Andy Jones enjoys a masterful set of headphones, but they come at a price…
When a company charges four figures for a set of headphones, you can bet your bottom thousand dollars they’ll have the word ‘reference’ in the name – it makes them sound like some kind of standard, to therefore justify what you’re paying the cash for. AKG’s K872s go one better by adding the word ‘Master’ – as if you are in any doubt about their quality, having just witnessed the (street) price tag of £1,200.
The K872s are the closed-back version of the K812s, their open-back older brother, and have been around a while – and become my headphones of choice. I’m therefore lucky enough to be able to test them side by side.
An open-back set of headphones is designed to offer a more immersive ‘live’ experience, very often with a wider soundstage because that sound is ‘allowed out’ – the headphones don’t keep the sound close to your head, nor do they stop much external sound getting in. If you want to be aware of what’s going on around you – and not get run over while out and about – an open-back set will suit. Closed back means outside sound is reduced, but detail in the music is increased.
Open and closed
You’d think closed-back headphones would be the audiophile’s choice. Yet there are many, myself included, who prefer the open-back, more natural and wider sound, particularly for acoustic and live recordings.
The K872s are almost identical to their older brothers but, as they’re closed, have metal caps to keep the sound in, rather than the mesh used in the open design. Everything else is the same, including – I am particularly happy to say – the comfort levels. The 872s have that lightweight, ‘almost as if they are not there’ appeal, but fit effortlessly and securely. The first thing you notice when putting them on is that isolation – they really do erase your surroundings and focus on the music.
Give a dog a ’phone
Technically, the drivers come in at 53mm, which is huge for headphones of this type, and the frequency response is an almost-ridiculous 5Hz to 54kHz, so once you’ve finished listening with them, give them to your dog to try. On listening, that frequency response brings a definite focus to parts of the music. Combined with the isolation, you feel you can become totally immersed. On Talk Talk’s masterpiece, Spirit Of Eden, the swirling organic backdrop enclosed me like an aural fog, while Mark Hollis was almost breathing in my face. Basslines that I’ve rarely pinpointed as sharply before were present. This was also evidenced on the album Leftism. Leftfield’s classic was made for ’phones such as these and every detail above the bass throb could be picked out, sliced up and reinserted.
And I guess that is the point. These are pro ’phones at a pro price, made for surgical audio listening. Like the 812s, they have a perfectly flat response with no colour anywhere, so mix engineers can home in on the detail. Consequently, audiophiles love headphones such as these because they want to hear songs as they were meant to be heard.
The 872s deliver, then, but there’s one fly in the ointment: the 812s sound better. Not better as in ‘more accurate’ – there’s no doubting the pristine excellence of both – but the 812s just sound more alive, more vibey and as if you are there – not just with the band, but in the band. So I’d choose the 872s for mixing music, but the 812s for enjoying it, especially for the analogue, uncompressed tones of vinyl. Maybe that open-versus-closed debate can finally be ended. Closed for making music, open for listening to it.