Drop X Empire Ears Zeus IEM - This was a difficult review to put together.
This post will be about the Drop X Empire Ears Zeus IEM, but before getting to that, I wanted to share a story that explains why this IEM has been such a challenge for me to review. I also want to encourage you to read all of it because I feel that the caveats are important to properly understanding the conclusion.
At the moment the question of reviewer bias, affiliate link farming and sponsored opinions has been top of mind in the community, as is evidenced by this thread, where popular IEM reviewer Crinacle dons the content-cop hat once again to understandably call out a reviewer for a sponsored ad on social media that’s full of product links. For those unaware, many YouTube reviewers earn money by posting affiliate links (often through Amazon) to the products they review - and while this on its own doesn’t entail that the reviews are dishonest, many feel that monetary incentives where the reviewer gets a kickback on purchases, leads to reviewers giving products unwarranted favorable opinions. In this case, it should be mentioned that they’re Massdrop links, so the extent to which there’s a monetary incentive is unclear.
At this point I’m not ready to put a target on the backs of reviewers who do this, nor would I defend them. In general I think we should be providing information that’s as accurate as possible, correct mistakes when we make them, and eliminate biases where we find them. But I also think it’s best to let the content speak for itself, so maybe you can be the judge.
Why am I telling you any of this? Two reasons:
- I was also approached by Drop to review some of their products, one of which is the Zeus IEM - which we’ll get to.
- The reviewer in question who is currently being called out by a segment of the community has also evaluated the Zeus, and has given it possibly the most glowing review I’ve seen in this video here.
At this point I should mention that in my correspondence with Drop, I was not offered any kickbacks or profit sharing on anything from Drop, and my interactions with them have all be honest and above board. I don’t feel any pressure to give their products a positive review based on these interactions. In fact I was specifically asked to give my thoughts “positive or negative”. Moreover, I can’t speak to the relationships other reviewers have, but from my part Drop genuinely seem to be looking for and appreciate honest opinions. But here’s where things get difficult.
Regardless of Drop’s willingness to receive negative reviews, the spotlight that’s currently on those who might be biased or influenced by what they stand to gain by providing favorable opinions makes it challenging to participate in the same arena or review the same products. If the review turns out to be positive, it validates the opinions of those who participate in these kinds of practices, increasing credibility. If it’s negative, it looks like an effort to counteract potentially shady review practices. And none of this should matter.
The bottom line is that I’ve had to revisit this review several times, to try and come at it with fresh ears and a clear head. No community context nor market influence should impact my experience - at least in so far as it leads to a recommendation or not. So for this review I’m simply going to do my best at describing that experience, and what led me to my conclusions. Hopefully going forward this will be easier to do the first time around.
And speaking of framing effects, I was legitimately excited to review the Drop version of the Empire Ears Zeus in large part because of what some reviewers have been saying - in particular that one glowing review. Naturally people will start talking about a product like this and generating a buzz around it, touting it as a “flagship killer”. It’s a 14 BA driver universal IEM where the original product from Empire Ears was over $2000. This puts it in the same price bracket as some of the very best out there. Something from the top of the line category being sold at $1000 (now $750) would be groundbreaking, effectively doing to the high end IEM market what the Sennheiser HD6XX did to the mid-fi market. Suffice to say I had a certain hopeful expectation for this IEM based on the collective excitement.
My first impression after trying them out, however, was to my dismay the complete opposite. In fact I still have my notes from that day when I first tried them out. I wrote at the top of the page “this sounds like it was tuned by someone with severe hearing damage”. Calling it “treble murder” would be offensive to the Beyerdynamic DT-1990 Pro. While not exactly sibilant, the IEM was both harsh and compressed sounding for every genre of music I could throw at it, and somehow still overly bright and emphasized in the lower treble. Sure it was detailed, but snare drums in particular sounded truly horrible, like they were recorded through an old telephone. Cymbals sounded tonally unfocused and unnatural. Every piano note sounded more like toy keyboards than the Steinways those tracks were recorded on and any bass instrument was nonexistent or just flubbed along in the background.
It turns out that this isn’t actually the fault of the IEM itself and it’s more complicated than that, but that first impression left me seriously disillusioned. I immediately and perhaps incorrectly felt that one of two things were true. Either there’s something very wrong with me, or the glowing review I had seen of this IEM was somehow paid for or shilled to the benefit of the reviewer. Naturally, seeing the liberal use of affiliate links for other reviews made me jump to the latter conclusion. How could anyone think this is okay? Are we just outright lying to prospective buyers now? It made me angry, because this was a popular and well-received video, and my reaction was that it was effectively duping thousands of consumers, all to the reviewer’s monetary benefit.
It’s at this point that I have to introduce the very real primary caveat that I needed to remind myself of over the weeks of deliberating about this review. It’s something that we all need to take into consideration when providing opinions on headphones, and especially on IEMs, namely that we all have physically different ears - and I don’t want this to come off as a platitude or generic cop-out. I’ve increasingly become aware of how the following can seriously change the sound:
There are physiological differences to the ear canal that can completely change the resonance or canal gain factors for certain frequencies. This is also one of the reasons why measurement rigs like my current one (MiniDSP EARS) are particularly imprecise above 2khz, and should only be looked at for comparative purposes.
More importantly with IEMs, because the tips physically interact with one of these gain factors, the type of tips that get used and their interaction with the ear canal has the potential to dramatically impact the frequency response as heard by the individual. In particular, the biggest difference in my experience has been between 3khz and 5khz, where an elevation in this region can be heard as either perfectly normal or horribly annoying depending on the interaction of the ear canal and a given eartip.
Recognizing these considerations, I started swapping tips. The Zeus only comes with a number of Final Audio silicone tips, and after going through all of them to no improvement, I moved on to my Campfire Andromeda foam tips. This immediately improved the sound, and not even by a little bit. Why they chose to release this product without foam tips, or even with those Final Audio tips at all is truly baffling - and that’s not to say those tips aren’t potentially exceptional for other IEMs, only that their use on the Zeus and interaction with my ear canal in particular yields spectacularly awful results. After moving on to the foam tips I felt like I could finally review this product - and maybe that’s a bad thing! Maybe it should be based on only what’s included in the package. In any case, while the foam tips made the Zeus a lot better than that first impression, I also can’t say that it now matches what I saw from that other video.
The Drop X Empire Ears Zeus does certain things very well, but also certain things very poorly. It’s important to remember that due to the caveat mentioned above, the following evaluation of this IEM is how I experienced it, and that someone else’s experience when using it with the silicone tips might not be the same as mine due to having a differently shaped ear canal.
Fit, Form Factor & Build
For me, this is all excellent on the Zeus. I love the plastic-feeling material because I never worry that I’ll break it or scratch off some paint if I put it in a carrying pouch without some sort of divider like I do with certain other IEMs. The fit is also great for my ear, it’s decently light, and I don’t have any problems leaving them in for long periods of time. It also uses a 2-pin connector for the thankfully detachable cables. Lastly, I love the look and color. It’s simple, understated, but also aesthetically interesting with a bit of translucence when you take a closer look.
Before we get into the technicalities, it’s important to note that the Zeus is literally the most picky IEM I’ve ever used in my life when it comes to source pairing. It’s even more sensitive than the Andromeda. Just about every source has a tiny bit of hiss in the background (even with the Audioquest Dragonfly Cobalt, which is way too much power but at least it’s silent with the Andromeda). I tried it with the iDSD Micro BL, and while the ‘ultra’ mode for their IEMatch technology does get rid of the hiss, it seemed a bit impractical to carry with me. While the Zeus would be better served with a high end DAP (I’m currently using it with the iBasso DX220), I actually found myself compromising frequently by using the Radsone ES100 for its EQ ability. There’s still a bit of background hiss there but not too bad.
Detail Retrieval - 9/10
The detail retrieval on the Zeus is quite good - potentially ever so slightly better than on the Andromeda - for some of its frequencies. Midrange and treble detail is excellent, but the bass detail is rather poor. None of this should be surprising given that the Zeus uses 6 balanced armatures for the treble, and 6 for the mids, with only 2 for the bass. But importantly, one of the major drawbacks of BA drivers in general is that they don’t handle bass that well. Still, the bass is at least fairly clean, and there’s no bleeding into the midrange.
Speed & Dynamics - 8/10
Attack is excellent for the Zeus. It’s tight, punchy and well-controlled. I can’t give it a higher score than 8/10 though because the bass has very poor dynamics. There’s no intensity or impact to the bass whatsoever. Even after swapping tips, the bass is a dry lifeless thud - again perhaps another symptom of BAs in general, and it’s also forgivable because I find that IEMs in general don’t really have much for impact and intensity. There’s only so much you can do with the given space constraints, and the excursive ability of any driver is severely limited by such a small size.
Stage & Imaging - 8.5/10
The Zeus again performs well here, and I really have nothing to complain about, especially when comparing it to my Andromeda (it’s about the same). It has good separation qualities, the image is very even across the stage with no major gaps, and the images are structurally well-defined.
Timbre - 4/10
The Zeus severely suffers from the dreaded BA timbre - more so than many other BAs. I’m not personally all that bothered by the BA timbre on most IEMs that have it, for example I don’t mind it on the Campfire Andromeda or Noble Kaiser Encore, but on the Zeus it’s very noticeable. I’ve described this in the past as a kind of metallic smearing or straining effect and it affects every part of the frequency response on this IEM.
I mentioned earlier that I found the Zeus with the included Final Audio silicone tips particularly awful, and this is where I feel that most of the criticism of this IEM deserves to be focused on. Yes, the silicone tips improve the technicalities, but boy do they ever make things sound shrill, harsh, compressed and unnatural all at the same time. I find that for me this is often caused by a lower treble elevation, where you get the edges of tones for instruments that don’t normally come across as emphasized when listening to more neutral equipment - or better yet, listening to those instruments in real life. As a drummer, the Zeus with the silicone tips is wrong for just about every recording I’ve tried it with.
It’s also generally counter-clockwise tilted, meaning this is a bright IEM - and normally I’m not opposed to that. I’d like to think that maybe this kind of tuning would be good for some of my classical music, but even then it renders string instruments so unrealistically with a shrill edge to them that I can’t imagine anyone who has heard those instruments in real life thinks it sounds even a bit similar. On top of that, the BA timbre also has a negative impact on classical music in particular because acoustic instruments that are meant to be rendered in a natural manner are rendered very artificially.
It gets a 4/10 because its redeeming quality is that somehow in spite of all of this criticism, it’s not actually sibilant. The consonant range between 8-10khz isn’t oversharpened at all, so your “S” sounds and “F” sounds come across reasonably well. Actually, vocals in general on this IEM come across decently because of this as well. But just about everything else with these tips - for my ear canal - just doesn’t work.
Score with Final Audio silicone tips - 4/10
Now on to the foam tips. Immediately this sounds way more normal. It’s still bright, but it’s not compressed, shrill or harsh sounding. With the foam tips, this is the kind of tuning that emphasizes clarity in the upper midrange and lower treble, making it actually quite good for a lot of my jazz music. A lot of recordings that have a thicker and warmer tone to them are given a bit of energy, and I’m actually reminded somewhat of the HiFiMAN Sundara, which I also quite liked. There’s also ample ‘air’ extension in the treble, so it loses that somewhat compressed sound that I noticed with the silicone tips. My guess is that it was there, just for whatever reason it didn’t come across due to the interaction between those tips, the IEM and the ear canal.
The bass is also well extended, even if it’s a bit thin and weak - and again because of the general BA inability in the bass, it does still come across a bit lifeless. When I compare this tonality with that of the Andromeda, there is a bit more clarity for the Zeus in the upper midrange and lower treble, but it also sounds a bit less full. On the whole, it’s probably not a bad trade-off for ideal listening environments.
Score with foam tips - 8/10
Campfire Andromeda - In my mind this is a primary competitor to the Zeus at its original price. The Andromeda is just a bit more expensive, and in my opinion it’s still a safer buy. The tonality is on the whole much more agreeable and it doesn’t suffer the balanced armature timbre to the same degree as the Zeus. But, it should also be mentioned that the Zeus’ detail retrieval may actually be ever so slightly better than that of the Andromeda. So if that’s the sole priority, the Zeus does get my recommendation at it’s $750 price tag.
Audeze LCD-i3 - If the strange concept of an open-back IEM doesn’t immediately put you off, this may actually be a better buy. The technical performance for speed and dynamics is much better, and while the tonality also isn’t the most balanced, it’s one of the easiest to improve with Audeze’s Cipher DSP.
Campfire Solaris - The Solaris is much more expensive, but it also demonstrates that when you move away from BA drivers in the bass, you get something that has the potential to sound a lot more fun. The Solaris is way more natural for just about every part of the frequency range, and while it dramatically outperforms the Zeus in the bass, it also outperforms it in the treble. This is what good treble detail sounds like from a BA IEM.
64 Audio U12T - Also using multiple BAs, in my mind so far this is the best BA IEM I’ve heard. The U12T is twice the price of the Zeus so it’s unfair to compare them directly, but it goes to show that not all balanced armature drivers are created equally, and importantly that it’s not just about the amount of drivers you throw into an IEM that counts, since it has two fewer than what’s going on with the Zeus. Like the Solaris, the U12T dramatically outperforms the Zeus in the treble and the bass, sounding way more natural and it has better detail capability across the board.
Campfire Polaris V2 - Again using a dynamic driver for the bass, the Polaris V2 is a bass monster (monstrosity?) with a much more V-shaped sound. Those looking for a commuter IEM would probably prefer the Polaris V2 over the Zeus due to the bass emphasis, and being better for less than ideal listening environments. The midrange on the Zeus is so much more present, and personally I much prefer the Zeus for its clarity, detail ability, and overall tonality with the foam tips.
For those who may have a similarly-shaped ear canal to mine, the Drop X Empire Ears Zeus IEM is a highly detailed and technically capable IEM that suffers from very noticeable balanced armature timbre issues and a poor choice of included silicone tips. It’s not something I can recommend at the original asking price of $1000, but at $750 it’s a lot more palatable. No, it’s not a flagship killer by any means. But I actually find that with foam tips it does perform quite well for genres that benefit from a brighter tuning. It’s been a tricky product to review in the context of what is in my opinion questionable praise given to it, but if I look past all of the question marks and potential biases for or against a product like this, I have to admit that I do enjoy it for my jazz tracks, and I can actually see someone preferring the Zeus over the Campfire Andromeda if they’re not particularly sensitive to the BA timbre. So for that reason it gets my cautious recommendation - but only with foam tips.
Overall Score (foam tips) - 7.5/10
You can check out my video review here: