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.

Listening notes:

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.

Overall impressions.

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!


Amused to death with the Sony MDR EX-1000 IEM

When it comes to portable audio, it just doesn’t get much more portable than an IEM and a Ipod/Cowan/Sansa mp3 player. Even tethered to one of the small battery-powered headphone amps, we are talking about something that fits in a coat pocket. And if, like me, you commute 2 – 3 hours a day, anything that amuses during this “dead time” is a good thing.

Recent years have seen an explosion of new IEM’s upping the ante in sound quality (and price). So I decided to investigate what level of quality is attainable. I tried some of the low driver count Balanced Armature (BA) units such as the Etymotic Research ER-4 and a Shure 530 and Westone 3 and found them competent, but uninspiring.

So why not customs? To me, there is generally no way to hear them before you commit to them in full and suppressed resale value due to the need to re-shell (assuming the original manufacturer will even do this) if you decide to move on later. I also don’t like the idea of my ear being completely filled up and don’t think they would ultimately be comfortable (for me). So, at least for now, they are non-starters for me.

Hearing about the Sony EX-1000 with their large dynamic drivers made them a natural to test. The EX-1000 aren’t cheap, but not unreasonable, in the circa $400 street price range. They come nicely packed with a comprehensive assortment of tips, a shorter replacement cable and a nice leather carrying case. The magnesium driver housing is light but appears sturdy. There is a general sense of high quality and technology here with their 16mm drivers employing Neodymium magnets and Liquid Crystal Polymer Film diaphragms and their oxygen-free copper cables. I found them to be comfortable with the supplied ear-buds and easy to route for over ear cable routing.  

The first listening impression is of a vivid, clean sound. The bass, while not as strong as devoted “bass heads” may prefer, is noteworthy for its sophistication and subjective lack of distortion (for an IEM). Treble is extended and generally smooth with a bit extra on top which fortunately manifests itself less as brightness than an enhanced sense of clarity. Certainly, it’s not forgiving of bad recordings. The midrange is quite good. Clean, yet lively and reasonably faithful to the unique texture and color of the individual instruments. Detail is good without being forcefully thrust at the listener. You can really hear this as Howard Hanson takes you through the instrumentation of his composition “Merry Mount” (The Composer and His Orchestra, Mercury). The extremes of dynamics here are also tracked pretty well without much in the way of compression or information loss as things get busy.  

Beethoven’s Egmont Overture with Rene Leibowitz and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on an excellent Chesky release (originally a Kenneth Wilkenson recording) comes through both in its quiet moments and its riotous ending with its natural timbres (mostly) intact. The sound-field is excellent for an IEM, second in my experience only to the FAD 1610’s (review coming). The news is also good with popular music. Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” tricks and multitracks are there to be heard without fracturing the musical whole. Procol Harum’s atmospheric “A Salty Dog” is very well served here as well. The percussive new age-y sound of Conrad Praetzel’s “EnTrance” is evocative and enticing. For something a bit more hard-edged, the vocal and guitar pyrotechnics of Iggy and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” inspire excited air play-along (guitar or drum as you prefer), just as you would hope.  

Obviously, I like the EX-1000. They are one of the best overall IEM’s I have owned or heard in the moderate price range.  I used my Sansa Fuze, my Cowan combo and my home system with Schiit Asgard amp all to good effect. The better the signal fed, the better the results, but the EX-1000/Sansa Fuse system was very worthy for its small size and the Sansa’s cost effectiveness.

 Now, if you are a confirmed bass-head or find any sense of sibilance anathema, these may not be the phones for you. But for me, while they are certainly not perfect (the treble could be smoother yet and the sound-field even more expansive, etc.) they are quite good for their price class. And I still think there is something to be said for large dynamic IEM drivers…

Sennheiser HD-800

The Sennheiser HD-800 was probably one of the most anticipated headphones in recent years. The subject of intemperate hype and casual put-down even before it was “finally” released, it seems to be an attempt at a “statement” product, but does it make it?

Upon taking delivery of the HD-800, the box (nice, but not really sumptuous) was unpacked and the phones inspected. I found them to be reasonably well built and attractive, with a good quality cable and ¼ inch phone plug termination. They struck me as quite nice but not over-the-top. Those who expect Sony Qualia-like overbuild may be disappointed here (though they probably will not be disappointed by their considerably lower price). One slight complaint. Sennheiser could have provided a carrying bag. I know they are not really intended for portable use, but having something other than the gargantuan box to carry them around in would have been nice.

I find them comfortable to wear, about as good as anything I have owned. Glasses seem to be accommodated OK and isolation is also fine.

So down to some listening (after the phones were run-in for about 50 hours). The associated equipment for home listening was a Pioneer PD-D9 Elite SACD/CD player, Yamaha GT-2000 turntable with Koetsu black cartridge, a CAT SL-1 preamp and a Schiit Asgard Amp. Also employed was a homebrew “Gain clone” amp similar to the 47 labs units.

The first thing one usually notices in a headphone is the general balance. The HD-800 is balanced  with a reasonably deep but somewhat  lean bass and an extended treble. The sound field is wider than that of typical headphones and projects a front-of-head presentation rather than the typical “right between the ears” effect. While this is miles from what a competent loudspeaker system achieves spatially, it’s not bad for a pair of cans. The bass is noteworthy in its lack of excess and reasonable bass reach (the lowest organ pedals do not come through with the strength or impact of a good, truly full range speaker or a good set of subwoofers, in common with just about every other headphone). The mid-bass here is well balanced with no feeling of bloat. 

The treble is commendable for its purity, but it could be a bit more even. Some may find it balanced a bit hot overall. This is an area where controversy reigns. In the concert hall, there is a range of possible balances that correspond to different seating areas in the hall. A closer seat will have a higher percentage of direct sound and more treble, a more distant seat has a higher percentage of reflected sound and lower treble content. Any of these perspectives are fair game as to being considered natural, as they naturally occur in the hall. Personal preference prevails here just as it would if you were picking a seat for a concert, which is why the whole issue of treble balance is so problematical and controversial, both in phones and in loudspeakers. Personally, I am OK with the HD-800 treble, though it’s not quite my ideal.

About the midrange, less arguement should arise. This is the phones glory and why you pay the price of admission. Very low distortion and subjective intermodulation results in a quite low residual noise floor, even when things get busy. You hear more of the attack and delay of notes because of this and low level cues that are sometimes lost in the shuffle are there to be heard. But the detail is not flung at you, it’s just there to hear as part of the presentation or to be focused upon as you so chose.

So what about some musical examples? The Reference Recordings CD of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 (Schwartz/Istomin) is a bit of a test. It emphasizes clarity, a large sound field and a front of hall perspective and this is how the HD-800 presented it. The piano is, in a way, a percussion instrument, the HD-800 playback doesn’t round the treble off and it results in a brighter, more percussive sound here.

Mercury Living Presence recordings strived for good dynamic range and did not employ compression, using the technology of the day. This means that if the volume is adjusted to reasonably loud levels, tape hiss can be heard. The “Malaguena” cut off of “Hi Fi a la Espanola” (Fennell/Eastman-Rochester) is a good example. Some of the guitar solo parts are very quiet, close to the tape hiss floor. Again, the treble stops short of emphasizing the hiss unduly. Another aspect of the Merc’s is the upper treble peaks characteristic of the Telefunken U-47 microphones employed. The HD-800 does nothing to scotch this.

In Mercury’s “Composer and his Orchestra” (Hanson/ Eastman-Rochester), Howard Hanson’s commentary was recorded in the hall along with the orchestra and the hall reverberation on his voice comes through well, a testimony to the HD-800’s not masking low level details.

The RCA “Reiner Sound” (Reiner/Chicago) reading of “Isle of the Dead” captures the dark foreboding sound Rachmaninoff’s score calls for. Here the typically sweeter RCA strings are in full evidence.

Basically, the HD-800 does a reasonable job of standing back and letting the musicians/recording engineer call the shots. Fortunately, this does not come at cost to musicality, in most cases. An even-handed reproducer will tend to bring the best out of good recordings and not bring the worst out of mediocre recordings, but bad recordings are just bad recordings. To me, it makes no sense to cripple a systems performance to make bad recordings a little less irritating.

The HD-800 strikes me as having a certain “rightness”. Even though intellectually I know there are problems and flaws, they are good enough to lessen the idea of listening to recordings rather than music more than most, in my experience.

So at the end of the day, these are quite excellent phones. Are they the best phone for everyone? I think that is a product that will never be made. If you like a phone that shaves off the sometimes nasty edges music has and tames poor recordings or acts as impromptu “deesser”, look elsewhere. If you like a big bass to underline the beat of the music, these may not satisfy (though they should respond to reasonable EQ as the drivers seem to have plenty of dynamic range available). Under these conditions, their overall performance might not be enough to overcome your preferences.

And of course, there is the question of price. There are many excellent phones available in the $300 to $700 range that can serve as the centerpiece of a quite nice system. But none that I have heard can match the overall sound quality and beauty of the HD-800. To better them requires an equivalent or even higher financial commitment.

So, overall, the HD-800 lives up to much of the advance hype and represents one of the better options currently available on today’s market.