with single or quad BA drivers. IM02 features a dual driver design with a separate woofer and mid-high driver. After initial burn-in, I was left speechless with a high quality of the sound. To summarize the sound signature of these IEMs, they are balanced analytical headphones with a very detailed bright sound and great transparency. I'm going to be honest, in the past I wasn't a fan of analytical detailed sound because other headphones I tested, like Etymotic for example, had a very harsh revealing sound with absolute lack of bass. Though IM02 doesn't have a very strong bass presence, it offers a very detailed and rich low end with a full body and actually a noticeable quantity. Mids are the star of these headphones with a detailed and very natural delivery, especially when it comes to vocals. Listening to these headphones made me realize how unnatural vocals sound with a lot of my other headphones. I also realized how much I was missing with a lot of my other v-shaped headphones where mids are typically recessed. Treble was also very detailed and had a nice sparkle to it. I do have to mention, that when I first put IM02 on, bass was not as tight and I felt upper mids/treble to be on a harsh side (with some borderline sibilance). But after 4-5 hours of burn in, bass tightened up and extended down to sub-bass level, and highs became smoother and easier on my ears. I was doing a lot of a/b comparison with other IEMs to make sure it's not just my brain burn-in. Furthermore, I found soundstage to be spacious, definitely above average quality. With regard to sound forgiveness, due to analytical nature of these IEMs you will have to stick with 320kbps as a minimum to enjoy your sounds. I had no problem driving it from either my Sansa Clip+ or X5 audio players as well as Galaxy Note 2.
Overall, I found Audio Technica ATH-IM02 to be one outstanding pair of headphones. Beside an excellent build quality and comfortable fit, they have one of the best ear-friendly analytical sound signatures with an exceptionally balanced and natural timbre. Often headphones could be a one-trick pony to cater to one specific crowd, while these will capture a wide audience from EDM, pop/rock, to jazz and classical. For some, perhaps the mids will be a little too revealing and upfront which could be easily tamed with EQ while still retaining the natural sound. But you can't do that with other headphones where boosting recessed mids adds unnatural artifacts. I actually heard that ATH-IM03 model with an additional driver is smoother on mids, but to determine if sound quality improvement worth a higher price - that's something I hope to find out if I get a chance to test IM03. But as of now I'm putting ATH-IM02 at the top of my list since none of the other headphones in my review collection have the same unique natural revealing sound signature. I also want to bring to everyone's attention that within next few weeks these headphones (IM0x models) will be available from US authorized dealers, where IM02 should debut for $200 or less. Though these already available on Amazon as an import from Japan, Audio Technica US can only honor their 2 year warranty on units purchased from authorized US re-sellers.
Here are the pictures.