AIAIAI TMA-2 HD Wireless/Wired Headphone Review

I remember back in 2011 when I first saw Danish company AIAIAI’s TMA-1 headphones in the window of the only high-end headphone shop I’d ever seen at the time – Headphone Bar in Vancouver – and thought to myself, “Those are very cool.”

They were flat black, had a tactile rubber-like coating to the components that made them feel luxe, a minimalist design ethos that was eye-catching and a lack of branding that was refreshing.

I’d like to think I knew good sound when I heard it then. If memory serves correctly, listening to the TMA-1 a couple weeks later at the store, I sussed out that they were comfortable, had a pretty even dynamic response, nice textured bass and instruments sounded real. Trumpets and saxophones had brassy blaat, piano notes had weight and stand-up bass lines had body. Conclusion: they sounded as good as the looked to me.

I don’t believe you need to be a high-fidelity expert to ascertain that a headphone sounds good. The engineering, design and technology of it take time to distill – there’s no substitute for experience in hearing a variety of cans so you can come to a more informed opinion of a set – but I think it’s safe to say if you’re reading this, coming to this website, you understand what you like and don’t like when listening. And that’s more than half the battle in choosing a transducer to strap to your head in my opinion.

We’ve had that moment of the ‘hi-fi awakening’ in our lives when someone plays a great song on great gear and the tumblers in our minds align with an audible click. That’s what we spend the rest of lives chasing down or luxuriating in when we find it. And although the original TMA-1 left a great impression on me, I was of modest financial means at the time with my children’s iPhones to pay for, so I didn’t pull the trigger and instead got some recommended IEMs from the store’s owner, Travis.

Future-fi industrial design.

Move the timeline ahead a decade and when AIAIAI reached out to gauge interest in a review I happily answered “yes.” In the intervening years the company has updated the TMA-1 significantly, turning it into the TMA-2 in 2015. The TMA-2 HD is now a completely modular design – comes in both wired and wireless guises, with seven preset models – but retails for roughly the same price it did almost a decade ago. The real news – to me – is in the implementation of the modularity that you specify online when ordering though. You can custom build your TMA-2 to your own specs with features like larger, over/on ear-cup designs, five differently tuned/equipped driver units to choose from that start at $65 USD (sealed, vented, neodymium magnet, Japanese voice coil, PET diaphragm, titanium-coated driver, bio-cellulose driver), six different earpad styles/sizes/materials (Alacantara, PU leather, velour), six different headbands, and four different cable choices (in multiple colors/lengths).

Packaging, Build and Construction

The two models I received for review were the TMA-2 HD Wireless and TMA-2 HD (Wired). Opening them up and building them, I have to say, was really fun and an unboxing experience unlike I’ve ever had in personal audio. Two-channel high fidelity has its fair share of ‘putting things together.’ Turntables usually need assembly, along with tonearms/cartridge mounting alignment, and then there’s the network-attached-storage kit of switches, fiber media converters, cables, hard drives… you get the point, but opening up a pair of headphones was never this interesting and enjoyable.

They come in a two-box package with the internal, heavier-gauge, two-piece cardboard enclosure sliding from the outer box and containing all the pre-packaged pieces along with detailed instructions. The only thing lacking in the box was a carrying case, or soft-bag, which I feel at this price point they could include. AIAIAI has put it all together in a package that has the feel of high-tech lab assembly more than tinkerer’s delight. I would’ve been even more impressed if they included a pair of white gloves. The instructions are clear and straightforward and putting both headphones together took about 20 minutes from the moment I popped the first cardboard box.

Assembly required.

Design, fit ’n finish, and quality of the parts used throughout the build is first rate with all of it feeling solid, purposeful and very future-fi. Everything fit perfectly, there was no head-scratching, and both units worked flawlessly upon completion – the Wireless model had about 80 per cent charge and was recognized via Bluetooth by my iPhone 7 Plus instantly. I had Roon streaming 24-bit/48kHz files within 30 seconds of turning them on.

Manual override via headband mounted buttons.

The buttons for manually controlling volume or skipping songs is a bit awkward only because of their position on the left side of the headband (necessitated by the modular nature of the design: Housing the wireless hardware in the headband itself). Because of this implementation, the headband insert has no cushion, just the same rubberized coating over the enclosure as the rest of the chassis/driver housing.

Technical Details

Wired or Wireless – your choice.

Visually, the two units look almost identical, with the thicker headband of the Wireless unit, and the lack of a cable the only clues the two are different (comes with a cable to use as a wired version if you want). The HD Wireless version lists for $350 USD, and the Wired HD version for $295 USD. Both come equipped with the E08 Alacantara ear pads, the S05 bio-cellulose speaker unit (stiffer driver material for “more defined high-frequency detail, more pronounced mid-range, better dynamics, and more natural tonality”), and C15 1.5m straight, triad hi-fi cable (with 1/4-inch adaptor included). The Wireless unit is kitted out with the H05 Headband with supported codecs including SBC, AAC, aptX, and aptX HD (aptX HD good for 24-bit/48kHz capability – up 20kHz, dynamic range of at least 120dB), and the Wired unit has the H04 reinforced nylon headband with ‘comfort microfiber padding.’ The Wireless model also has a built-in microphone, USB-C charging and a claimed 16-hours of playback time. Charging the unit requires a gentle touch as the USB-C port is tucked-in (almost invisibly) to the left-side end-cap of the internal portion of the headband – right above where the stereo cabling exits the housing. Butter fingers would do well to take their time plugging and plugging the USB cable so as not to damage the port.

Fit/Comfort

Of the two, the standard, Wired HD version is more comfortable for long listening sessions simply due to the Wireless HD version having no headband padding. I could go about an hour max with the Wireless model before my crown needed a break, but the lighter, padded headband of the Wired HD was good for at least a couple hours (ear cup clamping pressure on both was light-to-moderate – too much with my glasses on for extended sessions, but no surprise, most designs are – and did an excellent job of isolating me from the surrounding environment, without completely blocking it out). As with all things in regard to headphone fit YMMV. I have no idea, as there’s no listed specs, of what either version weighs (which is not surprising really, since it would be difficult to track weights considering all the variable parts combos), but they feel lighter than most cans of this size and driver specification.

Listening

I threw a lot of different music genres and sub-genres at both models, using my iPhone 7 Plus, and MacBook Air 13” via Bluetooth (I tried to use the Astell & Kern SR15 as well, but it would not see the TMA-2 via Bluetooth). I used the Wired version with the SR15, my iPhone 7 Plus via Lightning and with a Naim XS3 integrated amplifier via it’s 6.5mm single-ended, Class-A preamp/headphone output to try out a true headamp and found the TMA-2 HD responded very well to more power and headroom on top – particularly with 24-bit/192kHz files via Qobuz/Roon and DSD files stored on local drives. Albums like Streams by Markus Stockhausen & Ferenc Snétberger feature acoustic guitar and trumpet, and via wi-fi/Roon to my iPhone and Bluetooth out to the Wireless HD, Snétberger’s chord progressions had impressive leading-edge transient speed, and detail to his fretwork with the guitar body’s size and weight plainly expressed. Trumpet playing was imbued with impactful, emotive tone, with embouchure change-ups by Stockhausen clearly imparted. Sound stage was nicely defined, with both players clearly positioned slightly forward in the mid-field.

A lot of build decisions when designing your own TMA-2.

The John Peel session with Boards of Canada, specifically the cut “XYZ,” features deep, immersive electronic drone basslines layered with guitar, keyboard/synth effects, heavily rendered vocals with a lot of subtle background atmospherics like field recordings of birds, snatches of children’s conversations and spatially non-static percussive solos. Through the Wireless HD the bottom end remained deep, tight and never felt flabby, with noticeable punch to midrange percussion without any crowding of the upper registers where a lot of BoC sonic information lies. Resolution didn’t trend to crisp, but was definitely clearly siloed (jiving with the company’s claim of “more defined high-frequency detail” in their description of the new Bio-Cellulose driver in the S05 speaker unit), with macro and micro detail succinctly laid out and decay tending toward a very natural rolloff – one that I associate as less ‘closed-back’ than their design might suggest. Some of the speaker driver units are internally vented, but the website doesn’t clarify if the S05 units the Wireless HD and HD are fitted with are vented or not.

Plays well with Class-A headphone amps.

Listening to a DSD64 DSF version of Love Is the Thing by Nat King Cole, through the Naim ND5 XS2 Network DAC feeding into the XS3 integrated amp with the Wired TMA-2 HD, the improved headroom of the Naim Class-A 1/4-inch out was readily apparent and allowed a much wider/deeper sound stage to manifest, along with improved dynamics and transient speed. Bass was demonstrably tighter and treble had more air around instruments – all indicators that the S05 speaker units are capable of easily delineating different sources. The Wired version passed along upstream DAC/amp changes immediately, and the Wireless version let you know when you switched up from TIDAL Redbook to Qobuz 24-bit FLAC tracks/albums.

Conclusion

Not tuned to be hyper-trebled, or bass-heavy, rather the TMA-2 in both Wireless and Wired guises presented all types of music with a tuning a shade to the warm side of neutral, with a slight midbass bump that never felt overblown, only pleasing and punchy. Timbral and tonal color was lightly saturated, but didn’t venture into the saccharine. Detailed, with a sound stage both forward and laid back depending on track mastering, but never fatiguing, the TMA-2 HD is a truly enjoyable listen with excellent future-forward design ethos, solid build quality and the ability to mix up the components any time you like with its modular design. It offers a lot of bang-for-buck for those looking at sub-$400 cans. Want different ear cups? Order another pair. Ditto, the headband, cables, the tuning of the drivers (remember there’s five different transducer types), and then there’s the whole Wireless version – just order the headband and within two minutes you can turn your wired TMA-2 into a wireless version. The mix-and-matching at your own pace and cash outlay is a pretty cool factor to keep in mind for your purchasing power. At $295 and $350 respectively for the Wired and Wireless pre-spec’ed versions, this is what I’d consider a fun, attractive and overall comfortable headphone design for those looking to spend a little more than the ‘budget’ bracket. Sure, some other manufacturers offer noise cancelling at this price point, or foldable headbands, but they don’t offer the modularity or slick industrial design that AIAIAI offers in the TMA-2. A carrying case or bag would be nice, but the durability of construction and the finish on the TMA-2 perhaps makes this moot.

COMPANY INFO
AIAIAI

X