AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 review: USB-C headphones that work… finally

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POSITIVES
  • Digital USB audi
  • Modular design
  • Price
NEGATIVES
  • Proprietary interconnects
  • Sound quality fit-dependent
BOTTOM LINE

This is the first model of USB-C headphones without a major tradeoff or analog-only limit. While other models exist that perform adequately, you don’t need an app or other prerequisite for the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 to work with a smartphone or laptop.

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With the TMA-2 MFG4, AiAiAi has released the first set of USB-C headphones that work well.

That’s the headline here, and it’s been a long time coming. The market for USB-C audio accessories has been appallingly bad up to this point, but we’re finally starting to see the category start to turn the corner. I said startto turn the corner, not mature all the way. USB-C headphones still have a long way to go.

But the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 is important in that it’s the first set of on-ear USB-C headphones that are the real deal: they have a DAC in the cable, and they work with just about any USB-C source you may have. As I may have mentioned before, this particular market has been a trainwreck so far.

Who are the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 for?

  • Current Android phone users will appreciate the ability to listen to music without using the proprietary dongle.
  • If you want to use your headphones with your laptop, owners of brand-new laptops will be able to use these without any fuss or apps.
  • Tinkerers will love the ability to swap out parts and experiment with the headphones.

What is the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4?

In short, the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 is the very first Made For Google set of on-ear USB-C headphones. They’re an amalgamation of interchangeable parts for the AiAiAi TMA-2 series, comprising of the standard headband, the S01 speaker units, the E01 earpads, and the C60 USB-C to 3.5mm cable. If you want to add or swap out parts for these headphones, you can absolutely do that without a second thought, as these are completely modular by design.

A photo showing the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 taken completely apart.

You can completely take apart the TMA-2 MFG4 and swap out components at a whim.

If you’re unsatisfied by any part of the headphones—or you’re just a little rough with your peripherals—you can repair or replace any component at all without losing the whole unit. That’s a pretty incredible value right there, considering most headphones are right and proper trashed when the band or cable breaks. Not so with the TMA-2 MFG4. This is good, because the housings are made of inexpensive plastics, meaning they may not be able to take too many tumbles before giving up the ghost.

By offering an in-cable DAC, the headphones don’t need anything but a standard USB-C port to plug into. Of course, this isn’t always a given on devices, so you may be in for a stupid surprise depending on your device—through no fault of the headphones. However, that digital audio processing is a treat if you use the headphones with a modern smartphone. There’s only a very small number of headphones that use the new USB-C standard, none of which really qualify as “audiophile” cans.

A photo of the ear cups on the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4.

Be sure to get a good fit, as the rigid band and on-ear design is tough to get right.

The stock setup isn’t exactly to my tastes, as I’m not a fan of on-ear headphones at all. But credit where credit is due: these are decent for what they are. The cloth padding snaps into the ear cups, and can be removed for easy cleaning. Additionally the band provides a consistent (but not overpowering) clamping force to keep these things on your head. You may get uncomfortable after an hour and a half like I did, but like every set of on-ears, that’ll vary from person to person. The TMA-2 are a little on the heavy side when compared to models like the JLab Rewind Wireless Retro, for example.

How does the cable connect?

My biggest gripe with the AiAiAi TMA-2 of any flavor is the 3.5mm connections. While I’m happy they’re there, I loathe the proprietary system of twisting and locking the connections into place so you can’t use generic components should something break. I’m well aware that I may be the only person on earth to care about such a thing, but it adds another element that can break if your wire snags on something. Being unable to connect cables to your headphones due to a tiny plastic thing breaking defeats the entire purpose of having a removable cable, so it’s more than a little frustrating when companies do this.

A photo of the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4's analog plug used to interface with the headphones.

AiAiAi’s USB-C cable terminates in a standard male 3.5mm plug to send an analog signal to the headphones.

You might find that the connections are a little finicky at first. If you can only get one channel working, you’ll need to re-twist the hookups. Once you do, however, you won’t need to take them out unless you’re going to swap a component out for another.

How do the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 sound?

On-ear headphones are popular because they’re usually pretty comfortable, but they come with their own drawbacks inherent to the design—namely, they don’t isolate all that well. While the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 sound great when everything’s perfect, it’s not always possible to get that result.

A chart showing the isolation performance of the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4

On-ears typically don’t isolate low noise, but with a perfect fit high notes are well-attenuated.

By far, the most important factor for how on-ear headphones sound is how well you can get the things to fit on your head. If you manage to get a perfect fit, the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 sound pretty nice, with only a few foibles. No notes fall more than 10dB below others, which is surprisingly decent for any set of headphones. This allows you some latitude to equalize your tunes, as well as hear mixes the way they were intended to sound.

A chart showing the frequency response of the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 on ear headphones.

A fairly even response lends itself well to equalizing, so go nuts adjusting your music settings.

However, because on-ears are notoriously difficult to fit, you’re likely going to run into some issues with getting the TMA-2 MFG4 to sound the way it should. If you get an imperfect seal, you may wind up losing bass notes because of the poor fit. You can see what I’m talking about on the chart below in the pink range. Your experience will vary based on the shape and size of your head.

A chart showing the performance performance of the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4 with a poor fit.

With an imperfect seal, bass performance falls off a cliff.

You might find that you can’t get a perfect fit with these headphones. That’s totally normal for on-ears. If you can’t hear the bass in your music, this is likely why: because no outside noise in the underemphasized ranges are being blocked out. If any noise (masker) is present that’s almost-as-loud as the music you’re listening to in those frequencies, they’ll be masked. If you don’t like the sound of the headphones, it’s neither your fault, nor AiAiAi’s. It just may be that you need to seek larger pads from the AiAiAi store, or look for another model that’s right for you.

Lows

I’m a fan of the flatter (all notes the same power) kinds of frequency response, but bassheads may want to try their hands at using one of the other headphone modules that AiAiAi offers for the TMA-2. However, the upside to a flat response is clarity. You can easily hear things you may have missed in the mixes of your songs, and that’s a big plus if you’re a fan of older songs like I am. You’ll actually be able to hear the bass and lowest piano octaves in Barry White’s Never Never Gonna Give Ya Up.

Mids

Mids see an ever-so-slight emphasis over all other notes, but that’s really not a bad thing. For one, it adds a little more punch to vocal features important to immersing yourself. For example, language will sound “off” or strange if you can’t hear the initial impact of a plosive, for example. A response like the TMA-2’s will lend itself well for vocal-heavy mixes, much like the mother of the MP3: Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega.

Highs

Much like mids are important for vocal clarity, highs are important for guitar, violin, woodwind, and snare drum clarity. While the track Lump by The Presidents Of The United States Of America has a few loudness issues, it sounds fairly clear for what it was mixed to be. Great job, AiAiAi!

Should you buy the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4?

If you’re in a position where USB-C audio is preferable to Bluetooth, this is currently the set of headphones to get. They aren’t amazing, they cost $150, and they don’t offer any killer features. However, they work well—without an app—on both Android and Windows. That’s enough to be the king of the USB-C hill for 2018.

When it comes to objective performance, these headphones are pretty solid if you’re a fan of a middle ground between clear sound and bassy consumer cans. Of course, that somewhat flat response lends itself to rather easy equalizing, so you should feel empowered to take a few risks with your music player’s equalizer, or your system-level one.

A photo showing the inside grate of the AiAiAi TMA-2 MFG4.

Underneath everything else, the headphones are still pretty standard plastic cans.

But are they better than other headphones at the same price? Not really. They absolutely have their audience, but for under $100 you can get some damned decent options. USB-C may yet provide a killer audio product, but the TMA-2 isn’t enough to justify the death of the headphone jack.

(soundguys.com, http://bit.ly/2AGH6tH)

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