AKG K812: You Are There!

This is an extraordinary headphone, but for a particular audience. If you want to hear everything the mikes pick up and that gets through the mixing board, this is your headphone. If you want the melliflous musical presentation and velvety richness of planars, this is NOT your headphone. If you want something in between, look at a Beyerdynamic T1 or Sennheiser HD800 and be happy that you've got a great set of cans.

While I am still throwing things at the K812, I have now spent about 10 hours with it, covering a range of genres. I have not done a break-in. All the time has been straight digital 16-bit into a Benchmark D1HDR DAC/amp, my preferred evaluation rig.

I have not included my first 3 hours with the K812, which left me frustrated and confused. Coming off a lot of time with the famously smooth and easy Audeze LCD-3 and a very long, difficult work week battling big banks in litigation, it was probably the wrong time to unbox the K812 and tear into it, especially with a lot of goings-on in the busy household. Lesson learned: first impressions in the wrong frame of mind and insufficient time to evaluate don't do anyone any good.

That initial impression was that the cans were hot, as some people find with the Senn HD800 (and which I have never found with the T1, my personal go-to phone). However, it was obvious too that the spatial presentation and sense of air around voices and instruments far exceeded any headphone I've ever auditioned (I haven't auditioned the Stax, so I can't compare). It was that beguiling, surprising sense of open space that made me set aside blocks of time to figure out what was going on with the new AKG flagship. I've heard bright cans that I could not stand to keep on, but that was not the issue with the K812's. They were bright cans that I wanted to keep on because of the airiness.

With more time and different kinds of recordings, I was reminded of two things.

First, my days as a cellist, with all the sounds a musician hears on stage or in the studio that don't travel beyond the third row or mixing room and that the transducers I've experienced don't reproduce to any great extent. I'm talking about the violinists' chinpads creaking and fingers moving around on the fingerboard; that floor-bounce resonance of sound you hear when you are sitting on the stage with the other musicians; the grain of the singer's voice; the burst of air and sibilance on the singer's lips; the trumpeter's pucker; the horn's bright leading edge -- in short, many of things in live events that recordings are not necessarily expected to, or desired to, reproduce.

Second, I was reminded of the highly constructed quality of recordings and an image of the producer's hand on the mixing console. Different tracks using different equipment and even from different venues get combined into many recordings. In the case of soundstage classical and soundtrack recordings, you get multi-miked setups and later dubs.

To summarize what I think I'm hearing, the K812's lay bare the constructed quality of recordings, with clear differences in mikes, recording equipment, venue, and happenstances of the music-making process plainly audible. To achieve that, the new drivers somehow manage to retrieve ambient detail that I've never heard a headphone retrieve. I had never heard loudspeakers retrieve such detail, for instance, until I heard Siegfried Linkwitz's Orion, and the K812 are like Orions on steroids because the room equation has been removed. Siegfried Linkwitz is convinced that there is sufficient ambient detail buried in many stereo recordings already but that transducer and overall speaker design has not previously figured out how to deliver it. I think headphones make the task inherently simpler, but headphone design has only gotten really serious in the past few years, far behind the loudspeaker curve. With new headphone driver designs and refinements coming down the pike monthly, even the Senn HD800's and Beyer T1's are going to be playing catch-up, as great as those are. I think the K812 driver may be an important incremental step in basic driver capabilities -- though it certainly doesn't push ahead in all areas and has some compromises, as I'll discuss below.

So the K812 is a high-resolution headphone that covers the full frequency range and manages to retrieve striking levels of detail. What's not to like?

After some hours auditioning, I went back to the AKG web site.
AKG announces in no uncertain terms that the K812 is "designed for music professionals." AKG is not holding this product out as an audiophile's headphone, nor a headphone for travel, soothing new-age sound stylings, or anything else. The reason is obvious: the K812 are trees headphones, not forest headphones. An engineer is going to see every wart and blemish in the recording and the response of the mike, and so will you if you buy them and run them from a clean source. They are that good, and that impossible to enjoy Perry Como with. I find myself listening obsessively for recorded detail, to the exclusion of just sitting back and letting the sound wash over me. Fact is, I like obsessing that way sometimes, for god only knows what reason except that I've been involved in audio for 35 years and still marvel at how good it is now compared to when I was a kid. Other times, however, I don't want to retrieve all that detail; I just want to hum along and relax. If that's all you do, don't bother with the K812; it wasn't designed for you, and you probably just won't like it. Every time a violinist turns a page or taps a foot, you'll be gritting your teeth. It's like those old live classical recordings where everyone in the audience seems to have the flu.

There certainly are purely musical aspects to these cans. Most significantly, and a huge bonus, is that incredible openness and "live" sound, with instruments and voices localizable in space. It's incredibly beguiling. It's shocking, actually.
The other prominent musical feature is some combination of timbre shading ability and recovering the grain of the human voice. The individual characteristics of instruments and voices have a thousand degrees of shading. Very impressive.

Okay, the downsides. The Senn HD800's and the Beyer T1's use an angled driver configuration that seems to put the soundstage somewhat out in front of the head. The AKG K812 are pretty much in-the-head all the time, even though the quality of air around individual voices is pronounced. How this can be so I'm not sure, but I suspect it's some deep level of processing by the brain that no one yet understands.

The other downside that's obvious is that in pop recordings, high female voices sometimes have an edge. Whether that's the cans or the recordings or both, I have no idea. It has the characteristic of narrowing the size of the voice in the soundfield, down to a point.

Finally, I see in Tyll Hertsen's new response graph that the distortion figures between 1kz-4khz at 100db are high, and nothing in my listening during peaks indicates his measurements are wrong. I can't tease out whether traces of harshness are the recording or the cans or both. Hertsen's measurements also show unacceptable levels of bass distortion below 40hz. Because the K812 have good overall balance tending towards the brighter side, this seems to be masked in actual listening. The Audeze cans are all off-the-charts clean and marvelous sounding in the deep bass, so, again, for just plain enjoyment of listening, the K812's take a back seat to the Audezes (as do practically every other can out there).

Okay, on to ergonomics. Fit and finish are great, and the comfort level is off the charts good. These are most comfortable headphones among the flagships, and they are quite light.

I see people making fun of the thin cable, but I don't see why. The connector is a super-high-quality
Swiss 3-pin LEMO connector that won't take large-gauge wire. If you want a fancy replacement cable, see my local friends at Double Helix, who are first to market with a replacement. Be prepared to open your wallet for that.

In summary, a remarkable new product that I will have people audition as a "You want detail, here's detail!" headphone. Most people who come into the shop politely listen to everything I have and then buy Audeze anyway. For gearheads and engineers, however, the K812 is the bomb. I'm having a ball going through old recordings and hearing things I've never heard -- sometimes to my disappointment, as with recordings that should have been done better; sometimes with happy surprise when things get really real, and Alison Krauss's voice breaks just that tiny bit you didn't expect and reminds you to fire off that letter asking her, for the 10th time, to be your wife, even though she totally isn't going to write back, dude, so just forget about it, and besides that, you're already happily married with kids and all that, so it definitely would not work out anyway.

In a follow-up post, I will offer some thoughts on what the goal of high-end headphones ought to be when their degree of resolution exposes poor recording practices or just plain recorded artifacts of the music performance and production process.

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