We gasped at the price of the AKG K3003i headphones – and we’re no strangers to pricey hi-fi.
After all, can a pair of in-ear headphones ever justify a £1000 price tag? That’s the big question – and it’s a hard one to answer.
You see, it’s all about context, given that the K3003i’s in-ear design and relatively short cable strongly suggests these headphones are meant for use with portable devices.
Trouble is, even the best portable we’ve heard – Apple’s iPad 2 – isn’t good enough to show what these buds can do. A good-quality laptop is better, but not by that much.
Is it AKG’s fault that sources aren’t up to scratch yet? We’d say not: given a feed of suitable quality – we used our MacBook feeding Audiolab’s M-DAC, as well as our reference sources, Naim’s CDS3 player and NDX streamer (powered by 555PS power supplies) into Graham Slee’s Solo headphone amp – the results are stunning.
Sumptuous build quality
The K3003i is a three-way design. It uses a conventional dynamic driver for the bass and dual balanced armature drivers for the midrange and treble.
It’s all housed in a reassuringly weighty and immaculately finished brushed stainless steel casing, while the 1.2m cable’s fabric and silicon cover ensures low noise transmission and a handy resistance to tangling.
It’s always going to be hard for an in-ear design to look and feel luxurious whatever its price, but overall the K3003i manages very well.
The use of stainless steel for the enclosure, 3.5mm connecter and cable attached remote/microphone help enormously.
The performance of any in-ear design live or dies by the quality of the seal achieved between the ear buds and ear canal. AKG has supplied plenty of options, so it’s worth experimenting to get this just right.
You’ll know you've got the right fit when the bass sounds right.
The sound of the K3003I can be fine-tuned by means of interchangeable filters. These take the form of nicely machined caps that screw onto the ear pieces and mechanically filter certain parts of the frequency range.
There are three options: black is for bass boost, grey for reference sound – which has the flattest response – and white emphasises the treble.
Each does exactly as advertised. Unsurprisingly, we preferred the better balance of the grey option. The alternative on either side just went a little too far for our tastes.
Impressive weight and authority
And it's the bass that immadiately strikes you when all is well. It’s not just that the low frequencies are precise and articulate – such things are a given with decent in-ear designs – but the weight and authority really impress.
Play something with a lot of bass power such as Massive Attack’s Heligoland and these in-ears deliver it all with breathtaking power and weight.
It’s the kind of big, substantial presentation we rarely hear from headphones, let alone a pair of in-ears. And impressively, all that muscle is combined with subtlety.
Bass sounds have distinctive textures that don’t blur no matter how complex things get.
The news stays positive further up the frequency range, too. Kate Bush’s vocals on the 24-bit/96kHz version of 50 Words for Snow sound as intimate and communicative as we’ve heard them.
The AKG’s highest frequencies are as clear and well-defined as any rival, and will rip apart below-par recordings and sources alike, but sound wonderfully sumptuous if given half a chance.
The same applies to the K3003is as a whole. Feed them a top-quality signal and they’ll make it sound better than you ever thought possible. Do the opposite and you’ll wonder why you bothered.
The best we’ve ever heard
There’s always more to a luxury product such as this than just sonic performance, though. The K3003is come in a tasteful box with extras including a leather case, a steel-cased stereo-to-dual mono flight adaptor and an extensive variety of anti-allergenic latex-free buds.
We’d expect nothing less at this price level.We have absolutely no doubt that these AKGs are the best in-ear headphones we’ve ever heard.
At their best, they make our previous high-end champions, the £400 Grado GR10, sound crude and blurry – which by normal standards they certainly are not.
Use a source that does the AKGs proud and they’ll deliver a sound that’s at the cutting edge for headphones at this price level regardless of type. That’s one thing we never thought we’d be writing about a pair on in-ears.
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