AKG K500, K501

akg_k500_k501_7

Both the K500 and the K501 share a very similar sound. They both have a fairly natural sound with a great frequency balance. Between the two, there are some fundamental differences. First, the K500 has less bass than the K501. Even with the K601 pads, which brings helps with the bass, the K500’s bass quantity still lacks behind the K501. It’s a shame, really, because I find the K500 to be better in other areas, but the bass deficiency makes it a hard headphone to live with. And I’m not looking for a bass monster either. None of my cans are bass heavy, but it’s hard for me to be satisfied with the K500’s bass amount.

In addition to the difference in bass quantity, the K501 also has more midrange body than the K500. Which again, makes the K501 a more musical headphone than the K500 is. I find that not only does the K501 has more midrange body, but it has a smoother midrange as well.

akg_k500_k501_4

The difference in bass and midrange doesn’t make the K501 superior from the K500, and if the previous two paragraphs seems to lean in that direction, then I’ve to give the other side of the story. Whilst the K500 may have less bass and midrange body, it makes up with a clearer, more transparent sound than the K501. It does seem like a general rule of thumb, that thinner sounding headphones tend to sound clearer and more transparent, and that added midrange and low end body tends to obstruct clarity. There may be exceptions to this rule, but I’ve seen this phenomenon quite often that I may think it’s simply laws of physics being at work: Etymotics’ ER4S and ER4P, Grado’s SR60 and SR60i, and Alessandro’s MS1 and MS1i. The ER4P, the SR60i, and the MS1i, have more midrange and low end body than their counterparts, and at the same time, they have less clarity than their counterparts. Specifically, the trade off happens exactly at the midrange and the low end, the K501 seems to have less control and clarity than the K500 at those frequency range. But again, overall, both headphones fall more to the transparent category, than they are diffused or muffled.

So, we can’t say that the K501 is superior than the K500, simply because with the gain also come a trade off. While more people, me included, would be happier with the K501, some others, depending on the music and listening habits, may still prefer the K500.

akg_k500_k501_6One of most noticeable signature of the K500/K501 is its humongous soundstage. Truly, for the prices that they sell for (back when they’re brand new, or even today’s higher selling price), it’s hard to find a headphone with a soundstage that’s bigger than the K500/K501. Of course, they still fall short to the soundstage and the imaging performance of today’s best headphones like the HD800, but we’re talking a totally different price level here. Yet it’s still interesting to see that the K500/K501 has a soundstage that’s bigger than AKG’s own AKG701, though the K701 has a better instrument separation. I really cannot imagine what a great deal the AKG K501 was, when it was still available brand new a few years ago. It was selling for slightly above the $100 mark, but for that price, there is nothing that can come close to the soundstage performance of the K500/K501, even today. The big soundstage is also complimented with a good instrument separation that’s among the best in the $100+ price level. The K500/K501 is probably one of the most ideal Jazz and Classical headphone at that price level.

I do find that the K500 has a bigger soundstage than the K501. The K501 already comes with a big soundstage, but the improvement on the K500, when heard side by side, is quite apparent. Both headphones are fairly equal when it comes to imaging performance. When listening to classical recordings, both headphones are very good in portraying the ambience of an orchestra hall. When listening to accoustic instrumental recordings, both headphones feels very spacious and airy, with enough forwardness in the upper midrange to maintain intimacy.

Seeing how the K500 and the K501 was probably developed in the 90s, and there is no denying that older cans lack the bass and treble extension of more modern designs, and likewise the detail level also can’t match a lot of modern headphones in the similar price range, even portables. They are in no way muffled, and on the other hand, they do sound quite clear, but if you listen carefully, the detail is inferior to the newer headphones. However, no one seems to be bothered by these small “inferiorities”, simply because the sound signature of the K500/K501 is very pleasing to the ears.

akg_k500_k501_3

I personally like the stock pads on the K500/K501. I do find that the K601 pads on both headphones do add bass quantity, but somehow I find the bass addition to be unnatural, and so I still prefer the sound of the stock pads. If the K500 are meant to be bass light, then so be it. Let me explain more. On the K501, I find that the bass amount with the stock pads to be just right. When you replace the pads with the K601 pads, the K501 becomes unbelievably boomy, and I really don’t think people have associated the K501 with the word boomy before, but it really does become boomy with the K601 pads. Simply afwul, and it’ll take the stock pads anyday over the K601 pads.
On the K500, the K601 pads does bring up enough bass, without making it boomy like what happened in the K501. But again, I find the bass addition to be unnatural. I do believe that AKG has tuned their driver to work best with the stock pads. Although the K500 with the K601 pads is still not boomy, but I find the low bass to have an unnatural bump that’s unpleasant to hear. If you really have got to have more bass, I’d advice you to trade the K500 to the K501, as you’ll get more bass amount without the unnatural low bass bump.

Unfortunately, if you’re asking how the sound changes with the K701 pads, I can’t answer that question, as I don’t have any K701 pads to try at the moment.

If there is another issue that I have to touch on, is that somewhat there is a noticeable glare phenomenon on the upper midrange of the K501. I’ve heard this problem on two different mint K501s, and so it may be safe to assume that this issue exists on all K501s. It seems that there is a strange reverberation happening somewhere in the housing that is causing this weird glare on the K501. I’ve never heard a problem like this in any other headphone, just like I’ve never heard the plasticky sound that the K701 suffers from other than in the K701. Well, good thing that this problem doesn’t come up all the time, and in fact, it’s quite seldom, but when it does come up, it’s fairly annoying and makes you want to skip to the next track.

akg_k500_k501_1

The natural sound and the big soundstage of both headphones remains a fairly unique combination that I haven’t found on any other headphone. Especially at the $100+ price level, it’s quite hard to find another full size that plays Jazz and Classical better than the them. I really think that if AKG was to reintroduce the K500/K501s, they’ll be a better hit today than they did, simply because there are more people today looking for a natural sounding headphone than they did back then.


System for auditioning:
Headphones: AKG K500, K501
Source: MacPro via USB to Dr. DAC Prime, CEC TL51XZ
Amplifier: Grace m902, SPL Phonitor, Lisa 3, WooAudio 6, Dr. DAC Prime
Interconnect: Transparent Musiclink Plus XLR, Purist Audio Design Maximus XLR, DIY Copper with Eichman Bullet RCA

4.1/5 - (21 votes)

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32 Comments

  • Reply March 9, 2010

    rap

    nice. it remaind me to the old days when i have K501 😀

    btw, i think you need to introduce dhani cmoy, or maybe cmoy shootout since you mentioned it on this review

  • Reply March 13, 2010

    indikator

    Hi Mike, nice review here,
    by the way do you think K501 soundstage is kinda artificial, because I ever compare it to HD600 side-by-side and K501 doesn’t really differ in soundstage wideness, the strongest difference is that K501 sound much airier (is it the right word? thinner?) than HD600, kinda like the difference between a fully stuffed room and an empty room (but not echoey),
    and about the impedance factor, isn’t it the other way around? in speaker building I learned that lower impedance driver draws more current thus will need a more powerful amplifier, but again I’m no expert in this subject so CMIIW

  • Reply May 1, 2010

    schawo

    I love my K500s, which I bought for $70(!) this year. Better then any other piece of my AKG collection.

    • Reply May 3, 2010

      Mike

      $70 is a steal for K500s!!!! 😀

  • Reply June 18, 2010

    Ron G.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful review. I retired my K501s after 10 years of listening, during which I occasionally drifted to Grado 225s in search of more visceral bass slam, but always came back. The Grados never could equal the spaciousness or smoothness of the 501s, but I *did* miss the Grados’ bass. (I listen to jazz, electronica (house music), R&B, and small amounts of rock and classical.)

    Replacing the 501’s earpads with 701 pads made a big improvement in my opinion, as the new pads helped capture what I previously had thought was “missing” bass. But the 501s remained very hard to drive, and tended to sound congested at higher volumes.

    I still have my 501s, but have shifted to Shure SRH840 for my primary listening. The Shures revealed some key weaknesses in my set-up: the Grado extension cable, which I replaced with a Mogami cable; and my Rega EAR headphone amp, for which I’m shopping for a replacement. I use Naim gear, and am looking forward to hearing their HeadLine headphone amp in my system.

    Once I settle on a better amp, I’ll give another listen to the 501s to see if their shortcomings have been mitigated.

    I’m glad they haven’t been forgotten!

    • Reply June 18, 2010

      Mike

      Hi Ron, the K501 is a great headphone. Why AKG discontinued it still puzzles me.

      On the Grace m902 amp, the 501 finally has a proper low end impact. The amplifier requirement for the 501 is not easy, and perhaps that's one of the reason AKG discontinued it.

      I still think that the 501 is primarily a Jazz/Classical headphone though. I don't think it has enough bass punch for R&B and Electronica/House. Don't you think so?

      • Reply June 24, 2010

        Ron G.

        The Shure (and the Grados I've used: the 225 and 325) are much better than the K501 for R&B and Electronica/House. The Shure also offers more inner detail, but less of a sense of spaciousness than the K501.

        I have a Naim HeadLine amp and NAPSC power supply on order to try, so we'll see what results it can get with the Shure and the AKG. I'm hoping the Naim pieces will arrive in the next couple of weeks.

        • Reply June 24, 2010

          Mike

          Hi Ron,
          I left a message on your blog. 🙂

  • Reply December 21, 2010

    amigastar

    nice review always wanted to try the k501,
    i recently bought some AKG K240DF for 45 € thats about 60 Dollars in good condition.
    Running them on my Audinst DAC and they sound really nice.
    Compared to my akg k142 hd they sound more clear, better soundstage but not so much bass unfortunately. that were the main reason why i bought them and in what the k142 hd were lacking. i was not dissapointed.
    it seems to me that the headphone development is a little bit stagnating the last years.

    • Reply December 21, 2010

      Mike

      I think the AKG studio monitor line has more or less the same tonal balance. They are quite neutral and linear.

  • Reply March 14, 2011

    Kolten F.

    Proud to be an AKG k500 owner, sadly no box Q.Q

    • Reply March 14, 2011

      Anonymous

      Nice!

      • Reply June 5, 2011

        Amigastar

        hi mike,
        Bought them on ebay for 85 euros. do you think audinst hud-mx 1 can drive them at least acceptable? i have the 300-600 ohm jumper setting.
        greetings

        • Reply June 5, 2011

          Amigastar

          sorry,
          i mean the k501

          • Reply June 6, 2011

            Anonymous

            Hi Amigastar,
            The K501 is one of the trickiest headphone to drive. The Audinst should
            be able to drive it up to a proper volume level, but I doubt you’ll be
            getting a proper bass impact out of the Audinst. But I won’t say that
            it’s the Audinst fault, as the K501 just happens to be very tricky. The
            only amp that I’ve heard able to bring the bass impact alive in the K501
            is the Grace m902 amp (sadly costs ~$1,500).

          • Reply June 7, 2011

            Amigastar

            looks like i have to buy, no not the Grace amp haha befcause it’s too expensive for me, but the matrix m-stage. maybe i get acceptaple results with that one because i think bass is the flesh on the music, without you would only have bones.
            thanks for you answer
            greetings.

            • Reply June 7, 2011

              Anonymous

              That’s a good idea. The M-Stage would be a far better amp for the K501
              than the Audinst. Or you can skip the hassle and get a Senn HD25-1 and
              get tight punchy bass without needing any amp at all.

  • Reply March 14, 2011

    Donunus

    do you think the e9 is sufficient in driving these babies?

    • Reply March 14, 2011

      Anonymous

      Voltage wise, yes. Current wise, not sure. Many amps felt underpowered
      when driving the K501. I don’t think it’s worth trying though. You’ll be
      better off with some of the newer, more efficient headphones.

  • Reply June 19, 2011

    Gustavo

    Hello Mike,
    I’m between the K501 or the K340. Could you point the sound signature of both, pro and cons? Both headphones have great reviews, but from I’ve been reading, the K501 is more musical, the K340 is more analytic. Do you agree with this?
    Thanks in advance

    • Reply June 19, 2011

      Gustavo

      Ah, another question. Which one you find better for acoustic and classical musical?
      Thanks

  • Reply July 19, 2011

    Boomcabasa

    Hi Mike, first af all thanks for your very nice review. I used the AKG K400 some 10 years ago and I remember them being clean and fairly linear, big soundstage indeed.  I was looking into buying them again SH or going for the K702 model AKG currently has.  You mention the 701 wich I guess it’s very similar to the 702 : “K500/K501 has a soundstage that’s bigger than AKG’s own AKG701, though the K701 has a better instrument separation.” Could you maybe compare even further the frequency response / low end rendition on the K400/500 vs K702?
    Thank you so much !

    • Reply July 20, 2011

      Anonymous

      The K701/702 has a flatter frequency response and I can also say better
      low end than the K400/500. However the timbre and the overall tone of
      the headphone is quite different, and I can understand it when people
      say that the K400/500 is the more natural sounding one, as the K701 is
      seriously off in the timbre and tone. I think the K701 is one of those
      headphones that you need to audition personally as it is more than just
      a frequency response issue.

  • Reply July 21, 2011

    Nick01

    Hi Mike,
    Just got my K501 today and using the RSA Predator, sounds very nice. I love the texture of the pads. I agree with you about them sounding natural, love their midrange and soundstage. Listening side by side with my K702, them two have completely different sound. The K702 sound a lot thinner than the K501. But I still love my K702 for their superb clarity. I can’t wait to drive both pairs with the Just Audio Class A amp.

    • Reply July 22, 2011

      Anonymous

      Nice. I think they will make a good pairing with the Just Audio Class A amp.

  • Reply November 19, 2011

    Erick Jannes

    I had no idea that the headphone that I have, the AKG K500 is so rare.

    • Reply November 21, 2011

      Anonymous

      Maybe if you’re in Europe they are not so rare?

  • Reply February 7, 2012

    Djlurch Brickcity Sounds

    there really good 

  • Reply May 12, 2012

    Jongheon Park

    Do you think Schiit Asgard or Matrix would be a good match for AKG K501

    • Reply May 12, 2012

      Mike

      Sorry I never tried that pairing, and I haven’t listened to the K501 in a very long time. It’s a very difficult headphone to get right. Last time I can get some real bass out of it was with the Grace m902.

  • Reply August 28, 2012

    Don Vittorio Sierra

    Does this k501 glare that you’ve noticed also exist on the k500?

  • Reply February 11, 2019

    Brnrds

    I do own a K500 headphone.
    However those earpads are totally crumbling.
    Is there a compatible type because I can’t find the original ones anymore?

    Sound is excellent but I must confess that I build a headphone amplifier myself with a very low output impedance. It’s a DC design. The sound is as crystal clear as when I replace my pre-amp on my main-amp. and connected to my beautiful Elipson speakers.

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