When one uses the term ‘best’ it a pretty strong statement and in the world of snake oil producing audiophilia is a more common term than most so normally I treat the word ‘best’ with a degree of caution when putting on a headset, always mindful that to take a stand means to be prepared for the opposing argument that is as certain as death and taxes.

Yet here I write about AKG’s new flagship IEM, the K3003 and yes I am saying the word best universal IEM I have ever heard and I am pretty confident, out side of the custom route, that I am not that far off in my assumption. From the beautiful casing, to the handmade custom steel built of the earphones and accessories, the superb leather case and the fantastic fitting of the tips – there was really not a moment that I found myself actually looking for either the right fit or fiddling over memory wire overkill. It is almost perfect but one one small thing – the price. The K3003 is 999 euros, or around $1300 and as such it is also the most expensive IEM I have laid my hands on. So in that context the stakes have been upped considerably. If this were a $500 IEM I would declare it king and walk away with a clear conscience. However at $1300 I need to pause and really reflect that if it is the best IEM I have ever heard, would I really pay $1300 for it when full size headphones such as the Beyer T1 is $100 cheaper, the LCD-2 is $300 cheaper and customs are under $1k?

This all really an argument of context because if you have the money I say it is justified, easily justified, but if you don’t then listen to it yourself before you buy it and ask yourself does it get any better before you reach for the wallet. One only has to look at the price of the new LCD-3 from Audeze set at just under $2k to begin to realize that it indeed possible to raise the bar in expectation and the stakes in pricing if you have a product you deem worthy and people believe it is indeed worthy.

Musings about price aside what have AKG actually given us for our wad of cash?

Box and packaging

Box and packaging

The package it self is big for the size of what you get but its very neatly laid out in 2 layers of blackened foam. On the top you have the leather case and a peak of the earphones plus the all important filters (high and low, neutral is on by default) plus the little individual serial number for your headphone as after all the earphones are made by hand.

Second layer of packaging in the K3003

Second layer of packaging in the K3003

Lift up the first layer of packaging and below you have the airport connector, a nice box full of silicone tips, a little extension cable and a booklet – all with their own compartment spaces. It sort of reminds me of those Chinese Boutique presentations where space is not a concern and everything is spread out real nice. Though unlike the Chinese boutique presentation they remember to put in a fancy leather mobile case for out and about. In the case of the K3003 this one looks to be a really high quality soft leather with a nice magnetized clip and space for the flight adapter and the earphones itself.

The volume control

The volume control

The earphone itself is has some really exquisite touches that mark it out as premium. From the volume control (above) and the hand designed earpieces (below) it all screams out “look at me’. Compare this to see an IE8 or a TF10 or the high end 535 from Shure and they all look so darn cheap in comparison. For sure someone spent a lot of time getting this just right.

The Earpieces

The Earpieces

The whole ensemble is surprisingly light in the hand and free of memory wire problems with its two cable system of fabric to the y junction and silicone to the earpieces. Too many times with IEM’s I spend too much time unwrapping them and one of my major turn-off with some of the other so called high grade wires or flagship earphones so this is a welcome bonus. I do worry slightly if the regular wire is a bit flimsy and if the nylon would have been better extended up to the earpiece with a good wrap but then it might look a tad DIY. One for handling with a bit more care and attention than normal I think.

Hybrid drivers

Now the K3003 has a little trick up it’s sleeve. Most universals are either BA or dynamic and rarely do they mix except in the world of customs such as Unique Melody Merlins which is one of my personal favorites. The K3003 is the first universal I know off that has one dynamic and two BA drivers as standard which puts it on a whole different playing field for sound reproduction.

There is a distinct benefit to going this route and I wonder why there are not more earphones like this on the market. With a dynamic driver you get a much bigger than normal sound stage and increased bass extension. With BA you get wonderful precision, better clarity and much more articulation in the upper ends. The K3003 combines them both into one driver and the result of which is possibly the most engaging complete experiences you can have on a universal IEM (more about that later). But there is more.

Tale of three tips

It is not just one complete hybrid experience but in fact potentially 3 different experiences. Now I have seen filter tips before on the Mee series earphones but this is way down in the $30 – $80 range. Even so when we tested the Mee SP51 we though they were winners and genuinely changed the sq every time we changed the port filters. The same also with the K3003. With the K3003 you get a high boost filter, a neutral filter and a bass boost filter denoted by the color of ring – white, grey and black in that order. They do genuinely color the sq in their own unique way. For me the winner was the grey tip of the reference (neutral tip) which for my ears was the perfect balance between the bassier, warmer and darker bass boost and the thinner but sparkier high boost. I will add this, at no time did the tips take you away from the core sound of the K3003.

Listening impressions

– In-line volume control and microphone
– Passive noise reduction offers undistracted listening by effectively sealing out most ambient sounds.
– Design: Brushed stainless housing, Steel remote face, Steel “Y” connector, rubberized upper cable and cloth lower cable
– Sleeves: 6 pairs, 2 in each size (S, M, L)
– Colour: Silver
– Frequency range: 10Hz – 30kHz
– Input impedance: 8 Ohm
– Maximum input power: 15mW
– Net weight (without cable): 12g
– Cable: 1.2 m
– Main connection: steel 3.5 mm jack plug and steel flight adaptor

So what is the ‘house sound’ of the K3003? With the mix of dynamic and BA drivers it is truly fantastic and worthy to be called king of universal IEM’s. Someone said on one of the major forums that the K3003 just made all his music sound great and this is a very fair assessment. The first thing that struck me was the pure power and size of sound stage on these – rivaling the Merlin in many ways.

The seal of the silicone tips was really perfect – no finding the sweet spot and then fiddling to keep it, they go right in and stay in giving me a straight ‘hit’ of the quality. The bass extension was excellent and the dual BA keep things crystal clear and airy on the upper end allowing the whole thing to just breath effortlessly on just about any genre.

Where the K3003’s really excel outside of sound stage is clarity in vocal presentation, particularly using the reference tips. The outstanding black background really allowed the vocals to shine effortlessly. There was no grain, no sibilance. It is not an aggressive earphone by any means so the vocals are allowed to soar and dip without any sibilance or fall into the background. The K’s have a great black noise background, in fact the best I have heard from an IEM. Using them out of a FiiO e9/e7 there was not a peep out of the background meaning moody detailed works like “Time” from the Inception OST soundtrack was pure, detailed and very transparent. If you have good recordings you are going to enjoy this as it is one highly sensitive IEM, it really misses nothing using the reference tips.

The other tips

I was not so amazed by the other tips, but only in comaprison to my favorite reference tips.

The bass boost tips

Using the bass filters the highs are a tad more muted, perhaps rolled off but the bass has more authority. The signature is warmer than the reference tips and darker. Quite different actually to the reference tips. Now these tips put them in Merlin territory a bit more and for me Merlin’s are beating the bass boost tip – the quad BA in the Merlin keeps things beautifully clear from the bass. The K3003 still has the unbelievable black background but the distinction between it and the Merlin in terms of emphasis is not so clear. Putting the bass boost on the K3003 basically turns it into a R&B, dance and hip-hop IEM and the vocals are not as crystal clear as the reference tip. So far I much prefer the Merlin over the high boost tip but I love the k3003 with the neutral reference tip – makes it unique from the Merlin in terms of emphasis and wins on vocals. Putting the inevitable comparison to customs to one side, the high tip does really well on beat driven music but doesn’t blow the bass out of the water. There are no ‘phat beats’ here but it does hit much heavier than the neutral tip.

The High Boost tips

One quick change and the sparkle is back in the top end, much brighter than the bass boost tips and the bass moves up a few notches in the range. Mind you the high boost feels more like upper mids and lower highs boost than pure top end boost – its still silky smooth but again I would rate this behind the reference tip which is just phenomenal for my tastes. The imaging does seem a tad more shallow and the sound stage is a bit smaller, but the articulation is much more nimble and nowhere near as dark as the bass boost tips. It lacks a little meat on the bones though in the mids and mid-bass.

Concluding thoughts

If you can get past the price, and sadly some will not, then this is one of the best, if not the best universal IEM’s I have tried. It is not overly aggressive, very clean, airy and pure with incredible detail and power courtesy of the hyrbid driver design. It faces stiff competition from the customs offerings most notably the Jh16’s and the UM range of Merlin and Miracle’s which come close in some areas and surpass in others and with a slightly cheaper price tag. But if you have the money and want it here and now you cannot go wrong with the K3003. The wiring might be a tad flimsy on the earpieces and the bass and treble filters a bit underwhelming but keep it on the neutral tips and it can handle just about anything with incredible detail and confidence. Contender for audiophile gear of the year for me!

Tested with: FiiO E9/e7, Ipod 5.5g, CLAS / Rx2 with flac only.

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About The Author

Editor

Founder & Owner of headfonics.com. I first started reviewing in the late 80s (ouch!). Back then it was albums, rock concerts and interviews with a typewriter for the local rag. Now its desktop/portable and digital 2.1 audio on a rather nice laptop. How time flies.

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  • Awesome review marcus! Too bad the pricing puts it squarely within customs territory, and even more expensive than some customs.

    Also for that price, id prefer replaceable cables.

    Regardless, looks and sounds great, but unfortunately beyond the reach of your average bang-for-buck audiophile.

    • Anonymous

      I agree Claude it is the stuff of dreams – maybe AKG can spare us a loaner for KenJam because for this you have to hear it before you can a move to the bank manager. Customs would be the target market here if you ask me with the hybrid technology.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the excellent review Marcus; it’s complete and thorough!

    I don’t doubt that the K3003 sounds awesome. It piqued my interest and although few reviews currently exist, the opinions voiced about this IEM are consistent in praising its superb sound quality. However this always has to be put in perspective with the price, and in this regard it’s where the K3003 is weakest. While it might be at par or even exceed customs in some aspects of sound reproduction, like pointed out in the review, these customs are actually cheaper than the K3003. Thus to be pragmatic about it, if this AKG powerhouse exceeded the quality of customs by some reasonable margin, then the price tag would be worth it. However it seems like it doesn’t, and because of this I’d choose (cheaper) customs at any day.

    It seems that the K3003 has certainly raised the bar for universal IEMs in terms of sound quality. Unfortunately this comes with a disproportionately raised price tag. It looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, but the stratospheric price tag will keep it out of reach of the average audiophile, and even the moderately-moneyed enthusiast might settle for customs. So, will I ever consider buying the K3003? Sure — if somehow a really LARGE chunk of disposable income came my way.

    • Anonymous

      It will go down a storm in Singapore then 🙂

      In all seriousness though the price is too distracting and distorts the real joy of just simply listening to these.

      • Anonymous

        I also forgot to include that the lack of removable cables is a major minus. Considering how expensive this is, I would always be nervous about using them and paranoid about accidentally tugging and breaking the cable.

        • Anonymous

          I am going to bet the cable it the least spend in the equation though I wonder if they can be recabled – certainly a $1k+ earphone should have a pretty darn good warranty to serve it.

          • Anonymous

            For that price, they should have used some fancy reinforcement for those cables, maybe something like the IE8’s Kevlar thing or some cable with “mil spec” toughness.

          • Anonymous

            I find that for most ‘house brands’ the concept of upgraded cabling seems to be low on the scale of things to watch out for. Only the boutique guys seemed to have caught onto that.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Azor, I hope the price does drop also just so regular joes like you and me can actually figure out a way of buying one – hats off to AKG Philippines for loaning this out to us. 

  • Wilzc

    The now discontinued Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 EB uses a single BA and single dynamic. And this was years ago.

    The Atomic Floyd superdarts are also..  single Ba single Dynamic. I guess the AKG’s are the first 2 BAs.

    • Anonymous

      I think your right on this, at least on the universal level. I have been doing an a/b with the Unique Melody Merlins for a while and its a close run thing in some ways.

  • Choariwap

    WTFBBQ! 1400 for a universal IEM??? it costs more than flagship custom IEMS! it must really sound like a choir of angels to justify the price. its not like the JH16s are your everyday cheapo earbuds…

    • Anonymous

      I think it ranks up there against the customs honestly 🙂 I have gone back to my Merlin’s and for me it has it slightly licked on detail, projection and imaging though not on bass and sound stage is touch and go. I would love to measure it against the Miracle or the 16’s since perhaps the Merlin occupies a slightly different stage to the K3003.

  • ojan

    if you were to choose merlin & this, which one would you choose ?

    also may i ask whether this earphone have an inline microphone in it ? or is it different with k3003i ?

    if this have an inline microphone, would you mind testing them by playing straight from your cellphone ?
    i wonder if this earpiece have a forgiving / unforgiving character…

    • Anonymous

      The one I had was an inline remote control as opposed to a mic so that pretty much makes it the regular K3003.

      It does need just a tad more juice than normal earphones to drive it after testing with a mini3 amp and some other porta amps – as for forgiving? Hmm.. stay with flac my friend if you can.

      I left the toughest question to last – the Merlin or the K3003… that’s a doozie for me. If you like bass and a huge sound stage then the Merlin has the edge, if you want uber clarity in the mid to top end with great bass then the K3003 might just have the edge. Only though if you use the neutral reference tips – the treble and bass tips didn’t add anything for me.

      You may want to put this head to head though with the Miracle or the JH16 which are the top end customs. The Merlin is simply the one I have at the moment and bought on sound stage primarily.

      • ojan

        oh okay…

        between the merlin and k3003, does it feel like the difference is really a $500 different or just a tiny bit difference in the high & bass ?

        • Anonymous

          Gosh everything is relative considering what would be a $500 difference to someone rolling in it might be seem justified. For me though I would actually consider them as different and maybe start with the Merlin first as this is where you will make the true break from standard earphone experience for less money.

          The K3003 was just so precise and engaging for me personally that I would almost be tempted to get it as a companion to the Merlin!

          The real test is whether it beats the JH16 and Miracle which are more expensive and supposedly the best customs can throw at you.

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  • Ka75

    Hello, I just bought it few days ago but I’m a little bit disapointed by the eartips as it’s not isolating enough for me (excuse my English, I’m French). Do you know where I could get other eartips ? Issue is K3003 reference is not known and I don’t know if the dimensions are identique to other eadsets… thanks for your help.

    • headfonics

      Yes ear tip are always hit and miss but if you spent on the k3003 then you want the very best so I would recommend a set of custom tips to maximize your isolation and these look pretty good to me from Westone: http://www.westone.com/cust-products/custom-earpieces Another option is: http://1964ears.com/products_customsleeves.html

      • Ka75

        Thanks a lot.
        The issue is that all custom molds maker ask us to sen the earphones with our ear prints. I live I Paris in France and I don t really want to send a 1000€ earphone…
        This is why I asked what kind of ear tips I could buy as I don’t find the K3003 reference and don’t know the correct size or compatible model I should buy. I mean the bar in which you plug the ear tip is thicker than my klipsh earphones. I don’t know if K3003 size is specific or standard… Thanks again for your help !

        • headfonics

          I suspect we would have to experiment a bit with tips before finding the right one that is not supplied with AKG – some mention Shure Olives or Sony Hybrids on some local forums but as to what size exactly I am not sure. Have you a local store with tips you can try?

  • Adrien

    Great review! I had the chance to try them for a couple of hours (thanks Marvin!) and I totally agree: they are outstanding performers. Compared to my W4 they sounded immensely detailed. Instrument separation impressed me. But the sound signature was somewhat too bright for me and the bass, though tight and punchy, was not very satisfying. It lacked presence and extension. The bass is more prominent on the W4 but less defined, somewhat muddy and lazy. IMO those earphones are on the neutral side and should rejoice audiophiles looking for supreme clarity.

    As for me I’m going customs and considering the Merlin and the Heir 8.A. If you know any owner I’d love to get advice 🙂

    • headfonics

      The Merlin’s are a very different proposition since they have hybrid drivers, BA and dynamic, giving it a lot of sound stage and plenty of bass but a warm overall laid back sound that benefits from silver cabling.

      • Adrien

        Yes that’s what I understood by reading reviews. I love deep and groovy bass; I had the IE80 but returned it because it sounded too muddy. I understand some people are looking for a more neutral and analytical sound. I’m more on the fun side and the K3003 left me hungry for more 😉

        • headfonics

          The Merlins will hit the spot for you then if you want atmospherics and musicality.

          • Adrien

            I’ll give them a try 🙂 but will wait before upgrading to silver cables as I’m quite skeptical about their added value. Thanks for the advice and the quick replies!

          • headfonics

            Your welcome and good luck!

  • Drgroove

    wait what…? 1k+ earphones and the cable isnt detachable? lol no thanks, sounds like that idea was a way to have people send these back in for repair for who knows how much. Ill bet the repairs are going to be cost atleast 2-400.00, because the earphones do cost 1,300.00. A few accidental strong tugs and youll be dishing out a few hundred. And FYI, cant really compare these to UM’s merlin, those CIEMs are on a different level in terms of SQ. If you are a bass-head, the Merlins invite and welcome you to a glorious slam that makes just about any bassheavy IEMs obsolete. Listening to Merlins still puts a grin on my face of sheer eargasms. Do not assume the bass on the Merlins are too much and muddy, one way to describe the bass is “clean” and “delicious”, for a dynamic driver it sounds near perfect on the bass freq.

    • headfonics

      I think its entirely fair to compare it to the Merlin’s since I have both sitting side by side and both are a tad expensive – I think you would do the same if you had both but since you don’t I can understand your emphasis on the one you do own the Merlins which are a fantastic IEM and the added dynamic driver really does take it to a new level.

      But the Merlins are not as balanced as you have mentioned, it can be a bass head IEM so those who do not like bass heavy IEM’s will find the K3003 superior – people’s preference are not all the same. The K3003 for me does have superior treble articulation over the more muted and laid back UM Merlin and a more balanced presentation which for many is exactly what they are looking for in an IEM. I think having both would be a great ying and yang for the collection.

      As for the cable – still there one year later on the K3003 with no issues – and the Merlin upgraded sonic silver cable has to be resoldered on the right side.

      • Drgroove

        You have viable points in regards to my review. I was emphasizing more on the low end freq due to the fact that both use a dynamics drive approach. And you are right I have not had the extensive time to compare the two, I have heard the 3003 though and for the price tag, it just wasn’t a “wow” factor. The only wow factor I can remember was thinking that the sound was quite big and spacious for a tiny IEM. Have your heard the k3003 on a rig, a headphone amp or amp/DAC? If I recall correctly, these weren’t flexible, which tends to take the fun factor out. As far as the Merlin’s being not balanced, I can agree with you in that. But just a little EQing and its very achievable. Actually for the price, I’d pick the UM miracle over these any day.

        • headfonics

          The price tag is always going to be the sticking point for many but compare it with the IE800 at a similar price point and my money is with the K3003. Yup the sound stage and background was superb on the K3003 as you mentioned. Yes the K3003 for the review was tested with a 5.5g ipod, Cypher Lab CLAS SOLO and the ALO Audio RX2. The Continental V2 was also superb but I didn’t care for the matching with the FiiO E12 or RX3 – too much power. For the price I would been to look also at the JH 16 to compare with the Merlin, Miracle and the K3003.

          • Drgroove

            Right on, jh16 are quite the cans also. Very nice review of the k3003 nonetheless.
            Cheers

          • headfonics

            Cheers! Actually the word is the IE800’s are not worth the price but I would love to confirm this against the Merlin’s.

          • Drgroove

            Those words are right. Youre likely to be disappointed. Like you mentioned, you’ll have to try em out. To me the 800s seperation in instruments lacked a lot quality. Good luck ^^

          • Drgroove

            Have you heard the se535? I’m sure you have

          • headfonics

            I honestly cannot remember if I have or not 🙂

          • Drgroove

            Hey marcus just wanted to drop back in. Have you done a comparison of the ie8s and the ie80s?

          • headfonics

            Not yet and I am not quite sure yet if it is in the road map til summer time when an IE shootout will be interesting.

          • Drgroove

            Right on. I’m actually in the market for a portable DAC. I’m leaning towards the CLAS -db

          • headfonics

            You have a few options there including sony and fostex

          • Drgroove

            Hey Marcus, I read your review about the CLAS -db. Do the -r and db version share the same DAC? I’m really interesting in hearing the AKM DAC.

          • headfonics

            Best re post this in the clas article 🙂

          • Drgroove

            Ack, apologies, got carried away

  • Teddy

    Overpriced I tested these twice, they do sound good but not 1300 good, I own the IE8i and EX1000 and the EX1000 with comply foam tips win for me… Nice headphones but for the rich only, as the gains are not worth it…

    • headfonics

      I have the FA -BA-SS from Final Audition also now and might try and do a comparo given these are also very expensive.

  • These were definitely my go to iems, very practical, great comfort and not much fiddling to achieve a proper seal. Sound quality was superb! Maybe the price. Not everyone can afford this perfect small thing. To be sure, it is extremely comfortable to wear and the sound quality is up there. I like it

    • headfonics

      Still one of the best universals out there IMHO.