The Best Earphones You'll Hear...One Day

Earphones and in-ear monitors
The Best Earphones You'll Hear...One Day

It’s not often these days that we Brits get a chance to be ahead of the curve. But when it comes to what might just be some of the best– and, at £1,000, by far the most expensive – earphones on the planet, we have something to be a bit smug about. At least, for now. Sorry about that.

You see, AKG’s luxurious new K3003 three-way earphones are being rolled out slowly. London, like Paris, Milan and Moscow get the early bird treatment… but that means the chic stores of the rest of the world (including, I’m afraid, America) will have to wait a while. And they will be sold exclusively in high-end department stores like Harrods (this is like saying it will only be sold on Fifth Avenue). But, unless you are planning a trip to Europe, consider this a taster of what the best dressed ears will be wearing next year.

The K3003 features a main dynamic driver for the bass-mid frequencies, with a mid-treble unit and a high-frequency unit built on an armature just slightly off the acoustic center of the bass unit. This not only provides useful natural phase and time-alignment, but gives the earphone a frequency range of approximately 20Hz-22kHz with only a fraction of a decibel deviation from ruler flat right across the board. Those after something more than flat can replace the filter/protection for the driver housing, to give bass or treble ‘boosts’ (in fact, the bass boost filter attenuates high-frequencies and vice versa).

The ultra high-end stainless-steel earphones are completely handcrafted and each set is a 100% quality control test after final assembly. Which is why these must be the only earphone with its own serial number.

When you spend more than a thousand bucks on a set of earphones, the whole experience is important, right down to the presentation case. Cleverly though, AKG gave this some thought too; instead of mere ‘case candy’, the box includes the three filters, and a carry case within a case; the billfold-sized leather travel pack magnetically holds the earphones in place, and allows the user to wrap the fabric-coated no-tangle cables around the outside of the case (the company noted that people have a tendency of tightly wrapping their earphone cable around the portable player or smartphone, which is apparently not good for the life expectancy of the cable… by wrapping the earphone cable in a loop around the outside of the case, the chances of twisting or kinking the cable are minimized). It also provides a space for the two-pin in-flight connector. The usual trio of small, medium and large squidgy ear-buds are also supplied.

The press (both the massed style press and those of us with less need for hair products) had an all-too-brief listening session Wednesday Evening at the trendy W-hotel in the heart of London’s West End. The earphones were played initially through a Harman Kardon CD player into two of the excellent Schiit Audio tube headphone amps, but those of us with music-laden iPods, Blackberrys and iPhones had a chance to play some of our own music. The two sets of K3003 were both set with the neutral filter in place.

The earphones are sensitive enough to cope with the restricted output of European i-Products, although you’ll never reach hearing-threatening levels. But, you’ll likely never need such ear-splitting volume, because you’ll be blown away by the clarity and detail on offer. These are exceptionally revealing earphones; dripping with the trappings of luxury, yes, but that bling finish is built upon remarkable accuracy and precision.

In earphone terms, the use of a tiny three-way unit does make a lot of sense. It both extends the frequency response, making them sound both deeper and more controlled in the bass and more clean and ‘airy’ at the top. Gorillaz ‘Feel Good Inc’ really brought that home, with both the bass line powerful with a lot of ‘grip’ and yet Damon Albarn’s whiny intonation beautifully resolved. An antique recording of Segovia playing Bach brushed past the years and focused on the music, which is high praise indeed, because many headphones and IEMs seem intent on highlighting the age of the recording by making it sound too rounded. The mid-band clarity helps bring this recording out.

From a conventional hi-fi perspective, just a minute or so with these earbuds in place is an almost Damascene event. You listen, listen a bit deeper and then start to wonder just how much you’d have to spend on electronics and loudspeakers to get close to that level of performance. It’s the bass in particular that strikes you, although it (of course) lacks the proprioceptive body shaking feel that you can only get from big drivers pumping air, the precision and control of the bass is something that you would struggle to replicate elsewhere.

A ‘civilian’ (a journo from the style section of a business magazine) was perturbed by the high-price of the K3003, but thinking it from a high-end perspective, £1,000 doesn’t buy you a lot of audio these days and this is Magico-grade sound without the Magico-grade price tag.

In fact, the only real limit to the K3003 is that it could well be so revealing that it will highlight the shortcomings of the source material. A diet of signal compressed, loud and dynamically compromised tracks, especially if heavy-handedly data compressed, will not be give a soft landing here.

I must admit to walking into this with some trepidation. Were these expensive earphones for the sake of being expensive or for the sake of being the best earphones money could buy. Especially given AKG has a powerful reputation in pro audio circles, if the K3003 were simply an exercise in extravagance, it could undermine a great deal of goodwill in audiophile circles. I needn’t have worried; even after only a few minutes in-ear, it’s clear these are true state-of-the-art stuff. My usual Sennhesiser IEMs sounded a lot smaller and inaccurate after the event.

I’m hoping to get a set of K3003 soon for closer investigation. They have a world-class price tag, and could well have a world-class performance too. They just need to be available around the world. Perhaps soon…

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