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Not all headphones are created equal. Some are designed as appalling bits of tat bundled with your phone that are akin to being whispered to by a laryngitis patient. Others, however, are built for the more discerning music fan, with accurate, distortion-free sound being the name of the game.
The AKG K3003s are in-ear headphones that reside in the latter camp. They offer a superbly balanced sound from a small, stylish and sturdy package.
They're available now from John Lewis, but will set you back the searingly expensive price of £1,000.
You didn't misread that. These in-ear headphones cost a grand. That's a whole lot of Creme Eggs. For that sort of cash, you'd be absolutely right to expect beautiful design matched with superb build quality.
Thankfully, the K3003s don't disappoint. Each earbud has been machined out of a single piece of stainless steel, which makes them considerably more sturdy than headphones made with plastic shells. There are no joins to come apart and there's no way they can be accidentally flattened if you tread on them -- £1,000 is a lot of money to lose to an errant foot.
Even the thinner stem that actually goes into your ear is totally rigid and we're pretty sure the only way to break it would be to run it over with a steamroller. AKG has evidently gone to a lot of effort in creating these and rightfully makes a song and dance about them on its website. It's comforting to know that your hefty £1,000 investment isn't flimsy enough to fall apart after a few months of use.
Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, but there's no denying that these things look great. The steel buds have been given a brushed finish and the AKG logo has been laser-etched onto the outside. They have an understated appearance -- especially compared to the aggressive stylings of the Atomic Floyd SuperDarts -- but look undeniably premium.
They would sit well in ears travelling in the business class section of a transatlantic flight, giving off an air of opulence without bragging about it. Shame really -- if we'd paid a grand for headphones we'd want everyone to know about it.
The metal may look great but the buds are pretty heavy. You'll need to make sure the gel tips are the right size to ensure a secure fit. Even then you won't want to go jogging with them. They're much more suited to a luxurious ride to work, courtesy of your well-spoken chauffeur.
The lower half of the cable is wrapped in fabric that makes it feel very strong. It also slides over itself very easily, which helps make it pretty tangle-free. If they do become knotted in your pockets, a few gentle tugs and they can be easily persuaded to come undone.
The fabric ends where it splits into two to go to your ears, so you're instead left with the more usual thin, rubber cabling. It doesn't feel any more flimsy than other headphones, but considering the whopping price tag, we'd have liked to have seen burlier cabling all the way up.
On the right channel cable is a three-button in-line remote made of more of that lovely brushed steel. The top and bottom control the volume and the central button pauses or skips tracks. Having those media controls right under your face can be extremely handy if you don't fancy fishing your phone out of your pocket to skip a track, but they only work with iPhones and some iPods. If you want to play with Spotify on your delicious new Samsung Galaxy Nexus, you're going to be disappointed.
The remote also doubles as a microphone, turning these pricey headphones into a similarly expensive hands-free headset. We took it for a walk around the roads of central London and found that it did a decent job of cancelling out the ambient noise of traffic and tourists. It's not perfect though, so expect to have to repeat yourself if a roaring truck or an ambulance passes by.
Being in-ear headphones, it's safe to assume that the K3003s' natural home is on the go, rather than at home in a comfy chair. As such, you're more likely to plug them into an iPhone running Spotify than a top-end amp and hi-fi system that's more usually the domain of thousand pound headphones.
We therefore tested them both in our lab playing lossless FLAC audio tracks from a PC and through a Fiio E7 headphone DAC, as well as playing MP3s at a variety of bit rates from an iPhone 4, while out and about.
Each steel earbud contains a dynamic driver as well as twin armature drivers. What this means is that each section of the sound spectrum is handled by different drivers. If the low, middle and high ends of the spectrum are produced independently, then the headphones can hopefully achieve a better-defined sound than those relying on one driver for everything.
It certainly worked here. The K3003s are, in a word, glorious. In our high-quality tests in the lab, the low-end sound was punchy and well defined, with an excellent level of warmth in the lower mid-tones. This was especially evident on Nero's track Doomsday, where the thumping kick drum and powerful basslines were almost enough to shake our bones to dust.
The advantage of the multiple drivers though is that the low end didn't come at the expense of the high end. The crack of the snare drum and shine of the cymbals in the beautifully-recorded track Watch Your Step by Dave Weckl was superb, and the warm, jazzy bass licks still hummed their way through without any trouble, resulting in an extremely pleasant, balanced sound.
The same was true when we played tunes from our iPhone on the go. Powerful and warm bass, stunning high end and a warm mid-range, created a deliciously smooth overall sound that wasn't 'too much' or 'too little' of anything. Vocals were well separated on acoustic tracks and orchestral pieces were extremely open and airy -- although these more mellow pieces were sometimes difficult to listen to in noisier outdoor environments.
While they're not active noise-cancelling headphones, the gel tips do provide a certain degree of passive isolation. The general hum of a bus will be drowned out at mid volumes, but the often deafening clatter of the London Underground was sometimes too much. The same would be true of most, if not all headphones.
To help you tailor the sound more to your needs, the K3003s come with replaceable filters that are designed to give more prominence to low, mid and high-end frequencies. These are tiny little things that screw into place underneath the gel tips, so you really won't want to mess about with them on the move. We didn't find much difference in sound quality between each filter, although the low-end one did make the sound slightly darker.
Although we're generally very pleased with the audio quality of the K3003s, it's somewhat difficult to see the point in buying them. If you want to spend a grand to get the best sound quality possible, you'd more likely go for cans such as Denon's AH-D7000s and a good DAC/amp that will let you enjoy flawless sound in your perfect home environment.
Listening on the go is most likely to involve playing music through phones that use perhaps decent, but not great audio components and lower quality tracks, which won't justify your £1,000 investment. The Shure SE535 in-ear headphones offer superb sound and are nearly half the price of the K3003s.
So why the extra money? The audio is undeniably awesome, but you're paying a hefty chunk of money for the design. It's also likely that some of that cash is a marketing ploy, working on the assumption that people will believe "if they cost £1,000, they must be worth £1,000". And many people will.
The AKG K3003s offer an attractive and sturdy design and a superbly balanced sound that few alternatives can rival. As headphones designed for music on the go, you're more likely to be listening to less-than-perfect MP3s from your phone, meaning your £1,000 investment isn't being put to great use. For that reason, it's very difficult to recommend these headphones.
If you want to enjoy pure audio nirvana at home, consider the Denon AH-D700s with a good headphone amp. If you crave spectacular sound for your commute, Shure's SE535s provide just that, and you'll be left with almost £500 spending money.