Pros: excellent full bass response with comfortable yet portable size plus almost all of the K550's sound!
Cons: The cables are a bit short and the thinner pads are a bit less isolating.
AKG K545 K550’s little brother isn’t so little!
First off I want to give a huge thanks to RazerDog Audio! I inquired about buying the K545 and they were kind enough to contact AKG about my interest in reviewing this headphone, they are a class act and great example of Online retailing done RIGHT! I also want to thank AKG for giving me this opportunity to review their FLAGSHIP Portable! (It’s a flagship portable in my mind anyway). This pair is a reviewers pair that did not have all the pieces as noted through out the review and is on LOAN (these were gifted to me about a week after writing up the review, Thank you AKG)
I am going to do this review initially on the headphone by itself then I have included a section on comparisons against other head phones I have owned including an extensive comparison against the K550 near the end.
Since this is a portable I have decided to use two different portable devices (iPad Mini and Nokia 920 smart phone) with no additional amplification or external DAC’s etc. playing 256KB MP3 files. This is to address the most common user of the headphone versus the Head-fi hard core user. Then I will have a section where I am using an Audioengine D1 DAC/AMP with my computer from FLAC files with a smaller set of notes where I use a small Indeed Tube amp.
Also take note: I am a low to medium volume listener of music and all my review is done at what I consider a medium volume level. For me this is a level that is enjoyable but I don’t feel like my ears are strained when I remove my headphones, even after extended listening sessions. I will state now the K545 starts to be a bit dull sounding at my lower listening levels (background music while doing heavy concentration or going to sleep) to too harsh at medium loud levels (levels where I find everything getting too loud, fun for a song or two but too uncomfortable for extended listening, I might feel a bit of fatigue after a couple of songs at this volume level).
OK lets deal with the physical stuff first. AKG has taken the K550 design and made the ear-pads thinner which has reduced the diameter of the cups by 3/8 of an inch which makes these lighter and much more portable oriented. The K550 always felt a bit to “Princess Leah” to me, the K545 on the other hand simply disappear from mind when I wear them and look darn good according to people around me. The thinner pad does make these less isolating though, good but not great in this department. One neat thing about the thinner pad is that they seal easier while only losing comfort by a very small margin. I believe the increase pressure per square inch of the pad surface accounts for the easier seal. In this area I think AKG has NAILED it in regards to making a portable headphone!
In regards to the cables, I think AKG may have erred slightly on portability as I thought the cable could have been maybe 6 inches longer. I also found the cables to be slightly too springy but still very serviceable. When I did have a chance to compare the K545 to the K550 I did find myself wishing I could have an “audiophile” straight that was longer for at home though and do hope AKG (or all the cable makers out there) will consider offering one as a purchasable accessory. While I am being critical in this area I want to stress only the extremely demanding audiophile members will feel slighted by the cables offered, for the average or new user, or those of us who enjoy portability at the expense of more premium feeling or exotically made cables will be “just fine”. Finally AKG has chosen to use an I shaped jack versus an L shaped one. I personally prefer L jacks but again am not too wrapped up my preference to be too worried about this. I do like the matching color aluminum ends though. NOTE: I only have the iPhone cable with my reviewer pair so have to assume the android cable will have the same jacks, material, and cable length.
My demo pair never had the case so I cannot comment on this accessory at this time but will update this section when I have a chance to see and use the case.
OK so let’s get into the important part, the sound!
All of my testing has been done using the following play list:
· Loreena McKennitt – Lullaby
· Patricia Barber – Miss Otis Regrets
· Diana Krall – Walk on By
· Nat King Cole – Forgive my Heart
· Pink Floyd – High Hopes
· Pink Floyd – Money
· Eagles – Hotel California
· AC/DC – Let There be Rock
· Supertramp – Lord is it Mine
· Heart – Magic Man
· Led Zeppelin – Dazed and Confused
· Led Zeppelin – In the Evening
· Greg Keelor – When I See You
· Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm, Hans Haselböck, Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor & Norbert Balatsch - Requiem in D Minor, K. 626 - Compl. By Franz Xaver Süssmayer: III. Sequentia: Dies Irae
· 2Cellos (Sulic and Hauser) – Smells Like Teen Spirit
· Giuliano Carmignola, Venice Baroque Orchestra & Andrea Marcon - Concerto for Violin, Strings and Harpsichord in G Minor, R. 331: I. Allegro
I will not critique each song individually as this review would go on forever. But I will comment on specific songs when relevant as I describe the various areas of sound being reviewed. The list is more to give everyone an idea of what music types I listened to while reviewing these. You can see I don’t have every genre of music listed as I don’t listen to everything and do not want to comment on genre’s I don’t like or understand as my comments might be completely off the mark for fans of those genres.
Bass – The bass of the K545 is full and impact-full when used with my portable devices and become even fuller to the point of being to much when I use my Audioengine D1 DAC or Tube amp. This is the area with the most change from the K550 and to my ears it is an improvement in most cases with only the odd song in my collection that comes across as to bass heavy and only when using a headphone amp. The level of sub-bass in “When I See you” for example is just sublime while songs like “Magic Man” and “Dazed and Confused” sound full and complete without going over the edge. Cello’s also come across with lots of timbre and resonance. AKG has managed to add the bass without negatively impacting the midrange or treble, no small feat.
Score – 90%
Midrange – The mid-range is slightly warm giving vocals a nice full body without making them to smooth or laid back. Guitars likewise don’t come across as thin or too harsh except for songs with heavy electic guitar riffs, out my song list “Let There be Rock” occasionally drifted into the harsh zone for me but this may also be as much about my changing song preferences as well. I have heard midranges that have more emotion and transparency but usually at the cost of potential sibilance or thinness. The K545 plays it a bit safe but not so much as to make these feel boring.
Score – 95%
Treble – The treble is the one area that is very reminiscent of the K550 for good or bad. Out of my playlist this added treble was sublime with all of the Jazz and occasionally steps over the line into harsh with harder rock tracks from Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. In my opinion the treble never reflected anything more or less than what was in the track though. The level of detail is high while never sounding artificial to my ears.
Score – 95%
Sound Stage – The sound is not as large as some of the other closed headphones I have owned but is above average and never felt artificially large or closed in. I would say it fits well with a portable headphone that might have instances where large would not work out while never making a person feel like they are to limited. Songs like “Lullaby” in particular sound quite expansive during the thunderstorm at the beginning of the song while other songs like “When I See You” have a strong holographic sense to them.
Instrument Separation – This is one area where some of the compromises made by AKG to make these portable does come into play. The headphone never feels congested but also lacks some of the air and space the K550 has. This is most noticeable with classic pieces that have large symphonies.
Isolation – Isolation also suffers in comparison to the K550 and some of the other closed headphones out there but in defense of the K545 all of the good isolators are also larger headphones. In comparison to the Sony MDR1R another portable oriented headphone isolation levels are very comparable.
Comfort – The comfort of this headphone has surprised me as my ears were just small enough to fit the inner diameter of the cup. I do think these are not quite as comfortable as the K550 but I also feel they are as comfortable for me as the Sony MDR1R which is a benchmark headphone for portable comfort in my experience. The 1R does have a larger cup though so will fit more ears than the K545. But I do suspect the softness of the cups make work for people who do have ears that touch the pads.
Source Equipment observations:
During my portable use I noticed quite a bit of difference from my iPad mini and my Nokia 920 phone. They both had about the same amount of power but the iPad was a much warmer/fuller sounding source than the Nokia 920 which has a colder presentation that is a bit thin in the mid-range. So like other headphones I have tried recently the K545 is quite source dependent. I initially disliked my Nokia but started to appreciate the contrast of thinness as it did help make the K545 a bit brighter.
I was very surprised by how well these performed when amped. My original RWAudio Amp1 and Little Dot Dac1 amp combo which is a fairly bright/cold setup worked well with the headphone but suffered a bit from the analytical nature of the setup but I still preferred it to just my portable source. When I hooked up my AudioEngine D1 though, the synergy was magical as it removed some of the harshness from the upper mid-range and treble and really helped the bass become even bigger (to the point of being maybe too thick at times). The sound became even warmer when I hooked up the little Indeed Tube amp to the AudioEngine D1 to the point I was finding it to warm and fluid for my liking. So again these will respond well to different combinations of source equipment and if you’re worried about my review being slightly off in an area your like you can compensate with the right stack.
Thoughts on how I feel the L545 stacks up against the portable competition:
OK so as can be seen by my scores I rate these around a 90% average, but I want to stress I am basing this average on these as a closed portable versus how they compare to every headphone out there especially the larger full size open headphone designs. In the portable market I feel these have more controlled deeper bass than the MDR1R with more extended treble, a larger sound stage and better instrument placement. I think they have slightly looser bass than the DT1350 but with a fuller sounding mid-range and similar levels of treble. The DT1350 has better instrument separation and detail retrieval but at the cost of sounding thin at times, the K545 has a larger sound stage plus added comfort but at the cost of isolation. The new KEF M500 has a more linear sound with similar depths in bass but less body and a thinner more neutral mid-range and a colder sounding treble. The M500 like the DT1350 does have better instrument separation and detail but at the cost of musicality at times. In terms of comfort and security on my noggin the K545 easily wins hands down though.
How do these compare against the K550?
Bass - There was a definite increase in bass in any song I tried that had a solid bass presence. Cello's had more timbre and weight and bass beats and guitars all had more presence. The difference again is not enough to win over bass heads but it was definitely a welcome increase.
Mids - The mid-range is very similar between both headphones with just a smidge more warmth in the K545.
Treble - The treble is very similar between both headphones.
Sound Stage - This area is probably of the most concern for lovers of the K550. The K550 is definitely more spacious and open sounding but not by as much as I thought. The K545 is more intimate putting you a bit closer to the stage but again not by as much as I thought. So the K545 does make compromises in this area to help reduce their size and increase the bass and add some warmth to the headphone. There is a trade off in sound stage but they did a heck of a job minimizing the loss in this area.
Isolation - There is also a bit of isolation loss but aside from heavy transit commuters I suspect many people will still enjoy these while out and about.
Comfort - The K550 is slightly more comfortable but the only just, while the K545 is easier to get a good seal due to slighter more pressure per square inch if the thinner pads.
Cable - The K550 definitely has a more home studio friendly cable that feels more substantial than the included portable cables of the K545. I hope AKG considers offering a cable upgrade to a similar cable as a purchasable accessory for those who want a higher quality long cable for home use.
Pardon my faux pas in the pictures above as in my haste and confusion at the store I put the K550 on backwards for the photo. But this is about the size of each headphone on the head so please accept my apologies :)
AKG has marketed these as a portable version of the K550 with enhanced bass and more portability and I have to say they have ABSOLUTELY NAILED their description and design on the head. Taking the best aspects of the K550 and keeping or enhancing them in baseball terms they have HIT IT OUT OF THE PARK!. While this is touted as a portable I have found these to be great using them with my full size rig at home. About the only place I won’t be using these at is public transit but this is as much because of my new found love for active noise cancelling under such noisy environments. But for walking around the neighborhood or listening to music at work these were perfect.