The Wonderfully Competent AKG K550 Sealed Headphone
AKG has a very long history manufacturing headphones, and was a leading force in headphone design back in the '70s. Here's a cool article about some old AKG headphones I got to play with. The K240 series of headphones were very popular in recording studios in the '70s and '80s, and AKG has continued to develop headphone models, and has a significant roll in the world of headphones world wide.
The thing is, I think AKG lost its way regarding headphones for the last little while. The early '90s were tough times for AKG. 1993 saw its first annual loss. The company went through some serious ownership turmoil; this Funding Universe article is an interesting read. After Harman International's purchase of AKG, a lot of things happened to turn the company around. Foreign subsidiaries were shut down, and the focus returned to its core competency: microphones and headphones. Well...microphones anyway.
The Funding Universe article mentions that OEM components (mostly cellphone microphones for handheld and automotive applications) grew from 10% of AKG's business in 1997, to more than 45% by 2000. AKG also gained a lot of corporate ground by designing and producing lower cost microphones to compete in the burgeoning home studio market.
What's missing? Headphone development. AKG did continue to produce a long string of AKG K240 variants, but in truth, the world was passing them by. The K501/K601/K701 was certainly a new development. These headphones were indeed very good headphones at the time, as were the K 81 DJ and K 518 LE. But overall, I've felt AKG's headphone offerings were pretty lackluster over the past decade otherwise.
Can't blame them really. If cellphone and recording mikes are hot and paying the bills, well, ya gotta do what you gotta do. But I can tell you, there were, and are, a lot of headphone enthusiasts unaware and rightfully not caring about AKG's focus on microphones. We wanted new and bitchin' cans from one of the few makers who could stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Sennheiser to bring on some competition...and AKG didn't.
Well, times they are a-changing, headphones are now white hot in the consumer market, and it looks like AKG has turned its attention back to headphones. By the sound of the K550, AKG is dead serious about developing world-class, or at least very good sounding headphones, once again.
The AKG K550 ($349 MSRP, $299 MAP)
The K550 is a full-size, circumaural, sealed headphone. Constructed of various metal and synthetic materials, I find it very nicely built and finished. The wide metal headband is moderately padded, without the bumps found on the K701 variants--which is sure to please many who complained about the discomfort. Markings on the headband permit accurate adjustment to fit the head, and look cool too.
The gimbals attaching the earpieces to the headband allow plenty of freedom for the earpads to align with the side of the head, and permit them to be rotated flat for transport and storage. (No carry case is included, unfortunately.) The design of the gimbals is excellent, but they are a bit stiff to move into position--and the position of the earpads against the side of the head is critical for sound quality with these cans.
The earcups are circular in shape and fairly deep. The pads are made of a very nice pleather and are very comfortable for long listening sessions. They do smell rather odd fresh out of the box, but it goes away in a few days. The fabric covers over the drivers have a big "L" and "R" identifying the proper ear orientation. I thought this was a cool feature--so many times it's like the maker hides which ear is which. It's obvious here.
The three-meter cable is pliant and resists mechanical noise that might be heard in the cans. It's permanently attached to the left earpiece, and is terminated with a very handsome 1/4" plug, which unscrews to reveal a 1/8" plug within.
The build quality of these headphones is excellent.
After the rash of gaudy and ostentatious "rapper" cans I've reviewed lately, it's refreshing to see a headphone designed for an adult. These are really an elegant and understated headphone...just beautiful! Sporting a variety of sumptuous materials and textures in various and harmonious shades of gray, I find myself thinking these are among the most tastefully designed headphones I've had the pleasure to behold. Superb!
Comfort and Isolation
This is an extremely comfortable headphone, which isolates relatively well, but during measurements I found them finicky about position and clamping force in the extreme. Out of the box, it seems to fit my moderately large head very well, but placing it on my measurement head was another story altogether. People with small heads will need to adjust the headband by pressing it inward and making it curve a bit more to fit tighter and achieve a proper seal. Without doing so will net poor isolation, and a pretty severe change for the worse in sonic character. Once properly adjusted, however, the comfort and sound can be endured for hours with great pleasure.
Well, I s'pose it's time to talk about how they sound...