AKG Q701 - Review
The Q701 is AKGs top circumaural headphone model - an open back, reference headphone endorsed by Quincy Jones. The box design and materials are rather uninspiring for a flagship model, there's not much more I can say about that so lets get it open.
Once passed the flimsy container things get more interesting. The coloured parts are plastic (white in this case) but they look pretty solid and nicely designed. The headband is metal, covered in leather with an embossed "Quincy Jones" logo in the middle. The easy fit comes down to some thin bits of elastic connected to the ear-cups, my main worry for this is that time would naturally destroy these as I have had things like this go on previous headphones but I don't know how strong they are. The metal arches (which carry the signal to the right driver) are described as "unbreakable", looking at all that plastic I really don't want to test that but hopefully there is some truth to it. The large black ear pads look very comfy and visually contrast nicely on the brighter coloured models.
The looks in general are certainly not for everyone but I quite like them. Nothing much has changed since the K601 model design wise. By AKG's own words: The difference between the Q701 and the previous model are limited to exterior aesthetics chosen by Quincy Jones. The colour choices, name and logo branding are the only things that have been modified since the K702 (which only added a removable cable from the K701). The driver and general construction remain unchanged throughout all three models. This could make some people feel rather bitter if they find this out after shelling out for the significantly higher priced 'Q' model. The only silver lining to this is that the price seems to fluctuate substantially - at least on the Amazon website anyway. On rare occasions the Quincy Jones variant can be found even cheaper than standard model (K701).
The box contains two detachable cables, the headphone connection of which is proprietary which is a shame as it means replacements will need to be ordered directly from AKG. The lengths of these cables are 3m and 6m. When I first read that I assumed they had mixed up feet with meters but no - they're humongously long ! The longer of which means you could walk around a large room whilst plugged in to a hifi. They are both 4n (99.99% pure) copper terminated in a gold plated connector. This 3.5mm connector suggests the Q701s can and should be used with various average devices and this gives off the wrong impression because they really shouldn't.
The comfort of the Q701 is mostly great. They are very light, they don't touch your ears, the ear cups are nice and soft, they don't make your ears hot, they don't clamp your head too hard and the headband doesn't need adjusting...
The main thing that lets it all down is the the headband's cushioning. There are small ridges on the underside of the band that contact with your head and they are pretty hard (don't cushion well at all). If you don't have a decent amount of hair to help cushion these ridges you'll probably experience some discomfort (like me). This marred an otherwise great feel to these headphones. To say it completely ruins the experience would be unfair but if there is one design aspect that should have have been improved from the previous model it was this.
One other slight negative point: They tend to make creaking noises if you wear glasses and this feels like it's amplified to your ears if you move the cups slightly. I can't completely blame the headphone for this but it's something that other large headphones do not do.
Being "reference" headphones they provide a very well balanced and neutral sound - crisp, clean and revealing, the sound stage is wonderfully airy too. Although the bass is tight and detailed here for some people it can seem to lack power. I like, possibly even love, the Q701 sound signature but I also enjoy powerful low frequencies that other headphones offer which these just cannot match. I would not want to live with only these headphones for my music collection but this, probably more so than most, is a very subjective issue. What it may or may not lack in bass it certainly makes up for with a wide sound-stage and plenty of articulate detail (compared to the competition). They demand lossless or uncompressed audio and high quality equipment to drive this detail too - if you plan on plugging them directly in to an unmodified portable you will get a fraction of what they excel at. One final word of warning regarding the lack of isolation: The open back design is guilty of leaking sound, both in & out, a lot. If any of these characteristics concern you and you're tempted to buy them I strongly advise you find a way to test them before buying.
I tested these headphones almost exclusively plugged into a computer via the Yulong D100 mkII - a decent desktop USB DAC from China with a very respectable built in headphone amplifier. This is quite capable of playing back my losslessly compressed CD quality files. The USB connection supports asynchronous transfer and I run the WASAPI driver on the Foobar software for a bit-perfect audio stream to the DAC.
The small headphone plug (3.5mm) is convenient if you want to plug it into a portable device, directly into a computer or tablet but you would be doing them a huge disservice if you do. You will be lucky to get much volume out of them and almost certainly wont get any of the detail that they are capable of.
The iPhone 4 was probably the best experience I had, it went to acceptable volumes and could squeeze out a little detail, the DAC it has is obviously not too bad. The Samsung Galaxy S got to similar volume levels as the iPhone 4 but was starting to feel lacking. The sound quality however was very soft and muddy, in other words it destroyed most of what is good about the Q701s. Then I tried it on my favourite portable player - a Cowon S9: The volume just wouldn't reach any kind of enjoyable level at all, this is kind of odd because it hasn't been the weakest of the 3 portables for other headphone's volume (previously it was the Galaxy S that suffered most). It was so low in fact that I simply couldn't tell if it had any nice detail, knowing Cowon output it probably had some but was totally unusable at these volumes.
My laptop (Dell Vostro V131) showed more than anything else that these headphones are a high maintenance creature where sources are concerned. Volume wise it had plenty of power but resolving detail was just nowhere to be seen. I'm sure this will vary from laptop to laptop but mine made the Q701s feel like they could have been trampled by a cheap mp3 player, some low quality MP3s and headphones 1/10th of this price.
A chance to show off some of my favourite tracks and help me pick up subtle differences in equipment due to me being familiar with their sounds. I have also tried to pick tracks that emphasize different types of sound, thus covering the widest possible range of these headphones abilities:
Butch Clancy: TinieTempah, Passout - Clancy's dubstep is my go to music for heavy bass. I'm sorry to say that all the detail and sound stage do nothing for this kind music and there is no other trick up the Q701's sleeve to make this kind of music enjoyable in my opinion. They present a pleasing and detailed midrange but if you try to turn the volume up to get some bass you will get attacked by harsh treble.
The Crystal Method: The Grid (Remix of Daft Punk's Tron Legacy song) - This mix has enough dynamic elements to make this a much more pleasant experience than the one trick pony Dubstep. Although I feel like the track could benefit from a more weighty low end it's mostly because I am used to something that has it. If the Q701's are your only headphones and you settled in to their sonic character it's likely that you wont be displeased with them here. The sharp and speedy detail with great sound-stage do wonders for most electronic music.
Henry Mancini (The Ultimate Pink Panther):The Pink Panther Theme - This classic sounds crisp, textured and wonderfully detailed. The Stereo imagining and instrument separation sounds wonderful. Although this is not a live track it makes me want to hunt one down.
Bear McReary (Battlestar Galactica: Season 2): Prelude to War - This track, with it's long build up is beautifully rendered and starts up sounding more like a piece of classical instrumental than a film score here. All the instruments seem to pop out that bit more than I'm used to and the heavy drums (3 minutes in) still sound deep enough to carry the immense impact they were shooting for.
Hans Zimmer (Sherlock Holmes): Is It Poison. Nanny? - This subtle orchestra piece comes out brilliantly detailed. Every tiny sound feels very well rendered even at low volumes. It's so clear I don't feel like I could be missing anything in this presentation. Each note can be easily isolated in your mind with the slightest concentration, it's possibly more revealing than engaging but still thoroughly enjoyable.
Yoko Kano: Cowboy Bebop (disc 1) - Spokey Dorkey - Kano's harmonica can be a real assault on the ears with the high frequencies but it makes a great benchmark piece. It's difficult for headphones to keep the treble under control at normal volumes here and the AKGs don't quite manage it. Turned down a bit the issues quickly go away however and what you are left with is extremely enjoyable. This could easily be as much of a problem with the amp considering how awkward these headphones are to drive so if I were to take too many points of it here for such a minor infraction it would be unfair.
Tony Bennett / Lady Gaga: The Lady Is A Tramp - Gaga's vocals sound sublimely smooth and dynamic. This rendition felt nicely balanced compared similarly priced rivals. The AKG seems to manage a more exciting compromise while keeping all the finely crafted detail from the neutral signature.
Rodrigo Y Gabriela: Juan Loco - This guitar duo is stunningly presented here. The texture to the guitar and the clarity of every little beat and pluck were fully brought to life, I just can't get enough of this music with these headphones. Even the deep beats from Rodrigo drumming the acoustic guitars sound surprisingly weighty. The live performances of this music are even better too!
Skunk Anansie: Hedonism - This mellow song is another female vocal that seems to shine on these headphones. To me it's just about right, not too forward and not recessed. As crisply detailed as all the instruments are they never overpower any of the vocals. On the rest of the album when the music gets loud it can get a bit overpowering and messy but the less aggressive tracks like this are wonderfully well presented.
Metallica: Of Wolf And Man - This heavy song is really quite enjoyable here. The lack of low end punch could have been an issue but the fast attack of the different guitars just sound great. I actually found the deeper low frequencies of other headphones destroyed heavy metal like this for me because of the warmer signature.
Holly Cole: Train Song - This doesn't punch with the same weighty percussion as it does with decent floorstanders (or even some headphones) but the clarity and priority of the vocals come out really well balanced with the acoustics.
Queen: One Vision - Queen's upbeat classic sounds great on these phones. Dynamic, engaging and very fun!
OK lets get the bad stuff out of the way first: A bit uncomfortable, a premium price for the name, searching for bass reveals harsh treble and a very decent DAC / amplifier is needed but... is all of that forgive-able because of the detail and sound-stage? yes I would say it is! I have probably put too much emphasis on negatives in this review because all the good points just seem so close to greatness it feels a bit frustrating. The truth is I really enjoy putting these headphones on a lot of the time. My search for perfection is ongoing but they really are very good.
Great detail & clarity
Light but strong build
Generally comfortable (with lots of hair or a hat)
Uncomfortable headband ridges (if you don't have much/any hair)
Sound poor without high quality equipment
Glasses wearer's will get creaking noises
Lack of bass not everyone's taste
Treble not controlled as well as some of the competition
The normal street price in the UK for the AKG puts it squarely against the venerable Sennheiser HD650. Like the AKG this benchmark open headphone is equally awkward to drive but scales massively with a good DAC/amp. For the same price the AKG is a hard sell as it is rather less versatile because of it's lack low frequencies. It is also less comfortable and with a less dynamic sound-stage but despite all that I did find them a little bit more exciting for some music due to a slightly brighter and more crisp presentation.
Both of these iconic, cult-classic, open back, reference headphones are getting rather long in the tooth these days. Sennheiser has a flagship model above the HD650 with another on the way to sit between. With so much competition emerging recently how long can AKG lean on such a rehashed design with the Q701 at the top of it's catalogue?
Posted 12th March 2012