Save me from the audio snake oil salesmen.
January 3, 2009 2:46 PM   Subscribe

I am a budget headphone audiophile with $250 to buy myself a toy. I do not want upgrade my amp or source at this point, would the AKG 701 headphones be a wasted investment?

My current setup is an iTunes library full of lossless audio feeding a Headroom total bithead (amp/dac combo) and a pair of Grado Sr-80's headphones. I am attracted to headphones because they provide a much more affordable and accesible audiophile listening environment than speaker setups. Now that the Akg 701 headphones are dropping in price to less than $250, I am very tempted to snag a pair.

I've read alot of reviews and am becoming very tired and distrustful of the sonic snake-oil that seems to be passing for advice in audiophile message boards. Many in the community claim that you need thousands of dollars worth of amps and cable upgrades to create a quality listening environment. I have never seen a decent review of any audiophile grade product that took into account the law of diminishing returns or any measure of restraint.

The fact is that I am never going to upgrade my source past lossless digital audio files and I would very much not like to buy another headphone amp or DAC. Given that would it be a foolish waste of money to buy the Akg 701's? Would I notice any improvement over the Grado cans I already own?
posted by jlowen to Technology (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I used to own the AKG 701 and the Grado HF-1's. I think you will be happy to pair your Grado's with the AKG, you'll have a great can for rock music and an excellent reference can for other types of music such as classical or jazz or electronica. I think it's a better pairing than Grado's and Sennheisers personally. You will definitely hear it. Don't get suckered into the audiophile trap, not many people have golden ears. But the AKG with your set-up should be great.
posted by cazoo at 3:08 PM on January 3, 2009

Your situation is about as pure as it gets for trusting your own ears. You can take your entire rig to a store and do an A/B right there, and that's what you should do. If you want to buy the cans without listening to them, then you will have to take somebody else's advice and that's not smart with headphones. Headphones inspire love/hate relationships; I have an old pair I am crazy about but which my gf can't stand.
posted by jet_silver at 3:41 PM on January 3, 2009

Thanks for the advice.. I have been trying to find a local dealer in the Northeast Kansas or Kansas City Metro area for a while.. It just occurred to me to email AKG and ask for a list of dealers in my area.
posted by jlowen at 4:29 PM on January 3, 2009

I know this is exactly what you didn't ask for, but I can say from personal experience that the Headroom Total Bithead is a pretty lackluster sounding piece of audio hardware and is probably the weakest link in your setup. After using one every day for a couple weeks, I felt compelled to return it to the guys at Headroom. If I were in your situation, I would without a doubt spend that $250 towards better amplification and/or DAC-iness.

If you're handy with a soldering iron and a multimeter, there are several easy DIY headphone amps like the Millet Hybrid Maxed that you can build for about $150 in parts. For the price, you probably can't do better; Headroom used to sell an older version of the Millet Hybrid design for $700. Building the amp is incredibly easy (as far as these things go); all you have to do is buy the parts and solder them into a pre-made PCB. I built one of the non-MAX amps a few years ago and still use it for several hours every day at work.

As far as DACs or headphone amps that you don't have to build yourself, you can get incredible value from a couple sources. There are some builders out there who will build the more popular DIY designs, customized to your specifications, for a nominal fee. Also, capital-A "Audiophiles" are ridiculous when it comes to equipment turnover. If you look on eBay or on the Head-Fi For Sale forums, you'll eventually come across a good deal on what you're looking for.
posted by strangecargo at 5:17 PM on January 3, 2009

I own both the SR-80's and the 701's. The AKG's are superior by a big WOW factor. However, they are very neutral, and may sound overly analytical compared to. . . well, just about anything else. You might also want to consider Sennheisers or higher end Grados. Probably you're already familiar with it, but the best resource for this kind of info is the forums. The people also have regular meetups in various cities, so that may be something to look into. Feel free to mail me with any questions.
posted by paulg at 2:00 AM on January 4, 2009

Also, strangecargo is right about the Bithead being pretty weak. I like the guys at Headroom, so I feel kind of bad writing this, but the Bithead doesn't seem to add much power or sound quality compared to the line out of an average PC sound card. Their higher end stuff is pretty nice, though.

(Speaking of power, I should mention that the AKG phones are notoriously difficult to drive, while Grado's are a very easy load. Your Bithead can probably drive the 701's to reasonable volume levels, but the dynamics will be lacking. You might be better off with something like the Grado SR-325i's. I have not heard the 325's.)
posted by paulg at 2:24 AM on January 4, 2009

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