Best known as a manufacturer of studio headphones, AKG also produces a strong line-up of cans for personal use, including the highly regarded K701s and their less-expensive siblings, the K601s we're looking at here. For my money, these are the most stylish ‘phones on test - simple, elegant and refined, with a cool two-tone colour scheme, and a good, old-fashioned leather headband.
The K601s also score highly for comfort, the luxurious velvet earpads fitting easily over the ears, held snugly but not too tightly in place on your head by the headband and its two high-tension supports. A kind of ball socket arrangement allows the earpads to adjust to the shape of your head, and getting a good fit is no challenge. You can - and I do - wear these for hours on end without any difficulties.
Build quality is very solid too, with a tough, mostly plastic construction, a single thick cable trailing down from the left earpad, and adequate reinforcement for the points where wire meets plug. The cable ends in an old-school 1/4in jack and a gold-plated converter to change this down to a 3.5mm mini-jack is provided in the box.
The K601s have an open-back design, and use a two-layer variant of AKG's patented Varimotion diaphragm -as used in its high-end studio headphones - along with neodymium magnets to create their distinctive sound. At its best, it's very clean and precise, with sometimes unbelievable levels of detail in the high-end and the mids, and an epic, wide-open soundstage. Unfortunately, you'll need external amplification to get it; the 120Ω K601s were harder to drive than any other headphones on test, and the P7 couldn't produce a decent noise from them without the volume pushed almost up to max.
It's also a sound that doesn't suit all types of music. If you like hard rock you'll find the bass too quiet and big mid-range-heavy sounds, like thick, distorted guitars, lacking in body. At times, the overall tone can come across as clinical. Without amplification you'll want to reach instantly for the Sennheisers or Grados. Even with it, you might end up wanting something a tad more in-your-face. Dance music or electronica isn't such a problem - the AKGs actually did a storming job with Justice's dancefloor anthem DVNO, but Justin Timberlake's straight pop sounded slightly underwhelming.
However, there were other tracks where the K601s put in as good a performance as any other cans on test, if not better. They coped superbly with the huge shifts of tone and volume in Wagner's Trauermusik, and pulled tiny instrumental details from Talk Talk's Desire that I'm sure I've never heard before, Through the Morning, Through the Night, from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand, was a feast of shimmering loveliness, with beautiful vocals and a spacious, yet intimate sound that effortlessly delivered that ‘I could be in the studio' sensation. If this sort of definition appeals over rich, upfront tone, then the K601s might just be the ‘phones for you. They're not great all-rounders, but when the material suits, they're phenomenal cans.
While they take some driving and can be weak or over-clinical on rock and pop, the K601s are extremely comfortable and put in a superb performance with classical and jazz.