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Becky Scarrott

Audio-Technica’s new headphones use ‘ancient wood’ to offer unique sound

Audio-Technica ATH-AWKG on black background, with TR's 'Money no Object' franchise branding.
Money no object

We love to give practical buying advice on the latest gadgets, here at TechRadar. But sometimes what we love more is to indulge in the most ridiculous, high-end, cutting-edge, luxurious tech on the planet. That's what we bring you in these Money no object columns – you can read the whole series here.

Want to treat yourself – and I mean really indulge your love of music by splurging on something so exclusive (and frankly, expensive) it can't even get involved in our audiophile-friendly best wired headphones guide? Stay with me. 

Audio-Technica has just unveiled a set of headphones called the ATH-AWKG high-fidelity wooden headphones. This new model blends the brand’s famed Japanese craftsmanship (which spans everything from the iconic vinyl-playing Sound Burger to inexpensive LDAC earbuds and on to $10,000 / £8,900 W2022 headphones) with cutting-edge technology and superior audio. 

But so far, so Audio-Technica, right? Yes, the new headphones are handcrafted in the heart of Tokyo and yes, they boast exceptional sound quality alongside a striking design. But what's the USP? And how on earth are they able to justify their $4,200 / £3,000 (around AU$6,365) asking fee? 

Every day is a learning day, and what I'm about to explain involves the acquisition, drying and lacquering of a very specific type of wood that's only found in trees over a century old. So strap in, music-lovers, we're heading back in time…   

Audio-Technica ATH-AWKG: what are they? 

In the simplest sense, the ATH-AWKG are very expensive and beautiful wired headphones. But Audio-Technica is sitting on over 60 years of hi-fi heritage here, the company has earned the right to flex a little. 

When Hideo Matsushita founded Audio-Technica in Japan in 1962, (the company is run to this day by Kazuo Matsushita, his son) he did so with the philosophy that high-quality audio should be accessible to all. In a small Shinjuku apartment above a ramen store, he began developing cartridges, inspired by vinyl listening sessions he attended at the Bridgestone Museum of Arts in Tokyo. His first two products, the AT-1 and AT-3, achieved success meant Hideo could open a larger headquarters in Machida, where the company still operates today. 

While the company made its name manufacturing phonograph cartridges and tonearms, I think Hideo would be proud to see his company's output of inexpensive audio products such as the fantastic (and refreshingly affordable) ATH-SQ1TW earbuds, the Audio-Technica AT-LP60XBT entry-level turntable and the Audio-Technica S220BT cheap headphones with giant battery, to name but a few.

But the ATH-AWKG headphones are nothing like those products. These cans are built using wood – which Audio-Technica has actually been doing for 28 years now, although the wood used here is something else again. For an example of Audio-Technica's flagship over-ear wooden efforts to date, I might point you towards the Audio-Technica ATH-WP900, but even those cannot be compared to these. 

So let's dig down into what makes them worth shouting about… 

They certainly come well-presented…  (Image credit: Audio-Technica)

Audio-Technica ATH-AWKG: what makes them special?

Every day is a learning day, isn't it? Until today, I'd never heard of Kurogaki, a type of wood only found in trees over 100 years old and billed as a cherished material. Audio-Technica says that it "exhibits black ink-like patterns", and because the drying process "requires extensive knowledge and expertise, it is something that is revered across Japan". 

The company says that ATH-AWKG’s hand-applied lacquer finish will emphasize the richness of the wood grain – a beauty that Audio-Technica says "will only deepen with age".

It's paired with sheepskin in the the ATH-AWKG’s earpads, for a traditional and all-natural combination.

But this is Audio-Technica and however good the wooden build is, you still need superior drivers to get audiophile-grade sound, right? Don't worry, the ATH-AWKG headphones are equipped with exclusive 53mm drivers featuring German Permendur magnetic circuitry to boast "exceptionally accurate audio with an expansive sound field", according to A-T.

These headphones also come in a storage box that's covered in Kurogaki wood, with braided headphone cables prevent tangling – two detachable 3m cables with A2DC (Audio Designed Detachable Coaxial) connectors at the headphones; one with a 6.3 mm (1/4") gold-plated stereo plug, the other with a 4-pin XLR-M balanced connector.

If you want moody headphones, you can't do much better…  (Image credit: Audio-Technica)

Audio-Technica ATH-AWKG: are they worth it?

Let me be completely clear: if you only listen to Spotify Free (I might point you to the welcome news that Tidal just got a price cut and its audio quality vastly exceeds anything Spotify can offer) on your smartphone, these headphones will not make much sense – and not because very few smartphones sport an actual headphones jack these days (the Sony Xperia 1 V, aka my pick for the best-sounding smartphone, and the new the new ZTE Nubia Music Phone are the two main exceptions).

If, however, you're prepared to invest in one of the best hi-res audio players or a streaming DAC/headphone amp such as the excellent FiiO R9 (with all of the headphone ports on the front of it you could wish for) along with a paid-for subscription to one or more of the best music streaming services, these are aimed squarely at your audiophile hungry needs. 

Maybe you have a separate dedicated analogue hi-fi setup, ideally next to a comfy listening chair where you like to rest your headphones. The Audio-Technica ATH-AWKG may well be just what you need, friend. 

I haven't had the pleasure of testing the ATH-AWKG (I doubt that will happen; they're really very expensive and available only in limited quantities) but the concept resonates with me. Audio-Technica isn't alone in seeking to harness the unique acoustics provided by a wooden design – look to Canadian specialist Riverwood Acoustics (a firm that employs local "eco divers" to retrieve timber felled by Canadian lumberjacks more than 100 years ago, to then use in its speakers. I covered this for TechRadar's sister publication, What Hi-Fi? in 2019) or the Sivga Oriole, for a few notable examples. 

Ultimately, Audio-Technica's been a leader in hi-fi for more than 60 years and has been crafting wooden headphones for the past 28 of those, so if ever you were going to invest in a wooden design, A-T's experience and revered craftsmanship speaks for itself. 

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