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Austrian Audio The Composer

The name may not be familiar, though Austrian Audio has been on the headphone scene for a few years now - but the experience behind these flagship headphones speaker volumes.

The company was founded after Harman, the parent of AKG, closed its operation in Vienna and moved it to California in 2016. AKG had been developing, designing and manufacturing in Austria for almost 70 years, only becoming part of Harman in 1994 - so a group of former engineers decided to form their own company to carry on the same business in Austria. Logically enough, they called it Austrian Audio.

Like AKG, the new company doesn’t just make headphones for home use: it’s firmly embedded in the pro audio market, too, with an acclaimed series of microphones for studio and live use. The Composer is described as a ‘Premium Reference Headphone’ (as one might hope, given the £2249 price tag) and will soon be joined by the £1299 ‘Full Score one’ headphone amplifier, an all-analogue purist design.

The Composer are an open back design, built around an all-new high-excursion driver design called Hi-X49: it’s a development of the drive unit found in other Austrian Audio headphones. It features a 49mm diaphragm coated in what the company calls ‘a diamond-like carbon’ for stiffness – and therefore accuracy – without adding weight, and is driven by a high-power neodymium ring magnet ‘motor’ which also enhances airflow. The earcups are designed with a four-position tilt mechanism for the best fit, and the cable fits into the rear of each earpiece using two nickel/Beryllium 3mm plugs.

Or, rather, the cables do. The Composer comes with three cable assemblies to suit just about any listening situation. There’s the standard one, fitted with a 3.5 plug and supplied with a 6.3mm adapter for ‘full-size’ headphone sockets, and then two balanced cables, one with a 4.4mm Pentaconn plug and the other with a four-pin XLR connector. That should cover almost any headphone amplifier on the market.

Clearly designed for long-term listening, the headphones weigh less than 400g, and their headband has a mesh inner support to let heat escape – nothing worse than a sweaty head when you’re immersed in the music! – while the outer band does the job of locating the earcups and clamping them relatively gently to the head, ensuring excellent comfort for long-term listening. And just in case you’ve had too many headphone failures in the past to ever countenance spending this sort of money on a pair of cans, The Composer is designed to be fully serviceable, in best pro audio style.

Designed and made in Austria (of course), The Composer comes beautifully presented in a sturdy wooden box (to provide storage when the headphones aren’t in use), and some simple instructions explaining all the available adjustments and even how to hang them up in your listening room should you wish. You suspend them using the outer band, not the inner mesh one, to prevent stretching.

Sound quality

Past experience with some of Austrian Audio’s more affordable models, notably the Hi-X50 and Hi-X60 models (the latter described as ‘professional reference headphones for recording’), suggested the company has struck just the right balance between the analytical sound required in a studio for monitoring, and sheer listenability. In The Composer, all those traits are simply dialled up to the max: these are real ‘you can hear a pin drop’ headphones, but at the same time they’re a spectacularly rewarding listen. 

There is a caveat, however: they’re ruthlessly revealing of the electronics driving them, so if you are contemplating using them with the headphone socket on your phone or a portable music player, I’d suggest you look further down the Austrian Audio range – perhaps to the entry-level Hi-X15, which is something of a steal at less than £100.

In the absence of the ‘Full Score one’, which is still ‘on the way’ at the time of this review, I try the flagship headphones with the relevant output on my Naim Supernait 3 integrated and the new Leema Neutron preamp (both of which have very good headphone amp sections) before turning to the DHA V226 DAC/headphone amp from German company Violectric - another outfit with an impressive pro-audio heritage. 

Selling for £1230, this little amplifier is as sturdily built as you might expect given the company’s roots, connects to a computer or a suitable digital transport via USB-C as well as having analogue inputs, and handily offers all three kinds of output covered by the Austrian Audio cable pack. It’s also mighty powerful for a little ‘un, meaning it is more than up to the job of driving and controlling these headphones.

And driven properly, especially via a balanced connection, The Composer headphones sound nothing short of sensational, with fabulous insight into not just the music being played, but the ambience around it – be it a warm, intimate studio or a spacious concert-hall or church space. They create a remarkable sense of a three-dimensional soundstage, within which they really let the music breathe - and even if you’re not hoping to hear the squeak of one of the second violins’ chair (the sort of thing they listen to when monitoring in the recording process, and so thankfully rare) these headphones will really take you into the heart of the performance, delivering that highly desirable ‘you are there’ presence.

And yes sir, they can boogie too - even if that perhaps wasn’t uppermost in the mind of the designers and engineers behind these headphones. Thanks to an extended, tightly controlled bass, wide-open midband and crisp-yet-sweet treble, lyrics are easily heard and vocal and instrumental character is beautifully resolved.

Living with

To hear The Composer at their best, you should accord this design all the care you would a high-end pair of speakers – and that means treating yourself to a fine headphone amplifier. Yes, you could use the 3.5mm headphone output of a portable device – they’re easy enough to drive – but that would just be scratching the surface of the enthralling performance of which this design is capable.


If you think of headphones as a distress purchase, only to be used when domestic circumstances mean you can’t crank up the speakers, The Composer isn’t for you. But as a primary means of listening, driven by a high-quality headphone amp, this design is every bit as involving as a fine amp/speakers combination, if not more so. It can take the listener deep into both performance and recording, and provides a compelling experience that’s as rewarding as it is intriguing, always revealing something new even in familiar tracks.

Tasting Notes

Lang Lang Aquarium

From the superstar pianist’s Saint-Saëns album, this track demonstrates the headphones’ ability to deliver every note in the shimmering sound with total clarity, and balance the solo instrument and the accompaniment

Kim Wilde Kids in America

A super-crisp remaster of pure early-80s pop (from the Love Blonde retrospective), this one has drive in both the bass and percussion, and clean, bright vocals. Unashamedly retro, but still a bit of a masterpiece of its time

Czech Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov Vltava

The recent recording of Smetana’s Má Vlast conducted by Bychkov is an understated sparkler, with a big, rich warmth and bags of information. This performance is meat and drink to the Austrian Audio headphones, which deliver an expansive but sharply focused soundstage picture

What the press say

Why you should buy it

If you’re serious about your ‘head-fi’, there’s no shortage of spendy headphones to tempt your wallet - but The Composer combines listening comfort with reassuringly solid build, and an insight into the quality of your favourite recordings that tends to make most others sound rather vague. That this design manages to do all that while still providing a musical, relaxing listen shows just how well sorted it is, and the strong case it makes for headphones as a primary means of listening rather than as a poor substitute for speakers.

Video review

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