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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…