17 November, 2012

Headphone Talk II: AKG K501, K701

AKG K501 (grey) and K701 (white) atop the monstrous DarkVoice amp.

Headphone Talk II: AKG K501, K701
Headphone Amp: iPod Classic 160 GB

In the last article I stated my approach to headphones. Now, I can begin to chronicle my journey through this crop of top earphones. I shall start with the most humble "headphone amp" though...

AKG K501 (official info)
Many, particularly AKG fans, swear by this long discontinued model. Now, no mainstream reviews can be found, but see here for an informative net review, and there are plenty others on various Head-Fi sites. Suffice to say this is certainly a classic.

AKG K701 (official info)
Although descended from the classic K501, AKG aficionados are split between the merits of either. Being more recent, and could still be bought, the K701 has been praised almost universally by the mainstream press (What HiFi, Stereophile) and the excellent enjoythemusic. The K701 is easier to drive, and even more "transparent", but some traditionalists demure on whether these are improvements. This is also certainly a classic.

Apple iPod Classic 160GB + AKG K501/K701 (iTunes AIFF file)
Yes, this is what I start with, as it is what I listen to the most (and on the move)! Yes, CAS at my service (not the reverse). In case you dismiss the iPod as a "serious" audio device, think again, and please read Stereophile's amazingly comprehensive review (and measurement) of the original iPod Classic. Mine is a later generation with much larger storage (160GB vs 30GB). Whether the later versions sound worse (some say) than earlier ones, who knows. But it is universal knowledge that the iPod Classic sounds better than Touch versions, not to mention iPhone. Here are my observations:

  • As John Atkinson noted, the iPod Classic has good impedance characteristics and is capable of driving most headphones. Indeed, it drives the AKG K501 amazingly well. I wallowed in the glorious brass playing of the Bavarian orchestra under the masterful direction of the under-rated Kubelik. The iPod capably delivered all the subtle inflections and rubati that only a master musician like Kubelik could bring to Dvorak. The earphone performance further strengthened my conviction that this is one of the greatest performances. In contrast, another audiophile favorite, the Kertesz/LSO (Decca) seems coarse!
  • The iPod Classic is very clear, but has a touch of leanness to it. And so, the later AKG K701 sounds a tad dry. shidi told me these cans are not run in, and that is likely the case (the situation matches the description in the Stereophile review cited above). More later, but at this moment I lean towards the older AKG K501.
  • While the iPod is surprisingly potent in big brass, how does it fare in more intimate material? Here, I may have uncovered a bit of weakness. Ida Haedel's wonderful Testament disc is a favorite of mine, but in many ways this disc is difficult to playback. From around 2:30 into the first cut, Corelli's La Folia, through the iPod the violin and piano seem to play rather noticeably mechanically, and I know this should not be the case. Switching to the Dared MP5 immediately restored fluency, though at a cost of details.
To be continued in Part III.

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