Due to serious concerns over the consistency and quality of earphones sold by startup companies — one pair can sound totally different from another, and parts can break without any warranty support — the number of earphone vendors we take seriously has dropped in recent years. Based on its high standards for both speaker and headphone designs, JBL and Harman are amongst the names we trust, and in Europe, their Austria-based AKG organization has developed a similarly strong reputation for impressive headphones. This week, we had the chance to test K 340 ($120), AKG’s new flagship in-canal earphone for U.S. consumers, priced to compete with low-end single-driver canalphones from companies such as Shure, and high-end ones from companies such as V-Moda.
We’ll get the big question out of the way up front—one that we posed to the company before K 340 arrived for testing: “What would justify the $120 asking price here?” K 340 is billed as iPhone-compatible, but doesn’t have an in-line mic or track controls of any sort; the headphone plug is just compatible with the ports of all iPhones. Similarly, the earphones themselves don’t have the metallic bodies or other physical frills of V-Moda’s comparably priced Vibe II’s; they’re “fudge” and silver colored plastic, with a slightly more modern-looking design than Shure’s low-end SE110s, though designed to dangle from the ears rather than wrap around them. They come only with an in-line volume control, a simple zippered carrying case, and three total sets of rubber ear tips—“small, medium, and large”—as extras.
So how did AKG’s representative respond to our question? “The only way to justify the asking price is to have you listen to them.” And listen we did. The easiest answer to our question would have been “definition;” K 340 isn’t what we’d call balanced in the sense that it seeks to present a neutral, equally high- and low-matched sound signature, but what it does present sounds smooth. Even if K 340 is only a single-driver earphone, the drivers exhibit somewhat better clarity and apparent detail than the Vibe II’s—far better than the SE110’s—such that the same song played through all three earphones has a similarly bass-heavy slant, but the bass and the high notes just sound cleaner and more controlled in the K 340s. Putting the other headphones in after hearing the same songs on the K 340s makes the Shure and V-Moda models sound grimier, with more bloated sound on the edges of their bass notes; in short, at a similar price level, K 340 makes the others sound cheaper.
Though the in-line volume control isn’t ideal in the sense that it’s an analog slider, relying not on the iPhone or iPod to optimally reduce its own volume but rather attenuation of whatever audio signal the device is producing, it’s one of the nicest-looking and most natural analog controls we’ve seen. The plastic tube-shaped housing and big finger-adjustable slider is easy to use and very neutral visually; it wouldn’t have worked at neck level with a microphone inside, but does great at chest level for its intended purpose. By comparison, the earphones are going to be like or hate for users, depending on their ears: they have heavy rubber stems that reduce the impact of tugs but may lead to fit issues with some ears—not ours—and their L and R markings are almost invisibly printed inside the stems. AKG certainly knows its sonics and its cup-style earphones, but it could use a few small pointers in the canalphone design department.
So what AKG has done is to give users, particularly bass fans, a nice choice. Pick the K 340 over the others if you’re looking for a warm and bassy sound signature that’s more detailed, but the Vibe II if you want something comparable with more aggressive styling, including resilient cabling and earpieces that fit more snugly in the ear. If midrange and treble are more important to you than bass, or you’re in need of a more sophisticated remote and mic solution, Apple’s bass-deficient but otherwise cleanly designed In-Ear Headphones with Remote and Mic are another, more affordable option.
Company and Price
Company: AKG Acoustics
Model: K 340
Compatible: All iPods except 3G shuffle, All iPhones