AKG’s latest flagship headphone, the K3003, clearly sets a new standard in ultimate headphone listening experience. Launched at IFA 2011, AKG describes the K3003 as the world’s smallest true three-way reference-quality in-ear headphones. It’s really an absolutely astounding headphone, not least because of its price tag, at $1599, which will almost certainly be out of reach of most except the most discerning music listeners who are willing to pay for premium quality. The K3003 has quickly become a much talked about headphone in high-end audiophile circles.
I’ve been very excited to review the K3003. I shared my first impressions much earlier on, but subsequently decided to review the Q350, K518LE, and Q460 first, saving the flagship K3003 for the last. If your experiences with headphones have been limited to the free earbuds included with your mobile phone, music player or other mobile gadget, be prepared to be totally awed. You’ve probably never heard music so real, so present, so engaging, so pure.
The K3003 is packaged inside a premium gray box which features a magnetic closure on the lid. Nothing fancy, just simple and functional. Open the box, remove the cleaning cloth, and the exquisite gems are revealed.
In the box, apart from the K3003 itself, there is also a premium genuine leather carrying pouch, two pairs of acoustic filters (in addition to the pair already on the K3003), 6 pairs of ear sleeves (2 pairs each for small, medium and large sizes), a flight adapter, and a TRRS-to-TRS audio adapter cable.
The K3003 is individually handmade, and each one bears a serial number. The brushed stainless steel shells are chiselled out of a single block of stainless steel metal. The skin of the cables from the headphones leading down to the Y-junction are made from a silicone material. The cables from the Y-junction to the 3.5 mm plug are covered in a fabric material.
The iPhone-compatible inline mic and remote are found down the right-side earpiece. It is steel-skinned, and together with the similar skinned Y-junction and stainless steel plug, complete the exquisite bling-bling look of the K3003.
The leather carrying pouch is a nice touch. There are cutouts to hold the K3003 and the flight adapter, and the cables of the K3003 can be wound around the edge of the case. It provides the necessary protection for a gadget as prized as the K3003.
Comfort and Fit
The K3003 is very small. At 10 g, it is also very light, considering that the shell is made out of stainless steel. Not aluminum, mind you, but stainless steel. The material and manufacturing method gives it a very robust and solid feel. Being both small and light means that the K3003 fits into your ear almost as if it wasn’t even there.
As an in-ear headphone, the K3003, with the attached ear sleeves, fit directly into your ear canals. Earbud headphones just sit in your outer ear. In-ear headphones go into your ear canals, while the sleeves provide the seal and isolation between the hard parts of the headphone itself and the walls of your ear canal. The seal is important because it blocks out external noises so that you can hear your pure music without distraction from unwanted sounds. The sound isolation also means you don’t have to push up your music volume to overcome the external noises, ultimately saving your own ears from damage.
The sound isolation on the K3003, however, was not superb. Sure, it did mute out external sounds, just not as much as I’d have expected.
The ear sleeves are made from hypoallergenic latex-free materials. They are available in three sizes to so that you can choose the best fit for your ears. I would personally have preferred Comply-type foams, and the good news is that you can buy the T-400 or TX-400 foams for the K3003 as well. I tried those on too, like you see below.
The K3003 is easy to fit on. With the silicone sleeves, you just push the headphones into your ears. No need to fiddle around. Since the cables are designed to run straight down (as opposed to over your ears), there’s no inconvenience to position the cables.
The cable length, at 1.2 m, is what I’d consider to be just right to connect the K3003 to a gadget in your pant’s pocket. The cable is somewhat free from microphonics, and it is largely tangle-free. Unfortunately, the cable is not replaceable. This is always a concern with expensive headphones.
I’m quite particular about comfort and fit. But ultimately, how good the comfort and fit becomes completely irrelevant if a pair of headphones cannot deliver quality sound. I’m pleased to say that the K3003 does not disappoint.
First, a few words on the technical aspects. The K3003 is a three-way three driver headphone. One dynamic driver delivers the bass frequencies, two balanced armature drivers deliver each of the mid and high frequencies. This hybrid driver design draws on the best qualities of dynamic and balanced armature drivers to deliver the reference quality sound of the K3003.
To suit individual preferences, because everyone is different, the K3003 has three types of acoustic filters. The standard reference filter gives you the most natural sounds. The other two filters are the bass-boost and high-boost filters.
So, finally, what about sound quality?
The thing that hits me immediately is the immense clarity and detail in the mid and high frequencies. When you play your favourite music, the K3003 could almost review new parts that you’ve not heard before.
I was originally not terribly impressed with the bass performance of the K3003. I had, at that time, been driving the K3003 from a Cowon J3. The bass extension was clearly evident, but there just wasn’t enough punch. It seemed like the K3003 lost steam going down to the lowest frequencies.
Later, I paired the K3003 with the Fiio E10 DAC/amplifier, and the sound was quite noticeably improved. I’m quite surprised, because the K3003 isn’t, at least according to the specifications, supposed to be difficult to drive. So going on forward with the E10, I found the bass neither too tight nor boomy. It is about the right balance to suit most genres of music. I would still have preferred more punch, more tightness, and more articulation.
The mids and highs, are simply amazing in their clarity, detail and transparency. It’s almost like pure sweetness was pouring out of the K3003. Vocals come across with outstanding realism. While there is no discernable sibilance, I found the highs to be a little too bright.
The soundstage of the K3003 is decent. Not as good as I’d like to have, but certainly acceptable for an in-ear headphone.
I was curious if the bass boost filter would help with my preference for a punchier bass. It didn’t. All the bass boost filter did was to cloud the music. I’d say, just stick to the standard reference filter.
Is the K3003 worth its price? That’s not a simple question to answer. Is an Aston Martin worth its price? At $1599, the K3003 is going to be out of reach of some listeners. For others seeking the ultimate in listening experience, the K3003 is certainly a very worth consideration.
My review of the K3003 may have been a little more critical than average. That’s because of the price category that the K3003 has put itself in. You’d certainly expect a whole lot more from the K3003 than a pair of headphones that cost under $100.
With that in mind, I’d still say the K3003 is plenty good. Its sound is about the best you’d ever get from any pair of universal in-ear headphone. The overall sound quality is outstanding, and if you’re coming from free headphones or others that cost under $100, the K3003 will open your ears to the world of luxury listening and hear music from headphones like you’ve never heard before.
Words can only describe so much. The ultimate test is for you to listen to the headphones for yourself. You can audition the K3003 at Stereo, located at Plaza Singapura (#04-06) and Ion Orchard (B4-23/24). Technical specifications are available here.
- Overall astounding balanced sound
- Very detailed, very good clarity through the mids and highs
- Very good build
- Small, lightweight, easy to fit on
- Non-replaceable cable
- Sound isolation could be better
This post was originally written as part of my participation in Omy.sg’s K3003 / The Sound of Luxury blog. I’m now reposting some of those posts, with some minor edits, on my own blog.