AKG N5005 In-Ear Monitor Review
High end with a dash of convenience. You know? It might catch on.
What is the AKG N5005?The AKG N5005 is an in-ear earphone and the flagship of the AKG in-ear range. Its existence is indicative of the upward trend in the category as a whole. Where once the threshold for how much a ‘normal’ (and I’ll leave the definition to you all for that) person would pay was up to £30, it is now far from uncommon for earphones in the £100-120 range to be a standard purchase. Not to be outdone, the high end category for earphones has taken off in a truly unprecedented way. Some models now exceed £2,000 and there appears to be genuine demand for them.
The driver for this of course has been the smartphone. As it brushed aside the iPod, it became the de facto audio player for a huge swathe of people. As prices increased so, in turn, did a subset of customers become happier about more expensive earphones in general. The performance on offer isn’t to be sniffed at either. Some phones have truly well engineered headphone amps in them and are more than capable of getting reasonable results from an in-ear monitor.
Or, at least they were. A significant number of phones from the last few years have removed the headphone socket and this leaves high end earphones looking rather vulnerable. You can, of course connect, a DAC to the USB socket and keep using them that way but the effect is hardly what you’d call elegant. The N5005, as we shall cover, is an answer to that particular riddle. Is it an answer you will feel compelled to pay £900 for though? Read on and find out.
Specification and DesignBefore we get stuck into the nuts and bolts of the N5005, it is worth noting that this actually represents a rare example of a flagship getting less, rather than more, expensive. The N5005 is the indirect replacement for the K3003 which, at the time of its launch in 2010, was a real outlier as it cost a hefty £1,000. Whether it was any good or not remains a bit of a mystery because the stars never aligned in a manner that meant I got to test it. Its existence does mean that AKG has some experience of producing equipment for this rarefied price point though.
The N5005 is a hybrid design, combining balanced armatures with a dynamic driver. This is fairly common in earphone terms but not usually at a price this high and not usually involving so many drivers. The configuration here is no less than four armatures underpinned by a single dynamic. AKG doesn’t specify if the four armatures handle different frequencies or if they are in any way grouped but the quoted frequency response of 10Hz-40kHz is usefully substantial and earns the N5005 certification from the High Res Audio society.
These drivers are combined with an AKG trademark that has cropped up on a few devices of theirs over the years. These are adjustable filters that alter the tonal balance of the presentation in fixed increments. They attach to the main body and have a different described presentation; Bass Boost, Reference Sound, Mid-high Boost and High Boost. In the past, I have generally found that the natural low end emphasis in AKG earphones have made the idea of bass boosting a bit of an irrelevance but it is nice to have the option nonetheless - especially when balancing the performance overall with your partnering equipment.
The single biggest difference between the N5005 and most of its rivals is the cable fitment. The cable is interchangeable which, straight off the bat, is a useful thing. Even if you never see a time where you need anything other than a 3.5mm cable, having the ability to change it in the field is very handy and means that what is a very expensive device will better stand up to life on public transport. Two cables are supplied - both in a heavy duty weave. The first is a conventional 3.5 jack lead. The second is a four pole 2.5mm balanced connection. This is the more common of the two balanced connections (three if you count RHA going completely out there and using mini XLR) but it’s still not that commonly encountered.
The third cable is the most interesting though. You can detach the wired jack type connectors and fit the AKG with a wireless yoke. This contains an amp and battery pack combined with a Bluetooth receiver. At a stroke, the N5005 gains functionality that no rival can easily replicate. The spec of the wireless adapter is competitive too. You get Apt-X Bluetooth (although not Apt-X HD sadly) and a claimed battery life of eight hours with an two hour re-charge. The yoke also has a microphone and remote built in.
Now, I can fully understand if you felt this was the last thing a pair of high end earphones needs. It does represent a commendable level of pragmatism though. The reality is that if smartphones are going to continue to be a driver of earphone sales, the earphones they are driving are going to have to work in a world where 3.5mm sockets are the exception rather than the rule. The fact that AKG has done this without hindering your ability to make more conventional connection is notable and appealing.
The design of the N5005 is attractive in a subtle sort of way. The basic layout is very similar to the more affordable N40 model and this is a fine example of an earphone that doesn’t look terribly comfortable but is in fact a fine piece of industrial design. The rectangular body sits in the ear well and combines with a structured mount that sits around the ear. AKG supplies a wide selection of domes in comfy silicone and gives you a case that is compact but large enough to fit a wired cable and a yoke in at the same time.
It’s also beautifully made. You can legitimately argue that making earphones a beautiful thing is not the simplest task going but the AKG manages to look understated and subtle and still go a long way to feeling it is worth the asking price. If you want people to know you’ve spent this much money (and I personally have to ask “why?” but recognise that people do) this might not be the model for you. For the less demonstrative among us, it works well.
The single biggest difference between the N5005 and most of its rivals is the cable fitment.
How was the N5005 tested?The AKG has been part of my inventory of equipment for some time and has been tested in wired form with the Chord Electronics Mojo and Hugo2, the iFI xDSD and Shanling M0. It has then been used wirelessly with a Sony Xperia XA2, an Essential PH-1 and iPad Air. Material used has been the standard gamut of lossless and Hi-Res FLAC and AIFF, some DSD, Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer and some on demand services such as Netflix and iPlayer.
Sound QualityThe price that we ‘expect’ to see earphones at has increased over the years but it would be foolish to pretend that the N5005 is anything other than a lot of money. Even at this elevated price point though, it is possible to argue that these earphones represent strong value for money. No, really - hear me out. A pair of speakers that offers the frequency response of the AKG will be biblical in size and cost a lot more than the N5005 does. By operating at the micro rather than macro level, earphones offer the potential to experience things that even conventional headphones can struggle with.
The good news is that the AKG delivers on this in spades. The significant scale of Craig Armstrong’s Crash is effortlessly delivered. The almost effervescent low end of the digitally augmented string section is weighty and gains an immediacy that you need a very seriously sized speaker to get anywhere near. This is a trick that considerably less expensive earphones can achieve but what the N5005 brings in addition, is a sense of three dimensionality that is a real feat of engineering when the drivers are so close. Provided you get a good fit with the N5005 - and this is a simple enough thing to do thanks to the plethora of fittings that it comes with - it does an incredible job of disappearing from your perception.
What helps this process along is the sheer integration on offer between those five drivers. I have spent a very considerable amount of time listening to the AKG and the integration has never been anything other than perfect. This is important because, for wired listening at least, the AKG faces competition from the Sennheiser IE800S which gets around this issue by only using a single driver each side. That that N5005 feels as together as the Sennheiser is a fearsome achievement.
What stitches this technical ability together is a simple level of musical joy that hasn’t always been a part of the AKG sonic makeup. If you listen to No Tourists by the Prodigy, you are going to appreciate a level of technical accuracy to what is happening but more than that, you want beats to crunch and the whole track to hit you with a visceral and entirely thuggish force. The N5005 scratches this particular itch in a manner that some high end models can miss entirely. When you want audiophile, it does a fine job. When you simply want music delivered with a bit of vigour, it has you more than covered too.
Switching between cables on the N5005 is easy, on the understanding that electing to do it ‘on the fly’ does leave you exposed to the risk of losing a detached earphone. Once you switch to the Bluetooth yoke, pairing is simple and the connection, once made, is entirely stable and the range is sufficient to ensure it shouldn’t matter where on your person the partnering device is. From time to time, I’ve had things go a little glitchy but powering the yoke on and off has always cured this.
Before we go any further, the performance of the N5005 via the Bluetooth yoke is significantly lower than it is via a Chord Mojo (let alone a more expensive device). The amount of headroom on offer drops significantly and the lack of Apt-X HD is a real shame as the recent arrival of the PSB M4U8 on test serves to demonstrate. The AKG does its best work as a wired earphone.
With that little bout of negativity out of the way, it is important to stress that the performance of the AKG remains staggeringly good used in a wireless context. Background noise levels are low and listening to the Tidal stream of the Alba Griot Ensemble’s The Darkness Between the Leaves is a wonderful experience. The seamless integration underpinned by effortless low end weight is tremendously engrossing and the AKG demonstrates a refinement that helps make long term listening a pleasure too without losing the sparkle of decently recorded material.
What is no less important to remember is that if you have one of the clutch of modern phones with no headphone socket, the AKG is one of a tiny number of options that will keep working at all. Sure, you can use dongles, widgets and other paraphernalia to keep things going but the N5005 does what it does with no recourse to additional hardware. I am on the verge of being a true reactionary to the business of change but I can state with some confidence that the experience of being untethered from my phone when out on the move - especially in places like London - is enough to ensure this is how I generally listen, even if I have a headphone socket available. Whatever, notional qualitative losses are more than offset by the convenience on offer.
If you have one of the clutch of modern phones with no headphone socket, the AKG is one of a tiny number of options that will keep working at all
ConclusionThe fate of the earphone market is intertwined with the smartphone. There will be a need for wired models for a considerable amount of time yet as people choose DACs and other devices to boost their sonic performance but in the mainstream, we have to accept that the 3.5mm socket is going to be a rarer and rarer fitment. The considered position of many manufacturers has been to ignore this and hope it goes away.
The AKG N5005 is not the best performing wired earphone I’ve tested and even at the same price, it faces keen competition. What sets it apart is that this is an earphone that holds its own against the competition when you want to be an audiophile on the move. It can then pair up with a Pixel 2 or similar and continue to provide a significant chunk of its abilities where its rivals need additional equipment. This is brilliant forward thinking from AKG and it combines with the finest evolution of their earphone hardware yet. For these reasons, the N5005 has to be considered the Best in Class.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £929.00
Ease of Use10
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