So one day Wing (the intrepid owner of Minidisc) mentions to me that we were going to get the full range of Empire Ears universal and custom IEMs into the store as an Australian exclusive. I had to admit, I had not heard of the company until now. Empire Ears is a US based IEM outfit making gear that is drumming up some rave reviews online. Well, the whole line-up of our demo units turned up in a beautiful wooden box, and we thought it would be a good idea to sit down and go through them all for a listen.
The Empire Ears Universal IEM range is split in two: the pure balanced-armature EP series (EVR, ESR, Phantom) and the hybrid BA / dynamic X series (Bravado, Vantage, Nemesis, Legend X).
All of these models boast Empire’s proprietary technology wizardry. Worth noting is the unique SynX crossover networks in each model. Empire Ears claims that their complex multi-way crossovers allow them to precisely send different frequencies to different drivers with minimal phase distortion. For instance, the flagship Legend X has a 10 way crossover for 7 drivers. I have never seen a multi-driver earphone where the crossover bands exceed the number of drivers, so this is quite interesting in and of itself. Empire also uses an Anti-Resonance Compound to coat the internal parts (crossovers, drivers, etc.) of each earphone, to suppress internal vibrations and resonances with mass damping. Each Empire IEM utilises proprietary drivers, including custom Knowles and Sonion balanced armatures and their own Weapon IX 9mm dynamic driver subwoofer in the X-series.
At a more basic level, all of Empire Ear’s IEMs have a similar construction. They have slightly translucent, black earpieces that are on the larger side, but all the models sit quite well in my ears. This surprising comfort seems to be because each earpiece, even the driver-packed flagships, are quite lightweight. Each model features 2-pin connections and high quality Effect Audio cables that look striking with their braided copper wiring. They come included with Final Audio silicone eartips, which are my personal favourite for the quality of the rubber and their comfort.
All of this would be for nought if the Empire line-up didn’t sound great. Comparing these IEMs has been a challenge, not in the least because comparing seven earphones is a bit of a undertaking. But there are definitely some standounds in the range for me, as well as some models that I didn’t like quite as much. Most of my listening was done on a Sony ZX300, with additional reference listening on the Astell&Kern SR15 and SE100. Here are my listening notes - and we’re curious to hear your impressions of them too.
Bravado - X Series (Hybrid) 2 Drivers, 4-way Crossover
As the lowest priced IEM in the line-up, the Bravado sets the tone for the X series with its deep bass response and textured mids. The W9 subwoofer is definitely making its presence felt in the Bravado in the way it reproduces tight sub-bass and rich mid-bass. Mids are detailed and have a nice texture to them, but they take a slight step back in the mix. There is also a distinctive lack of treble sparkle. If you want a warm, thick and fun / forgiving sound, the Bravado is your ticket. I love the punch of the Bravado, but find the top end a bit withdrawn.
EVR - EP Series (Balanced Armature) 3 Drivers, 3-way Crossover
The EVR has a classic balanced armature sound - very clean, fast, and precise. Some people have compared the EVR to the Etymotic house sound, and I can see where they are coming from - the EVR as a leaner sound similar to the Etymotic ER4XR, or the Audio Technica ATH-LS200iS. EVR stands for “Empire Vocal Reference”, and as that suggests, the EVR does place some emphasis on making vocals shine. The most distinctive aspect of the EVR’s sound is its upper mid forwardness, but with no accompanying unpleasant harshness in the treble. This puts it in the rare category of a bright earphone that doesn’t sound aggressive or metallic. Bass is not particularly strong on the EVR, but it is at least tight and fast. The EVR doesn’t have what I would say is the most natural timbre - it can sound almost honky - but it sounds more cohesive than the ER4XR and doesn’t have the brittle treble shimmer of the LS200iS. The EVR has a signature that I could easily listen to for hours with the right kind of music. It works particularly with female vocal range because of its well textured upper mids. This is one of my favourites in the line-up.
One thing to note is that the EVR is an extremely sensitive IEM that will pick up background hiss from many DAPs, perhaps even moreso than the CA Andromeda (a notorious hisser). We recommend using the ESR with a low-noise DAP like the Astell & Kern SR15, or coupled with something that will attenuate background hiss like the ifi IEMatch.
ESR - EP Series (Balanced Armature) 3 Drivers, 3-way Crossover
The ESR is very similar to the EVR, both in terms of sound and driver configuration. Overall though, the ESR is warmer and bassier - a more middle of the road sound with less upper mid brightness. As a result it sounds more natural than the EVR, but also less special. ESR stands for “Empire Studio Reference”, which explains its more balanced tuning. It shares the speed and precision of its sister earphone, so between the ESR and the EVR it really comes down to what kind of music you listen to and the kind of sound you prefer. The ESR seems to do better with modern studio recordings where the EVR can sound a bit too lean. I think the EVR sounds quite striking, but I think the ESR is the safer choice as an all-rounder.
Like the ESR, the EVR is an extremely sensitive IEM and will pick up a great deal of background hiss.
Vantage - X Series (Hybrid) 3 drivers, 5-way Crossover
The Vantage is the next step up in the X-Series lineup. It shares the Bravado’s treble roll off, but the lower midrange end gets denser and warmer. As a result the Vantage is overall a very dark sounding earphone. It’s too dark for my taste - the Vantage is my least favourite model in this lineup. But if you prefer a very dark, bassy sound or you are very sensitive to sibiliance, this could be a good choice.
Nemesis - X Series (Hybrid) 5 drivers, 8-way Crossover
The Nemesis is one of my favourites in the lineup. Get the richness and bass depth of the Vantage, but add some high frequency detail and texture, and you get the Nemesis - a combination which, in my humble opinion, is pretty darn great. This is definitely still a bassy sounding earphone - you can hear the twin W9 subwoofers flexing their muscle in this design - but everything is accompanied by a floaty, textured treble response. The soundstage on the Nemesis is spacious and precise. It excels at electronic music, and this is the product that starts to capture (spoiler alert) something of the Legend X at a lower price point. If you like your electronic music, the Nemesis is more friend than foe.
Phantom - EP Series (Balanced Armature) 5 Drivers, 5-way Crossover
The Phantom was the most challenging IEM for me to review in this line-up. It is quite a popular model, and we have had a few Phantom fans come into the store. For me though, the Phantom is been a mixed bag. I can definitely hear the speed, precision and excellent imaging that the Phantom presents. However I find the signature of the Phantom a little unusual. It presents a very intimate sound with a concentration in the lower mids as opposed to the bass emphasis X Series or the upper mid vocal fowardness of the EVR. The treble response is subdued. The result is a very dense, almost compressed sound. Also contributing to this is what I feel is un-evenness in the upper midrange, with some female vocals and string instruments sounding withdrawn. Overall the timbre of the vocals in the Phantom is not my cup of tea, as they do not sound natural to me.
I suspect that the Phantom is quite sensitive to output impedance. I find the mids on the Phantom slightly more pleasing on my Sony ZX300 than on an Astell & Kern SE100, which may be due to the few extra ohms of impedance on the ZX300 output. Unfortunately the Phantom picks up background hiss on the ZX300 so I hesitate to fully recommend this combination.
Forgive the pun, but I am haunted by the Phantom. I admire its technical qualities, but I’m not in love with the sound.
Legend X - X Series (Hybrid) 7 Drivers, 10-Way Crossover
The Legend X - the king of the hill, the flagship that somehow manages to incorporate an astounding array of drivers in a lightweight earpiece. After my mixed feelings with the Phantom, I am very happy to report that I love the Legend X. The Legend X is easily the most ‘fun’ sounding earphone I have heard in this price point. Empire Ears has combined a very strong, but very well controlled sub-bass response, with sparkly mid and treble detail, and yet there is none of the aggressive harshness or peaks that I have heard in other flagships at this level.
The Legend X, I should state clearly, is not going to be for people who are after a neutral sounding earphone. It’s quite coloured, in the same way that the Shure SE846 and 64 Audio Fourte are quite energetic and rich sounding as flagship earphones. At the same time I have never found the Legend X to be too ‘high energy’, perhaps because it has less forward mids than those two models. This IEM presents wonderful clarity in the treble, ear-punchingly slamming low frequency response, and a tremendously expansive soundstage, without ever sounding too forward, particularly in the upper-midrange response.
Like the Nemesis, the Legend X incorporates some ethereal, floaty high frequencies, except that now on the Legend X, these are better integrated and more natural. The Legend X gives a strong impression of high frequency information - almost like listening to a very bassy electrostatic. To me the treble of the Legend X is the special sauce which elevates it to something truly special on the top of the Empire Ears universal line-up.
I think that if one criticism can be levelled at the Legend X, it’s that the bass response can be overwhelming. This is understandable - the Legend X pushes a lot of decibels in the sub-bass region, and it can be an intense listen with electronic music where synthesisers push more wub-wub into the sub-100hz frequencies than would ever be produced by an acoustic instrument. However, to me, the bass on the Legend X is a joyful characteristic. It’s fun, doesn’t bleed into the mids, and leaves you feeling like you’re gone to a party where the host has an amazing subwoofer setup.
If you want a genuinely thrilling sounding high end IEM, to me this is one of my top recommendations. The Legend X makes me grin - it’s just that exuberant.
It’s been an interesting experience going through this line-up of IEMs. Surprisingly, I didn’t find a linear path through the line-up - I didn’t prefer the X Series models over the EP Series, and I didn’t always find that the models higher within the X or EP series preferable to the lower models. This is great news of the careful listener, as there is something for everyone in the whole range. You may find your match in the vibrant EVR, or the esoteric Phantom, or the party-loving Legend X. I would recommend popping into the store to have a listen to any of these models. We also offer the Custom versions of these IEMs, and work with Empire Ears to get an IEM tailored for you. We look forward to your own thoughts!