Late in 2007 the venerable speaker manufacturer Klipsch entered the high-performance earbud fray, introducing three Custom-series in-ear headphones (the -1, -2, and -3, in ascending order of performance and price), plus the distinctive, top-of-the line Image earbuds (also reviewed in this survey). The Custom-3 is a two-way design featuring separate miniature woofers and tweeters, and it is targeted, Klipsch says, toward “critical listeners” and designed to provide “studio reference acoustic experiences.” Marketing hype? Not in this case: The Custom-3s are everything Klipsch says that they are.
Let me cut right to the chase; Klipsch’s Custom-3 is one of the most pure, transparent, open-voiced in-ear headphones I’ve ever heard. While the Custom-3 is not cheap, I can honestly say I’ve never heard anything cheaper that can equal it—or that even comes close. Tonal balance is nearly neutral, and the Custom-3 reproduces everything from the top to the bottom of the audio spectrum with vibrant tonal colors (though some might wish for just a bit more bass). This earbud’s best quality, though, is its uncanny clarity; whether listening to human or instrumental voices, the fundamentals and overtones of notes always seem to hang together with perfect coherency. Delicious.
To see what the Custom-3s could really do, I put on a challenging orchestral piece; namely, the Reiner/Chicago performance of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste [RCA/Living Stereo], which blends a veritable cornucopia of high and low-pitched percussion along with piano and a full complement of string instruments, creating a haunting, mysterious, angular composition. Frankly, most earbuds don’t have the chops to do this recording justice, but the Custom-3s waded right in and made the Bartok piece their own. They nailed everything from the lowest drumbeats on through to the at times fierce attack of the string section on up to the eerie and evocative shimmer of the celesta. The effect was not unlike being plugged directly into the mixing console—an experience only a handful of top-tier earbuds are capable of delivering.
The Custom-3 are quite light, but there earpiece design requires that you route earpiece cables up and over your ears to the rear, with cables running through a moldable “Flex Wire” tube that doubles as an customfit ear clip. Klipsch, to its credit, has figured out that our ear canals are not circular but rather oblong in crosssection, and accordingly the Custom-3s come with patented, soft-rubber eartips that are oval-shaped—not round. They feel great and generally seal very well. Even so, I have two minor quibbles about comfort and fit. First, it’s not always easy to shape the Custom-3 ear clip so that the eartips maintain a good seal; you’ll need to experiment to find a “just right” fit that works. Second, the textured fabric sheathes of the Custom-3 earbud cables can scrape on your skin, creating sandpaper- like noises.
The Custom-3s are wonderful, well-balanced earbuds that deliver serious high-end performance in every sense of that term. If $299 seems like crazy money to spend on in-ear headphones, consider this: you’d have to spend ten times that much (or maybe more) to find full-size speakers that sound this good.