Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Klipsch Custom-3 IEM headphones review

Here it is, the final review in my journey through Klipsch's Custom series, and the last review of 2008. Perhaps next year I'll do another one (maybe Sennheiser's IE range? I'll go broke!). So anyway, the Custom-3 is Klipsch's top-end IEM in terms of SQ performance and the second most expensive after the Image X10. With a recommended retail price of US$199/£199 (the street price is a lot cheaper than that), the Custom-3's direct competitors includes Shure SE420, Sennheiser IE8, Denon C751, Sleek Audio SA6, Etymotic ER4P and Westone UM2 - all of which are well regarded and have received raved reviews.

Some boring technical specs:

Frequency response: 8Hz – 19kHz
Sensitivity: 115 dB SPL/mW (1mW)
Nominal impedance: 32 ohms
Crossover frequency: 1500 Hz
Tweeter: KG723
Woofer: KG731
Headphone weight: 13 grams
Bundled accessories: Large carrying case, 1/8" to 1/4" adaptor, airplane jack adaptor, two pairs of bi-flanged ear gels, three pairs of single-flanged ear gels, ear wax tip cleaning tool

Perhaps rather disappointingly, the Custom-3 shares the exact same physical and attractive triangular enclosure as its lower-end cousins. There is no removable cable system or additional use of premium material that reflects the premium cost. The only distinct difference is the colour scheme - that is of the traditional bronze Klipsch logo. It is personally my favourite colour scheme of the three Customs, as the bronze accent doesn't make it stand out as much as the other two, and also because the classic Klipsch logo is, well, classy. Regardless the built quality was excellent.

Again like the other two Customs, the enclosures are connected to 50" fabric cable which terminates to a gold plated right-angled 3.5mm plug. The fabric cable is both a joy and curse. It is sturdy, but is microphonic like hell. This can be fixed by running the cables through the back and tightening it with the adjuster, or getting a shirt clip. It also tangles easily, though untangling isn't a hellish experience as you would get on a low-end Sennheisers or Sonys. On the upside the Y-split is reinforced and seems to be able to withstand some abuse.

While the outside might look almost the same, the Custom-3 is an altogether different beast on the inside. Like the Custom-2, each speaker is powered by dual balanced armature drivers. However unlike the Custom-2, the Custom-3's armature drivers is a two-way design, meaning a dedicated woofer and a tweeter through a crossover system. This may seem insignificant in comparison to the Westone 3 with its three-way system - but then again it does not cost nearly as much. Still, all these are just bullshit if it doesn't perform. More doesn't always mean better just like the best shaving experience still comes from a good traditional cut throat.

With a low impedance of 32 ohms, the Custom-3 is relatively easy to drive using my Walkman S639. I can listen to it at a comfortable level and portable amp is needed to run this. It is a less sensitive headphone compared to the Custom-2 which exhibited a slight hiss during silent passages, where as on the Custom-3 it was very difficult to detect any - if at all. Compared to the fuller sounding Custom-2, the Custom-3 is noticeably more refined, analytical and tight. Personally I think it is less fun in comparison to the Custom-2.

One thing I noticed about the Custom-3 was how alike the sound is to the Custom-1 - with better defined and forwarded mids and overall brighter less aggressive with a slighter warmer sound signature. The top-end could have been better, but the clarity is still amazing and isn't fatiguing and does not suffer from sibilant. Sound stage wise it is similar to the two Customs - in that they deliver a more 'in-head' sound than you would get with a traditional headphone, though it is evidently more spacious than the other two. Another area where the Custom-3 really does improve upon was its performance in regards to instrumental separation.

The bass is defined and sharp, though the dedicated woofer does very little to increase the bass quantity. This is good as I am beginning to appreciate a more neutral less-bassy sound, though Jennifer did scoffed at it before throwing it back and immediately switching to her trusty Sennheiser CX 95. Regardless, bass response is tight and the quantity an improvement over the muddy low-end escaping the Custom-1. Listening to Master of Puppets on the Custom-3 revealed wonderfully textured bass lines by the late Cliff Burton. Overall I have to say that the Custom-3 is a well balanced IEM that performs well with many genres.

Like the Custom-1 and Custom-2, I found the Custom-3 to be extremely comfortable. Despite wearing glasses, the memory cable is unobtrusive. It is fatiguing and I can wear it for a couple of hours at a time. I can even sleep on the side with it, though I would not recommend doing so with such an expensive pair of headphones. It doesn't isolate as well and you can definitely hear people talking when the music is switched off, though once music is player you will be happy to read that ambient noise isn't that noticeable at a moderate volume level. Very little sound escapes the headphones, which is ideal when listening to music in a semi hostile environment like the London Underground.

As much as I love the Custom-3, I seriously can't recommend the headphones at the suggested retail price. Do not get me wrong the Custom-3 is a great IEM, the best I've ever owned, but for US$299/£199 I would expect a bit more frills - for example having the cables replaceable like the those on the cheaper Sleek Audio SA6. Microphonics is still an issue with the Custom series, though it does disappear if you run it through the back. And not everyone will appreciate the mandatory over the ear fit either. At least with an IEM like Sennheiser's IE8 you get a choice between over ear or traditional earbud (cord hanging down) fit.

Remember that the Custom-3 is an IEM geared towards audiophiles and musicians. It isn't as 'fun' or 'emotional' (though I have to street it isn't 'boring' either) like other consumer-orientated headphones like Klipsch's own Image X10 or Ultimate Ears Super.Fi series. The best thing to do would be to try to audition as many as possible. I really do love mine, and would heartily recommend it if you can find it was readily available within the US$200/£150 mark or it gets marked down like during that recent Klipsch sale.

+ wonderful SQ with great all around performance and tight bass response
+ unique stylish design
+ very comfortable with the right tip
+ fabric cable
- expensive RRP (street and online price is far cheaper)
- excess packaging (this issue is being addressed by Klipsch)
- cumbersome to put on and remove


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