I take very little notice of Facebook ads, most of which are caught by an ad-blocking browser extension so I rarely get to see them. But when the blocker stops blocking, occasionally an ad does capture my attention. So was the case here, when I saw an advertisement for Austrian Audio and their Hi-X55 headphones. Named so due to their use of proprietary High Excursion drivers, the Hi-X55s are a pair of professional over-ear headphones designed for contemporary music production with an approximate UK street price of £249, designed and built in Austria.
Austrian Audio was formed in 2017 as a result of Harmon (having just been acquired by Samsung) closing AKG’s Vienna manufacturing facilities. Their debut products were microphones drawing on AKG heritage but with 21st-century innovations. Though the Hi-X55s benefit from technology used by AKG, they have been refined and advanced.
Key to the Hi-X55 are 44 mm high-excursion drivers. These drivers move a lot of air with a reduction in diaphragm ‘wobble’, akin to dampening the driver mass; reducing resonance while remaining ultra-stiff and minimising flex as the membrane moves back and forth. Theoretically at least, the high-excursion technology should bring some of the characteristics of a planar-magnetic driver to a dynamic driver. Ring magnets provide greater airflow and a stronger magnetic field. An unusually lightweight driver membrane and copper-clad aluminium voice coil greatly improve transient response and excursion.
They’re specified as having a 25Ω impedance and sensitivity around 118dB/1V, which translates to about 102dB/1MW. Simply put these should be easy to drive to realistic levels from just about any source. Frequency response is rated at 5Hz – 28kHz with total harmonic distortion at 1kHz rated at <0.1%, presumably at the quoted 150MW input power rating though no reference is specified. Some headphone brands choose to furnish their products with lavish packaging while some opt for a more minimalistic approach and let the headphones speak for themselves. Austrian Audio certainly fall into the latter camp though their cardboard-encased packaging held closed by a Velcro tie, is smartly presented. Inside are the headphones, a three-metre detachable cable with screw-on quarter-inch adapter and a soft carrying bag. Sparse documentation is included, not that you need it. The headphones themselves are well made with the important bits (the hinges, slider mechanism and headband) all made from metal. The plastic parts are high quality with no flexing, creaking or wobbling. At 305 grams they are of an average weight for their size, though don’t feel heavy on the head. They’re an over-ear design and don’t fold but do rotate to lay flat and the cups will fold into the headband for portability. The key difference between these and the slightly cheaper Hi-X50s are that the latter are an on-ear design, meaning that the cups sit on the ear rather than over the ear and on the sides of your head. The Hi-X55s are circumaural, meaning that their pads surround and enclose the ear. The drivers and general construction are otherwise the same. Circumaural headphones better isolate the wearer from external sound while leaking less of your audio into the surrounding environment, so are better in production environments and for home listening. In situations where one needs to be more aware of their environment, the Hi-X50s are better suited. I found the Hi-X55s to offer astonishing levels of isolation from external noise, which ultimately helps provide a more realistic and engaging listening experience. The detachable cable locks to the left ear cup via a 2.5 mm locking connector. I was ecstatic to discover that the cable is a straight cable and not the curly cable so often used to prevent tangles in production environments. I despise curly cables with a hatred that I simply cannot put into words, especially for home listening but equally in a production environment. They’re often too heavy, too resistant to movement and constantly knock into your left shoulder. When I’ve owned other headphones I’ve often had to go in search of a suitable straight cable, often being forced to pay the exorbitant costs that manufacturers charge for their accessories (Audio-Technica and Sennheiser being just two guilty parties). I applaud Austrian Audio for their decision to include sensible cabling in the box. There is no shorter cable provided. This would have been a welcome inclusion but I don’t see it as a dealbreaker given the environments in which these are likely to be used.
The earpads are slow retention memory foam covered in leatherette. This gives them a springy feel as they bounce back to their original shape when pushed. They also form to the shape of the head around the ears, effectively isolating the listener from outside noise. They’re not hooked into place as are traditional earpads but instead pushed into a recess in the ear cup, making them easy to replace but doubtless limiting the choice of aftermarket pads that will fit. The headband is also generously padded with its pad held securely by Velcro and thus easily replaced. I have yet to find the accessories listed for sale online, so it would appear that one must contact Austrian Audio directly should the need arise to replace them.
I found the Hi-X55 extremely comfortable. One of the reasons I am often hesitant to review headphones is due to comfort. I must either have an abnormally shaped head or be especially picky when it comes to headphone comfort as I can name more cans that I don’t like than models that I do. Some I simply cannot wear regardless of how good they sound. Finding a headphone that is comfortable to me is something of a rarity, and finding one that I would describe as extremely comfortable is rarer still.
Comfort means nothing if the sonics aren’t up to scratch. The HI-X55s were tested with the Pro-Ject Head Box DS2B headphone amplifier at a range of current and gain settings, fed by our reference system and both digital and analogue sources. I also used them in a production environment, fed by the headphone output of the Soundcraft Signature 22MTK desk and later the excellent headphone amplifiers of the PreSonus Monitor Station V2, and used them to record, mix and master an acoustic cover song.
There’s little I can say about the sound of the HI-X55s as they do for the most part live up to the claim of neutrality. Bass is slightly forward but not to the point where the sound becomes boxy or bloated. Those used to more tuned headphones less faithful to the source material may find the HI-X55s bass shy at first.
Lower mids are somewhat restrained too though again not enough to be of note. Upper mids have a slight bump in energy, likely to increase perceived detail at the expense of a little natural vocal timbre. However, if you’re used to a neutral-sounding system or good studio monitors, it doesn’t take long to adapt to how the Hi-X55s sound and be able to accurately track and mix with them. High frequencies are a strong point and brimming with detail, though they’re not fatiguing in situations where you’re using the Hi-X55s as a quality pair of headphones for playback rather than analytical mixing. Sub-bass performance is impressive too, making these an ideal fit for electronic music producers and listeners.
They didn’t distort at high volumes when fed by a powerful amplifier. On the contrary, they lap up the extra current provided by a dedicated amp and deliver the same performance with an effortless character that is a genuine pleasure to listen to and a departure from some studio cans that can become fatiguing or uncomfortable after a time.
Where they excel however in spacial imaging. They throw out a huge sound stage that as every bit as engaging as it is dynamic. Imaging as good as this is rare in a closed-back design. For me, this is enough to forgive the Hi-X55s slight sonic diversions from absolute neutrality. As it is they’re far more neutral than many of the cans that find their way into the typical home or semi-pro studio and those that are frequently seen on the road.
Ultimately closed-back headphones can never offer the absolute neutrality and sense of space that a good open-backed pair can, but the Hi-X55s are as even a match as you’re likely to find at this price and beyond with a highly detailed and revealing performance perfect for digital mixing and analytical listening alike. If you’re after a refined, detailed and engaging pair of headphones for hi-fi listening, these should be on your shortlist. If you’re looking to track and mix with ease and in comfort, these should be on your shortlist. They’re exceptional and highly recommended.