The Aedle VK-1 (USD 380 for non Euro customers, 350 EUR for Euro customers, tax included).
The fashionable looks of the Aedle VK-1 have a little discriminating effect in that it gives an “I’m all about look with sound second” kind of a statement. Surprisingly, the sound captivated me so much that the French lifestyle headphone has become my everyday closed-back portable. Its on-ear fit is not the most comfortable thing out there and even though the lambskin leather pads help maximize the comfort factor of an on-ear design, at the end of the day it’s still a factor that would get in the way of people considering purchasing the VK-1. However, one thing that the comfort factor should tell you is that there is something really special about the Aedle, otherwise why would I even bother using a lifestyle headphone as my main to-go headphone the past few weeks. In fact, it’s so special when amped, I have even been using it on my big ALO Studio Six rig as well.
Subtle Reference Class Qualities
Dark tonality with relaxed treble, an extremely beefy low end body (even by the standards of proper full size headphones) combined with a clean grainless sound, superbly black background is what the VK-1 is all about. The dark tonality paired with a clear midrange of the VK-1 is in a way reminiscent of the Aurisonics ASG-1 that I praised a while back though with a few worthwhile differences. Overall the sound is less dark than the ASG-1 and the clean sound is definitely grain free, unlike the ASG-1. It’s not a technical headphone and people demanding a neutral sound won’t find it here. There is a mild peak as well as a bit of an unpleasant metallic tint in the treble, and the bass is definitely bumped up, but overall I find the sound very musical and organic. It pairs very well straight from my Samsung phone as well from fancy players like the Astell & Kern AK100 or Altmann Tera, but it also scales up wonderfully when plugged in to high end desktop rig like the ALO Studio Six rig I have at the store. In fact, it is one of the best sounding headphones I’ve listened to on the Studio Six rig. This is an extremely impressive headphone by my standards.
The VK-1′s fashionable look may not ooze reference-class personality, but it has a lot of qualities usually only found in reference class headphones. I suspect that there is going to be a lot of bias against pretty looking headphones like the VK-1 especially from guys like us. However, the reality is far from it. The timbre is among the best for a portable and while not the most spacious sounding portable, it portrays an accurate image with an effortless separation amid an especially black background. The black background aspect alone is perhaps unmatched under $1K either full size or portable. Though being closed back, the VK-1 is also free of any obvious housing reverbs issue (hello Momentum, Vmoda M-100, and especially the Sony MDR-1R). There is some high quality sound going on with this headphone. It’s also quite revealing of the source quality and so you’ll be rewarded even more by pairing it with good quality sources. I happened to find a nice synergy between the VK-1 and the Astell & Kern AK100 (though it’s not my favorite DAP). I usually find the AK100 quite stiff and digital sounding, but the Aedle manages to smooth things out and inject a good amount of liquidity to the overall sound. Again with a portable headphone, we generally place a greater emphasis in musicality than pure technicalities and in that sense the VK-1 is very strong while maintaining a good enough technicalities that I don’t hear any congestion in the sound.
The version I use for the review is branded as a LAUNCH EDITION, and with my country supposedly only receiving three LAUNCH EDITION units, I was quick to reserve one for my personal use. Among the premium portable headphones that we sell at the store, the Sennheiser Momentum and Amperior, the Vmoda M-100, the Audio Technica ESW-9 and ESW-11, Sony MDR-1R, AKG’s K495NC, none has struck me as being so reference-class to my ears as the Aedle VK-1. It’s not so much of a PRaT monster as the Vmoda M-100 with its extremely fast paced bass nor does it sound as spacious as the ESW-11, but the authoritative low end weight of the VK-1 is a rare phenomenon even in full size headphones. In fact, I can draw a comparison directly to the Sennheiser HD650 in that the Aedle stands out for its low end weight. The bass has a good amount of decay to make it work with romantic tunes like female vocal jazz, but at the same time enough speed and punch to enjoy Nirvana out of. And how I can not not love that clear midrange in the midst of that dark tonality. This has got to be the clearest midrange in the realm of high end portable headphones, even besting the likes of the ESW-11 and Sennheiser’s Momentum. Vocals are smooth, full bodied, and present without being sibilant. If only that peak in the treble is smoothed out, but I’ll still take it at the current form anyhow.
Where the Aedle Excels
One of the most difficult and so far, I have yet to find on portables, is to produce a good low end weight without being a boomy or bassy headphone. By boomy I mean headphones whose bass is so much they cloud the other frequencies, and by bassy I mean headphones that’s only purpose in living is to produce bass frequencies and nothing else. Solid low end weight is difficult to achieve even in full size headphones as witnessed on the majority of full size headphones, closed or open, from Audio Technica, AKG, or Beyerdynamic. The Aedle is excellent at this. Music feels planted and full bodied due to the low end weight, and though the bass doesn’t have great sub-low extension, extends quite enough for the majority of music to produce an enjoyable bass experience. The weighty bass is also not particularly fast nor snappy like for instance Sennheiser HD25-1′s or Vmoda’s M-100, but the Aedle definitely trumps the HD25-1 in overall sound quality and it does have one of the most enjoyable bass reproduction around.
Exterior build and Ergonomics
Whenever I get a new product, one of the thing I do is I would ask for an impression from the store visitors. Some are old time headphone listener while some are non-enthusiasts walk-in customers. Regardless of their experience with headphones, I figure I can always get a good comments on what areas people find the product to be strong or lacking at. I did the same with the Aedle. One comment I hear about the SQ is on the treble peak, but this was coming from Hadi who has one of the most sensitive ears I know. Even then he said it was a minor peak (though like him I find the peak a little bothersome). Other than that, I have yet to find a comment that can pick a fault in the SQ. The comments from the general crowd, however is that the fit is not so comfortable and that I agree. Modern headphones are in general very comfortable and in relative to the competition the Aedle needs an improvement. Everybody these days use the Sony MDR-1R as the reference for comfort and while I am not a big fan of the plastic-echoey sound, it is indeed the most comfortable headphone in the market today.
Of course we can tell that Aedle put a lot of emphasis in the design and the build. So fine the build of the VK-1, I was almost guilty of dissing it as another pretty looking headphone without much substance beneath the lambskin pads and headband. In fact, I was guilty of that discriminative attitude as I only took a short spin of the VK-1 during the Tokyo headphone festival and didn’t really put much thought into evaluating the sound further. The clamping force is a bit stronger than the competition. While it helps with noise isolation, it does not replace a true NC function for airplane listening. Lastly the degree of adjust-ability that you can do with the VK-1 is not as great as you can get with other headphones. On my head, I’m always at the maximum end of the extension range. If you have a large head, you may want to think twice about getting the VK-1.
One thing that I need to mention is while my VK-1, perhaps being the limited LAUNCH edition, has a pretty good build quality on the pads, the SERIE edition doesn’t quite have the consistency in pad build quality. It’s similar to the early batch LCD-2 headphones when Audez’e was still trying to smoothen out their production line. I talked to Rafael at Aedle about this and he explained that it is due to the manual stitching and the nature of the lambskin pads being used. Surprisingly the limited edition Carbon Edition which is simply a black color tone variant, uses synthetic leather and actually has a more comfortable headband (to my head) than the standard version.
A while ago I was deeply in love with the UE9000 portable headphone which like the AK-1 is also another dark-sounding portable. However the AK-1′s weightier low end (not necessarily more bassy, it’s just that the sound is more planted and more weighty on the Aedle), cleaner grainless sound, midrange quality , accurate timbre, and superior coherence wins my dynamic-driver loving ears more than the UE9000.
I still think that the Vmoda M-100 is currently the #1 mainstream music tuned headphone in the market, and the fact that it’s been the best selling premium portable headphone in the store for a few months now is a strong testament to that. It’s got the comfort that the Aedle doesn’t, and though not having the sound quality of the VK-1, overall the M-100 has the tuning that makes it work with just about ANY music. The Vmoda is so well tuned, it’s a very easy headphone to sell both to seasoned enthusiasts as well as the common non-audiophile crowd. Moreover, the VK-1′s subtler qualities are not likely to be noticed by the average guy.
I do wish that they could sort out the mid treble peak and if they do that they need to be careful not to make the sound too dark for the mainstream crowd. Yes, there is some premium to the price, but I don’t think that you’re only buying a fancy look with that premium. I’ll gladly take the VK-1 over any of the current popular portable closed-backs though I have to admit, I’m a big fan of bass weight, dark tonality, dark background, and a grainless sound. All those things embodied by the Aedle. Who would’ve guessed that a fancy fashion headphone could be so inspiring to a headphone reviewer like me?
Anyway I’ll be looking out for the next headphone from Aedle. The VK-1 is their first headphone, and this is a new company that has never build any headphones before.