AKG K-3003 comparative review
The AKG 3003 stands as one of the most expensive Universal IEM’s available and has therefore been the target of no little derision in some circles. Why spend $1300 on a Universal when you can get a Custom, many sniff. Well, there is nothing in a Custom that a priori guaranties better sound, just like in a Universal the skill of the designer and the quality of ingredients are the determining factors. Customs, at least for now, are not for me.
I have a reasonable assortment of good quality Universal IEM’s including the Sony MDR-EX1000, the ER4-P, the CK-10, the EQ-7, Final Heaven S (FI-BA-SB) and Final FI-DC1601SB and have owned IE-8, Shure 530, MDR-EX600. I have also heard but not owned the JH-3A and JH-13 universals. I have also owned some high end full size phones such as the HD-800, Stax Lambda Pro’s, K-1000, Sony CD-3000 (I call them R-10 Juniors) AKG-701 and various others and have heard Sony R-10’s extensively (having a month loan a number of years ago) and many others over the years just to give some context.
Obviously, for the money asked, the 3003 must perform at the top levels, at least of IEM’s. So let’s investigate. I used as comparisons in the listening tests the Sony MDR-1000 and Final DC1601 as these are, in my view, the best overall of what I have.
British Band Classics – Mercury Living Presence – Fennell, ESWE
EX-1000 – Decent presentation, noticeable upper mid emphasis and a bit bright at the top. Typical IEM soundstage.
DC1601 – Blunted at extreme top with noticeable midrange emphasis. Less flat in response, but more dynamic and open with a soundstage presentation more “out of the head” than the Sony’s. Handles dynamic peaks significantly better. A bit less low bass, but a bit better midbass.
K-3003 – Best detail with less of the 1000’s treble peak but without the top end dullness of the Final’s. Better overall foundation in the bass and more clear and open. Dynamics at least as good as the Final’s. Best at low level info and holds together best at the dynamic peaks
Farewell, Farewell – Fairport Convention
EX-1000 – More very high treble, but a bit recessed on Sandy Denny’s vocals. Bass OK. Lack of separation of instruments (at least in comparison to the others tested).
DC1601 – A bit more recessed vocal and bit rougher sounding on the voice (only a little). Drums not bad, good over all detail (especially considering the somewhat subdued treble).
K-3003 – Beautiful vocal, very ethereal, typical of Denny’s voice. Wonderful detail, very clear and open with a better musical foundation provided by the bass without being overblown or shadowing the rest of the spectrum in any way. Very impressive.
Beethoven Piano Sonata #8 – Moravec – VAI music
EX-1000 – A bit “tinkly” in treble. Well balanced overall, but not as pure sounding on the notes and a bit of blurring in fast passages.
DC1601 – Treble recess more noticeable here and the less flat overall response is more noticeable on the solo piano. But the notes are well separated and loud passages have more power and impact than the Sony. Less accurate, but more exciting.
K-3003 – Best dynamics, and best balanced sound. Piano sounds very coherent through its range and excellently dynamic. Hall sound comes through best of all. Personal note, I only listened through this piece halfway to save time between IEM changes, I didn’t want to stop listening to this one when I reached that point!
Search and Destroy – The Stooges
EX-1000 – A bit acid-y sounding on guitar and vocal peaks, did OK overall on this less than subtle, compressed recording.
DC1601 – Focus on mids and recessed treble actually beneficial on this recording. But a bit of shortfall on the voice. Handles the louder level better than the 1000.
K-3003 – Better balance allowed this admittedly mediocre recording to make its best impression. Easier to hear what details are there in the mix. Best balance of excitement and tonal balance.
Bizet – Carmen Fantasy – Ricci – Gamba – LSO
EX-1000 – A nice match for this recording overall. Violin almost over the top, but not quite.
DC1601 – Bigger orchestral soundstage than the EX-1000. The somewhat lackluster treble detracts a bit but the orchestral power comes through better.
K-3003 – Best, most atmospheric and balanced presentation with good orchestral size and spread. Only IEM that I noticed London’s subway system rumbling in the background at the end of the introduction. But still no bass bloat.
The EX-1000 is an excellent product in the top rank of “reasonably” priced Universal IEM’s on the market, but I must admit that the AKG 3003 outpoints it on almost all counts. Overall, it reminds me a bit of a Sennheiser HD-800 with more bass foundation and a bit less treble peaks but a smaller soundstage and a bit less ability to stay composed on absolutely loud peaks. This strikes me as quite exemplary performance for a Universal IEM or portable headphone. I could understand some who are very sensitive to treble wishing they were toned down just a bit, however. I also think there is a bit of a midrange recess, but I think that is appropriate for the close-up perspective that tends to come with the IEM’s territory!
My short exposure to the Universal versions of the JH-3A and the JH-13 lead me to believe the AKG is at least at that level. Would be nice to find out, for sure. But I don’t dig customs, man.
Is the K3003 worth the not inconsiderable price? If you want top rank performance and can reasonably swing the money without too much pain, I say yes!