While “AIAIAI” sounds a bit like a Spanish Flamenco-related exclamation to me, they’re in fact a relatively new headphone company from Denmark. They started out with street/fashion phones and IEMs – quality products though, way above the level of generic Skullcandy or WESC toys – and in the meantime they put their efforts in creating a high quality DJ headphone, the TMA-1.
The stunning minimalist design of the phones, conceived by Danish design studio KiBiSi, and of course the name as well, is what got me interested in them. “TMA-1” stands for “Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1”, the name of the monolith in Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi novel “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Can’t really get more awesome than that, methinks.
Hard-boiled headphone veterans’ alarm bells might go off after that introduction: Stylish design? Cool name? Made for DJs? Those must sound bad; those must be style over substance. At first I was a bit wary myself – but fret not: AIAIAI definitely made sure that the TMA-1 sound as good as they look.
Read on for the in-depth review.
- AIAIAI TMA-1 Specs
- Design: supra-aural, closed back, removable cable (standard 3.5mm jack/plug at the headphone end)
- Driver: 40mm dynamic
- Impedance: 32 Ohm +/- 1.5 Ohm
- Sensitivity: 110dB +/- 3dB
- Load Rating: 0.1W
- Frequency Response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz
- THD: less than 0.3%
- Accessories: 2 pairs of ear pads (protein leather, foam), coiled 1.7m cable, 3.5mm-to-6.3mm screw-on TRS adapter, carrying pouch, booklet
Design, Accessories, Specs
The box the TMA-1 come in is already a little design marvel in itself. Opening the sturdy laminated cardboard box – with glossy and matte black print of tape recorder icons – reveals the phones embedded in pyramid foam, reminiscent of the stuff used on recording studios’ walls.
The TMA-1 are a minimalist’s dream come true. Matte, fully rubberized housing, no color print anywhere, only embossed (or rather, ‘debossed’, according to the dictionary) right and left indicators at the inside by the ear cups, and an equally subtle AIAIAI logo on the inside of the headband. It’s a jawdroppingly gorgeous, timeless design – perfect proportions, no nonsense, nothing superfluous. Kudos to KiBiSi for creating a phone this iconic and easily recognizable without the help of visible lettering or other flashy stuff.
There’s no metal in the headband, it’s a sandwich construction of rubberized plastic on the outside and softer rubber on the inside. It’s very flexible and can be bent to insane angles without damaging the phones (see the photo above). The matte rubber is susceptible to oily fingerprints and such, but it can be easily cleaned with a damp towel. Unlike some other brands’ portable phone models, the TMA-1 can’t be collapsed or folded flat, but they should take no damage when you simply throw them in your rucksack.
The rubberized finish appears to be similar to the one used on Lenovo laptops and the like – it might have a tendency to rub off or start flaking after years of heavy use. Nevertheless, my TMA-1 are fine so far, I hope they stay that way. It’s too early to tell either way.
In general I find supra-aural phone designs more uncomfortable than circum-aural ones, but the TMA-1 are the exception to this rule. Due to their low clamping force they’re very comfortable, even after hours of usage. They’re of course not quite as comfortable as circum-aural phones, but they’re not far from it. Despite being easy on the ears, they isolate fairly well. They’re not quite in the same noise rejection league as, say, the Sennheiser HD 25-1, HD 280, or the Beyerdynamic DT 770, but for use on a crowded street or on the bus they isolate well enough, at least with the leather ear pads. In fact, for DJing I certainly prefer the Senn/Beyer phones mentioned above, but on the go I prefer the TMA-1.
Back to the box: accessories are hidden below the pyramid foam. The carrying pouch might not really be needed for these phones, due to their sturdy rubberized construction, but sure can’t hurt to have it. It’s well made with a jumbo-sized zipper, and an inner mesh.
The included coiled cable I disliked at first sight. It’s actually half coiled, half straight. The coiled half is on the upper part, and in my opinion it’s much too heavy for being useful, especially since the TMA-1 have a single cable entry at the left ear cup, which leads to a quite imbalanced feeling and an insecure fit of the phones. The low clamping force of the headband doesn’t help with that either. A cable like that might work better on a dual-entry phone, but it doesn’t work well on a single-entry one. It’s awkward when using the TMA-1 on the go, and it’s very distracting when sporting the phones for their intended use, DJing, where one moves around a lot between the turntables, bending over to get records from the crate, and so on.
Luckily, this is a negligible issue since the TMA-1 sport a standard non-threaded 3.5mm TRS jack at the ear cup, so one can use virtually any cable one likes. I made myself two straight cables: a longer, thicker one for studio use; and a thin, short one with an angled plug for on the go. AIAIAI being a very responsive company, already sells a straight cable as an optional accessory as well.
‘Ingenious’ is the most fitting word to describe AIAIAI’s replaceable ear pad mechanism. Same as on many hifi speaker grilles, four plastic balls on the ear pads snap into a rubber indentation on the phone – safe and simple. Compared to the major hassle that is changing the ear pads on a pair of Ultrasone phones or the HD 25-1, for example, I wonder why nobody else used such a perfectly working mechanism in a headphone design before.
The TMA-1 come with two pairs of ear pads – protein leather and foam. Protein leather is high quality synthetic leather that’s pretty close to the real deal. It’s said to be more durable and easier to clean. It works well in regards to absorbing and releasing moisture, and is often used in car interiors. I do notice that my ears get less sweaty with AIAIAI’s protein leather pads than they do with cheaper fake leather pads, such as on the Ultrasone HFI-780 or Beyerdynamic T50p. A third variety of ear pads is sold separately, labeled as ‘synthetic leather’. I haven’t tried those, but my guess would be that while the protein leather pads emulate the structure of real leather in-depth, the synthetic leather pads are the usual laminated plastic on a cloth carrier.
The difference in perceived sound quality between the two included varieties of ear pads couldn’t be any bigger. If an ‘audiophile’ tells you that the difference between two power cables is ‘night and day’, it of course means they sound exactly the same. However, using the same tired ‘night and day’ phrase for describing the leather and foam ear pads of the TMA-1 is still an understatement. With the leather pads, the TMA-1 could be described as being the closed-back twin of the Sennheiser HD650, a warm, pleasing, yet balanced sound – with the foam pads they however sound like a more anemic AKG K701, lacking bass and having way too much treble. Seriously. Needless to say, I don’t like the foam pads very much. The foam might be too porous, not isolating enough – if I push the TMA-1 against my ears with the foam pads on, they do gain some bass response, but they never sound as balanced as the leather pads. So this whole review is of course based entirely on my experiences with the leather pads.
One thing I would wish for is that AIAIAI release some velours pads as well, next to the ones that are already available. I always liked my Beyerdynamic DT770 the best, as far as comfort (paired with sound quality) goes. Velours doesn’t get as hot and sweaty as leather, yet it usually doesn’t impact the sound in a negative manner. Not that the TMA-1 protein leather pads actually bother me in the long run – they’re way better than, say, the Beyerdynamic T50p or Ultrasone HFI-780 fake leather pads – but I’m curious how the TMA-1 would feel and sound like with velours pads.
On a side note, I did a little Frankenstein experiment (thanks to forum member EddieE for the idea). I removed the AIAIAI foam ear pads from their base plate and put a pair of Sennheiser HD 25 velours pads on them. They fit perfectly, yet they don’t sound much different to AIAIAI’s leather pads, but give a tiny bit less clarity – probably because the diameter of the HD 25 pads’ inner hole is smaller. Comfort with the velours pads actually isn’t any better than with the protein leather pads, for my taste. Shows how good the AIAIAI pads are, as far as leather goes.
The 32 Ohm / 110dB specs suggest the TMA-1 are very sensitive phones. That’s basically an understatement, since they’re actually some of the loudest, most efficient cans I ever heard. They work perfectly well with even the wimpiest MP3 players out there, and even surpass many IEMs in perceived SPL response. They really do go to eleven. While Beyerdynamic’s marketing department nowadays brags about their presumably super-efficient “Tesla Technology” in advertisements, AIAIAI managed to make a phone that in reality goes twice as loud as the T50p, and is driven much easier by portable players.
Unfortunately, this means the TMA-1 also might hiss a tiny bit – something you don’t find often in full-sized phones, contrary to many IEMs. It’s not overly distracting, and only noticeable on players with sub-par amps, such as the Sony A845. On quality players like the Cowon J3 they don’t hiss at all. Needless to say, to my ears they didn’t improve at all with amping. They sound the same out of any quality MP3 player as they do over a dedicated amp, such as the Headstage Arrow or Corda Headsix.
Everything that follows is with the protein leather pads in mind, since the foam pads just don’t sound good to my ears, as already said above. My pair of TMA-1 didn’t really change with driver “burn in”, but other people stated that theirs sounded muddy and veiled right out of the box and improved over the first few hours of listening. So don’t be disappointed when yours don’t sound great in the first few minutes/hours, just give them some more time.
Bass is quite superb on the TMA-1. It has more than enough quantity, and quality is among the best I’ve heard in closed phones yet. It’s not rolled off towards the lowest octaves, and it has no pronounced midbass hump either. If you look at AIAIAI’s frequency response graph above, it’s more or less tilted from 20Hz to 4kHz in a linear way, with about 12dB decline. Of course this is just a general suggestion of their frequency response, and it highly depends on what ear pads are used and the ear cups’ placement over the ears. Either way, due to this slow transposition no frequencies feel overly bumped or recessed – all is there, phat and warm. Yet I certainly wouldn’t categorize them as “basshead” phones. Texture, resonance, and room feeling are great with the TMA-1’s lower frequencies. They sure don’t feel boxy or boomy at all, unlike many other closed phones. Punch, impact, and attack speed are great.
Midrange is fine as well. While other popular closed phones (including the DT770 and HFI-780) have a rather recessed midrange, and some (like the T50p or HD 25-1) sound a bit uneven, the TMA-1 are very substantial and “full” sounding. Fans of the AKG K701 or the Grado signature sound will probably find this unappealing, but for anyone looking for a lush, warm sound rendition, the TMA-1 are a great choice. A generally realistic midrange like on these phones is rather unusual for a tool made for DJs. On the wheels of steel (wow, that sounds even lamer than I thought it would) I want to hear the kick drum and the hi-hats for beat matching, but really don’t care about the played music as a whole. To my ears the TMA-1 are clearly devices for listening, not mixing. However, sometimes their “fullness” is a bit too much for certain kinds of music, for female voices, or string arrangements – they might appear too weighty and a bit congested on the TMA-1.
Treble certainly isn’t forward or “hot” on the TMA-1 at all – think HD 650 (or a much higher quality K81DJ), not HD 25-1. Yet it’s detailed, fast, and non-fatiguing. Perfect not only for DJing (without ringing ears the morning after), but also for hour-long listening sessions at home or on the go. I got used to their treble presentation pretty fast – especially since I had the HD650 for years, and now find the hot treble of phones like the HFI-780 or HD 25-1 a bit overwhelming to my ears in AB tests against the TMA-1. Some people might find the TMA-1’s treble certainly a bit too subtle, but for my taste it’s just fine. They do respond well to some EQing, so all is not lost. Even without tweaking the sound, the TMA-1’s treble does “sparkle” and sound very lively and pleasing – even if it might be a bit in the background, compared to other phones.
Clarity on the TMA-1 is generally fine. They’re no heavyweight precision champions like the Phonak PFE and such, but considering how the TMA-1 are tuned, considering their “warmth”, they deliver more than enough detail, and speed/punch to match. Other closed phones have brighter, more prominent treble, so they might appear to have more clarity and detail than the AIAIAI’s. Longer listening session however have shown that this is often a trick on the ears, and the TMA-1 deliver pretty much the same level of finer details as the brighter – or more V-shaped – competitors. Again: this is with the leather ear pads in mind – the foam pads have more than enough treble, and a rather heavily reduced bass response. The most fitting comparison I can think of here is the (open) Sennheiser HD 650, generally speaking. The HD 650 are said to have a “veiled” sound, but to my ears they are perfectly fine. It’s just a matter of getting used to a specific sound signature – same goes for the TMA-1.
Soundstage, stereo imaging, is very good for closed phones – definitely better to my ears than what for example Ultrasone’s “S-Logic” approach achieves. The TMA-1 got great timbre, a good sense of space, pleasing decay, and no plastic-y echoes. It all adds up to a fine soundstage – not as wide as some quality open phones, but very coherent/cohesive. The HD 25-1, T50p, and other ones sound less expansive and more in-the-head than the TMA-1.
Needless to say, all electronic music, from dubstep to Detroit techno, sounds great on the TMA-1. So does hip hop, metal, reggae, pop, and most anything in that range of genres. They might not have the exact right tuning for jazz trios, string quartets or harpsichord solo performances, but I couldn’t say that they are completely unlistenable with such kinds of music either. They might be too “thick” and mid-heavy for ethereal voices, folk artists, and Celtic harp pieces, but in general the TMA-1 are rather versatile outside the scope of club music, even if they’re not marketed as such by AIAIAI.
Will the TMA-1 dethrone the Sennheiser HD 25-1 as the be-all-end-all DJ phones? Probably not. Do the TMA-1 generally sound better than the HD 25-1 to my ears? Yes, they do – especially noticeable in the bass, treble, and soundstage. The TMA-1 midrange however is a matter of taste, due to its “weight” and “thickness”.
I still prefer the HD 25-1 or DT770 for DJing situations. Sound quality is secondary there, you just have to match the beat, and hope your phones hold up as the night progresses. The HD 25/DT770’s stronger clamping force and higher isolation is a bonus for DJing as well. However, for situations where I want to enjoy music, the TMA-1 are the right ones – they sound great, they are comfortable, and they look gorgeous. As a set of closed cans for listening to music at home or on the go they are quite perfect, at least for the majority of the genres I listen to.
If you’re looking for a warm, lush sound signature similar to the HD650 in a closed form factor (or something like a very, very improved AKG K81DJ), something that doesn’t have as recessed mids as the DT 770 or HFI-780, and something that doesn’t have as sharp treble and claustrophobic soundstage as the HD 25-1, then the TMA-1 might be the right ones for you. Their punch, texture, dynamics, and euphonic sound representation are really good. They might not be the right phones for people looking for the ultimate in clarity or neutrality, but they’re very good as a whole for many music genres. Then again, they’re not exceptionally great with certain other genres, mainly acoustic (female vocal jazz, chamber music, etc) – but most other closed supra-aural phones I know aren’t champions of all genres either.
Some of the accessories aren’t the best – the coiled cable is too heavy and the foam pads sound bad – but these parts are easily exchanged, so there’s nothing to really complain about. Those are pretty much all the cons I could come up with, as far as build quality goes. Some people might also not like the fact that the TMA-1 can’t be folded flat, but they’re still very portable without that feature.
I have to say I don’t know of any other closed phones so far that matches my personal listening preferences as well as the TMA-1 – and look good while doing their thing. They’re keepers, for sure – with some slight DIY tinkering involved, as far as I’m concerned.
- Great sound quality for a closed phone – warm, dynamic, punchy, fast, non-fatiguing, not nasal or honky, no recessed midrange
- Very efficient, very loud even with underpowered MP3 players
- Excellent minimalist design
- User-replaceable cable (with standard 3.5mm plug at the headphone end)
- User-replaceable ear pads
- Comfortable for a supra-aural phone
- Average isolation from outside noise – not high, not low
- Low-ish clamping force
- Might sound too “weighty”, “full”, or mid-heavy for some kinds of acoustic music
- Heavy and awkward coiled stock cable (can be easily replaced)
- Foam ear pads don’t deliver balanced sound quality (use the leather pads instead)
- Slight background hiss with sub-par sources (no hiss with good sources)