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?
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.
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 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 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.
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.
– 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.
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.