Audiophiles are scooping up AKG's high-end headphones, the K 701s ($400), as fast as the company can make them. Quantities are so scarce that we had to "settle" for samples of the step-down version, the $300 AKG K 601, to review. We couldn't wait to audition them to see if they live up to the hype.
The K 601s' large, donut-shape grey velour cushions completely cover your ears. The genuine leather and metal headband is very well made, and yet the headphones are fairly light, at just 8 ounces. They're extremely comfortable; even after extended listening sessions, the K 601s were a pleasure to wear. The very flexible single-sided oxygen-free copper cable is 10 feet long and terminates with a standard 1/4-inch, gold-plated plug that's permanently attached to the left earcup. The K 601s are an open-back, dynamic design featuring Varimotion ultraprecision two-layer diaphragms; each pair of K 601s are said to be individually tested to meet AKG's tough "made in Austria" quality standards. These headphones are intended as stay-at-home models--they're too big and bulky for on-the-go use. The headphones are also power hungry, so puny iPods and MP3 players won't supply enough juice to produce much volume. High-end headphones are typically best suited to be plugged into an A/V receiver.
The most remarkable thing about the AKG K 601s' sound is its "out-of-head" imaging. If you hate the canned sound of most headphones, you'll love the K 601s. Not only is the sound bigger, but the stereo left-to-right positioning of voices and instruments will be more precisely focused between your ears. The K 601s' imaging also extends forward and to the rear, making it the most speakerlike headphone we've ever heard.
The headphones strutted their stuff on the thrilling Flightplan DVD. Most of the movie takes place in the jetliner's cabin, where the ambient drone of jet engines, the whoosh of air conditioning, and even the tinny sound of the passengers' headphones were all captured in remarkable detail. The deep bass rumblings of the aliens tearing up the streets on The War of the Worlds DVD sounded ominously subterranean.
The AKG K 601s' open quality was also well suited to music, so when we played concert recordings from Van Morrison and Wilco, the audience appeared from way out to the sides. The sound on soul diva Bettye LaVette's I've Got My Own Hell To Raise CD cut right to the bone, her heartwrenching vocals providing authentic rawness harkening to 1960s R&B recordings. The K 601s gave LaVette plenty of room to belt out her tunes, and they'll give you plenty of space to hear it all.
The ($430) headphones were tonally in the ballpark with the K 601s, just not as open sounding. With style and comfortability being equal, the AKG K 601s' spacious sound is great for a lot of sources, but the DT 880s may be a better choice if you prefer a more "close-up" audio experience.