AKG K 701 Hands On: Sickest Headphones Ever

Audiophile purists still harbor skepticism about headphones, despite the existence of some pretty amazing sets of cans. The AKG K 701 will convince nearly anyone that high-end headphones have truly arrived in terms of sound quality and transparency. Then there’s the luxurious comfort and nice included extras — not to mention a competitive price ($450) for this type of headphone. I still love my Sennheiser HD650’s, but the AKG K701’s have that little extra that means I have to figure out how to finance a pair. (Sigh.)

Sharp-dressed cans
The K701’s definitely look like very high-end headphones, with their wire frame, “self-adjusting” leather headband, and huge open-backed earcups. The housings are white with silver trim, but they don’t have that “Made for iPod” cheesiness. Included in the package is a cradle reminiscent of an oversize iPod dock; just plop the headphones down into the molded foam and they stand up on their own. This seems like a gimmick, but it’s actually extremely handy.

The cable comes only out of the left earcup (eliminating snags) and terminates in a gold-plated quarter-inch plug, which is fine for desktop headphone amps and home stereo components, though AKG includes a metal-housed quarter-to-eighth-inch adapter for use with 3.5-mm audio jacks like the one on an iPod (or portable headphone amps like the HeadRoom Total BitHead). Without the cable, they weigh a comfortable 8.3 ounces.

Under the hood
The specs on these bad boys are pretty impressive: flat wire voice coils for better diaphragm control, 99.99% pure copper wires, and biwiring (separate grounds for each housing). The killer technology here, though, is AKG’s Varimotion transducers, which are thicker in the middle, so they retain stiffness for tweeter-like highs, while the edges are thinner for deeper bass extension. The impedance of these cans is only 62 ohms, compared with the Sennheiser HD650’s much higher 300 ohms, but overall efficiency is roughly similar.

Barely there
The lush oversize gray velveteen earpads fit all the way around your ears, and the headband compression is loose enough that you can actually wear these things for hours without a hint of fatigue or discomfort. I always thought my HD650’s were the last word in comfort, but the K701’s looser feel actually makes me more relaxed during long listening sessions.

The nitty but not-so-gritty
Most high-end headphones require a break-in period of about 30 to 60 hours to mellow out the sound. AKG actually recommends an unusually long break-in of a couple hundred hours, so I let the headphones sit in a closet for several days with music playing until they were ready.

My test setup consisted of a HeadRoom Desktop Amp and a combination of Apple Lossless and WAV files sent to the amp from my computer via an optical Toslink cable.

Caetano Veloso’s Transa
Transa is a fairly spare album — just Caetano, an acoustic guitar, electric bass, and a bunch of percussionists. The electric bass is very well recorded, and the K701’s gave it just the right amount of impact and depth without boominess. On “Triste Bahia” the berimbau has all the springy bite it needs to really demand your attention, and the agogo bells later in the track have lots of pop. Vocals are warm but not overly so, and you can hear every breath and every detail, but without detracting from the overall musicality.

Led Zeppelin IV
Led Zeppelin’s lush masterpiece IV is basically the polar opposite, with tons of overdubs and panning effects, along with some serious low end oomph, courtesy of John Bonham’s kick drum. “When the Levee Breaks” grabs you by the face and forces you to bang your head, especially during the echoey drum intro and the searing slide guitar parts near the end. The K701’s again performed like champs in the bass department, bringing exceptional clarity to John Paul Jones’s fancy bass fretwork, which can often get buried in the layers upon layers of guitars.

Classical music
My classical testing included Yo-Yo Ma’s brilliant recording of the Bach Cello Suites, and believe me, you haven’t heard a bowed instrument until you’ve heard this recording through the K701’s. (Except… umm… live.) Next up was Bela Bartok’s piano concertos No. 1, and the orchestra’s sound remains perfectly controlled and well-defined even when the dynamics go from very soft to practically blaring.

It ain’t fool’s gold
A great set of headphones is gold, but a set that manages to be accurate enough for pro monitoring as well as musical enough for critical and casual listening is like… umm… super-gold. The K701’s edge out the Sennheiser HD650’s as my new fave headphone because I’m a headphone slut for all the right reasons: sound and comfort. Just make sure you have a decent headphone amp and do a couple hundred hours of burn-in time.