Hey fellas, I've taken the time to compare these two IEM's of mine, once and for all, and have come to the conclusion that they are very very different sounding flagships. My review is entirely based off the performance of these earphones through an Iphone 5 with Accudio Pro player (which, I'm kind of ashamed to say, pairs better with both in-ears than with my HM-901 ). So if this upsets you... a lot... you should just skip the following text altogether. All songs tested are 24/192 khz. Reference filters used on both for the review (although I use the high treble boost with the SE846 more regularly).
First off, I'd like to say that with further listening, both earphones are slightly colored in opposite sides of the spectrum. The AKG has a closer sound to reference, but is still not quite reference grade. The Shure's are much more musical and thicker sounding, yet very fast and responsive nonetheless.
I will attempt to score certain traits of sound of each respective bud, I think it will help some people paint a basic idea on what the earphones would sound like.
Bass: When I got the AKG's about two months ago, I thought the bass was fantastic. I was coming from the RE272 though, and they are definitely a bit lean in the lower registers. I have always been interested in a neutral sound so to me, bass was not a deciding factor in sound. Well, things have changed, and if I compare the K3003's to the Shure's or my main headphones; they don't quite match the quality. The bass is near perfect in quantity and balance, however, it lacks some refinement and texture.
4 / 5
Midrange: If you like resolution and very fast recovery and speed, chances are you'll like the mids in the AKG. They are dry-ish and crispy when going forward towards the high mids. This makes them sound very transparent and ooze of detail. However, there is a slight crunch in the upper mids bordering the highs that can (but very rarely) be unpleasant depending on the material you are listening too. Unfortunately for that, I'd say the AKG's mids are overall less satisfactory than the Shure. 4.5 / 5
Treble: A lot of people have bashed the AKG for its treble, and I can understand why. However, I disagree with the AKG's being a peaky mess, my pair definitely sounds better than the pre 3000 S.N's; AKG definitely rectified some issues in tuning. Now is the treble perfect? Well, no, it's damn unforgiving and can be very unpleasant in some cases, akin to the HD800's. However, this is not a glaring flaw or weakness, but rather a huge plus in my opinion. You can definitely counter some of its treble energy with the proper equipment, but it will be a hassle for the majority of users. It is coherent, it is very very resolved... case in point, deal with it or skip on it. This is the make-it-or-break-it, the deal-breaker, the deciding factor or whatever you want to call it for this IEM. I'd give it anywhere between a 4 and a 4.5, so to make it simple... ~4.3 / 5
Timbre/ Realism: Well, I'll make it easy for some of you, the timbre of most instruments, and sense of realism loses out to the SE846. Everything sounds great and all, but there's that sense of dryness that is apparent with many instruments. The only times where the AKG excel over the Shure is with accoustic guitar and most stringed instruments in general. The AKG will also perform better in some cases with very high quality recordings and binaural recordings; but many people don't even have such high res music to take advantage of (luckily I do, but I don't base my listening on quality of recordings!). Nevertheless, the transparency makes these perform much better than many headphones/earphones on the market. 4 / 5
Soundstage: Are you a fan of the HD800? Well, the K3003's are the closest sounding IEM I've heard to them. I think these have the widest and highest soundstage of all universals I've tried. It's quite impressive how these can sound out of your head considering they're buds inside your ear. It's not necessarily the most realistic soundstage, but it's fun if you pay attention to detail and stereo effects. 4.5 / 5
Imaging: Imaging is great; instrument placement is pin-point in most cases. The big problem is that the vocals don't always get thrown in front, and sometimes feel like they're stuck in between your head. It's not annoying, but it definitely not the way you hear music in real life scenarios. 4 / 5
Speed: These earphones will stop on a dime. The drivers recover fast from impulse, which may be why they can sound a bit dry. But you know what, the faster sounding a transducer is, the more transparent it usually is, and this is the case here. 5 / 5
Dynamics: Transients of complex passages are never lagging, the drivers keep up with anything. If you're looking for very fine details and microdynamics, the AKG's will showcase them. The shimmer of bells, the sounds of water, animals and any obsolete nature related sound oozes with details you wouldn't regularly notice. Macrodynamics are also very impressive, but somewhat limited by what I feel is a cut-out low-end, which shrinks your dynamic range a small bit. A piano crescendo for example will always start off on a slow start, as if the drivers can't quite handle the quick transitioning of all frequencies in short time (literally a frequency sweep). 4.5 / 5
Build Quality: Man, everything is top notch and screams prestige from the precisely milled and crafted metal of the housings to the genuine leather case; but the darn cables are honestly an embarrassment. The cables are non-detachable, springy rubber from the Y-split up and not very supple. At least below the Y-split the cable is sheathed in fabric... The packaging is beautiful, the plaque with the adjustable filters (and the filters) are finely crafted and industrial. It's a real shame for the cables, but they do seem robust at least... and AKG is the first company to have made a really high end TOTL in ear, so they can be excused for opting to go with non-detachable for whatever reasons there may be (hardwired is definitely better is probably their mentality). At least they didn't do what Sennheiser did with the IE800's; a non detachable cable after their predecessor had one... boggles my mind. 4.5 / 5
Comfort: The ergonomics of the housing is great. A lot of people say it's rather large, but it fits snug and deep for me (I guess I have larger canals). I also wear them cable behind the ear usually, and find them to be an even better fit that way. Comfort is great, and I love the feeling of the cold metal on your skin when you first put them on . 4.5 / 5
Total Score (no correlation with previous traits): 92 / 100
Bass: When I first tried the 846, it was with electronic music (which is something I usually never do or really listen to); and boy was I kind of shocked... It was thunderous really, and too much for me too. Well, luckily this album was definitely an exception and not a great master; the AKG's sounded near perfect with it (Daft Punk's latest album). However, the bass performance of this earphone is fantastic. Trying various material with it really convinced me that Shure did a good job with the low-pass, even if bass is a bit accentuated. I realized that more bass is welcome when using IEM's for daily commute, and I think it's pretty much necessary. The bass on these don't bleed through the mids, and are tight and impactful. Very fun yet somewhat accurate.
4.5 / 5
Midrange: This is without a doubt the best frequency range of the SE846 in my opinion. It has a certain warmth to it with a perfect balance of smoothness and quickness. It's hard to say if it's "flat", but it's definitely very natural and very appealing as a whole to my ears. It just sounds natural; the best thing that can be said about sound, and something not many companies can accomplish. The way the FR has been tuned really helps bring out the vocals in front of you, as it should be. A pet peeve of mine with headphones/earphones is having the singer inside your head; it makes no sense and is incoherent. Shure did a good job here. 5 / 5
Treble: I never liked the SE535's, ever, at all. I found them boring and too smoothed out, and the treble just felt, err, sounded off to me. Well, the SE846 have somewhat proved that my ear can enjoy Shure's house sound for their IEM's, but I was still hoping for a bit better (I did not expect better though ). The highs are definitely subdued, similarly to the Audez'e house sound. But you know what; it works very well for a lot of people and a lot of recordings. People are universally more sensitive to highs, so cutting them back is never as noticeable as with other frequencies. Another thing, a lot of really hi-fidelity equipment and transducers are just too darned detailed! So, most people can appreciate a bit of a subdued treble, and Audez'e definitely proved that in my opinion. Just like the LCD3 though, the SE846 have a lot of detail, and hardly sacrifices any high frequency resolution per say, but it is a bit more in the background and doesn't jump in your face. I still think that the SE846 (and the LCD3 for that matter) need a tad bit more top-end sparkle in general; just a small touch, but it does make a significant difference. The treble isn't going to wow you on the SE846, but you will appreciate it as it will never be harsh or torture your eardrum on peaky passages. 4 / 5 (and ~4.3 with high boost).
Timbre/ Realism: The SE846 sound very natural, plain and simple. The timbre of any percussive instrument, be it animal skins or woods all the way to the metal crash of a cymbal just sounds right. The decay of sound is fantastic. As mentioned before, the midrange is almost perfect (I haven't heard better in in-ears, the TG334! comes close) and voices can be scarily real. 5 / 5
Soundstage: The soundstage on the SE846 is also great, and although not as large as the AKG, perception of depth is superior in this case. However, I'd put depth in imaging more than soundstaging, but it's worth a mention as the Shure's soundstage is more realistic with many genres. It feels more live whereas the AKG's are more like a studio recording with left/right emphasis. The AKG's will impressive more off the bat with the left right panning and especially if you have tunes that can showcase that, but it's kind of flat sounding, like a wall of sound is in front of you. The Shure's aren't a wall of sound, there's a sense of being surrounded. 4.5 / 5
Imaging: Wow! When I first listened to these IEM's, I was mostly impressed by how they image. Everything is tight and coherent, instruments are placed not only left and right, top and bottom, back and front; but also top, bottom, left and right corners (here, there and everywhere). The voices of the singer are generally in front of you (when the recording has been done right), but will be slightly shifted right or left depending on where the microphone was placed in relation to the scene (for live recordings); the Shure's seem to precisely transmit what the gear has recorded... if that means anything. It's impressive for an IEM, better than some flagship headphones out there which is sort of embarrassing. 5 / 5
Speed: They may not be as fast as the AKG, but most people won't even notice it because these are also very very fast. It's not electrostat level, but it does fare better than most flagship dynamic headphones and non TOTL planars in my opinion (don't get mad at me, it's nothing but the cold hard truth). ~4.7 / 5
Dynamics: I believe the overall dynamic range of the SE846 is slightly smaller than that of the AKG due to the super high frequencies being cut out; however, the SE846 drives with authority. The macrodynamics are more coherent than the AKG, where the same piano crescendo mentioned with the AKG will be spit out by the drivers using everything they've got and more. Any sudden time signature changes and complex passages in music are transitioned smoothly and with great coherency. Microdynamics are also fantastic, but not quite on the level of the K3003's. You will hear some very subtle nuances and textures like the decay of an archet's out of tune harmonies from an awkward strike on a cello's strings, or the sounds of a brush on a snare drum with different pressure being applied; but you won't hear the slight change of tone in the chirp of crickets in an ambient recordings like the AKG's do (yes, I'm serious). 4.3 / 5
Build Quality: I was sort of disappointed to hear that these are manufactured in China, but it turned out to be a very well made product. The mechanism for changing filters is top notch, and the metal nozzle is a huge welcome. The housing plastic seems robust too. You get a nice plastic case and a smaller leather one which is more practical than what comes with the AKG. The cable is very mediocre though, I can't believe they haven't changed the stiff plastic sheath or opt for different components such as silver... the cable is cheap here too, but at least it's robust. Shure is nice enough to throw in an extra cable, just because...! 4.3 / 5
Comfort: The Shure IEM's are the most comfortable I've had the pleasure to wear alongside my old RE-272, so I can't fault it really. The housing is more ergonmic than that of the SE535 to me, and honestly, much smaller than what I thought it would be. 5 / 5
Total Score (no correlation with previous traits): 95 / 100
To conclude all of this, I'd like to explain why the Shure SE846's are the winners for me in a few concrete points.
1. They're a better end product overall. The detachable cables being the biggest motivator for most to be willing to dish out a grand on earbuds. You get usable transport cases, a earphone that is less prone to kinks and cosmetic damages, more vast selection of tip options (not including aftermarket), and much much better isolation from noise. Comfort and hold is also superior.
2. They sound better with most genres of music and are an overall more realistic listening experience.
...And why would you want the AKG K3003?
1. You love detail and nuances; you're an analytical listener. You prefer a forward sounding in-ear.
2. You are capable of driving it to its maximum potential, with the proper gear and tuning it to your tastes (adding a bit of life )
3. You want a more casual (or lifestyle) product and not something that some may find goofy looking in your ear. You want something that has a microphone and soft cable.
Oh and just because I was bored...
Edited by dleblanc343 - 9/18/13 at 8:39am