I suggest you read my Zenith review, because much of what I’m about to say about the Aten’s sound uses that review as context. As such, my impressions here won’t be as exhaustive, simply because they don’t need to be.
That the Aten is a better sounding IEM than the Zenith was obvious to me even before the mandatory 140-hour burn-in period was done (and if you don’t believe in burn-in, the way the Aten’s sound evolves in that first week of listening might just change your mind). Even with the default black-on-black default filter and nozzle combination, gone was the bombastic bass of the Zenith and cavernous ‘gap’ between the bass mountain and midrange valleys, replaced by an equally powerful but far more nuanced presentation that seemed to fill out the entire frequency landscape without any notable dips or spikes.
I spent a good while going through the different filter combinations – as you probably should as well – so what I’m about to say might seem strange, but hear me out. Don’t stray too far from the default. Yes, it seems to be Bob’s way of doing things to give users as much choice as possible when it comes to fine-tuning his IEMs, but invariably he’s tuned them with a signature in mind that, in my experience, doesn’t stray too far from how he ships them configured.
For example, while previous reviewers of the Zenith (and more recently the Aten) have tended to pick the red or purple/pink filters for bass, I feel that not only is the amount of bass with the black filter not excessive, but is also of higher quality than the other options. Likewise, all the new treble nozzles bar blue use dampening to attenuate both the highs and mids, and as Bob himself suggested, using the blue nozzle – which lets the sound through unaltered – also presents the Aten in its purest form.
So, try the different options (and wonder, like I did, why anyone would voluntarily use the oddly-tuned gold filters), but I guarantee you that spending some time with the original black/black or black/blue combinations will ultimately win you over because they maximise the strengths of the design.
Let’s not pull any punches: the Aten, like its older cousins, is a bass monster. I’d expect nothing less from a 14mm dynamic driver sat a few millimeters from my eardrums. But unlike the Zenith or R1 before it, the Aten’s revised driver shows more control, texture and nuance to the bass, something you’ll instantly pick up on when listening to bass-laden electronica from Daft Punk or bass-infused live instruments.
The glorious bassline that kicks in at the 20s mark of Daft Punk’s ‘Doin’ It Right’ can rattle your jaw if you’re not careful. The sub bass rumble is palpable, and the mid bass punch is equally intoxicating, but neither overwhelm the robotic effects or human vocals. This speaks to the control the Aten exhibits while wielding such a potent weapon, elevating it above much cheaper implementations of dynamic driver bass typical of budget mid-fi IEMs that seem to be flooding the market.
That the subtle midrange and treble details aren’t obscured in the face of its explosive bass delivery is a sign that Bob has learned from both his previous attempts and knew exactly what needed to be done to get the balance just right. This is not boomy Beats bass, demonstrating very natural attack and decay that makes it feel more lifelike than forced. Listen to Diana Krall’s ‘Temptation’ and you’ll hear all the texture and nuance of the double bass without any overt colouration.
Of course, by that I don’t mean that the Aten is a ‘balanced’ IEM, but its mild V-shaped tuning with my preferred filter combinations is both rich and rewarding, neither overdone like the thick, bloomy sound of the FiiO FA7, or bizarrely wonky like the Zenith (regardless of filter choice).
Be warned: if you’re one of those ‘audiophiles’ that only want to hear – rather than feel – their bass, or believe that bass, like butter, is only good for you in very small doses, give the Aten a wide berth. Yes, you can switch filters and nozzles to the point where the Aten’s balls – er, bass – are all but neutered, but seriously, why would you do that?
Normally where bass is as big as it is with the Aten, something has to give, and often that something is the mids. But you only need to hear Rosie Thomas’s exquisite vocals to the sound of guitar strings and harpsicords of ‘Why Waste More Time’ to know that the Aten is only a distant relation to its predecessor in this regard.
Whereas I felt the Zenith butchered large sections of the midrange in its presentation, the Aten somehow keeps the mids intact. Both the lower and upper midrange are represented in their totality here, perhaps not with as much resolution as you’d hear from a hybrid balanced armature IEM like the FiiO FH7, but with more than enough detail to satisfy all but die-heard detail obsessives.
Male vocals are sublime with the Aten. David Elias’s heartfelt rendition of ‘Vision of Her’ is full of subtle emotion, as is Chris Jones’s impeccably arranged version of Alan Taylor’s ‘The Tennessee Waltz’. Going even lower in the octave register, the presentation of ‘These Bones’ by the Fairfield Four is an absolute revelation on the Aten, the mix of upper bass and lower midrange deliciously satisfying.
Female vocalists make up the vast majority of my music library, and the Aten holds its nerve as the notes start to hit higher. Holly Throsby almost whispering to the tune of ‘An Evening Stroll’ sounds as soft and sublime as I can only imagine her to be, Brandi Carlile is utterly believable in her emotive telling of ‘The Story’, and Angel Olsen is absolutely mesmerising in her rendition of ‘Chance’ off her recently-released ‘All Mirrors’ album.
As a side note, the recording quality on All Mirrors is questionable, and if there’s one ‘criticism’ I can level at the Aten (especially with the no-holds-barred black/blue filter combination) is that it won’t do anything to hide recording flaws. More on this when I talk about the highs, where recording flaws can be deadly.
Using a piezo ceramic tweeter in an IEM is a brave choice, and one that I felt caused more problems than it solved with the Zenith. While the Aten goes some way to controlling the spiky tendencies of the driver, you’ll really want to be careful with the music you choose (and the filters and tips you use to play it).
As mentioned earlier, the blue treble nozzle won’t hold back the good, or the bad. Poor recordings are often fraught with nasty peaks, sibilance, splashy highs, grain. You’ll hear all of that, in high resolution, if it’s there to be heard. Jethro Tull’s ‘Budapest’ (like several other tracks on their masterpiece ‘Crest of a Knave’ album) can err on the bright side if you let the tweeters run loose, so using foam tips instead of Spiral Dots does make listening to this album less wincing.
Naturally, if you love your treble and can’t get enough of the highs, use any wide bore silicone tip and the blue nozzles and let it rip. The Aten is both more resolving and more refined than the Zenith, which can be a double-edged sword when it comes to treble, especially when the recording runs particularly hot. I’ve heard more pleasant interpretations of Adiemus’s ‘Tintinnabulum’, for example, but a track like this would have been downright painful to listen to on the Zenith.
Not being a heavy rock or metal fan I’m not one to tell you how well the Aten renders the relentless screech of electric guitars amid screaming vocals, but I’ll take an educated guess and suggest that if you enjoy a good ear bleed, the Aten won’t disappoint.
Seriously though, while I fully admit that I prefer my treble a touch more withdrawn, any issues I might have with how the Aten presents the highs is down to my choice of music and my refusal to continually swap out tips and filters with every other track change. This goes back to my point that you’re more likely to pick a filter combination and stick with it, and in doing so, that’s how I’ve used and reviewed the Aten.
Soundstage and other stuff
I keep comparing the Aten to the Zenith, but there’s a reason for that: the improvements I’m hearing are almost a mirror of the issues I had with the Zenith. Soundstage (or, more accurately, headstage) is another one I had on the list.
Where the Zenith presented a fairly wide stage for an IEM, it was also flat as a pancake, which made a mess of complex tracks by bringing too many instruments too far forward in the mix. Likewise, sparse recordings – especially binaural tracks like Meiko’s ‘Playing Favorites’ – have a great sense of depth and direction with the Aten.
The Aten keeps the width while adding a good amount of depth and height, giving instruments more room to breathe and introducing subtle layering that was sorely lacking in the Zenith. The deeper stage also helps with imaging and separation, and while the Aten isn’t exactly holographic as some of the best (and far more expensive) multi-driver IEMs, it’s excellent in its own right.
Pink Floyd’s intricate intro to ‘Time’ and David Chesky’s binaurally-recorded ambiance of Amber Rubarth’s ‘Strive’ off ‘Sessions from the 17thWard’ are both presented in a fairly realistic space that’s as deep and wide as you can hope for without spending the price of a small car on an IEM.
The Aten also sports a more natural and realistic timbre compared to its predecessor. The strings throughout Max Richter’s recomposed take on Vivadi’s ‘Four Seasons’, for example, are no longer thin and glass-like, but fuller, more present, and less grating.
All in all, the Aten is not one or two steps but several giant leaps steps ahead of Bob’s previous IMR incantations, and while I understand the sentimental appeal of those IEMs to users who took a chance on Bob, his new company, and his earlier experimental designs, the Aten makes them all redundant.
Turn the page for my closing thoughts and verdict…