AKG K495 NC Lightning Review: Hot-Sounding, Road-Ready, Noise-Canceling Headphones

Illustration for article titled AKG K495 NC Lightning Review: Hot-Sounding, Road-Ready, Noise-Canceling Headphones

Toting headphones back and forth across the country (or the city) is one of the best ways to expose their design flaws. Can the new AKG K495 NC noise-canceling headphones, with their burly build and audiophile pedigree, stand up that kind of punishment while delivering dulcet tones? Is this finally the ideal traveler's kit?

What Is It?

Beautiful, on-ear, active noise-canceling headphones. They cost the same ($350) as the popular Bose QuietComfort 3 headphones.

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Note: The product's original release date was planned for late March, but AKG has pushed the launch until April 30.

Who's it For?

Frequent flyers, subway riders, and other people who take loud mass transit, abuse their gear, and unceremoniously stuff it in a bag.

Design

Compact, lightweight, and as close to indestructible as a pair of 8.3-ounce headphones are going to get. They fold flat and they collapse along a sturdy metal hinge above the ear cups, so they'll contort to fit into your carry-on's cramped pockets.

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Using It

You turn the noise-canceling on and off by rotating a ring on the left ear cup. The noise canceling stylins are powered an internal battery—charge 'em with either the included USB cable or wall plug. Unlike the Bose cans, these headphones will work when the batteries are dead.

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The Best Part

A toss-up between the compact, tough design and the immersive, textured sound.

Tragic Flaw

They could sit a little more snugly on the ears. The beefy leather ear pads give the headphones a great seal, so sound quality doesn't suffer, but they tend to slide around on your head.

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This Is Weird...

The headphones fold every which way, so they're easy to cram into a backpack, but they don't collapse into a symmetrical package like other cans. Disconcerting when you actually try to pack them up "properly" and find yourself holding a brainteaser.

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Test Notes

Testing took place in NYC, where we used them daily for about a month. Lots and lots of rock music, with occasional hip hop, electronic, and experimental tracks worked in. Used high-quality AAC files and Spotify streams.

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Subtlety and nuance of recordings is on par with studio headphones. Dizzying sense of depth. Get ready to feel some awesome queasiness on recordings with lots of drastic left-to-right pans—specifically, the guitar solos on T. Rex's Electric Warrior.

Not much boom on the bottom-end as others, but the bass isn't thin either. For example, the headphones deftly handle the super-low organ bass line on "Auntie's Lock/Infinitum" by Flying Lotus.

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Bass improves noticeably with the noise canceling turned on.

AKG's noise-canceling algorithms do a great job of blocking out the racket of subway noise, and doesn't distort the music or create noticeable atmospheric anomalies like hiss.

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Leather ear pads break in after about a week, making these some of the most comfortable on-ear headphones, period. Initially, the stitching on the inside of the ear cups was irritating, but over time, the threads softened to the point that it's unnoticeable.

While slightly heavier than some of their competitors, the sturdier, flexible build of more than made up for the difference.

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Should You Buy It?

Yes, especially if you're on the move a lot. These aren't the only great-sounding, noise-canceling headphones out there, but none are better built for your backpack or suitcase.

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AKG K495 NC

• Drivers: 40 mm, dynamic
• Sensitivity: 121 dB
• Battery: internal, with USB-charger, and three travel adaptors included
• Price: $350
Giz Rank: 4 stars

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DISCUSSION

I gotta say, these aren't bad. Are they as clear and robust as, say, my JH Audio JH16 Pros? No way. Are they as wide and clear as a pair of Sennheiser HD598s? Nah. Do they sound pretty damn good, close out the majority of external sound, and have an excellent soundstage for a pair of noise canceling headphones? Absolutely.

Currently, this is hooked up to a HiFiMan HM-801 in DAC mode running through a nuForce ICON uDAC-2 and then a digizoid ZO2 for some extra bass performance. It sounds great, works well, and is pretty precise. Generally, yes, I'd prefer around-the-ear, but these things are nice and tiny and fold up well for travel, and given that I'm in the air at least one week a month and on the road for another two weeks, these are a godsend.

I'd say they stack up nicely against the Bose - people are giving them a bad rap because they're on the ear, but they do have a nice seal, even with the NC off. As with any headphones, they require a little break-in time, but the more I wear them, the more comfortable they become. Given that they're closed back, they're never going to be as crisp and open sounding as something with an open back, but all things considered, they've got a nice deep warm tone and are fending well against NYC noise, so kudos to AKG.

One more thing! I know it's already been said, but man are these things built well. I feel like I could throw them against the wall and they'd come back and kick my ass. I've had high-end Grados, Senns, Shure, HiFiMan, and an bevy of others, but these things are honestly just rock solid. Color me impressed.