Empire Ears -Official thread

A place to discuss all things Empire Ears!

@Tom_Ato feel free to post here! As your reviews go live we can spin them off into individual threads for each unique IEM.

2 Likes

Time to take a good look / give a good listen to the second of Empire Ears 2021 collection that will go on sale soon.

Empire Ears BRAVADO MKII (2021) review

Intro

Empire Ears are opening 2021 with some new and exciting products. One of them is the BRAVADO MKII, the next iteration of their best-selling IEM. At a retail price of $799, it marks the starting point of their entire collection. This is a markup of $100 over its predecessor.

The reason why is quickly explained: While the original Bravado had 2 drivers to get the job done, the 2021 model is way more complex being a 4-driver tribrid design.

The BRAVADO MKII belongs to EE’s X Series which is mainly targeted at consumers rather than professionals. Those are covered by EE’s EP, or Empire Professional Series.

Specifications

4 Driver, Tribrid IEM Design:

  • Universal in-ear monitor
  • 1 Next Generation W9+ Subwoofer - Sub-Bass/Bass
  • 1 Proprietary Balanced Armature Driver - Mid
  • 2 Premium Electrostatic Drivers - High, Ultra High
  • 4-Way synX Crossover Network
  • EIVEC - Empire Intelligent Electrostatic Control Technology
  • A.R.C. Anti Resonance Compound Technology
  • Impedance: 4.0 Ohms @ 1kHz
  • Frequency Response: 5 Hz - 100kHz
  • Sensitivity: 99dB @ 1kHz, 1mW
  • Handcrafted Alpha-IV 26AWG UPOCC Copper Litz Cable

Disclaimer

My review consists solely of my own thoughts, opinions and impressions of the product. I paid for the tested product, it was not given for free. All pictures were taken by myself unless stated otherwise.

Review gear

  • Burson Audio Conductor 3X Reference (main testing source)
  • Cayin N8 DAP
  • Cayin N3pro
  • Empire Ears Alpha-IV cable (2.5mm balanced)
  • Satin Audio Medusa II cable (2.5mm balanced)

Music selection/Testing playlist

Voices, midrange, acoustic guitars etc.

Tenacious D - Tenacious D - Wonderboy
Marily Manson - The Pale Emperor - Day3
Chris Jones - Moonstruck
Sara K. - Hell or High Water - I Can’t Stand The Rain, Stars
Ana Tijoux - 1977 - Partir de Cero

Channel separation

Tenacious D - Tenacious D - Kielbasa
NIN - The Downward Spiral - Hurt
Johnny Cash - The Essential - Ring of Fire
Stephen Coleman - Westworld Season 2 Soundtrack - C.R.E.A.M.

Soundstage, treble, electric guitars etc.

Alice in Chains - MTV Unplugged - Rooster
Korn - MTV Unplugged - Freak on a Leash
Anneke van Giersbergen - Symphonized - Feel Alive
Howard Shore - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Blunt the Knives

Dynamics, bass, subbass

The Diary - The Gentle Storm - Endless Sea |Gentle Version|
Wardruna - Runaljod: Ragnarok - Tyr
Hans Zimmer - Man of Steel OST - Look to the Stars
Hans Zimmer - Pearl Harbor OST - Tennessee
Ice Cube - Raw Footage - Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It
Andreas Vollenweider - Vox - Enchanted Rocks

Packaging & Accessories

The packaging for all Empire Ears (EE) products is more or less the same which to me makes sense, because it shows consistency throughout their whole range. You get a very nicely designed white cardboard box with the Empire Ears Logo and the name or logo of your particular product. It’s not too big or small and radiates class and style. It consists of an outer “slider” cover and a sturdier inside box.

Once you open the magnetic flap of the box inside you find a compartment with a quick manual and a “thank you” card from EE congratulating you to your excellent purchase :wink: Underneath looms the IEM and cable ready for you to rip out and enjoy the music. A classy drawer underneath reveals an aluminum sheet containing various Final Audio silicon tips to choose from. The great thing here is that Empire Ears not only gives you the standard S, M and L sizes but XS, S, M, L and XL instead, which simply gives you a wider range of tips to match to your ears.

As my ear-canals are slightly different in size, it makes it easier for me to get a good fit. However, I would have wished for a selection of foam tips as I generally prefer foam over silicon. The included tips work well though.

Last but not least you get EE’s phantastic Pandora case, a black aluminum capsule to safely transport your precious in-ears. It’s built like the proverbial tank and is engraved with Empire’s logo and the name of your product.

Build quality & Fit

IEMs

The build quality of the BRAVADO MKII is excellent, just as it is with any of EE’s in-ears. I actually haven’t seen any difference in build quality from their entry- to top-level products to be honest. To me, that’s simply a sign that they make no compromise in quality no matter the price. I like that!

The new BRAVADO MKIIs are black with gold logo and some sparkling gold dots on the faceplates. The design update is rather subtle and that’s just fine. I have seen some early prototypes of the MKIIs with a very flashy, daring design that I did not like very much. Apparently I was not the only one and Empire Ears changed it for the final product. The BRAVADO MKIIs went through several iterations design- and soundwise as EE took the feedback of their alpha- / beta-testers to heart. To me personally, as a user experience designer, this is a philosophy that makes this company very sympathetic.

Fit and comfort, at least for my average sized ears is good with rather long nozzle enabling a good seal. Hence the IEMs do not sit flush in my ears but stand out a couple of millimeters, which is no problem for me.

Cable

EE are using a variation of Effect Audio’s Ares II which they call Alpha-IV or simply A4. You get to choose from 3.5mm single ended or 2.5mm balanced. I always go for balanced but that’s my personal preference. It’s a beautiful, classy and well made cable and I particularly like the sleek connectors and super small y-split. Yes, that cable looks gorgeous in my opinion.

What I don’t like as much is the rigidness of the cable. I have mentioned this several times in previous reviews as for me, flexibility, especially for an IEM cable, is an important factor of good usability. I clearly prefer softer, more flexible cables. However, cable noise is at an acceptable level / no issue. Soundwise I have no complaints whatsoever. It’s a good cable.

Sound

Now what can you expect soundwise from the BRAVADO MKII?

Overall tonality

I consider the overall tonality of the BRAVADO MKII on the warmer side with good impact and detail level. I think the goal here was to create an IEM that will play nice with most popular genres and give you some bang for the buck and bang you get for sure.

Treble

The dual electrostatic (e-stat) drivers deliver a slightly elevated but nicely detailed treble spectrum without being harsh or annoying. Strings and guitars sound like you expect them to, maybe sometimes just a little bit compressed and a tad artificial. But that’s really complaining at a very high niveau. There is enough sparkle and shine to make you happy and despite using 2 e-stat drivers, the overall treble presentation is rather tamed than overly pronounced. There are other IEMs that deliver more detail but at a much higher price.

An important factor here is the quality of the recording as the BRAVADO MKIIs are not very forgiving. Excellent recordings sound excellent, bad ones sound, well, as bad as they are. I did not notice any sibilance at all so you should be able to use them as your daily drivers without a problem.

Midrange

Voices, male and especially female ones are a bit pronounced and nicely rendered with a very slight artificiality in the high tones. The upper midrange, just like the treble, seems a bit elevated putting certain instruments and vocals in the foreground.
I suspect an overall w-shaped tuning here, but can’t confirm that with measurements.

Bass/Sub-bass

Once more the excellent “Weapon-9+” subwoofer is providing the necessary foundation for an overall engaging and pleasing sound.

I am listening to Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra and the sub-bass is providing the necessary warmth and depth to make those relaxed sessions a pleasure to listen to. Switching to Ice Cube’s “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do it.”, the BRAVADO MKIIs punch hard and deep so I can feel the baseline rather than just hear it.

The bass is not overblown but rendered with a certain level of control. Of course, it’s not as massive as with Legend X or as well controlled as on the Odin, but very very enjoyable.

Soundstage

The soundstage seems to me above average. Live recordings sound spacious and you will actually be able to enjoy the “live” experience on the BRAVADO MKIIs.
The stage appears more wide than deep. All in all pretty nice for the asking price.
I think I am starting to see that this universal IEM is quite universal in terms of music genres too.

Channel separation/Instrument separation

Channel separation is good, slightly above average. Instrument separation capabilities very much depend on the recording quality here. I stated before that the BRAVADO MKIIs playback will simply represent the recording be it good or bad. Nothing added, nothing taken away.

Neutrality

The BRAVADO MKIIs are once more not neutral sounding IEMs as is none of the X-Series products from Empire Ears - and that’s ok, that’s the idea: Get some emotions out of your music because listening to music is all about emotion. (At least for me)

Amplification/Matchability/Scalability

The BRAVADO MKIIs are a bit of a special case I think. Their performance very much varies with different sources and the recording quality. Also they scale well with the rest of the equipment. I dare say that, with the right source, they can punch way above their price point. So when you try them, make sure to try them with different sources if possible.

A very good match is the combination with my Burson desktop DAC/Amps which I mainly use for reviews as I consider them neutral and well balanced.

Cayin DAPs will get you more warmth and bass and seem to have a good synergy with the BRAVADO MKIIs. (And with most of the other EE IEMs I tested).
Treble is particularly smooth and detailed here as well. Going from N3pro to N8 shows how the BRAVADO MKII can scale. Color me impressed!

I did a little cable-rolling as well and switched from EE’s Alpha-IV cable to Satin Audio’s Medusa II (259,-$) mainly for usability reasons. It seems a little experimenting on this side could be rewarding too.

As of the time of writing this review, the BRAVADO MKIIs still have below 10 hours of usage, so I will give them a bit more time for either my ears to adjust and/or the IEMs to burn-in, however one might prefer to call it.

Comparisons

Shozy Black Hole ($799)

I am comparing those two for one reason only: the same price. In fact, those are so different that it’s hard for me to compare them at all, but here goes…

Tonality and sound signature could not be more different due to the very different designs: The BRAVADO MKIIs a 4-driver tribrid and the Black Hole (BH) a single dynamic driver (DD) with semi-open-back design. Both are excellent in what they deliver for the money and this one is purely about preference and maybe even the usage situation.

While the BRAVADO MKIIs sound like a very good IEM, the Black Hole sound a bit more like over-ear headphones. While the BRAVADO MKIIs isolate you from the outside world, the Black Hole lets sound from the outside through on purpose.

Treble is certainly more engaging on the BRAVADO MKIIs with their 2 e-stats per side whereas the single DD on the Black Hole delivers a more relaxed treble performance. That is not to say it is missing detail! Detail rendering on both IEMs is pretty much on the same level, just the tonality is a very different one.

Voices tend to sound more natural on the Black Hole whereas the BRAVADO MKIIs have more bass- and sub-bass impact. All in all the BRAVADO MKIIs provide a bit of a warmer sound vs. a more neutral one on the Black Hole. As I said, the overall very different sound signature is making them hard to compare.

Personally, I use both in-ears in different situations, depending on my mood and the use case (on the go vs. sitting at home, studio recordings vs. live recordings etc.)
So in the end, you will need to test and decide yourself, I can’t possibly make a decision here as both are very good options in their own right - one is not better than the other per se.

Verdict

I wish I had the original Bravado to compare to and see if/how EE have improved upon their best selling IEM. Unfortunately, I could not get my hands on one although I really tried. So I’m left with summing up my experience with the BRAVADO MKIIs.

From a technical standpoint, I think it’s impressive what Empire Ears have crammed in this IEM for the price. Yes, it’s 100$ more this time around, but there’s a lot more high end-tech in the BRAVADO MKIIs than was in their predecessor.

Fortunately, the technology goes to good use here making the BRAVADO MKIIs another price-/performance champion, just like its older sibling. You get a very good IEM with little limitations that has lots of potential to scale as you upgrade your gear along the way.

Pros

  • Warm, engaging sound with a lots of detail and good stage
  • Impactful but not overdone bass
  • Scales well with source and recording quality
  • Well made, attractive IEM and cable
  • Very good price-/performance ratio

Cons

  • Slightly artificial upper midrange and treble (still on a very high niveau)
  • Rigid cable
5 Likes

Empire Ears ESR MKII (2021)

Intro

Empire Ears (EE) are opening 2021 with some new and exciting products. One of them is the ESR MKII, the next iteration of their ESR (“Empire Studio Reference”) in-ear studio monitor. At a retail price of $1099, it sits somewhere in the middle of their studio-collection. This is a markup of $200 over its predecessor.

While the original ESR had 3 balanced armature drivers, the 2021 ESR MKII sports a 5-driver hybrid design including 3 balanced armature drivers and 2 electrostatic drivers. The ESR MKII belongs to EE’s EP Series which is mainly targeted at professionals like musicians and studio engineers.

Specifications

5 Driver, Hybrid IEM Design:

  • Universal in-ear monitor
  • 3 Proprietary Balanced Armature Drivers - Low, Mid, High
  • 2 Premium Electrostatic Drivers - Ultra High
  • 4-Way synX Crossover Network
  • EIVEC - Empire Intelligent Electrostatic Control Technology
  • A.R.C. Anti Resonance Compound Technology
  • Impedance: 3.9 Ohms @ 1kHz
  • Frequency Response: 10 Hz - 100kHz
  • Sensitivity: 111dB @ 1kHz, 1mW
  • Handcrafted Alpha-IV 26AWG UPOCC Copper Litz Cable

Disclaimer

My review consists solely of my own thoughts, opinions and impressions of the product. I paid for the tested product, it was not given for free. All pictures were taken by myself unless stated otherwise.

Review gear

  • Burson Audio Soloist 3XP / Composer 3XP combo (main testing source)
  • Cayin N8 DAP
  • Cayin N6 II DAP with E02 module
  • Empire Ears Alpha-IV cable (2.5mm balanced)

Music selection/Testing playlist

Voices, midrange, acoustic guitars etc.

Tenacious D - Tenacious D - Wonderboy
Marily Manson - The Pale Emperor - Day3
Chris Jones - Moonstruck
Sara K. - Hell or High Water - I Can’t Stand The Rain, Stars
Ana Tijoux - 1977 - Partir de Cero

Channel separation

Tenacious D - Tenacious D - Kielbasa
NIN - The Downward Spiral - Hurt
Johnny Cash - The Essential - Ring of Fire
Stephen Coleman - Westworld Season 2 Soundtrack - C.R.E.A.M.

Soundstage, treble, electric guitars etc.

Alice in Chains - MTV Unplugged - Rooster
Korn - MTV Unplugged - Freak on a Leash
Anneke van Giersbergen - Symphonized - Feel Alive
Howard Shore - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Blunt the Knives

Dynamics, bass, subbass

The Diary - The Gentle Storm - Endless Sea |Gentle Version|
Wardruna - Runaljod: Ragnarok - Tyr
Hans Zimmer - Man of Steel OST - Look to the Stars
Hans Zimmer - Pearl Harbor OST - Tennessee
Ice Cube - Raw Footage - Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It
Andreas Vollenweider - Vox - Enchanted Rocks

Packaging & Accessories

The packaging for all Empire Ears (EE) products is more or less the same which to me makes sense, because it shows consistency throughout their whole range.
You get a very nicely designed white cardboard box with the Empire Ears Logo and the name or logo of your particular product. It’s not too big or small and radiates class and style. It consists of an outer “slider” cover and a sturdier inside box.

Once you open the magnetic flap of the box inside you find a compartment with a quick manual and a “thank you” card from EE congratulating you to your excellent purchase :wink: Underneath looms the IEM and cable ready for you to rip out and enjoy the music. A classy drawer underneath reveals an aluminum sheet containing various Final Audio silicon tips to choose from. The great thing here is that Empire Ears not only gives you the standard S, M and L sizes but XS, S, M, L and XL instead, which simply gives you a wider range of tips to match to your ears.

As my ear-canals are slightly different in size, it makes it easier for me to get a good fit. However, I would have wished for a selection of foam tips as I generally prefer foam over silicon. The included tips work well though.

Last but not least you get EE’s phantastic Pandora case, a black aluminum capsule to safely transport your precious in-ears. It’s built like the proverbial tank and is engraved with Empire’s logo and the name of your product.

Build quality & Fit

IEMs

The build quality of the ESR MKII is excellent, just as it is with any of EE’s in-ears. I actually haven’t seen any difference in build quality from their entry- to top-level products to be honest. To me, that’s simply a sign that they make no compromise in quality no matter the price. I like that!

The new ESR MKIIs are black with brushed silver faceplate and silver logo which “hovers” above the brushed silver. The design is rather subtle and to me it looks really classy. Fit and comfort, at least for my average sized ears is good with a rather long nozzle enabling a good seal. Hence the IEMs do not sit flush in my ears but stand out a couple of millimeters, which is no problem for me.

Cable

EE are using a variation of Effect Audio’s Ares II which they call Alpha-IV or simply A4. You get to choose from 3.5mm single ended or 2.5mm balanced. I always go for balanced but that’s my personal preference. It’s a beautiful, classy and well made cable and I particularly like the sleek connectors and super small y-split. Yes, that cable looks gorgeous in my opinion.

What I don’t like so much is the rigidness of the cable. I have mentioned this several times in previous reviews as for me, flexibility, especially for an IEM cable, is an important factor of good usability. I clearly prefer softer, more flexible cables.

However, cable noise is at an acceptable level / no issue. Soundwise I have no complaints whatsoever. It’s a good cable.

Sound

Now how “flat” and true-to-the-source are these upgraded studio in-ears?

Overall tonality

As the name ESR (Empire Studio Reference) suggests, EE considers this IEM their reference of a flat and uncolored studio monitor. Since I usually prefer their X-Series consumer products as I am not a professional, I did not really know what to expect. I do own their Phantom studio monitor though (which is a lot more expensive) so I had a rough idea of how a “flat” reference studio in-ear might sound. I was both right and wrong.

The overall tonality is indeed nicely balanced and, as far as I can assess, neutral.
No frequency seems to be elevated and I assume the frequency response matches the description of “flat”. Since I don’t do measurements, I cannot confirm this with data. It’s just my impression after spending a week listening to music, watching movies and doing some gaming with the ESR MKIIs.

One thing instantly noticeable is that the ESR MKIIs will deliver the music as it is, meaning good recordings sound good, bad ones bad. But that’s the whole point of a reference studio in-ear monitor, right?

Treble

The combination of balanced armature- and dual electrostatic (e-stat) drivers deliver a nicely detailed and smooth treble without elevation. Strings and guitars to me sound very natural. Since there seems to be no treble elevation, you might miss that typical “sparkle” you’re used to getting from other, more consumer-tuned gear, but that is not true. It’s all there but you need to get used to a very different tuning or rather - the absence of one.

I first noticed with my EE Phantoms, but after a while I really started enjoying the overall quality of a natural frequency response. For long listening sessions, this is just perfect.

Midrange

Vocals, male and female alike, are rendered very naturally and stand out from the rest of the composition without the impression of artificial frequency elevation. Like the treble, the whole midrange is nicely separated and balanced overall.

Bass/Sub-bass

The bass from balanced armature (BA) drivers is very different from dynamic drivers (DD). The response is flat,neutral and tight, which is of course intended. There’s no eardrum-shattering impact and rumble like on the EE Valkyrie MKIIs or the EE Legend X that employ dedicated subwoofers.

This bass response mirrors what has been recorded, no more and no less. Still the ESR MKIIs surprised me in a good way here, because their bass performance is by no means lifeless or entirely free of sub-bass which was what I expected. It’s all there - when it is in the recording. Listening to Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra’s Cantaloup Island is a joy. I feel like actually attending the concert.

Soundstage

Surprisingly, the soundstage to me seems above average. Live recordings sound spacious while everything in the music - the instruments, the singer(s) the audience - is well separated. I had one key moment when I was playing a game and I suddenly heard a noise from outside. I took off the ESR MKIIs just to realize that the noise had actually come from within the game.
Channel separation/Instrument separation

Channel separation is very good indeed. Instrument separation, depending on the source material, is excellent. You can tell these IEMs were made for professionals that need to be as close to the truth as possible.

Neutrality

The ESR MKIIs are neutral sounding IEMs with a seemingly flat frequency response that present you with what is in the music without leaving anything away and without adding or elevating anything. These are in fact made to analyse music, to dissect music, but - somehow still manage to transport emotion and enjoyment. I can make neither head nor tail of it really. And I mean that in a good way!

Amplification/Matchability/Scalability

The ESR MKIIs are rather sensitive IEMs, they don’t need a lot of amping power to do their work. And since their field of expertise is the faithful reproduction, they will play out their main strength with a neutral source. I found the combination with Burson desktop DAC/Amps a good match in that regard. I can imagine a good synergy with Astell & Kern DAPs too as they tend to be rather neutral as well.

Should you desire to deviate from the path of total truth, you can pair them with less neutral sources. I tried with my Cayin DAPs and enjoyed the bit of warmth and energy the ESR MKIIs gained from this combination. So basically, you can tailor these studio IEMs quite a bit to your current task, which I find quite interesting.

Verdict

Paired with the right source, the ESR MKIIs will give you the truth and nothing but the truth. They are targeted mainly at music professionals, but will certainly fulfill the needs of other users as well. Anyone who prefers a more neutral musical reproduction or simply wants an in-ear for a more relaxed and fatigue free listing experience should find these a very interesting set.

I have enjoyed my week with the ESR MKIIs even though I usually prefer the more fun-oriented type of earphone. Funny enough, I used them even for movies and games and never once missed anything. Never once I felt the need to switch to another set of in-ears. As I said I am not a sound engineer or musician but I do believe these IEMs will certainly please a larger variety of users than just professionals.

They are more expensive than their predecessors, but they make up for it with largely improved internals, beautiful looks and most important of all a sound reproduction that really deserves the name Empire Studio Reference.

Pros

  • Neutral, studio-grade sound signature
  • Analytic without being too “flat” or boring
  • Excellent channel- and instrument-separation
  • Good soundstage for an IEM
  • Well made, classy IEM and cable
  • Very good price-/performance ratio

Cons

  • Rigid cable
6 Likes

Another excellent review Tom. Really enjoyed reading it.

1 Like

Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it. :blush:

1 Like

Another detailed but engaging review, @Tom_Ato. It seems like you’re going to review the entire EE collection. It will be fascinating to compare and contrast each model.

2 Likes

Thank you. I would like to do that but then I would have to buy every single one of them.
Also those reviews are taking a lot of time as you know. :grin:

So right now I focused only on the new stuff.

2 Likes

Your reviews are incredibly useful! The consistency between them makes it very easy to determine which IEM to bounce to the top of the list for me.

Thank you so much!

3 Likes

Dang, these look terrific. I love how the logo sits slightly elevated and you can see the shadow in the backdrop at the right angle. It’s just so sleek and classy; a welcome departure from some of EE’s more bombastic designs (which are pretty sweet in their own right, of course). I can’t wait to hear these if I get the chance. Thanks for the review!

3 Likes

Thank you Derek. I feel honored by your comment :blush:.

1 Like

You’re welcome. :+1::wink:
I too prefer a more understatement - classy design,so those are right down my alley.

Still I admit to have fallen for Odin and Valkyrie MKII also. :star_struck:

3 Likes