Both earphones get just as loud at the same volume levels through my iPhone SE. The AKT8iE’s extra 1dB of sensitivity makes no difference to my ears. This means that both earphones hiss mildly through moderate quality sources. Both earphones reveal a small amount of hiss from the iPhone SE, and a lot through the Astell&Kern XB10. When listening to Xelento I keep my iPhone at a volume well below 50%, even when on a train. Isolation is a bit better Grado’s GR10 and GR8e but nowhere near what you’ll get from a custom.
Differences between the two earphones spring up from here on in.
My first impressions were mistaken. While the AKT8iE MKII is warmer than Xelento, it’s not by much, and Xelento’s bass sticks out more. Neither is a basshead earphone. From top to bottom, Xelento sounds cooler. Its bass stereo image pushes wider, a result of which is that its lows feel punchier, crisper, and quicker. Xelento’s bass reaches lower, though, enough to reveal slightly more yawning detail in the opening seconds to Markus Schulz’s Mainstage. Of course, the AKT8iE’s warmth advertises it against Xelento’s composure. In reality, both earphones produce some of the quickest-reacting bass in the dynamic world.
While low-frequency differences between the two are iterative, mid-frequency differences are contrastive. Hardcore fans of the AKT8iE may dismiss Xelento. Quite simply, compared to the AKT8iE’s smooth transition from upper bass to mids, it is mildly disjointed. It’s almost as if the first post-bass steps drop rather than bridge the two frequency bands. It’s not a huge rift; it’s the sort you might hear from certain generation II hybrid earphones.
Against Astell & Kern’s warmth, Beyerdynamic chose impact. Mids run out of stronger, more explosive bass, flat into the highs, coolly unaccented. There are times when I miss the AKT8iE’s warmth, but it’s only really after listening to it for hours. The converse isn’t necessarily true.
I appreciate Xelento’s flat mid range. I appreciate their bell-like clarity and wide berth for female vocals. I appreciate Xelento’s more energetic more Team Beyer highs. I appreciate Xelento’s dry resonance, especially when listening to hard electronic and heavy metal, where accent is the last thing I’m looking for. And yet, when it comes to male vocals, I prefer the AKT8iE MKII’s warmth. The problem with the AKT8iE MKII is that, no matter how feeble, its warmth impacts everything. Xelento’s clear, higher pressure highs are distinct from mids and bass, cutting a truly world-class profile.
Xelento more stringently follows equal loudness curve rules. It is a little brighter. It is not sibilant. Its bass is a little more impactful. But it is not a bass head earphone. Its mids are flatter and cooler, and though slightly, wetter than typical reference headphones. I have a feeling that people unimpressed with the AKT8iE’s mild warmth and central voicing may find Xelento’s width and mild u-curve enticing. Add to that a cool, high pressure low range, and you have a strong-arm take on the typical wide-midrange reference earphone.
Before I forget, Xelento’s stage presence stretches really really wide, pushing against left and right extremes. It arches slightly back: an IMAX cinema from the 5th row if you will. It reaches high. Yet, despite excellent instrument separation, it doesn’t bend away from itself to offer much depth. It is one of the truest, cleanest takes on wall-of-sound I’ve ever had in my ears.
As long as I keep away from reference earphones and headphones, my tryst with warmth is inviolate. Eventually something like the Nuforce HEM4, the Audio Technica CK10, the Etymotic ER4, or the Beyerdynamic DT880 comes along and I’m back in the reference camp, singing the praises of the wide, the flat, the cool. Deciding between Xelento and the AKT8iE is difficult. When my music queue is long on non-rap male vocals, and when my album list is full of live audiences, I prefer the AKT8iE. Despite the mild disconnect between bass and lower mids, Xelento pulls as my reference heart strings. It dredges up a younger, slimmer, and more fit Nathan, teetering on his cyclocross bicycle over icy pathways, CK10 blasting trance and classic at my ear drums. Of course, I vastly prefer Xelento to the CK10. But, even after ticking off every plus and minus box for each, I can’t say for sure which I actually prefer.