Astell&Kern has continued to roll out amazing collaborations with some of the world’s top IEM creators. In the past they’ve worked with notable brands like Campfire Audio, Jerry Harvey, and Empire Ears to deliver high-end IEMs that capture the spirit of both Astell&Kern and their collaborators. Now Astell&Kern has teamed up with German IEM legends Vision Ears for the limited edition Aura. Can this collaboration fully capture the precision in sound and design both brands are famous for?
Build and Design
Vision Ears flagship IEMs have a reputation for not just incredible sound performance, but also lavishly appointed designs that stand out from the average aluminum or resin IEM. Aura takes that Vision Ears pedigree along with Astell&Kern’s prowess to give you an absolute stunner of an IEM. Both in terms of looks and materials, it’s one of the few IEMs that really exudes the sense of luxury you’d expect from a $4199 product.
The visuals are complemented by the unboxing experience and the package itself which includes 3.5mm and 4.4mm cables, a soft leather case, protective IEM sleeves, AZLA eartips, a cleaning cloth, and the requisite warranty/authenticity card. The case is top notch, but I will caution that temperature or moisture changes can cause it to form an airtight seal that’s hard to break. The included cables are a specially designed Effect Audio Silver Copper hybrid. Visually it’s a great match for the IEMs, and the hardware and appointments are excellent, but the feel doesn’t quite match up to flagship cable expectations.
While Vision Ears’ VE-series models stay closer to a reference tuning, their flagship models have always injected more musicality into the equation. Sonicially, Aura continues in the tradition of the flagship Phonix and Phonix LE. Phonix had 13 BA drivers tuned to deliver a distinct warm character combined with an exceptional level of resolution while Phonix LE retuned the drivers with some updated tech to add more shimmer in the highs, more depth to the bass, and less warmth or color in the midrange. Aura switches things up with a 9 BA drivers and two DDs which combine to capture aspects of both, while adding something original as well.
In the low-end, Aura has a strong focus in the subbass, but still hits pretty hard in the midbass. The dual DD setup delivers fast, focused bass that’s fun without feeling exaggerated or bloated. Aura provides a highly detailed and textured presentation of low-end instruments, with plenty of grit in your synth bass, and good pluck in your acoustic bass.
The midrange is balanced well, with just a hint of warmth in the highly natural, organic presentation. While vocals have a feeling of intimacy, they’re not overly “up front.” There’s a generally relaxed feeling to the midrange, that leaves it up to the listener as to whether they want to stand at attention to pick out every last nuance in the intricate layers of sound, or just sit back and enjoy the music.
Aura’s treble is largely well balanced, with a touch of extra air and sparkle. There’s strong extension though the upper treble, which can feel slightly bright at times, but it’s largely balanced out by the fullness of the bass and mids. The emphasis in the low bass and upper treble gives you an almost “U-shaped” feeling, though ultimately it’s quite well balanced throughout. If you’re looking to catch the subtleties in the fingerwork of a skilled guitarist, or the last bit of breath exhaling as a soprano extends a note to her breaking point, it’s all nicely highlighted in Aura’s treble, but it’s never so revealing as to become unforgiving.
Aura presents a wide, three-dimensional soundstage, with a strong sense of cohesion and weight to the image. Instruments and voices are clearly placed, with a natural feeling of depth and separation. The soundstage is large, but not exceedingly so, offering realism with a touch of intimacy rather than a vast diffuse space.
“If Not Now, When” by Incubus gives you a great example of Aura’s natural, realistic imaging. The song is a tour de force for vocalist Brandon Boyd, demonstrating his range, dynamics, and sustain. The band remains steady throughout, putting the burden of keeping the attention of the listener on the vocals. The problem with this is that your average headphones don’t really do justice to the more subtle elements of the performance, and leave it as a “pretty good” rock ballad. Aura’s intimate vocal presentation, strong resolution, dynamics, and lifelike imaging, bring out the fullness in the emotion, and power in the performance, elevating the song to the next level.
In terms of vocals, Aura is equally adept with male and female vocals, as demonstrated by Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire.” Along with excellent vocal delivery, “Vampire” gets Aura’s low end pumping, giving you a bass that’s fun, physical, deep, and textured without feeling exaggerated. Aura also deftly manages the complicated layering you’d associate with top pop artists, giving life and body to each element of the recording.
Listening with Aura, the choirs at the start of Thomas Bergerson’s “Sparks” instantly pull you in, giving way to a delicate piano line and the string section building around it. At the start, the texture of the smaller ensemble instruments is almost palpable, and as the orchestra builds, each new part and layer carries the same depth as the first, letting listeners put themselves either in the seats of the concert hall, or in the seat of the performer, taking in the full character and feeling of each instrument.
Comparison: Empire Ears Raven ($3599)
Aura wasn’t the only highly anticipated, wallet-busting IEM to come out this summer, as Empire Ears also released a flagship IEM that checks a lot of the same boxes as Aura in terms of technical performance, sound quality, and craftsmanship. If you can only get one of these top of the line IEMS in your ears, it’s going to be a tough choice, so which way should you go?
In terms of the quality of the build, design, and packaging, Aura and Raven are pretty close. The packages have about the same level of completeness and quality – even down to having the same number of eartips, but the build and physical design provide more distinction. Both demonstrate very high build quality – and I’m sure different folks will prefer either the glossy black look Raven or the high class luxury design of Aura – but there’s a large divergence in the fit. Compared to Raven, Aura is noticeably smaller and lighter and slimmer. There are some ergonomic aspects of Raven I preferred, but for listeners with smaller ears that have had issues with the escalating size and complexity of flagship IEMs, Aura might be exactly what you need.
In terms of the sound, there are a number of similarities – from the deep bass to the airy treble – but a number of clear differences in the overall character. A big piece of the difference is how the bone conduction and EST drivers present their piece of the frequency spectrum differently than dynamic and balanced armature drivers. Raven extends deeper into the bass with a heavier rumble, and delivers a more vivid, in-your-face treble, along with a larger soundstage and a more holographic sense to the imaging. Aura doesn’t quite match Raven’s technical qualities, but instead delivers something more natural and cohesive.
For an insanely vivid, larger than life experience, Raven is second to none, but Aura’s more lush delivery has its own allure. If you’re looking for an IEM that puts you on the edge of your seat for a white knuckled listening session, Raven is the way to go. If you’d rather strike a balance between revealing micro-detail and a more down-to-earth presentation, Aura gives you all the same sonic information as Raven, but with a more natural, relaxed presentation.
Being a limited edition collaboration, Aura isn’t exactly Vision Ears’ new flagship IEM, but it sounds like it could be. It balances elements from Phonix and Phonix LE, while adding a new flavor to the sound with the dynamic drivers. Along with that, the unique design combines with the comfort to provide the sort of luxury that’s hard to find in the often “sound first” world of top of the line IEMs. Aura is a near perfect flagship for the listener looking to balance comfort, style, and sound in the total flagship package.