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AKG K 550 Headphones

Made for long listening sessions

Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.

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I really like it when I can review a set of headphones by living with them for a while. That was the case with the AKG K 550 stereo headphones. I’ve listened to them at work — about every day for a month. The sessions have run at least a couple of hours every day (usually while I’m working on something at the computer). The headphones might be considered a little too high end for most people, but for my workaday listening, they fit right in the pocket.

The first and foremost consideration is sound quality, of course, and the 550s deliver. The soundfield is a little closed in, but when I turned up the volume, the field seemed to expand nicely.

Natural sound from acoustic instruments

I listened to a wide range of music through the headphones, and overall they reproduced the sound with great accuracy and clarity. The earcups kept the soundfield fairly closed in, but within that space it was easy to pick out the relative placements of instruments — particularly in acoustic ensembles such as a jazz trio or a symphony orchestra.

Acoustic music seemed very natural through the 550s. To my ears, the headphones did color the sound slightly, giving it a certain amount of warmth. That wasn’t an issue for most of the music I played. When I listened to something like Matt Haimovitz playing the Bach solo cello suites, or Keith Jarrett taking a turn on the piano, for example, that warmth seemed to enhance the sound in an attractive way.

Galvanizing performances from electronic instruments

When I moved to primarily electronic musical genres, such as rock, hip hop and dance, that warmth disappeared into the background. The distorted samples and drum beats of mashup artists the Kleptones sounded just as steely and crunchy as it was supposed to.

Bass-heavy tracks had real presence in the low end. And it was a balanced sound. The lows were there, but they didn’t overpower the other frequencies. So, for example, Goldie’s “Timeless” album had the hard-hitting thuds and thumps drum-and-bass requires, but not at the expense of the vocals or instrumental loops.

A word about sound sources

My listening sessions were done with one of two configurations. The first was computer to headphone amp to headphones. The second was iPod® classic to headphones. In both cases most of the audio tracks I listened to were in Apple Lossless format.

The NuForce Icon 2 DAC (digital-to-analog converter) plugs into my computer via a USB cable. It bypasses my PC’s marginal soundcard and uses its own DAC to process the digital music files. The Icon is also a headphone amp, so in addition to receiving a much better signal than they would from the computer’s headphone jack, the 550s also were getting the power they needed for optimal operations. It’s my preferred setup for at-work listening. The Icon requires a 1/4” plug, but the AKG headphones came with an adapter that screws onto the cord’s minijack connector.

I know many people will just use the headphone jack of their portable player or smartphone, so I also listened to the 550s with that setup. Through my iPod® classic, the sound files were being processed by the player’s DAC, and its headphone jack powered the 550s.

Listening to the same track through both sources, it was clear that there was a loss of detail just using the iPod classic. The sound seemed softer, and less-defined around the edges. The 550s, even underpowered as they were, still delivered far more detail from my iPod’s music than the earbuds that came with it.

A word or two about comfort

As I said earlier, I wore the 550s a lot. Although these are substantial headphones, they never felt like they were weighing down my skull. The earcups are generously padded, and provided plenty of space for my ears inside. The headband has a thin layer of padding, but it’s enough (at least for me).

The earcup pads provide most of the support of the headphones, so there’s very little downward pressure from the headband. Some of the headphones I’ve tried have left the top of my head sore — not so with the 550s. I could — and did — wear them comfortably for hours at a time.

The bottom line — good for the long haul

The AKG K 550s are a good high-end headphone choice for less-than high-end listening situations. Although slightly warm, I felt I was getting all the musical detail my sound sources were delivering. And they were comfortable enough to wear all through the work day. And that’s more than good enough for me!

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