AIAIAI - TMA-2 Modular

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  • It feels slightly ridiculous penning a review of AIAIAI's TMA-2 modular headphone system. As I write this, my laptop is sharing desk space with four types of speakers, five varieties of earpads (three on-ear, two over-ear), three headbands and six cables—in other words, enough choices for 360 unique combinations. Not all of these would produce remarkably different results, but nevertheless, there's no definitive pair of TMA-2s. When you buy practically any other pair of headphones, you're buying into a preexisting idea of what might fit a particular function, so you gravitate toward models and manufacturers that are likely to suit your needs. With TMA-2s, however, you can really think about the attributes you'd want out of a pair of headphones more generally, then tailor a pair to those specific needs. If the quality of the hardware is good and the options are suitably well-rounded, the system could theoretically bring you close to your perfect pair of headphones. To be honest, though, before I set out to assemble my TMA-2s, I'd never thought about my ideal headphones in this way. When I was in the market for a new pair, I'd think about what I needed—a DJ headphone, a home-listening headphone, a travel headphone—and try something I'd heard was good. If I didn't like what I went with, I'd try something else next time, or sell them on if they were truly unbearable. Over time, I developed preferences for the sound and fit of certain pairs. To test the TMA-2 system, I'd also have to figure out what I was looking for, but then actually figure out what I was looking for. I set a goal of building two pairs: an accurate-sounding, snug-fitting DJ headphone and a mellower but still accurate headphone for studio work or home listening. Along the way, I'd try out as many of those 360 combinations as it made sense to, in the interest of assessing overall sound and build quality. For DJs, AIAIAI has a longstanding solution, which prior to the modular concept was called the TMA-1. I'd long admired the headphone's aesthetics—clean, minimal, subtly high-tech—and enjoyed DJing on friends' pairs, though I liked the no-nonsense sound of my Sennheiser HD-25s a little better compared to the TMA-1's hefty bass tilt. The TMA-1 lives on in the TMA-2 line as a "preset," meaning you can buy it preassembled. I decided to use the TMA-2 DJ preset as a starting point for my personalized pair, so I pulled the parts from the box: the S02 speaker units (labeled "punchy" on the silver wrapper they shipped in), the E02 earpads (made from PU leather), the H02 headband ("rugged") and C02 coiled cable. Assembling the pair was simple: you plug the right-side lead on the headband into a red plug on one of the speaker units and clip it in by sliding the band through the opening, then do the same on the other side. The earpads snap into the speakers, and the main cable can plug into the bottom of either side; after it clicks in, you turn it 90 degrees to lock it into place and prevent it from accidentally disconnecting. I loved the look and feel of the headphones from the off—they have a nice matte finish and the killer design that's become AIAIAI's signature, and the fit is comfortable, reasonably tight on the head and reassuringly weighty on the neck. (I gave the headband some intense twists and didn't sense I was wearing out the material or bringing it close to snapping—problems that dogged earlier AIAIAI headphones.) As DJ cans, they felt professional and purpose-built—I certainly wouldn't turn down a pair if I found them in the booth—but as I mixed some techno records to get a feel for them, I wondered if I could get closer to my preference on sound. The DJ preset is great for bringing out all of the rhythmic elements of a track, but I prefer a subtler, cleaner and more accurate sound when mixing. To get there, I turned first to the other earpads. I ruled out the over-ear designs—I like on-ear DJ headphones, and plus, I wanted to save the two over-ear options for my listening pair—so was left with two choices. I put on the E01s, which are made of microfiber, and the sound was all wrong—if the DJ preset provides extra punch in the low-end, then this configuration moved the boost up to the low-mids and made the sound too boxy and smeared. The E03s, made of velour, were next, and though they provided a more even sound overall, I noted that the upper-mids and highs had become a little icy. I wondered if the high-end S04 speakers, described as "vibrant" on the packaging, could pair well with the E03 pads, and they did—the combination produced the sort of clean, true but still powerful sound I wanted. The E03 pads weren't nearly as comfortable as the E02s, and I wasn't sure they'd hold up as well in sweaty nightclubs, so I switched back to the E02s. This pair was more comfortable, but I'd put the sound somewhere between the S02/E02 and the S04/E03. For DJ headphones, I ended up at a draw—but with a real affinity for the S04 speakers. For the listening pair, I also started with an AIAIAI preset: the S03 speakers ("warm"), the E04 earpads (over-ear and leather), the H03 "high comfort" headband (it's more heavily padded than the H02) and the C02 cable from the DJ pair (I decided the C04 cable, with a sturdy woven nylon jacket preventing against cable nicks, would be best for my DJ set). This combination was definitely warm, but I wanted more detail and liveliness, so I threw on the E05 microfiber pads. This combination wasn't exactly fun or bright, but it sounded extremely accurate to my ears across a range of genres (I tried house, techno and disco, plus rock and pop with a fair amount of vocals.) Given time to get used to them, I could see these as a solid pair. With the S04 speakers, both over-ear options were good—the E04 provided a warm, even sound, while the E05 was very lively. The latter struck me as a good pair for home listening, but I'd go with the less shimmery options—S03/E05 and S04/E04—as a reference pair for recording. Again, I ended at a draw, though the sound signature of the S04/E05 combination struck me as a wonderfully unique headphone. I found lots of good options in between the DJ pair and the listening pair. The S01 speaker, despite being on the lower end of the range, turns in a surprisingly high-quality sound in certain combinations—the "all-round" preset, with microfiber earpads, thinner headband and mobile-friendly lead cable, ended up being one of my favorite pairs, with crisp sound and good isolation for the price. I wouldn't use it for critical listening, but I liked it as a low-profile headphone for commuting. While I didn't like the S02 speakers as much in the on-ear configurations, I thought the over-ear options gave the powerful drivers the space they needed. And though the various cable and headband options don't make a huge difference for sound, I could see these subtle tweaks making a big difference for some people. For the final version of my DJ pair, for example, I actually ended up using the H03 headband, which feels great on my neck between mixes. In general, I liked that the TMA-2 system got me away from compromise—rather than finding the best fit, I could actually look for the right fit. It's worth noting, though, that I had all of the parts at my disposal for testing, so it was easy to rule combinations in or out; most consumers will choose their parts online and hope for the best. (AIAIAI offers a lot of tools to help out, though, from a configuration tool boasting sound profiles and descriptions of all the parts, to a list of presets based on genre, to configurations built by artists like Marcel Dettmann. They also have a 30-day return policy, in case you don't like what you've come up with.) The concept almost certainly provides more flexibility and customizability than most headphone buyers will need—you can definitely find something premade that will work for your needs and budget—but if you like the unique look and feel of AIAIAI (and aren't in need of some ultra-high-end reference or audiophile pair), then TMA-2 assures there's a headphone in their world that will work for you. Ratings: Sound: 3.8 Cost: 4.0 Build: 4.0 Versatility: 4.5