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Historically speaking, there has always existed an unspoken rule in audio that the world’s finest equipment is generally manufactured within a 100km radius of the world’s finest orchestras.
For the sake of this article we are going to refer to this phenomena as ‘Jed’s Law’ (as Jed is the person who first alerted me to it). Sure, there will be the occasional outlier, but for the most part you can mark ‘Jed’s Law’ down on a map and it rings true almost 100% of the time.
This makes perfect sense when you think about it. A strong classical tradition brings with it a subsequent demand to replicate these powerful orchestral experiences in the home. Therein lies a prerequisite for pristine capture at the source and accurate reproduction on playback, in a hope to do justice to the acoustic purity and breathtaking sonic scope of an orchestra in full flight.
This in turn means that the microphones, monitors and even broadcast technologies (like headphones) that originate from these locales are generally judged to a higher standard than those found in the broader consumer electronics industry, a standard that has been set by decades of performance in this incredibly critical and detail rich application.
The nation of Austria is home to the Viennese Philharmonic, considered by many to be the finest orchestra in the world (and in keeping with ‘Jed’s Law,’ is also a nation with an incredibly strong electro-acoustic tradition). For Austrians, an appreciation for music and the manner by which it is engineered is more than just a passing interest, it is borderline etched into the national identity.
This brings us to Austrian Audio, a new company by the standards of European audio companies, but one with an incredible wealth of Viennese design pedigree behind them. In just a few short years, the team at Austrian Audio have emerged as the living embodiment of ‘Jed’s Law’, distilling this concept into a bespoke range of incredibly novel and high performing studio products, each alluding to a level of technical sophistication and quality at odds with the brands relatively short time in the industry. It’s only on closer inspection that one starts to gain a greater understanding of why this is, something that becomes more obvious when you take into account the genesis of the brand and how Austrian Audio came to be.
When AKG officially closed their Vienna offices in 2017, 22 former employees (many of whom were involved in some of the largest technological advancements in transducer history) decided to put their talents to use creating a new company with the goal of taking Austrian electro-acoustic design back to the cutting edge.
This is the seed from which Austrian Audio was born and with that kind of lineage, it’s no surprise what they have been able to achieve in such a short amount of time. It comes as no surprise then, that the first line of products from AA are nothing short of exceptional, exuding the same forward thinking design nous from which the Viennese reputation was built (and are well worth checking out for any studio nerds out there).
The new Hi-X55 are Austrian Audio’s take on the enclosed, over-ear headphone, and one that sits exactly on the cusp between a reference and monitoring headphone. It’s isolated enough that it is sure to become a favourite for vocalists and drummers or any other application where one is in close proximity to a high quality studio microphone, like Austrian Audio’s equally awesome OC818 Large Diaphragm Condenser. The same can be said for remote mixing or for cross-checking sources, with the Hi-X55’s detailed mid-range and impressive dynamic properties making it an extremely adept headphone for cleaning up tracks or pulling together static mixes on the fly.
As anyone who has spent a lot of time in headphones will tell you, sometimes the practical elements are just as important as the sonic ones, and in terms of comfort and durability, the Hi-X55 is really in a league of its own. With an adjustable headband range so broad as to even sit comfortably on this reviewer’s big head (combined with the anatomically optimised cup shape unique to the Hi-X55), the result is one of the most comfortable headphone experiences out there at the moment.
Indeed, ergonomics are obviously a serious priority for the company, as evidenced by the amount of thought given to each individual contact point where headphone meets head. The positioning of the plush headband and the use of pressure relieving (and breathable) memory foam on the earcups, really go a long way towards offsetting the kind of headphone fatigue that many musicians and recording engineers have become accustomed to. The result is a headphone that feels more comfortable on than it does off!
All elements of the overall design have been given due consideration: ergonomics, aesthetics, quality finishing details, but of course most sacrosanct to the audio engineer is the scope of the unit’s sonic potential. The proprietary drivers used on the Hi-X55 are unique, and were designed and manufactured in-house (as opposed to the kind of OEM outsourcing of components so prevalent in the modern electronics industry). This means that these drivers have been specifically designed to interact with the cup shape and overall chassis design found on the Hi-X55, providing optimum reproduction and dynamic/frequency response for this particular headphone and its intended application: critical audio.
This is a minor but crucial detail, as it means that the relationship between the driver and the earcup has been specifically optimised to provide the best interaction between the two, rather than shoehorning a random driver onto a random headphone and calling it studio worthy. This level of forethought and design is yet another example of Jed’s Law at work, showing a tangible level of commitment to sonic accuracy and again serving as a welcome reminder of the difference between pro and prosumer.
The model’s appellation, Hi-X, refers to the “high excursion” of the driver. Driver size here is 42mm, which displaces a very respectable amount of air. Crucial though is the speed at which the driver returns to equilibrium, significantly improving acoustic precision. This in turn means a headphone that exhibits both an impressive amount of volume and low frequency extension, but with a fast enough recoil as to allow for a balanced, flat frequency profile. The accurate response down to 5hz also allows one to mix/monitor the lows with a surprising amount of consistency between headphones and larger systems.
With contemporary music increasing dependence on the bombastic (by way of overall loudness and an increased broadband frequency profile), this has resulted a fair pressure on audio driver manufacturers to create drivers that can accommodate this new program material. I’m happy to report that the unique design of the Hi-X55s drivers give them an incredible capacity for accommodating the kind of relentless exertion found in this new kind of program material, providing ample headroom and exhibiting little in the way of sonic distortion, even at loud volumes.
Also noteworthy is the Hi-X55s natural stereo field, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a well setup pair of studio monitors. Let’s not get crazy here, your mixes should still definitely pass through a set of monitors, but much stereo imaging and frequency work can be achieved here and the soundstage itself more than translates into the open air.
The Hi-X55s are a true mix, monitor, and listening headphone, with impedance measured at 25ohms, they excel both in the studio or for your general listening needs through various portable devices. The steel chassis, rugged construction, and lack of plastic make them tough enough for the brutal use scenarios many recording musicians will throw their way. The ear cups feature a double articulated hinge, giving them the capacity to fold flat, for packing in a laptop bag – they can also fold up, which allows them fit snugly in the supplied bag. Left and right earcups are simple to identify with a large L and R printed in the inner mesh. A small touch, but one that saves time and mitigates confusion.
Austrian Audio CEO, Martin Seidl, has reportedly quipped, “we’re a startup company with more than 400 years of experience.” And indeed, Austrian Audio is just that, the sublime union of all that is good about traditional and contemporary audio design, not to mention a prime example of Jed’s Law in practice.