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Review: AKG 242 HD Headphones -- studio quality, indeed

I do more than just listen to music — I also produce some podcasts and work with sound in other ways. So I was especially grateful for the opportunity to try out the AKG 242 HD headphones. AKG labels them "studio headphones." It's not a term they use lightly. My goal was to put the 242 HD's through their paces, both in and out of the studio.

First impressions count
Of course, sound quality is of primary importance when evaluating headphones, but the 242 HD's had me the first time I put them on. The earcups were large and substantial, held together by a sturdy wire frame with a leather headband.

Just pulling them out of the box and holding them in my hands, the 242HD's felt like quality headphones. And when I placed them on my head — ahhhhh. The earcups were roomy enough that my ears felt as if they were in a soft, velvety space. They didn't touch the edge of the earcups at all. The headphones' frame held the earcups in place, remarkably with no perceptible tension. The earcups just sat there, and I knew they wouldn't move (and they didn't).

Another nice touch: the cord ends in a stereo minijack, but includes a 1/4" adapter plug. Both are coated in 24k gold for improved signal transfer. Unlike most headphone adapters, the AKG 1/4" plug screwed into place, ensuring that the connection remained tight even with repeated plugging and unplugging of the cable (which happened quite a bit as I worked).

These headphones were designed for long listening sesssions, which was good. I spent several long nights with the AKG 242 HD's, and at no time did I feel that I had a burden on my head. It was wonderful.

Personal audio
The 242 HD's were highly responsive, as I learned to my chagrin when I tried them out with my traditional personal audio sources. I first tried out the headphones with my iPod. Most of my music is Apple Lossless. I was surprised to find that with the 242 HD's the lossless tracks sounded a little ill-defined. The top end sounded soft, and with certain tracks the bass seemed a little muddy. I immediately suspected that the problem wasn't with the headphones, but with the source material.

I had encountered something similar before, where the headphones' performance outstripped the source. A simple A/B test confirmed the same thing was happening with the 242 HD's. I listened ot some of the worst tracks on my iPod with the 242 HD's then the same tracks directly from my computer library through the headphones. As I suspected, the library versions had more detail and definitiion in the high and low ends. The 242 HD's were simply replicating the shortcomings of my iPod's DAC.

If I had an external DAC handy, I would have bypassed my computer's soundcard to further test the sound quality. I expect that the overall sound would have improved. As it was, I had to settle for the iPod DAC vs. soundcard test, which still showed that the headphones were delivering everything they could.

Digital music sources
Listening was more enjoyable straight from my digital library. The music sounded very close to the way I thought it should, with plenty of detail and nice spacial positioning between channels.

I also checked out some of my favorite Internet radio stations. Sound quality normally varies from good to adequate for these stations, and the 242 HD's delivered everything that was there in the signals. Overall, voices were easy to make out, and the music selections had a reasonable amount of detail in them. Those stations that broadcast in stereo had a good blend between channels. The overall effect was listening to the radio on a very good FM tuner.

Into the studio
As I mentioned earlier, I produce two podcasts for DCD Records, a small label my business partner and I run on the side. The first order of business was to record the voice tracks for some podcast episodes using the 242 HD's to monitor the session.

Our podcasts are a mixture of voice and music (used with permission from the appropriate record labels). Normally, after writing the script I record all the voice tracks for an episode, then mix it together with the music.

Voice tracking trauma
Our small studio is a work in progress, but adequate for our purposes -- or so I thought. My normal headphones turned out to be very forgiving, in a way that the 242 HD's were not. For the first time I heard every stray sound and sonic flaw that the microphone regularly picked up — sounds that normally I didn't hear.

The headphones forced me to rework the microphone setup, and also work on the mic settings to try to improve the overall sound. It was a time-consuming task, but well worth it. The end result, while not perfect, was a definite improvement over what we had been recording before.

Mixing and mastering
We produce two different podcasts with two very different sounds. "The DCD Classical 'Cast" showcases classical music, and  basically alternates between narration and music. Just as they did with the recording, the 242 HD's revealed flaws in the recorded voice tracks that I hadn't heard with my other headphones. I had to spend a significant amount of time adjusting some of the parameters and filters, but in the end I had a mix that I was satisfied with — and one that will improve the overall sound of the podcast going forward.

Mulit-tracking
"Garage/Soul '66" is an entirely different matter. This podcast features vintage reisssues from the 1960's, and has the flavor of a Top 40 radio station, circa 1965. In addition to the voice tracks, I have to fade in and out of the featured songs, as well as the backgound music that constantly plays. I also up the energy level by going into the voice tracks and removing pauses and (in some cases) breaths to increase the speed of the patter.

The level of detail I heard through the 242 HD headphones were just what I needed for these tasks. As with the other podcast, I ended up doing some fine tuning to the voice tracks based on what the headphones revealed. I also know I did much cleaner voice edits using the 242HD's — I could hear when the edit was right.

Mixing the three different sound sources (voice, songs, music bed) went much smoother, too. The accuracy of the headphones' sound ensured that the three tracks were weaving in and out precisely as I needed them too.

Working with a great set of headphones made all the difference. Not only did I finish the tasks, but I believe the new versions of these podcasts have a much better than our older episodes.

In conclusion
The AKG 242 HD headphones were a joy to use. I highly recommend them for high-quality listening sources. These headphones will definitely deliver, if the detail's there. And they do indeed deserve the moniker "studio headphones." You can see they look right at home in our little set up in the picture above (click to enlarge). I'm not sure I'm quite ready to go back to the status quo. There may be a set of AK 242 HD headphones in my immediate future.

Listen to the "DCD Classical 'Cast" podcast episode recorded and mixed with the AKG 242 HD headphones by clicking the link below.

DCD Classical 'Cast #098 - Zestler Plays Rachmaninov and Prokofiev

Listen to the "Garage/Soul '66" podcast episode recorded and mixed with the AKG 242 HD by clicking on the link below.

Garage/Soul '66 Podcast #017 - Underground Purple and the Keeper of Souls

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