AKG HSC 171/271 Get It Right

Headsets Provide Auto-Mute on Both the Mic and the Phones
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Headsets Provide Auto-Mute on Both the Mic and the Phones

There have been as many concepts for attaching a microphone to a set of headphones as there have been engineers to design them and announcers to use them. The broadcast headset has a history of being a hardy, abused beast. Some models have offered passable sound, some have not.

Over the past couple of years, a few manufacturers have re-thought the whole idea of coupling mics, especially condensers, with headphones. Some efforts have produced solid results but there have always been issues: mics too sensitive, booms too flimsy, headphones too bulky, handling noise too obvious, cable issues, feedback issues, etc.

With the effort being put forth by some of the industry's top technical minds, someone was eventually bound to get it right.

Double duty
Product CapsuleThumbs Up

Boom assembly

Condenser mic

Foam windscreen

Auto-mutes when boom is raised

Cable snaps into a six-pin jack

Thumbs Down

Supraaural design became uncomfortable

Cable snap-on arrangement may loosen over time

Price: HSC 171 retails for $479; HSC 271 retails for $549.

Contact: AKG in Nashville at (615) 620-3823 or visit www.akgusa.com
AKG, an imprint of Harman International, offers its HSC 171 and 271 headsets, which are identical except for the type of earphone pad: supraaural (atop the ear) on the HSC-171, circumaural (around the ear) on the HSC-271. Both are closed-back headphones for sound rejection.

AKG's headphones are standard items in most recording studios and many radio stations. Variants of the venerable K240 are common, and I would be surprised to enter any audio facility and not find at least one pair. Now the company has engineered welcome design innovations and created a model that functions as both a studio and remote broadcast headset.

From a broadcast standpoint, a number of manufacturers' headsets have come up short on the microphone component. The challenge is daunting: a radio or TV headset mic must be rugged enough to withstand the abuses of daily studio use and the considerable iniquities inflicted upon it at remotes, while also providing such high-quality sound that its use can be justified over a larger studio-type microphone.

The HSC headset puts it all together: excellent headphone sound, rugged construction, dependable performance and a condenser microphone that sounds so good it stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a number of popular, high-quality studio mics. Not surprisingly, it won a Radio World "Cool Stuff" Award at the recent NAB convention.

The microphone element itself is a cardioid, pre-polarized condenser with a published frequency range of 20 Hz-20 kHz. That's superior to the most popular studio dynamics: the Electro-Voice RE 20 (published specs of 45 Hz-18 kHz), RE27 N/D (45 Hz-20 kHz), Sennheiser 421-U (30 Hz-17 kHz) and the Shure SM7B (50 Hz-20 kHz).

As for an apples-to-apples comparison to popular studio condensers, the mic in the HSC-171/271 at its stated frequency range equals that of the Neumann TLM-103 and U87, as well as AKG's own C 414. These specs tell you there's a high-quality mic element in this headset.

A major stumbling block in a headset's ruggedness is how things are connected to it, specifically the mic to the boom, the boom to the headphones and the cable to the whole package. The HSC's transducer is positioned at the end of a small, flexible ribbed rubber sleeve that serves as a shock barrier between the mic element and the boom.

This is a solid idea, and makes the HSC's boom assembly one of the quietest and most flexible I've experienced. The boom itself is really a mini gooseneck that will contort to almost any position you like and swivels through 270 degrees for right- or left-side use.

Here's a great idea: the mic auto-mutes when the boom is raised. An intelligent switching function turns it off when the boom is pushed up to about eyebrow level, which makes this a suitable headset for busy studios and remotes where the talent must converse quickly without removing the entire headset. I've known engineers who custom-installed this function on other headsets, but it's included as standard on the HSC.

The mic also comes with a thick, removable ball-shaped foam windscreen, which is effective, not to mention necessary, for outdoor remotes and windy guys like me.

AKG's real-world contact with broadcasters is evident in the headset's inclusion of another feature that will warm the heart of program directors and chief engineers: the headphones automatically mute when the headset is taken off. So if you have some pretty good gain on the mic and your talent loves to crank up the headphones, guess what? No feedback.

I gave this feature a run and it really works. I removed the headset with the mic fader all the way open and the headphones turned all the way up. Nothing. I set it down on the desk with the headphones propped apart. No feedback.

Noises off

A major point of weakness on many headsets comes where the cable meets the headphones. I'm happy to see that several manufacturers, including AKG, are addressing this.

On the HSC, the cable snaps into a six-pin jack on the boom side of the headphones. This is superior to hardwiring, which is destined to fail even with strain relief. I don't know how well this snap-on arrangement will hold up under strenuous use; I would be concerned about it wearing out or loosening over time, although it is certainly easy to replace. I prefer a screw-on attachment.

In the studio, I gave the HSC 271 a lengthy real-world test. I voiced several projects in styles varying from a blistering car spot to a laid-back documentary read to character voices for a major new computer video game.

The HSC handled everything well, was responsive to tweaking with my Aphex 230 mic preamp and managed all sorts of levels and dynamics. Bypassing the Aphex, it still handled sudden changes in level and alarming peaks, with no distortion or artifacts of any kind. This is a quality studio microphone.

The HSC should stand up well to extended remote use. For sports play-by-play or other uses in high ambient noise environments, the supraaural (atop the ear) HSC 171 effectively seals out most unwanted noise so you can accurately monitor what's going down the line.

While it's an effective sound isolator, the supraaural design became somewhat uncomfortable to wear over a period of time. This is notable given that a football or hockey broadcast can easily last three hours. You might want to go with the circumaural HSC 271 if your ears are sensitive. It won't reject bellowing fans and blasting PA music quite as well, but it will feel a lot better.

By the way, there's a bit of a learning curve with any headset-mounted condenser mic. Because it is always with you at the same distance from your head, it is more likely to pick up odd noises that might not otherwise be heard by a traditional studio mike. Lip smacking, tongue clicking, raspy breathing - they're all going to be livelier with that headset mike only an inch away. Bizarre gremlins have not crept into your audio path. It's only you, magnified. Clean it up.

AKG's HSC 171 and 271 condenser headsets can cut it equally well in the studio and in the field. AKG also makes the HS headsets with dynamic boom mics, HSD 171 and 271, which carry the same list prices as the respective HSC models. They are identical to the HSC models except for the microphone element.

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