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Back to school with AKG headphones -- but which pair?

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I’m in the market for a new pair of headphones. I'm going back to school this fall, and want something I can wear for extended periods while I study. Fortunately, since we recently picked up AKG, there were still a number of pairs in our Product Research department, so I decided to snag a few of those and give them a listen. I’d already narrowed down the pool with a few pre-requisites:

  • No in-ear models – these sound great for short periods, but I find them uncomfortable for long listening sessions.
  • Excellent sound quality – I’ve been spoiled by awesome-sounding gear for the past 5-1/2 years. I just don’t have it in me to step down to sub-par sound.
  • Reasonably portable – I don’t need to walk all around town with these ‘phones, but I will be taking them with me to and from campus every day.
  • Noise-canceling isn’t really necessary – I’ll mostly be in quiet places (the library or my home office). If I were traveling a lot or working in a noisier environment, it’d be different.

Around-ear headphones for top sound quality

I started off dead-set on around-ear headphones. As mentioned above, good sound is important to me, and these models generally lead the pack when it comes to sonic detail and broad frequency response. Plus, I thought it’d be nice to have the additional sound-dampening those earcups offer – I won’t be in noisy places, but if my husband has people over while I’m studying, I don’t want to be able to hear Halo multi-player sound effects all night.

So the first 'phones I tried were the around-ear AKG K 242 HD. These sound amazing — the bass was deep and defined (not boomy), and the mids and highs were smooth and clear. Like all of AKG’s HD models, they feature plush velvet earcups, which are so soft and comfortable, it’s really like wearing two little pillows on your head. Despite their not-so-portable size, these ‘phones are much more portable-friendly than some other over-ear models. Their impedance is low enough that I can listen on my iPhone for a long time and not have the battery drained too quickly. But after just a few minutes, it became apparent that these (or any other around-ear headphones) wouldn't be an option. I like to wear dangly earrings, and having them pressed into my face by earcups (cushy-soft as they were) wasn’t really working for me.

On-ear models — a better fit for me?

Next, I moved on to some nice on-ear models – the AKG K 142 HD and K 172 HD. They both sounded fantastic, and I was really impressed at how well they blocked out noise — I haven't always found on-ear models to be as effective in that arena. I especially liked the 142s, because the design allows the earcup to swivel a little bit, so they were slightly more comfortable for me than the 172s. The 172s provided superior noise dampening though, since the earcups are sealed.

Neither of these models are especially large as high-quality headphones go, and they’re quite lightweight. But as I imagined trying to cram them into an already full backpack, I found myself hoping for something a little more portable. So I tried the AKG K 450s.

A little more backpack-friendly

The K450s step down in a few significant ways. First, they don’t have the plush velvet earcups, which I found myself missing. This also meant they weren’t quite as good at sound dampening. Also, while they do sound darn good (and this is coming from a very picky listener!), they don’t provide the same level of spaciousness and detail I enjoyed with the “HD” models. Still, the K 450s definitely won in terms of portability – they’re collapsible, come with a compact carrying case, and they’re about 3 ounces lighter than any of the HD models.

And the winner is...

Ultimately, I decided on the AKG K 450s. It was tough — I really loved the way all of the HD models sounded – but in this case, I was OK with the trade-off of sound quality for portability. The K 450s will be easier to fit in my backpack, and they'll be protected from big, heavy books by their hard case.

So, mission accomplished. Now there's just that whole "getting through school" thing.

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