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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 9
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akg acoustics

K1000 headphones

as reviewed by Gary Beard

 

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GARY L. BEARD'S SYSTEM

LOUDSPEAKERS
Merlin TSM-M monitors on 24" Osiris stands with an REL Strata III subwoofer.

ELECTRONICS
First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II preamplifier with Amperex 7308 PQ tubes, George Wright WPP100C phono-preamplifier with Amperex 6ER5, and RCA 12AU7 tubes. David Berning ZH270 amplifier with Brimar 12AT7 black plate, GE 5 Star 12AV7, and cryo'ed Sylvania 6JN6 power tubes. 

SOURCES
Cary 303/200, Marantz CC-65-SE, Sony DVP-7700, and a Technics SL1600 Direct Drive Turntable.

CABLES
Cardas Neutral Reference bi-wire speaker cables, Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference, Kimber Silver Streak, Kimber and Hero, MIT 3 interconnects. Acoustic Zen MC2 digital cable. Shunyata Sidewinder and homebrew Belden/Hubbell/Marinco powercords.

ACCESSORIES
Richard Gray Power Station 400 power conditioner, Final Labs Daruma 3II isolation, Vibrapods, DIY "Flexy" equipment rack, DIY points, ceramic cable supports, and various isolation tweaks.

 

No introductory course in audiophile headphoning would be complete without an audition of the most radical of headphones, the AKG K1000. I have desired an intimate moment with these headphones since first reading raves about them at the online headphone forum, Head-fi (www.head-fi.org). Since then, Srajan Ebaen's 6moons review (www.6moons.com), and my own newly acquired headphone jones pushed me over the edge. The good folks at Headroom (www.headroom.com), a leading manufacturer of headphone amplifiers and retailer of all things headphone, graciously provided a pair for review.

The K1000s, manufactured by Austrian-based AKG Acoustics (part of the Harman International conglomerate), are headphones in name only.

I have seen them referred to as earspeakers, which is much more appropriate due to their design. If you can visualize two very high quality computer speakers, strapped together with a hair band and duct tape, and imagine them slung over your head like headphones gone mad, you have a rough idea.

STEP AWAY FROM THE MIRROR!

My first and overwhelming visual impression was, YECCCH, these cans are ugly! If you look at yourself in the mirror, beware. Don't let your friends or family see you sportin' them if you can't handle rejection, and God forbid anyone takes pictures, because blackmail is always a possibility.

Okay, maybe they're not that ugly, but unless, like Mr. Ebaen, you are comfortable seeing yourself with a radar receiving station atop your head, you will feel uncomfortable looking at yourself with these headphones on. I look more than just a little goofy, and for the life of me cannot figure out why they chose red for the color of the two crossing support straps. (Red is not on my personal color palette, as I have more of a fall complexion). Unattractiveness aside, these earspeakers appear to be very well made, and they are much lighter than I imagined them to be from their pictures. It took a few minutes to figure out how to adjust them for my inaugural aural blastoff—the speaker housings swing out to change their soundstaging characteristics. The feeling of headphones that do not touch the ears is a little strange, but wonderfully comfortable. Other than the headband, the only contact pressure is created by four small standoff pads that sit against the head to hold the speakers away from the ears. The rear pads slide back and forth for a moderate amount of adjustability—I liked them pulled all the way out—and while the K1000s' grip is not vise-like, you are aware of their presence, especially if they hit your temples. They stay put fairly well, but vigorous air guitar is out of the question. The fact that air is able to circulate around the ears is the real star of the comfort show, though I did find that after an hour or so, the pad pressure began to bother me enough that I had to take them off for a breather.

The K1000s are not a new product, and much has been written about them prior to my short stint as an audio writer. Still, since they are in production, and since there seems to be somewhat of a mini headphone revival underway, I feel good about choosing to review them. They are a unique design, for which a completely new type of transducer was developed. The AKG manual states that this design utilizes "[a] freely vibrating diaphragm driven by a newly designed Ventilated Linear Dynamic Magnet System (VLD)". The entire headphone was created from the ground up in order to achieve the aim of an open sound, free of artifacts from enclosures or ear cups.

The following specifications are from the AKG K1000 manual, edited for simplicity:

  • Type: Dynamic Transducer with VLD magnet

  • Rated Impedance 120 ohms

  • Sensitivity: 74db for 1 mW (free field)

  • Power requirement: 100 mW for 1 Pa

  • Power rating: 1000 mW—approximately 104 db

  • Headband force exerted on a 140mm wide head: 3.5N

  • Weight: 370 g including 8 foot cord and XLR connector

  • Frequency range: 30 Hz to 25,000 Hz

The K1000s are designed to be connected directly to the speaker terminals of an amp, and even without any spades or banana connectors on the supplied cable, I was hooked up and ready to rock in just minutes. While it is possible (with the proper XLR-to-jack adapter) to run them from a headphone jack, their inefficient design requires at least a couple of watts of power to produce a reasonable volume level. This is far more than most headphone jacks can supply, and the K1000s need even more power to sound their best. Although I think this an exception rather than the rule, I have read accounts of amps as powerful as 140 watts being used to drive them.

Initial impressions are always important with any product, and prior to receiving the AKGs, I had felt that my Berning ZH270 amplifier, while perhaps having a wee too much muscle at 70 watts per channel, might be a good partner for them. With the K1000s planted firmly on my head, I plugged the XLR connector on the K1000s umbilical to its XLR mate on the supplied cable. I quickly determined that, in conjunction with my First Sound preamp, the relatively high power of my Berning amp, which also has its own volume control, made adjusting the volume nearly impossible. I decided that taking the preamp out of the chain was the only logical way to proceed. Therefore, for the remainder of this review, my Berning was used as an integrated amp, driven directly by my Cary 303-200 CDP or my Music Hall MMF-7 turntable/George Wright phono stage combo.

My first impressions were that the AKGs left a lot to be desired. I put on a familiar and well recorded CD and was greeted with rather lifeless sound. After spinning a couple of CDs, I remained extremely disappointed, coming to the conclusion that something was amiss. During my contemplations, I recalled how others had complained of the pressure of the pads to the temples. Trying to keep that from being a problem, I had purposefully pushed them back—not far, only an inch or less—from the front of my head. Thinking that might be the cause of the trouble, I moved them forward, with the pads just beginning to touch my temples, and BAM! (sorry, Emeril), I was enveloped in gorgeous music. Moving the cans forward, which centered the drivers over my ears, brought the AKGs to life. I felt that this adjustment was very similar to those that can make or break a speaker's sound, and this is not the only similarity to speakers that these headphones exhibit. The driver housings can be tilted outward as much as 45 degrees in relationship to the ear, and because of this, sound from the left speaker can be heard by the right ear, and vice versa. This gives the K1000s the ability to create a real soundstage. It is definitely not my Merlins' soundstage, but the AKGs do an effective job of eliminating the traditional headphone "blob in the head" feeling. The stage seems a bit strange at first, wrapping around the back and over the top of the head, with most vocals just slightly out in front or on top of the head. The width of the stage can be increased by tilting the speaker units outward, away from the ear. This adds a spacious, airy sound, but at the expense of bass performance. Still, this is the most compelling difference between the K1000 headphones and other headphones I have used.

The stock K1000s are stunningly detailed, with soaring treble and a midrange that is very clean, yet lean with my gear. The sound is well balanced from top to bottom, but the bass, while well defined and tuneful, is a bit light, and does not seem to be one of the K1000s' strengths. What are their strengths? They are fast as lightning, with quickly shifting transients that result in a dynamic and punchy sound. They are open, airy, transparent, and highly resolving. Speaking in terms of headphones, they image superbly, and—this being their greatest strength—they throw a big, bold, and wonderful soundstage. I agree with some of the user comments that I've read, which indicate these phones can be moderately bright, especially with a recording that is already tilted up. Others have commented that they have a slightly metallic sound. I have not been able to hear this, yet at times I have noted a trace of shrillness. The illusive metallic sound, as well as the brightness, is rumored to be alleviated somewhat with the use of an aftermarket cable such as the Stefan AudioArt headphone cable (www.stefanaudioart.com). The length and unshielded conductors of the stock extension cable apparently create distortions that lead to these unwelcome characteristics. I did not have access to a modified cable, so I cannot confirm this, but enough K1000 owners have reported this improvement to give it credibility.

My anything-but-syrupy Berning amp did nothing to ameliorate the K1000s' bright sound, but its extended treble and fast, transparent nature could easily be detected, and the K1000s' ability to mirror the source is an attribute that I think is important in any component. While it seems the K1000s have no trouble changing skin with each recording, their lean, truthful nature gives them a definite voice of their own. Sometimes too much truth can hurt, and even though the K1000s' approach to sound reproduction can be contagious, at times even rapturous, I couldn't listen to that level of truthfulness for hours on end. Assuming the rest of my system was telling a reasonably truthful story, perhaps a little bronzing of the facts would make the story a little more palatable.

If you have come to the conclusion that I don't care for the K1000s, read on, as I have found many reasons to love them. While listening to David Benoit's Freedom at Midnight, one of my favorite guilty pleasures, I noted that the percussive treble elements—triangle, bells, and cymbals—were extremely extended and sparkling, and without unnecessary sizzle or sheen. As in my earlier headamp reviews, in which I used my Sennheiser HD600s, I listened to Sheffield Lab's compilation disc, Crème de la Crème, to have a basis for comparison. Amanda McBroom's voice on Amanda was clearly not as rich or seductive with the AKGs as it was with the Sennheisers, though while the sound was comparatively lean and dry, it improved noticeably with a twist of the volume knob and a tweak of the damping control on my amp. The K1000s clearly loved the additional power, but the improved bass response showed that they also welcomed the additional damping that the Berning's high-feedback setting provided. piz.jpg (30319 bytes)Although the brass on the Harry James' big band cut, "Corner Pocket," was somewhat bright and tonally inconsistent on the AKGs, the track also showed off their all-encompassing soundstage, placing me smack in the middle of a swinging band. But it was the more spartan John Pizzarelli CD, Kisses in the Rain, which made the strengths of the AKGs really stand out. The jazz combo format and the warm, detailed recording showed the K1000s at their finest. Even without closing my eyes, there was a modicum of reality to the K1000s' soundstage that is lacking in my Sennheisers, and unlike some of the other recordings I listened to, the tonal integrity of the guitar, piano, drums, and string bass was dead on, and Pizzarelli's voice was typically Alfalfa-like. Sorry John, but it's true and you know it. (Okay, okay, I was just joking, Mr. Pizzarelli, and no, I don't know what you do with your old broken guitar strings.)

As I stated earlier, the bass is controlled, tuneful, and for headphones, reasonably deep. It's not the deepest bass you will ever hear from headphones, but the AKGs do not commit the sin of having booming, one-note bass. You can increase the bass dramatically by turning the speakers parallel to your ears, but I found that this also cut back the headphones' soundstaging ability dramatically, and I prefer to hear the stage. The lean midrange, which at times causes tone and timbre to lose accuracy, may in large part be due to a problem with system synergy. A few well-chosen cable changes might fix this in a hurry. Again, the improvement in the sound of the K1000s is anything but subtle when the power is cranked up, but I could not stand high decibel levels for long, plus it was loud enough to recognize the music coming out of these wide-open cans from several feet away!

I listened to many different types of music with these headphones, on both CD and LP, and came away with consistent sonic impressions. I believe that the AKG K1000s may be a match made in heaven for a 300B single-ended amp with a wide frequency range and a low noise floor. Forget using an amp that hums, or one with noisy tubes. The AKGs take quality watts to drive them to their full potential, and are very sensitive to the quality of the source as well. They will tell you if you have any noise or distortion in your system.

The K1000s have confused me completely. They seem to be somewhat lacking in harmonic richness, and make music with almost surgical precision, but each time I was ready to bury them in the grave of unappreciated audio gear; they resurrected themselves, to show me fire, a deft touch, and occasionally—in direct contradiction to my typical findings—all the things I thought were missing. When all is right, the result is an almost magical presentation of music in a package even James Bond would love. Ultimately, I couldn't decide whether I loved these headphones or merely liked them. A copout, you say? I suppose so, but it all boils down to the fact that the AKG K1000 is a very special, one-of-a-kind product that requires very careful component matching. I hoped that I had that match, but I'm not so sure I did. The combination of the K1000s and my Berning ZH270 just did not have the rich tonality and weight that I enjoy. I cannot place the blame my Berning, however. It may not be a lush, tubey-sounding amp, but when called for, it conveys weight and richness through my Merlin TSM-M/REL Strata III speaker system.

It is important to note that throughout the review period I was comparing the sound of the K1000s to that of the Sennheiser HD600s. They seem polar opposites in many ways, with the AKGs like a solid state sports coupe—fast, aggressive and austere—and the Sennheisers like a smooth luxury sedan, insulating against the little bumps in the road but letting you savor the beauty of the ride. I find much to like in both approaches. If you can afford to, buy both, but otherwise you'll be forced to choose which works best for you. It's a tough call.

Let me reiterate. Sometimes the K1000s sounded spectacularly good, other times not. How much difference would a cable change have made? I wish I knew. I do know that the brightness will need to be tamed for me to truly enjoy them in the long haul. My recommendation then, is this: If you are looking for headphones and own a lush, liquid amp, the AKG K1000s may be your ticket to ride. If you hate having hothouses draped around your ears, don't want to invest in a dedicated headphone amp, or don't enjoy the soundstaging and imaging of traditional headphones, these earspeakers could be for you. They are extremely transparent, and will show every flaw in your system. They require careful partnering to curb brightness in the treble, give a kick to the bass, and add richness to a lean but balanced sound. I wish I had that amp on hand, but alas, my audio garage doesn't contain one. I would certainly recommend that anyone interested give these headphones a thorough test drive. Even if you find, as I did, that they aren't to your liking, you will have spent time with one of the real innovations in audio. You may also happen to get that magic synergy, and find that the AKG K1000s are perfectly suited to your tastes and equipment. If so, I suspect you will be happy happy (again, sorry Emeril). While I am boxing these fine cans to send back to the nice girls and boys at Headroom, I know that someday—kinda like a certain California gubernatorial candidate—they'll be back. Gary L. Beard

Retail
$700

AKG Acoustics Ges. m.b.H. 
TEL: +43 1 86654-0
web address: www.akg.com

United States Distributor
Harmon Specialty Group
914 Airpark Center Drive
Nashville, TN 37217
TEL: 615. 620. 3800
email address: akgusasales@harman.com

 

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