AKG is no stranger to top-notch ear-wear. The Austrian brand (a part of the Harman group since 1994) has a powerful and long-standing reputation for making some of the best transducers around; the company’s C414 has been one of the condenser microphones of choice for professionals for more than 40 years, and the company’s current flagship K701 headphones are extremely well respected. But nothing in the current line-up prepares you for the £1,000 AKG K3003 in-ear monitors.
As these are special earphones, they are not sold through normal channels. On the other hand, this is also a set of universal IEMs priced at the custom-made levels. Most IEM’s have at best two drive units. The K3003 has a dynamic bass driver that sits just outside the ear, with two-armatures for treble and midrange.
AKG custom makes the K3003 in its Austrian factory, tests every model (rather than batch testing) and comes in two versions; the K3003 (headphone only), and K3003i (headphone with in-line microphone). With the bass sitting at the tragus of the ear, the IEM extends further out of the ear than most, so styling is important. The brushed stainless steel exterior, which extends to the elegant microphone and volume control block (on the K3003i only) and even the jack socket sleeve.
Fitted with the grey-banded ‘reference sound’ filter as standard, the K3003 also includes a black-banded ‘bass boost’ and white-banded ‘high boost’ filter modules that screw onto the in-ear section of the IEM. In reality, the ‘bass boost’ is effectively a partial low-pass filter (cutting midrange and high frequencies) and the ‘high boost’ is a partial high-pass filter (cutting midrange and bass frequencies. Because of the depth of the armature and filter set, standard IEM ear sleeves will not fit in the K3003, AKG provides special latex-free spherical sleeves, in small, medium and large fittings.
Although naturally the audio output of the K3003 is compatible with almost any player or smartphone, the optional remote/microphone block of the K3003i is compatible with Apple’s 2nd Generation and beyond iPod Touch, 3rd Generation and beyond iPod Shuffle, 4th and beyond Generation iPod Nano, 120GB iPod Classic, as well as all iPads and iPhone 3GS and later versions (ensure the software of the iDevice is up to date).
The K3003/K3003i is supplied in a cigar box-sized multi-layer case. The top layer contains the headphones, the leather travel case, the filter modules and the serial number of the headphones. The second layer holds the audio adapter mini-jack socket, the in-flight adaptor, a box of ear sleeves and the manual. The travel case is designed to wrap the earphone cable without tangling – AKG studied portable use and found many people wind the earphone cable around the device when not in use, which can lay the minijack open to damage; by supplying a travel case, the user is more likely to wind the cable around this than the portable device (in theory) and thereby lengthen the mean time between repair of the K3003.
A conventional three-way loudspeaker generally has a significant advantage over loudspeakers with just a woofer and a tweeter. That middle-range loudspeaker drive unit covers the part where most music (and, for that matter, voices) happens. This is not something that is normally a function of an in-ear device, because of the lack of space in the ear itself, but the results are exceptional, at least if the K3003 is indicative of the breed.
The K3003 works from the midrange out. The clarity of the midrange is exceptional. Not just exceptional for an IEM… just exceptional, in the way something like a Stax is exceptional. There is a level of insight into the midrange that gets into the back-story of the music playing. This can be a double-edged sword; listening deep into the mix sometimes reveals details in the recording that usually remain buried, and some of them should stay that way.
That midband clarity extends out to the treble and bass, but where this works so well is the lucid way sounds appear coherent. A musical instrument extends out of that midrange without changing tonality or character. This is more a property of planar magnetic or electrostatic headphones rather than IEMs, so this is a true indicator of quality. It’s also makes voices sound uncannily accurate, although female voices are very slightly less distinct than male voices.
There’s one mild downside to the whole three-way speaker system. Because the bass unit is effectively outside the ear, the isolation properties of the K3003 are at best fair. The Tube has the oldest sections of underground railway in the world… and as a consequence it’s also one of the noisiest. Travelling around that service is a major test of an IEM’s isolation. The K3003 managed to keep a lot of the regular mid-band rumble and clanking at bay, but the top end screech of metal-on-metal between Edgware Road and Paddington stations and the general bass thump-thump-thump (admittedly hard to cut) have been better attenuated with deeper-seated in-canal IEMs.
All of this is with the Reference filter in place. Swapping out for the bass boost (really a mid-treble cut) does give the impression of deeper bass… but it is an impression. Ditto the treble boost, in reverse. I significantly prefer the Reference filter because it made the vocals sound ‘right’, although the boost filters are significantly less heavy-handed than heavy-handed tone-shaping from a portable source. With the treble-boost filter in place, the K3003 still delivered good and neutral bass. I found the treble boost lifted the midrange and treble, but not the high treble. If anything, it seemed to make the treble even more ‘pure’ sounding than the Reference, although the Reference is the better balanced sound overall. Meanwhile, the bass boost makes the K3003 more in line with a lot of popular IEMs and headphones; no, it’s not a Beats-beater and doesn’t turn fey folk into deep dubstep, but it gives the K3003 a brooding, big bass sound.
Comparing the snarling Nick Cave vocals on the first and eponymous Grinderman album [Mute, CD] with Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal on "Teardrop" from Massive Attack’s Mezzanine [Virgin, CD] is fascinating. Cave’s primal growl is surprisingly articulate, his diction bringing out the vitriol of the lyrics and that is presented perfectly here. Meanwhile, Fraser’s almost fey breathy vocals are harder to resolve under any circumstance (the lyrics are ‘poetic’ to the point of almost being word salad) but the K3003 does better than most. Nevertheless, the IEM does seem to mildly accent the breathy part of her voice… perhaps the nearest this gets to deviating from absolute fidelity.
The bass boost filter brings out some of the dark, brooding power of music, while the treble boost filter helped bring voices up out of the mix. On balance though, I still prefer the Reference.
Expensive? Of course, but the K3003/3003i does make a good argument for being worth every penny. They are phenomenally well made, deliver outstanding sound without being demanding of either source material or player, and bespeak of understated luxury. For the person who understands the best of engineering is reassuringly expensive, this fits the bill perfectly. Unless you are in the habit of carrying round a pair of big Stax headphones with your iPod, this will redefine the sound of your system.
AKG K3003i in-ear monitor/headset
Frequency Response: 10Hz – 30 kHz
Drivers: 40mm Mylar/titanium diaphragm drivers
Sensitivity: 125 dB
Impedance: 8 Ohms
Max. Input Power: 15mW
Cable Length: 1.2m
Weight: 10 grams, without cable
Warranty: Two years, parts and labour
Manufactured by: AKG Acoustics GmbH
Distributed by: Harman Consumer UK
Tel: +44(0)1707 278100