- Feb 21, 2007
Roughly 4 months ago, I had a chance to demo a new headphone from AKG. Well, not exactly a new headphone..... but rather a new configuration called the K7XX, sold exclusively by Massdrop. I posted my thoughts HERE and the thread soon grew to hundreds of pages. Response from most people seems very positive, especially considering the price. I've seen several seasoned AKG veterans (who certainly have more experience with the AKG 7-series variations than I do) proclaim the K7XX as a superior value - that it's very similar or maybe identical to the 65th Anniversary Edition, at a far lower price. What's not to like?
That model is still available (for the moment), but AKG and Massdrop aren't sitting still. They've partnered once more to bring us another high-value headphone offering, this time serving a somewhat different demographic - those of us who have use for sealed headphones. This model is called the AKG K553 Pro and while it isn't exclusive like the K7XX, Massdrop will be offering it for a very attractive price. So, you can buy it elsewhere, or you can buy for a lot less from Massdrop, and either way you'll get the exact same thing.
My inclusion in this is sort of last minute. I just barely got a demo pair in several days ago. So I haven't had a much time as usual to really get to know these headphones. That said, I've been using them non-stop, and thus far I like what I hear.
The K553 Pro is (obviously) a variation of the original K550. That model was well regarded in general, but had some detractors for various reasons - some of whom I agreed with. It could be troublesome in the treble and also was difficult to properly seal on the head due to the large cup size. It launched at $349 but was easily found for less, down to the low $200 range up until it was discontinued a while back. At $349 I'm a little reluctant to recommend the original K550. At a price closer to $200? Not a bad choice at all, certainly worth trying to see if you can get a good fit. If you wanted a set you'd either hit the used market or go for the K551 which is the same thing with an inline mic and different colors.
But this isn't about the K550 or K551. This is the new model - the K553 Pro. Let's cut to the chase - this is still a very similar headphone to the prior versions, but to my ears it is subtly improved in several key areas. Most notably I hear a slightly more controlled top end with less of an issue with peaks. Articulation is quite good so it's not like AKG just made these darker to help tame the treble. I had trouble with the K550 sounding a bit "plastic" at times, and those peaks, again, could jump out at any time and make some music nigh unlistenable. I find the K553 Pro to be clearly better than its predecessor in this regard. That plastic sound is almost completely stamped out, and the peaks are significantly tamed to the point where I don't consider it an issue any longer. Yes, for all those who liked the K550 but couldn't stand the treble, this one is worth trying out.
The other major thing I hear is improved low end response. I don't think there's necessarily more going on down there, but it sounds cleaner and more impactful. So the net result is more well textured, more convincing. Overall balance is mostly neutral with maybe a small boost down low, but these aren't basshead cans by any means. Compared to the K7XX, these have a little more heft and kick in the absolute lowest registers but in exchange sound less controlled in the midbass region. Not uncontrolled in absolute terms, only compared to the more expensive K7XX - which shouldn't surprise anyone. This may well come down to the simple fact of K553 Pro being a sealed can while K7XX is open. Still, I'm having a blast with this thing so far - it does quite a bit right and very little wrong. I find it more accurate (by far) than my V-Moda M100 with the XL pads, and more open sounding than the Audio Technica ATH-M50x. It also has a fuller, more engaging midrange that puts both of those models in the rear view mirror.
Is it perfect? Nope. It can't compete with any of my more expensive headphones like Alpha Dogs or the venerable HD650. Some might find it a little bland due to the neutral signature.... it doesn't have a lush midrange or massive bass or any other major character to latch on to. It's just a competent, generally neutral can that does a good job with most everything. Is that not very exciting? You tell me. I've been chiefly using the Calyx M and the HiFiMAN HM-802 to drive these things, which are both somewhat on the smoother side. So I haven't given it a true torture test yet - a more clinical, analytical setup might bring out more undesirables than what I've heard so far.
The part that I really like is the price: Massdrop will be selling these for $139.99, which is significantly less than the K550 or K551 ever was. That's second hand K550 territory right there, for a brand new headphone which sounds notably better to my ears. I've got the above-mentioned Audio Technica and V-Moda cans, and a new Sony MDR-1R here, all of which could be considered competitors. Let me tell you, there's no comparison as far as I'm concerned. I already mentioned the others, and the Sony is similarly outclassed in a direct comparison. It really doesn't have much going for it unless you have a small head in which case it will probably fit better.
I'm told the launch starts tomorrow morning (Thursday 3/26) so we'll find out soon enough if my pair is an anomaly or if this thing really is a clear improvement over the prior models. I suspect, like the K712 Pro is to the K702 etc, there will be some pretty obvious character traits picked up by most people. Whether we agree or not is another matter entirely.... but still. I don't even see these available anyplace else. I know AKG showed them at CES recently, and I see a preorder page on another site showing $199.99, so I assume that will be the normal price when everyone else gets them.
I haven't have a K551 around for a while so I can't do a direct comparison - I suspect some pad tweaking which is AKG's usual maneuver. But we'll see. They do mention the pads as being "Leatherette with slow retention foam, replaceable" (bolding mine). I don't know exactly how pad construction varies from earlier models, but the replaceable aspect is sure to be welcome. If I recall correctly, AKG never made K550 pads readily available, so people had a hard time there. This should bring an end to those issues.
That's it for now - as I have more time with them, I'll update with new thoughts. I'm pretty impressed at how much headphone 140 buck will buy you - I've spent a lot more for a lot less in the past. In a season of attempted game-changing headphones with four-figure prices, it's nice to see AKG continue focusing on refining their existing models while dropping prices. I look forward to seeing what others think of these cans - I don't think it will take long for a bunch of opinions to start rolling in.
EDIT: the drop is now LIVE