AKG K271S vs. Ultrasone Proline 650 vs. Audio-Technica ATH-A900: One N00bs Adventure
Feb 25, 2006 at 10:56 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 1

gcharma

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I'm not sure if you can call this a review, more like it's just a little journal as to what I went through finding my headphones of choice in the audiophile wasteland that is Vancouver.

Well, that's a little mean, I guess. If you're really looking to spend $10K on gear, there are no end of places in VanCity willing to take your money and spit signal-to-noise ratios in your face for your troubles. But what about a guy who listens to music all day while he works (i.e. needs closed cans), and wants great sound for a stinking low price?

A caveat before I begin: I can honestly say I've been there, done that when it comes to music. I've recorded in multi-million dollar studios, I've played in front of 15000+ people numerous times, I've also played for three drunks and a waitress and recorded in my neighbour's basement. That said, for some reason I've never really bothered investing the time/money/effort into finding adequate solutions to my most pressing problem: how to make the music I like sound good. Not sure why, exactly, but after taking the time to convert my CD collection to wavpack format, I figured it was about time to start getting the most out of lossless audio. End result, you've got a headphone n00b who knows what he wants but no idea of how to get it.

My rigs:

Gateway m675X, featuring a Sigmatel STAC9758 DAC. Not the greatest, believe me, but a fairly clean signal for a laptop.
O2 XDA IIs, featuring a Philips UDA1380 DAC. Again, not exactly high-end stuff, but cleaner than the Sigmatel. This chip is also in most of iRiver's portable jukeboxes.
Dell Latitude c610, featuring some Cirrus Logic thingamagigger. Why doesn't it matter what the exact DAC is? Because this BY FAR the ****tiest computer-based audio ever produced! I wish I knew the exact part number only so I could burn the right name in effigy! Truly the antichrist of computer audio.
(I also ran the AKGs off some middle of the road Mackie board, as described below)

Ahem...

And so, the contenders (all prices in CAD$):

AKG K271S (55-ohm version)

Price as tested: $280
Burn-in time: approx 60 hours

This baby came to me from a local music shop chain, and with the very high recommendations I received from this here website, I had abnormally high expectations.

This was also a big bitch to burn in, as I had to rig a spacer to keep that bloody cut-off switch from engaging.

Comfort: Sub-par. The pleather pads weren't bad, but they stuck to my skin worse than similar synthetic materials. As well, there is a design flaw (yes, in my humble opinion it is a flaw) where the bottom of the pads don't form a complete seal against your head if you don't take some time and really mess with their positioning. Needlessly problematic.

Build Quality: Excellent. I never felt like my handling of these cans would cause any undue damage. This was confirmed when I returned them and the counter guy asked if I'd even used them.

Sound: Ah, here's the kicker. These are inCREDibly detailed headphones. If you like that sort of thing. The problem is, they have ZERO of what I would have to call "balls". I can hear every single bass note picked or plucked or electrnically generated with incredible precision, however I feel nothing, nothing at all. As a bass player, this is just wrong. Any audio engineer (or high school band teacher, for that matter) could tell you that timbre is generated by the confluence of resonant harmonics which in the end form the total sound. I got the impression from these phones that they almost did too good a job separating those harmonics, and the end result was (to me) sterile and weak. I know there will be disagreements with my analysis, however I stand by my assessment.

So these aren't great listening headphones; are they still worth the coin? Most definitely YES, if you do any type of serious studio work. I had the chance to play a session with these cans, and not only did they allow me to hear absolutely EVERYTHING with crystal clarity, they showed me how the various players' parts intertwined with each other in a way years of practicing together never had. Very impressive if you are looking for that level of separation.

Of course, I wasn't looking for studio monitors; I wanted great listening headphones. So, on to the next contender:

Ultrasone Proline 650

Price as tested: $269
Burn in time: +100 hours

These guys get a bad rap as far as I'm concerned. I mean, is it such a bad thing that they've attempted to market their cans using science which is questionable at best, severely flawed at worst? (I refer to their S-Logic and {snicker} "EM shielding") Is it so bad that the accompanying documentation had enough poor grammatical choices in it to make an English teacher's head explode? (read: "Headphones are my business, not learning English; so I translate from German using Google!")

All that piss and vinegar aside, I was really pleasantly surprised with these cans.

Comfort: These muthas clamp your head. No getting around it. It makes a great seal, though, comparable to the AKGs and far better than the A900s. The pads are confortable enough (less sticky by far than the AKGs), though I envy those who can afford the 750s or 2500s with the velour pads. Still, long listening sessions (3+ hours straight) didn't cause me any discomfort.

Build Quality: Questionable, and here's why: The headband creaks, a lot. It gives the whole thing a somewhat cheap feel, honestly. I've read elsewhere that this issue is moot (at least with newer versions) but it still bugged me. As well, the mechanism used to keep the pads attached, while convenient, is in practice quite irritating. I'll describe why below.

Sound: These things sound really full. It was really hard sending them back too (yup, these ones were returned just like the AKGs) just for the fact that I really enjoyed listening to them. I felt the bass was full-bodied, yet had enough crispness to avoid boominess or dullness. It's hard to describe, really, but I felt the bass in these cans was the closest to what I would expect to hear in a studio mixing/mastering situation. Full, yet separate, and never too overwhelming.

The mids and highs unfortunately were the downfall of these cans. While I practically came every time the intro bass rumble of Bassment Jaxx's "Good Luck" floated by, I missed the high-end definition of the AKGs, and the mids seemed swallowed up like some Jonas in the baffles of the offset drivers.

Oh yes, and the offset drivers! First off, don't let anybody tell you that the Proline's aren't worth the extra moolah. They come with (smaller than the HFIs) 40mm gold-plated drivers, which look pretty neat when you crack open the bowls, but which also provide much more definition than the 50mm mylar drivers of the Ultrasone HFI series. I had a chance to A/B them both in store (not broken in, of course) and there is a significant difference.

As well, according to DansData, the HFI drivers aren't offset. The Proline's most certainly are, and this aids the "S-Logic" malarkey they'd love to have you believe was the Holy Grail of soundstage. Let me be clear; it does make a difference. The drivers are positioned close to the bottom-front of each bowl. The end result is (when compared directly to the HFIs) is that with the sound coming at your ear from a diffrerent direction, it gives the impression that you are listening to positional audio. The problem is, this is a gimmick. Eventually, your ears adjust, and the effect is gone. This is not true soundstage; one more element these cans lack. hile things never felt claustrophobic, they felt extremely "linear", i.e. I could feel exactly how far away to the left or right things were, but I never got the feeling anything was to the front or behind me. I was never "surrounded" (take that, S-Logic!). This design also professes to allow you to listen to music at lower volumes and still get the same effect. Honestly, I put these cans directly beside the A900s at the same volume, and really didn't feel like there was any difference. Lowering the volume made them sound quieter (makes sense), and making the same adjustment to the A900s had the same effect. Maybe because the A900s have a slightly lower impedance (hence, easier to drive, ergo actual decibel levels were better matched to the slightly harder to drive 650s?), I dunno.

Ah yes, the pad mechanism... A word of warning: the pads attach using this "interleaving tongue" method. If you're not careful when you reattach the pads, these cans will sound like absolute GARBAGE. These cans depend on the seal for much of their full sound, and if any sound is allowed to leak out, it absolutely ruins the sound. It took me a few minutes to figure out what the problem was the first time I made this mistake; everything sounded really weird in the left ear, since I hadn't lined up all the tongues with all the grooves when I twisted the pads back onto the bowls I created a break in the seal. Very, very bad, but easily fixed.

Regardless, after I heard the last cans in this little adventure, these ones went back to the store too...

And in conclusion:

Audio-Technica ATH-A900

Price as tested: $200 (these were bought used, from Head-Fi'er cklchoi, who got them from another Head-Fi'er)
Burn-in time: zero by me, I figure the previous owners did enough.

Comfort: Good enough. The two little pads on top take a little getting used to. These cans feel loose on your head, though moderate wiggling doesn't shift them at all. Not a great seal is the tradeoff. If there is a big niggle I have, it's that the driver mesh is actually touching my ears inside the cans. It hasn't bugged me yet, but in an extra-long session this WILL drive me to drink. That little bit of pressure is always in the back of my mind. I can prolly thicken the pads, but why should I have to? One last thing: I LOVE the auto-sizing mechanism. This is the way all headphones should adjust.

Build Quality: Solid feeling, but lots of plastic. Each can swivels very freely, which is a little disconcerting, but it hasn't been an issue yet. The cloth-lined cable is a dream come true; why can't they all be like this? It doesn't stick to things, and doesn't seem to fall prey to those bloody cable bends that never seem to flatten out.

Sound: Well, here's where they sell themselves. Compared to the other two, these are the perfect compromise between exciting listening and accurate representation. Everything just sounds "right" somehow. Bass is present and powerful, yet doesn't overwhelm (even in bass-heavy recordings like Jamiroquoi - A Funk Odyssey). Mids are in full effect, but are most importantly complimented by detailed highs, which give an ambience to things I had yet to hear in the other phones. A great example is in the track Future Proof by Massive Attack. The first two notes (made famous by Smirnoff) sound like the actual synth effect through these cans, a "droplet" of sound if you will. The tone is only half of the equation; the effect is meaningless if the mid and high tones done mesh perfectly, which they do in these cans.

As well, there is an unbelievable amount of detail in these cans. Even crappy MP3s (128Kbit) revealed little nuances I'd never noticed (or had hidden from me) in other cans. Soundstage is as full as I think can be achieved in closed cans. Remember the "linear" feeling I described with the Ultrasones? Imagine now that those lines have widened to form waves oscillating front to back. It's still not going to trick me into thinking someone is directly in front or behind me, but there is an impression of depth that was lacking before. There is an impression that things are slightly behind me, but this might just be me anti-compensating for the adjustments I made for the Ultrasones.

If there is a downside, it is that compared to the Ultrasones the bass in these cans doesn't stretch quite as wide. Not that that's a bad thing, but depending on the listener this might not be what you're looking for (i.e. DJs probably need not apply). As well, add on the fact that no one local sells these things. The fact that AT's are so bloody difficult to find in my neck of the woods (c'mon, I'm Pacific Rim!) is truly shocking given the price/performance ratio these things bring to the table.

I hope this little diatribe is helpful to somebody. I'm not all that experienced in the world of high-end headphone audio, but I feel my background gives me something of a leg up in understanding what I'm looking for in good cans.

As well, allow me to make one little comment in poor taste: if one more dip describes to me how Norah Jones sounds in one of these reviews, I'm gonna barf. For chrissake, branch out! Quiet little puss music is great sometimes, but get a frame of reference by comparing some more "vibrant" tunes! I tested each of these cans using a mix of the abovementioned artists (yes, all/mostly techno-ish), but I also included Otto Klemperer's amazing 1964 performance of Die Zauberflote, Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygen, Ladysmith Black Mombazo's Homeless, Norma Jean's O God (The Aftermath), Dungen's Ta Det Lugnt, along with Wintersleep, Coheed and Cambria, The Mars Volta, Buck 65, music from the Aghion Oros monastery... with all these great albums to choose from, why on earth are we forced to draw comparisons between the same bloody recordings? I mean, yeah, it's a great recording. I've been to Sorcerer Sound, they do great work. But it isn't the end-all-be-all to fidelity! You know how hard it was to find a single review that included a death metal (or comparable) test subject? I'll tell you: Impossible! I'm still looking!

Phew. Thanks for reading, and putting up with my BS. Best of luck with all your audiophile purchases, and long live Head-Fi!
 

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