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Review: AKG K7XX (Massdrop first edition)

IMG_8626My pair showed up today. Massdrop quickly sold 1000 of them at $200. Ultimate retail price will be around $650.

I spent the afternoon and most of the evening playing a lot of CD-res FLACs from the iPad. The K7XXs sound excellent directly out of the box, but I assume they’ll benefit from a few more days’ break-in.

My experience with AKGs is that they need a headphone amp (and these definitely benefit from one), but with the volume on the iPad turned up all the way, the K7XX perform more than adequately. Sensitivity is 105 dB/V.

Apples-and-oranges-wise, the open-back design means the bass doesn’t have the ‘whomp’ I’m used to from the Mr. Speakers Alpha Primes I have at work, or the Audeze LCD-XCs at home. But the AKGs are a LOT more comfortable to wear for long periods of time than the Primes or XCs, partly because of the weight of the K7XXs (barely over 8 oz) and also because my head isn’t feeling….well, compressed by the sealed low frequencies of the Audezes or Primes. The leakage from the open design isn’t too loud, either, meaning these might play well in areas where the non-headphone-wearing ilk dwell. The guy sitting next to me on the train might not, um, dig them as much as I do, but people across the way in a busy office aren’t going to be shooting stink-eye in your direction (much).

The midrange and hi-mids are what really shine. There’s a clarity to vocals and guitars and keyboards that I can really get used to. These are great headphones for rock and electronic music. Female vocals sound pretty sweet, too.

Lisa Germano’s “Bad Attitude” and “Puppet” from Happiness (4AD UK CAD 4005 CD rip) were the first things I played through them. The latter has quite a bit of distorted guitar, and the track sizzles like mad on the AKGs. There’s some crackle (the good sort) on this CD that I’ve never heard before now.

photo 2After running a few songs through the iPad’s FLAC Player, I switched to my main office rig: a cheap old Creek headphone amp being fed by the PS Audio PerfectWave Mk II DAC and a Mac Pro running Decibel.

Synergy’s “Phobos and Deimos Go To Mars” from Cords (Chronicles US 314 558 044-2 CD rip) features frenetic fusillades of treated e-percussion (think “Kings Lead Hat”) and the AKGs did justice to the song’s multitude of phase and flange tweaks. The synthesized bass was right there with me, too. This is the perfect track for demoing the headphones for electronic music freaks.

If, like me, bass is your thing: I cued up Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ “Sofa No.1” and “No.2” from a 24/96 LP rip of an early US pressing of One Size Fits All and marveled. I don’t know who plays bass synth on these tracks (George Duke?) but man, what a thing of beauty these songs are. The K7XXs deliver it all in a deep, smooth and enveloping package.

When I got home I plugged them into the Cavalli Liquid Glass and powered up the PS Audio DirectStream with (newly factory-reset!) Bridge. I warmed up with a 24/96 LP rip of Steve Tibbetts’ “Climbing” (from Safe Journey ECM US 1-25002, ECM 1270). Marc Anderson’s burbling percussion perfectly complements Tibbetts’ guitar washes and kalimba plucks. The AKGs actually started sounding like an excellent set of speakers — I forgot I was wearing headphones. The effect was absorbing. Yes, chalk it up, at least partly, to the Cavalli’s hybrid tube goodness. But the headphones are the ultimate arbiter of those last couple feet of cable.

Michael Brooks’ “Ultramarine” from Cobalt Blue (24/96 FLAC from LP rip, 4AD UK CAD2007) remains my go-to track for new equipment. The percussive nature of Brooks’ guitarwork means the transients are fast, and the varying decay rates of his effects are a challenge to any resolving preamp / amp / transducer combo. This song really needs the reflections of a room to make it snap, but it sounded wonderful on the AKGs. I kept turning it louder (and LOUDER) and they didn’t complain. Neither did I.

The only words I can think that suit the K7XX is “neutral balance”. Highs, mids and bass aren’t tugging at one other; there’s a benevolent and beneficial truce among the three, and the only winner is the whatever you’re playing at the time. These headphones don’t seem to add or subtract anything from the songs I know best — they just let the tracks shine.

Build quality? It seems good. Leather headband. Memory foam earpads with velour covers. Detachable 3-meter cord. The earpads aren’t collapsable, and I wouldn’t want to go stuffing these into a backpack. They’re best left at home.

photo 3 copySennheiser and Audeze should be hearing footsteps; the K7XXs are definite contenders in the $500 to $1000 price range. I like them better than anything similarly priced, and better than a few more expensive headphones, too. They sound great with NO break-in, so I’m looking forward to hearing them perform over the next few days (and reserve the right to revise — or elaborate upon — my gushing praise at that later date). The possibilities are intriguing. How good can they sound with Pono? Will a cable upgrade make them shine even brighter? Time will reveal all.

An extraordinary value at $200 or $650.