AIAIAI TMA-2 modular headphones review: Fantastic sound, compromised comfort

Headphones are an odd product to review. There are a lot of variables involved, particularly music taste and comfort levels. I may think one pair of headphones fits fantastically, while others find that same pair puts too much pressure on their head, ruining the listening experience.

See at Amazon

AIAIAI is a company looking to combat these issues. Its TMA-2 headphones are completely modular: the user selects the speaker unit, headband, and earpad that can be tailored to each user, and each of these pieces can be swapped on the fly. There are four speaker units, five headbands, and seven earpads, making for 140 possible headphone combinations.

I've been listening to music with the TMA-2 headphones since March 2017, with the S02 speaker unit. These drivers allow for punchier sound than the other drivers, and in my listening, they match up with AIAIAI's description. I've primarily used the PU leather over-ear ear cups, but also tried the microfiber over-ear cups and microfiber on-ear pads. Finally, I spent most of the year using the H03 PU leather headband but switched that for the H05 Bluetooth headband when my Indiegogo-backed order was fulfilled in mid-November.

The great

These headphones are very understated, design-wise. The matte black plastic throughout looks superbly stealthy, and the lack of branding makes the minimalist inside me very happy. The 3.5mm cable is detachable and can be inserted into either the left or right speaker. This may sound trivial, but not having the cable cross my body went a long way in keeping the audio cable from getting annoying.

Being able to choose which side of the headphones to have connected with a wire is a huge convenience.

Being able to choose which side of the headphones to have connected with a wire is a huge convenience.

The wireless headband requires a battery and controls of course but isn't too much bigger than the standard headbands. In fact, the extra space made the wireless headband a bit more comfortable to wear than the PU leather version I used for most of the year. The wireless headband uses a USB-C port for charging (yay!) and for connecting to a computer for firmware updates. The firmware can only be updated from a desktop computer, not over Bluetooth from your phone.

The different speakers are tuned for different genres of music, and I found the S02 speakers I used to perfectly compliment all of my songs. Regarding sheer song count, my music library primarily consists of Johnny Cash (older country), Rosanne Cash (pop/alternative country) and Lily and Madeleine (folk/pop), with a smattering of other rock, pop, and country artists.

When I first used the headphones, I planned on just listening to my favorite songs while doing school work. The school work quickly took a back seat, though, since the sound coming from these headphones was just so… delightful. Every song I listened to felt like I was listening to it for the very first time. Listening to my favorite song, Sea of Heartbreak by Rosanne Cash instantly sent chills up my spine.

This continued even when I swapped in the wireless headband. The aptxHD Bluetooth codec means there is less compression involved in delivering your music to a pair of headphones, and — to my ears at least — music played through these headphones sounded the same when streamed with Bluetooth as it did when listening over a wire.

The not so great

I could not listen to music for more than 30 minutes because of discomfort.

The delight of listening to my music was short-lived, unfortunately. No matter what I tried, I could not listen to music for more than 30 minutes without wanting to rip the headphones off my head and throw them into a pit. They're that uncomfortable. Even with the wireless headband — which is more comfortable than the standard headband I used before — my discomfort ruins what should be a great listening experience.

The charging port is in an odd location due to the modular nature of these headphones.

The charging port is in an odd location due to the modular nature of these headphones.

I haven't used the headphones for more than 30 minutes at a time even after owning them for most of the year because it's just an unpleasant experience. The circular speakers and earpads are surely easier to swap around than oval-shaped parts would be, but human ears are shaped like ovals, not circles. My ears never properly fit under the earpads as they should, and it soured the entire experience.

The wireless headband has its compromises, too. Because a user could swap the speakers or earcups out, the charging port, microphones and audio controls are further up on the headband. For the charging port and control buttons, this is a minor inconvenience. With the mics, this is a big problem: whenever I took a phone call while wearing these headphones, the caller on the other end struggled to hear me.

I'm also dubious on the proposition that customers will want to swap parts around. Had I not had the issues with discomfort, I wouldn't have bothered trying new earpads, and I'm not ponying up another $65 to $100 for new speakers when the ones I have already sound great.

That last bit leads to my main criticism of these headphones, and all modular gear we've seen over the last two years: there isn't any consumer benefit for the product being modular. It's great for AIAIAI: manufacture a bunch of generic parts that work together then let the consumer sort things out. It also sounds good on paper for consumers: you get exactly the headphones you want.

But trying 140 different combinations gets old, fast. AIAIAI does offer recommendations based on the genres you like, as well as a discovery tool that connects to Spotify to recommend a configuration. However, most customers would be better served by going to their favorite local retailer and trying headphones from other brands that are a complete experience right out of the box.

Finally, the modular nature of the headphones leaves me with a bunch of extra parts that are just taking up space. I could always get use out of the audio cables (especially the very nice coiled cable that was sent to Kickstarter and Indiegogo backers of the wireless headband), but the extra headband and earpads are never going to get used.

Against the competition

I'm a speaker unit away from having two okay pairs of headphones when all I wanted was one great set of headphones.

At the $200 I spent on my first configuration, there are plenty of wired headphones that easily best these. For the $365 I spent on all the parts I've purchased, someone could buy the excellent Bose QC-35 II or Sony WH1000XM2 with a bit left over, or pony up another $35 for the excellent Bowers and Wilkins PX. All of those headphones are complete out of the box, and feature something the TMA-2 set does not: active noise cancellation.

All of my complaints about these headphones would be irrelevant if they were more comfortable. While I'd still recommend going to a physical store and trying headphones from other brands, these headphones did sound better than any others I tried before the PX headphones. AIAIAI offers a 30-day return period, so use that to your advantage if you want to give these headphones a try.

See at Amazon

Tom Westrick