Over Xmas I found myself facing a lot of travelling on the public transport network. I was looking for a pair of headphones I could use both in a mobile studio environment, but also wirelessly while travelling. My usual weapon of choice is the fabulous Shure Se425 in ear monitors, but they're not wireless, not easy to slip in and out of your ears (when the ticket inspector comes round), and also had no mic so I couldn't use them as a hands-free, which is a pain if a call comes in while you've got them in.
As always when faced with something like this, I went in to what my wife calls, "Paddington Bear Mode" - meticulous research, and then seeking out high street retailers where I could actually try them out. This lead me to a famous UK high volume hifi retailer and actually the Y50BT's little sibling - the Y45BT.
AKG Y45BT - Exactly What I Was Expecting
I went into this a bit swayed by past experience with Bluetooth devices. The Y45BT felt cheap, even at its discounted price, and seemed to not adequately resolve dynamic range, certainly in comparison to my Shure Se425's. I then tried them using the analogue bypass cable and found the same, so I couldn't blame the Bluetooth processing for that. So I upped my budget a little and took a listen to the Y50BT.
Wow. What a difference. I had that moment of hearing things I hadn't heard for a while again. The comfort and build quality are also streets ahead of the Y45BT - very much worth the increase in budget. Dynamics are delivered brilliantly and the frequency response is a tad generous on the bass (but not to Beats levels of insanity) but sweet on the HF. They do slightly flatter the sound, but that really helps when listening for extended periods.
Bluetooth Better Than Analogue?
It certainly is on my 2011 (albeit battered) MacBook Pro. The headphone output on my MBP is utterly appalling - noisy and with severe colouration. It's unusable effectively. None of that applies when listening on the AKG's via Bluetooth. Suddenly noise is eliminated and I can trust what I'm hearing more. With mainstream devices losing their 3.5mm headphone jacks, this implementation of Bluetooth tech is to me the best way forward. My favourite test track was the fantastic "Get It Right Next Time" by Gerry Rafferty. Listening off a WAV rip of the CD, over APT-X HD using my Sony Xperia Z5, I experienced lovely dynamic range, which really conveys the groove that track has. The imaging is excellent and really helps bring the track alive.
Now, media sounds the same whether it's playing off my Mac Book Pro, my Windows 10 Tablet or my Sony Android Smartphone. I love this consistency. I'm not having to second guess what the analogue output stage is doing to my signal or try to hear through the noise often generated by laptop headphone outputs.
There's Always A Snag
Just when I thought these could be the perfect solution for all the workflows I had in mind, I tried opening one of my 48KHz Pro Tools sessions with these selected as the playback engine / output. When used with compatible devices, such as my Sony Xperia Z5 Android smartphone, they use the APT-X HD algorithm, which supports 24bit and up to 48KHz. However my MacBook pro, which I run my mobile Pro Tools on, does not support APT-X HD, and thus forces you to choose between 44.1KHz 32bit floating point, or the phone handsfree format - 8KHz.
If I try to add the AKGs to a Pro Tools Aggregate setup, then I get the following error message when trying to open any of my sessions (I haven't touched 44.1KHz for years).
However, if I open the session first with the Built-in Output selected, then change the playback engine once the session has opened, Pro Tools seems to find a way around things, and sample rate converts.
I thought I'd stumbled across a solution when I realised I could select the clock source for the Pro Tools Aggregate IO. While that allowed me to open my 48KHz session, and passed audio to the headphones, that audio is crackly, denoting a clocking issue.
Source Nexus Pro And Audio Hijack To The Rescue
I was having a little moan at a fellow team member about this, and he suggested Audio Hijack by Rogue Amoeba.
I installed Audio Hijack and the "Instant On" plugin that allows it to hijack the audio from any running application. It does this by presenting as an audio playback engine compatible device. Unfortunately when you use it in this mode (by selecting the "Instant On Sound Effects" Engine) Audio Hijack doesn't seem to format convert, so if I "connect" the Pro Tools application to the AKG headphones, I still don't get over the problem of Pro Tools refusing to open my 48KHz sessions.
This is where Source Nexus Pro came to the rescue. I'm able to Select Nexus as a playback engine. I am then able to pick up exclusively the Source Nexus A "output" and feed it to the AKG bluetooth output, using Audio Hijack to format convert.
This rig works well and reliably -
All this makes it really fiddly and expensive seeing as I need to buy two pieces of software to use them. It's a shame, as otherwise these headphones would be perfect. With Apple developing their own proprietary wireless tech and ignoring APT-X I don't see much room for improvement in this scenario.
To sum up, these are a pair of very comfortable, lovely sounding, wireless headphones. If the least they can do for me is to help me relax and rediscover music I'd tired of, then that's a win. It's just a shame they don't cross over in to my professional life better. I can't blame AKG for that, as any manufacturer would find themselves in this position.
The AKG Y50BT has a list price of £149, but is freely available for less than £100. Source Nexus retails at $295 for the Pro version, $125 for Basic, and the virtual driver is available for free. Audio Hijack retails at $49.