Pros: Dynamics, low volume listening, timbre
Cons: price, cable above the Y split, price
Before jumping into the sound, I want to make a few comments on build and accessories, which I feel are important to discuss, due to how they may affect the sound and/or durability of the product.
Accessories include 3 pair of stock single flange tips that are very comfortable and well made with a good combination of thickness and flexibility. My only issue with them is that I require a bit deeper insertion due to the shape of the housings and tip length; I can’t quite reach optimal positioning. I had some extra Meelec triple flange (trips) tips lying around and these solved the fit issue. Achieving optimum fit smoothed the treble out, improving its tone and realism, while tightening up the low end a fair amount. Another benefit was the expansion of soundstage from left to right and improving imaging. I would like to see AKG offer some dual and triple flange tips of the same quality of their single flanges as the changes I heard in sound were significant for me.
Other accessories include screw on swappable filters (bass, treble and reference). The bass filter is basically useless. It really muddies up the sound, wrecks clarity and timbre and just plain sounds bad. The treble filter offers a very nice analytical sound that is very reminiscent of the Audio Technica CK10 and is overall more neutral. The reference filter, which is my preference, slightly pulls back on the treble presence, while adding a very satisfying bass presence. The build quality of the housings and filters are excellent and beautifully crafted. I love the smart screw-in mechanism of the filters. The housings are surprisingly small and tastefully minimalistic in overall design.
If there is anything to fault or complain about, it is the cable; in particularly the section of the cable above the Y split. On the microphone version, there are no strain reliefs around it and I find where the cable enters the strain reliefs on the housings concerning as well. Perhaps it is unfounded concern but these do appear to be weak points in an otherwise well built and very expensive, top of the line earphone. I think I would have preferred the upper portion of the cable to be covered in the same nylon feeling material of the bottom portion, allowing for more flexibility without kinking at strain points.
Also suspect is the winding case. While very attractive looking, I find winding the earphone in a large square shape to be impractical and creates odd memory to the cable; but more importantly the method for storing the housings in the case seems overly complicated and could lead to kinking or damaging the cable, if one is not very carful. An aftermarket case, like a Pelican, Otterbox or UE hard case is recommended.
Enough with the cosmetic and on with the sound.
Being that the K3003 is a hybrid design, coherency between the differing driver technologies seems to be one of the biggest concerns; so let me start by saying, to me, it is a non-issue. I think the driver technologies are blended very well and I did not find anything distracting or disjointed during my listening sessions. Instruments sounded smooth and cohesive from the bottom of the scale and up, contributing to excellent timbre. Coherency Schmoeherency. Just enjoy the music because it sounds damn good from the K3003.
Coherency Schmoeherency as performed by Van Halen.
The treble of the K3003 is simply fantastic, nicely weighted and has a very nice brassiness about it. It is highly reminiscent of the CK10 treble, albeit a slightly tamed down version of that treble. With the Meelec trips, I’ve had no issue with undo sibilance or issues with peaks or harshness. Just airy, brassy and extended goodness.
In comparison the Merlin and UM3X treble are much more subdued and laid back. The UM3X treble is not only more laid back but also sounds less realistic, with less detail retrieval than the K3003. Upon switching back to the UM3X, it’s takes a moment to readjust, making the UM3X seem a little too dark and smoothed over. The Merlin treble is also more laid back than the K3003 but is certainly crisper and more present than the UM3X. Both the Merlin and K3003 high end come across as highly detailed and resolving, especially when amplified with the cleaner signal of the Leckerton UHA-6s mk2, but over all I enjoy the treble presentation of the K3003 more. It’s the CK10 like brassiness and realism that won me over.
The midrange of the K3003 is slightly forward and aggressive with a flavor I would term as sweet. Vocals are very engaging; strings sound lifelike and distortion guitars have excellent bite. This energetic midrange presentation is right in my wheelhouse of preferences and is one of the most likeable traits of the K3003; in fact I think I’d call the K3003 mildly mid-centric.
In comparison to the UM3X, the K3003 displays much greater upper mid presence, which is what gives it the aggressive and sweet sound. The upper mid of the UM3X is actually scooped out, with more emphasis on the lower mid, giving it a more lush, euphonic or analogue sound. Both presentations are great but I’d say the balance of upper and lower mid presence gives the K3003 more versatility for a better all rounder and certainly gives it greater clarity.
On the other hand, the Merlin seems to split the difference between the mid presentation of the UM3X and K3003. In my Merlin thread, I compared the similarities between the RE262 mids and the Merlin. The K3003 mids are more aggressive and sweet sounding than the Merlin still, due to more upper mid presence. The Merlin gives a more emotional, intimate vocal by being more laid back than the K3003. I also find the midrange of the Merlin to be more resolving of micro-detail, especially with the Leckerton or Arrow 4g amps.
The bass of the K3003 can be summed up a number of ways - fun, satisfying, impactful, deep, textured and musical. If ultimate neutrality is your goal, you won’t find it with the dynamic bass of the K3003 and the reference filter, although its boost isn’t as large as the overwhelming majority of consumer oriented earphones. The amount of boost the K3003 offers is quite possibly the perfect amount for my preferences. It adds realistic and believable weight to strings and keys and I could not detect any issues with bleeding into the midrange. While certainly not as fast and as accurate as say, the CK10 bass, it is fast for dynamic driver bass and is tastefully colored and very lifelike.
In comparison to the UM3X and Merlin, the K3003 has less bass quantity, coming across as the most neutral of the three. The K3003 beats the UM3X in lower end extension and resolution, while the Merlin has more of its bass focused on deep/sub bass, so it gives the feeling of greater extension and rumble. With the Meelec trips, the tightness of the K3003 bass competes very well with the Merlin bass, both being some of the tighter dynamic driver bass I’ve heard.
With the stock tips, I thought the K3003 soundstage width was just average to perhaps slightly above average but with a spacious and airy presentation within that soundstage, displaying much better than average depth. With the Meelec trips, the soundstage is increased from left to right by a substantial margin to my ears. Comparatively the Merlin soundstage is still wider and deeper but a fair amount taller as well. The Merlin soundstage is the tallest I’ve heard to date, although with the Meelec trips, the K3003 soundstage is very satisfying.
Imaging and separation are as good as the best, or better than I’ve heard in most universals. Dynamics are also excellent and the K3003 makes a superb low volume listening experience, and is in fact the best I’ve heard yet for low volume. As mentioned earlier, timbre is very good - strings and keys sound lifelike and believable, with proper note weight; toms and snares snap to life; cymbals and rides have a natural brassiness. The K3003 is one of better phones for portraying instruments as you would hear them in person. I would love to be able to compare these to my previous timbre champs, the EX1000 and FX700. It seems to balance nicely between earphones that come across as too thick or too thin in note.
While I absolutely love the sound of the K3003, I do find the price point impractical for myself; but I am hoping AKG prices the K3003 more competitively in near future, as other companies release new hybrids and new flagships this winter. If so, I would definitely be very interested in obtaining my own set.
If I had to sum up my listening experience with the K3003, I would call it a CK10 with dynamic driver bass. It takes the same great, brassy treble of the CK10, tones it down just a bit; sweetens up the midrange and lifts it slightly; then adds a more subdued taste of the Merlin bass. The majority of the music I listen to is distortion guitar driven rock with a healthy does of acoustic/indie/singer-songwriter selections - and it is without reservation that I can say the AKG K3003 rocks; but it does so much more and truly sounds excellent with everything I send its way.
Big thanks to Bizkit!
Comparison with Tralucent 1+2 (9.25.13)
Ever since I first had the loaner K3003, I’ve really missed the treble timbre and liveliness that is somehow never harsh. Every iem I’ve owned, loaned or sampled has had the unenviable task of comparing itself to that memory.
The only real negative I have about the k3k is the cable. It doesn’t have much in the way, if any at all, for stress relief. That being said, there are quite a few owners who've had their sets for well over a year and haven't had cable issues, so I finally decided to put that concern behind me and give a second go with the k3k, this time as an owner.
The k3k is everything I remember and more. This time around, for whatever reason, I do not have any issues fitting them properly. No need for meelec trips, the stock tips are working perfectly. The housings are small enough to disappear in my ear, with over the ear fit, giving me a pleasing aesthetic, unlike the much larger TG334 or 1+2. (When do the beautiful ladies arrive?) Also, the k3k has to be the best low volume iem on the market, it’s simply fantastic at low volumes.
So I decided to do some comparisons with the 1+2, since its been mentioned they are fairly similar. While I found they are pretty similar in overall signature, I found the few db’s difference here and there cause quite a large difference in preference, perception and enjoyment. For my listing I used a combination of the Tera>QS stack and straight from the iPhone 5.
Instead of rewriting my notes in paragraph format, I’ll just re-paste them here:
- tiny housings
- more sub bass presence
- longer bass decay
- smoother treble while maintaining liveliness
- brassier treble tonality; impeccable timbre
- more vocal intimacy; better emotional connection
- airy soundstage
- thicker distortion guitar
- more acoustic guitar reverb
- overall thicker note weight
- XL housings
- leaner bass
- faster bass
- hotter / spicier and brighter treble
- more frequent sibilance
- vocals placed further back and can lack an emotional connection
- airier, even grander soundstage
- awesome distortion guitar bite
- more precise imaging
- pianos have great tonality
Both are seriously excellent iems and two of the best, as well as two of my favorite iems I’ve ever heard.