These are impressions for the K812.
Before getting to the good bits though I hope you'll bear with me for a moment, as AKG has been on my mind a lot lately. I feel like my views on the K812 are ultimately tied to thoughts of their creators' history both past and present.
Over the last few decades, the brand has become synonymous with studio production and garnered a reputation for bringing professional gear to a more general consumer base with iconic headphones like the K240. You're just as likely to see them on someone's desktop as on a mixing console. It doesn't take much sleuthing however to realize this professionalism is only part of the story: the Austrian company is also renowned for their willingness to experiment and innovate, an adventurous side seen in products like their parabolic K280 or K340 hybrid. Then, of course, there was the K1000. With its red jungle gym assembly and folding Alfred E. Newman ear panels, their last truly high-end offering in the realm of full sized headphones was (and still is) as captivating as it was unconventional. It eventually became a classic---as have many of their products---and since then folks have been clamoring for them to release a new statement model.
I've been eagerly awaiting the K812 myself, though I'd be lying if I said I wasn't skeptical. Over the last several years it's felt as though AKG was in hibernation; it seemed as though they were suffering from something of an identity crisis with their lime green colored headphones, and people began to grow impatient with almost annual re-releases of their previous top of the line model, the venerable but long in the tooth K701. Granted the K701 got better with each successive iteration until it became the stellar K712 of today, but those of us who remembered the company's past endeavors wanted something truly fresh. Some doubted this would ever come. With new products like the hybrid K3003 in-ear monitors and the closed K550s however, the giant was finally stirring again. By the time the K812 was announced I knew AKG was coming back into my life for better or worse.
So here I am.
I've had the K812 for a little over a week now. When I first unpacked them, I was struck by how downright cool the outer packaging looks. It's this film noir shot of the headphones emerging from primordial darkness, the only source of light in what is otherwise a void. The product's designation is below it and written in even more black. If AKG has a goth side, surely this is it. Upon sliding the outer cover off you're greeted by a fabric covered box (in black, what else?) minimally adorned with their corporate logo of three interlocked heart-shapes and sealed using a magnetic clasp. Inside you'll find the headphones and various accessories, the nicest of which is the Omega-style headphone stand; this is by far the best bundled stand since the Edition 10's. It makes me realize I've been missing out by not having more of these things in my life. The headphone cable in turn is ergonomic and agreeable if somewhat no-frills, and it attaches to the headphones via small connector. Single entry.
Enough of all that. How do they perform once you hit play? At this risk of fueling the hype, I'll go ahead and say it: this is one of the best sounding dynamic headphones I've ever heard at any price. Period.
There are a couple of things going on with regard to that. First of all, they absolutely nailed the frequency response and tonal balance in my opinion. I recall several articles about Dr. Olive's extensive research into ideal compensation curves, basically research into making headphones sound better to certain listeners, and I wouldn't be surprised if that largely informed the way these were tuned. This is a rather exciting prospect because it harkens back to the AKG of yesteryear, a company that not only wanted to make headphones but wanted to make headphones better. A lot of thought and care evidently went into the K812. Their balance definitely tends toward neutrality, with a nice linear sounding response and well extended lows. To my ears the highs are quite a bit smoother (read: less peaky) than Sennheiser's top offerings, the HD700 and HD800, though the latter flagship still comes out on top in terms of overall detail and texture; in my opinion the HD800 is pretty much the most micro-resolving headphone on the planet. I also find the HD800 has more of a tactile quality and better sense of impact. Keep in mind however I strongly disagree with folks who say the HD800 is weak in its bottom-end response: while it may lack the quantity of bassier options, I feel it has a very hard hitting punch... if driven properly. There's the rub. The HD800 is incredibly persnickety, and I think a lot of folks aren't hearing what it's actually capable of half the time.
By comparison the K812 is much, much easier to work with in terms of synergy. For instance the HD800 sounds like crapola on DAPs such as the newer Sony Walkmans, whereas the K812 shines on them. In other words: you can get true flagship-level performance using the K812 without shelling out a ton of money for a new amp and source. That's not to say the K812 is just a compromise for those without the resources to build systems around the HD800. Far from it. In its own right, the K812 scales up nicely when paired with high-end gear. This is no slouch when it comes to retrieving fine details; the tired old cliche about hearing new things in recordings is definitely applicable. While that's all very well and good, the real clincher for me is the K812's ability to do this without boosting the treble too much in sports, something many audiophile flagships do to help accentuate detail and make things pop. The K812 is able to be engaging while remaining relatively non-fatiguing. Keep in mind though that sensitivities to this stuff are going to vary from person to person, so it's possible some will still find the upper registers here a bit harsh depending on their frame of reference or level of tolerance. Maybe it's just a case of the K812 not spotlighting problem areas for me. I feel as though the engineers at AKG are showing off their collective experience with studio monitors here by opting for a headphone you can listen to for extended periods of time. There's a misconception that monitors should sound abrasive. On the contrary, if you're behind a mixing console all day the last thing you want is an abrasive sounding headphone. Detailed, yes. Aggressive? No. While there's no doubt in my mind the K812 is marketed to audiophiles, I get the sense it's more an expression of what a professional tool can ultimately be. In that regard I think it speaks more directly to AKG's lineage than their other recent offerings.
The K812 is equally at home in the listening room however. For all of its analytical prowess, it's still a decidedly musical headphone. For me that means the individual components of a track come together as a cohesive whole, a place for everything and everything in its place. It's the sense of PRaT---a term I myself feel like something of a prat for using---that makes the K812 an especially compelling listen for me. It's just spot-on, and as a result these headphones can seriously groove. Therein lies my favorite aspect of these headphones: they effortlessly balance cohesiveness with that previously mentioned sense of detail. All the ingredients of a track are separated to where you can easily discern and appreciate them, yet the composition as a whole never falls apart. You get to enjoy the meal. This is a quality I've appreciated in some of the finest audio equipment. The K812 sounds exciting, immersive, and natural; much more so than its predecessors which have an artificial quality to them. Like its predecessors though, sound is presented in a wide-open, expansive field. Instruments are meticulously positioned within and easy to discern in relation to the listener. It's a very non-aggressive headphone in that it doesn't force sound into your face, though I wouldn't call it a laid back headphone in terms of its frequency response: it's still on the bright side of neutral to my ears.
So... where are the weak spots? After all. no headphone is perfect. By their very nature headphones are about compromise, and different folks should prioritize things according to their desires. First off, as I mentioned above, the K812 is a bit lacking to my ears when it comes to a sense of impact. Granted it's not what I'd call a "bass light" headphone; in fact, I'd say the bass quantity was more or less right for my preferences. It's taut, well controlled, and extends nicely. It has a great sense of texture and articulation, definitely not a one-note or amorphous kind of presentation. However the weight behind it---the punch it packs---could use some more oomph in certain cases. Another potential caveat would be the treble which, for some folks, might come across as harsher than it does to me just because of differences in sensitivities. For me the K812 is extremely listenable, though I certainly wouldn't say it has electrostatic-smooth treble by any stretch. If you're expecting a silky top end you might be disappointed. Another potential issue has to do with the presentation which can sound distant at times, especially at lower volumes. The K812 has a very open, airy, and downright impressive sense of space. There's a lot of breathing room between instruments. Sometimes these instruments may seem a bit too far removed though, and this results in my turning the volume up in response. This is a headphone that's all too easy to listen to loudly given its smooth highs, so listeners will want to exercise caution and make sure they're not listening at levels that could damage their hearing over time.
The biggest issue I've had with these actually has nothing to do with the sound. One of the earcups on my set has a large crack in it. This is how the headphones arrived, and there was no sign of any shipping mishaps along the way. Everything was sealed and factory fresh. This leads me to believe it's a factory defect. Looking at the material on the cup where it's cracked, it's a dense and porous plastic that reminds me of the material Audez'e used for the gimbals on the first LCD-2, back when those early models were developing---yes---cracks. It's more than just a cosmetic issue too, as the crack is right where the cup is joined to the outer ring of headband arc's frame, right where it pivots. That is an area which undergoes strain when the cups pivot, so the crack could potentially grow and, eventually, detach the cup from the frame in that area. Already the crack has clearly split the cup in two in that spot. Perhaps my expectations are too high, but I think it's a little obscene for something like this to happen on a $1.5k headphone. AKG should get that sort of thing right given their decades worth of experience. What makes this issue particularly upsetting is that these headphones are, otherwise, phenomenal to my mind. They are new favorites for sure. Now I'll have to send them back to AKG and wait for a replacement to arrive when they're backordered in most places. Additionally I'm not sure how widespread the issue is, and I worry that I'll just get another with the same defect. Worse still, I worry that a crack might form later on down the line. I'm going to be paranoid using these for a while.
In general the build quality and construction of the K812 leaves a bit to be desired. Instead of an auto-adjusting headband like its predecessor, the K812 uses a fixed position system with sliders on either side, and you have to adjust some truly chintzy ratchet sliders that click into place and are just awkward to use. I realize they likely wanted to get away from elastics which need replacing and wanted something more stable, but still a smoother action would have been nice. The earpads remind me of those on the Sony Qualia 010, basically a flat surface pulled over the cup and hollow underneath instead of filled. This creates a large chamber between your ears and the drivers. Even though they're softer and less taut compared to the Q010's pads, the sides of my head start to ache after an hour or so because they're still less plush to me than other pads. Still, overall comfort is well above average in my opinion despite these relatively minor complaints.
The K812 isn't perfect. In fact, I have some concerns at this point. For me however the positive qualities outweigh these concerns by a significant margin. When it comes to their sound and the pleasure I derive from listening, the K812 is virtually unmatched among dynamic headphones. The K812 belongs to an elite club of flagships in my opinion, and it stands as a testament to AKG's experience and the culminating masterstroke to a lineage of renowned studio headphones.
Notes on my equipment:
Berkeley Alpha DAC and USB
Sony Walkman F806 and ZX1
Cavalli Liquid Gold (w/ and w/o impedance adaptor)
ECP Black Diamond prototype
Un-amped (straight from source)
Listening to the K812 from the Black Diamond prototype makes for a somewhat less airy and more powerful sound compared to listening from the Sony Walkman DAPs. The mid bass is punchier, and there's a [relatively] more aggressive attack. Wailing electric guitars sound amazing with this combo without being too fatiguing.
Oh, and the wood on the BD proto looks really cool next to the Omega headphone stand that comes with the K812. I should post pictures soon-ish.
Edited by MuppetFace - 2/1/14 at 5:29pm