Audio-Technica was an early innovator in hi-fi headphones, and if the ATH-AWKT “Kotukan” is any indication, they’re still going strong today. Developed alongside the ATH-AWAS, Kotukan is the result of decades of refinement in style and engineering. Let’s take a closer look at how it looks, and – more importantly – how it sounds.
The Build and Design
If you couldn’t guess by the name, the Japanese Kotukan hardwood used for the earcups is the primary focus on the headphone’s design. The mix of leather, plastic, and stainless steel used for the rest of the construction is simple and functional, while the earcups add a note of style and luxury. Aspects of the headphone seem just a little bit too plasticy for nearly $2000 headphones, but the overall look and feel is premium and well constructed. Materials aside, they’re fairly light and quite comfortable. The ear pads are just slightly on the firm side, and the headband conforms nicely to your head and distributes the weight well.
Kotukan ships in a wood box with the headphones and cables inside. The cables are 8’ long with a durable rubber housing, and use an A2DC connector. Both unbalanced 6.3mm and balanced XLR are included. Overall, I’d say that both the packaging and the design of headphones themselves are highly functional with excellent presentation. There’s nothing particularly flashy, just some elegant, well built headphones in a very nice sturdy box. So they look good, but how do they sound?
Kotukan is neutral, transparent, and incredibly detailed. I can say that about a lot of headphones, but what sets Kotukan apart is its massive soundstage, and how well each element of the sound interacts with it. First it creates a huge sense of space, then the three dimensional imaging places everything neatly inside the space. The incredible detail fills in the complete picture of each instrument and singer, while the tuning provides a balanced, natural, and transparent response that lets you see the whole picture without any aspect overshadowing the others. What makes Kotukan even more impressive is that it delivers all of this in a closed-back headphone. It never feels claustrophobic or closed in, rather it feels like it’s isolated you in your own little world – but that world is far from “little.”
The impeccable production of Radiohead’s “Identikit” provides a perfect demonstration of Kotukan’s prowess. The song starts with just the drums. There’s a nice snap on the muted snare hits and impact on the bass drum. A guitar comes in on your left, then another on the right. Ethereal voices in the background, and the leads vocals come in front and center. Voices multiply, then fade, and finally the full band comes in with droning guitars on either side with the bass playing counterpoint to the melody. At the softer points, you’re up close in a small setting with the band, but as the song builds to its biggest moments, the Kotukan places you in the middle of an open air stadium with voices and instruments on every side.
The Beatles’ Abbey Road album comes alive with Kotukan. All the instruments, from the band to the orchestra, have a natural timbre, with good dynamics between them. The remaster of the album is pretty consistent with where it places each Beatle on the stage, and Kotukan’s imaging delivers an immersive experience. The “Golden Slumbers/Carry the Weight/The End” sequence is a great example of this, as it shifts from just Paul and the piano, to a more orchestra driven section, and then finally to some good old fashioned rock and roll. Kotukan feels right at home through all of the shifts in instrumentation and dynamics, delivering the quiet moments with emotion, the orchestra with power and depth, and the loud sections with energy and impact.
On Esperanza Spalding’s “Loro” the upright bass has a smooth round feel with the kick drum and toms providing a good sense of underlying physical impact. Esperanza’s voice – often mirroring or prefiguring her basslines – comes off as soft and sweet. The bass is incredibly detailed and textured, but not overpowering while the piano is lively and bright. Kotukan puts you in the middle of the stage for a private, personal performance.
So far I’ve kept it pretty light, so I had to try out something heavy. Metallica’s “Battery” seemed like just the ticket. The opening acoustic guitars sound warm and natural, lulling you into a false sense of security, and then the band kicks in with huge harmony guitars. The song kicks into gear, with a double rhythm guitar attack that sounds like it could melt your ears through the headphones. Kotukan delivers every detail with an almost violent energy. Despite the brutal assault, everything remains well separated and composed, with each instrument and layer being easily discerned through even the loudest, most chaotic sections.
Comparison: Audio Technica ATH-AWAS, Focal Stellia
Top of the line closed-back headphones are a tough game. The general consensus is that for pure, unadulterated sound quality, open-back is preferred, so once you move away from more portable options, there are only a handful of closed-back headphones which provide sound quality and experience that holds up to the price. The Focal Stellia is considered one of the best, if not the best audiophile closed-back headphone, so it warrants a comparison. Also for comparison is the AWKT’s little brother, ATH-AWAS “Zakura.”
The Zakura is an easy comparison to the Kotukan, they have nearly identical design and aesthetics, and a similar sound signature. The big difference is that Zakura provides a little bit more low end, but at the cost of the impressive technicalities of Kotukan. The soundstage isn’t quite so massive, the imaging is a little less clear, and the detail feels turned down a notch. Basically, the Kotukan feels perfectly tuned for the detail oriented critical listener, while Zakura is toned down just a little bit to make a tuning that’s more “fun” and friendly for more casual listening.
The Stellia is one of the best closed-back headphones in the world, with an incredible level of detail, fast response, and an excellent soundstage. Right now you might be saying, “That sounds a lot like what you’re saying about the Kotukan!” and it’s true: there are a lot of similarities between the two. Both are highly detailed, neutral, transparent closed back headphones – they even both provide premium unboxing experiences. The big differences come down to specifics of the tuning and the precise allocation of all those attributes. Kotukan can’t match the detail or the fast response of the Stellia, but it has the edge in soundstage and imaging. The extra touch of bass in the Stellia also provides improved impact and physicality, and makes it work with a broader array of genres where bass response is more important. And while I love the simple design and wood finish of the Kotukan’s ear cups, Stellia has a more premium look and feel for the rest of its materials, and has a sturdier construction. So, while the Stellia remains the king of closed-backs, the Kotukan certainly provided a strong challenge, especially considering its lower price point.
The Bottom Line
Kotukan delivers an incredible experience in an impeccably crafted package. Spacious and transparent, it transports you to a massive amphitheater that you can fill with music for your own private concert. Kotukan is a great headphone in its own right, and one of the best closed-back headphones in the world.