Two years back, Empire Ears made their debut with Zeus, a then ground-breaking iem employing 14 drivers and a 7-way crossover. But the Olympus line was Empire Ears just getting started – their new lineup will take it to the next level. Using all custom-built drivers and advanced crossovers, the new lineup improves in quality, and especially diversity. For where the Olympus line was characterized by a strong house sound, the new lineup offers a wide range of complimentary tunings, each catering to different crowds.
This is perhaps most explicitly embodied in their two separate lines; 3 multi-BA iems dubbed the ‘EP line’, and the X-series hybrid line consisting of 4 iems. Even within the hybrid line there is great versatility, with 3 higher-end models that complement each other with very different signatures, albeit united by enhanced, double dynamic-powered bass. So don’t discount the rest of the lineup just yet in favour for the biggest and the best, because there are some very interesting models that will complement the headliners.
For now, let’s look at Empire Ear’s two new flagships: the awe-inspiring Legend-X, and a very special iem to me, the Phantom – a collaboration between Empire Ears and myself.
Empire Ears ‘Phantom’
For the last three years I’ve dedicated every spare minute of my time listening to and intently analysing IEMs. I’ve been fortunate to learn about frequencies and signatures firsthand by comparing top-tier offerings, and getting a feeling for which combinations attribute to certain effects. Simplified, an IEM’s signature can be divided in four key elements, or building blocks: the bass, midrange, lower treble, and upper treble. Once you understand the individual characteristics of frequencies, as well as the way different sections interact with each other, you get a pretty good feel of how to achieve an intended sound.
So when Empire Ears invited me to provide feedback on their new lineup a few months back, I drew several graphs to illustrate why certain frequencies should be adjusted. As a sidenote, I ended by drawing a graph of my ideal curve, with an explanation of how key frequencies should be tuned to incorporate characteristics I value: a coherent signature with accurate timbre, adequate note size, and high resolution. Drawing on inspiration from favourites as the ES80, 5-Way, Prelude, VE8, and of course Empire’s own Zeus-XIV, there was one curve that theoretically made most sense to me. Unbeknownst to me, Empire Ears went to work with the target curve, and a few weeks later the Phantom was born.
Those of you who have read the shootout, will have become familiar with how I evaluate iems; factors as instrument timbre and naturalness were a recurrent theme. But not exclusively; I can just as equally sit back and enjoy quality separation or high resolution (iems as the Samba and ES80 come to mind). If anything, I’ve always stressed viewing sound reproduction as a whole – appreciating the quality of individual factors, but also their collective role on the presentation; valuing bass for its engaging qualities, but heeding its influence on the stage and transparency. Acknowledging the importance of treble presence for detail retrieval, while restraining it for timbre. In the end, sound analysis comes down to obsessing over minor details, while taking a step back to see them as the sum of its parts. Once you understand you can’t have all the bass, mids, and treble, moderation is key. But this shouldn’t be seen as a price to pay, when tweaking the right balance leads to an ultimate reward: a pure representation of music, in order to reveal the true nature of its character.
The Phantom was tuned with this philosophy in mind. For starters, coherency and timbre were always going to be a top priority: to faithfully replicate a shimmering stroke of a violin, or gentle pluck of an acoustic guitar, while just as easily being able to provide the sense of engagement from an electric guitar, or a melodious synthetic melody. And of course, a natural reproduction of both male and female vocals, in terms of body and tone. But equally, while acknowledging the importance of resolution and transparency as prerequisite for natural reproduction of sound – a combination of tonality and performance, rather than a compromise between either.
In terms of bass, the Phantom has a subtle lift in its mid-bass to increase its body, while providing a warmer tone throughout the midrange. In overall quantity it can be considered fairly average, but it draws on excellent bottom-end extension for sub-bass impact. In order to achieve its intended tuning, there is a delicate balance between the quantity of bass and treble, rendering the Phantom sensitive to tip selection. Switching from complies to wide bore silicones can sway its tone from warm to bright, while simultaneously affecting its stage and transparency. However, rest assured that with the right tips and especially custom fit Phantom has a slightly greater quantity of mid-bass compared to Zeus, as well as warmer signature throughout. Nevertheless, even though the Phantom is not bass-light, those prioritising bass should probably direct their attention to one of the hybrid models.
The bass was tuned with the bigger picture in mind: to ensure a sufficiently engaging presentation, while maintaining the airiness in its stage; a prerequisite for the quality of layering, resulting in a high level of separation. Accordingly, the Phantom presents its music on a three-dimensional stage, with almost equal proportions in width and depth. In terms of absolute dimensions, the Phantom bares resemblance to that of Zeus-XIV, although it displays stronger variation depending on the recording. With some tracks the stage can feel average, while in others edging Zeus out in terms airiness and space. Generally speaking, it constructs a spacious, airy stage, while offering a similar precision in its imaging to those accustomed to Zeus. Its vocals are slightly forward in terms of stage positioning, though with a more neutral lower midrange, not quite to the extent of Zeus.
Where the Legend’s bass steals the show, the Phantom was designed for its midrange; accurate in timbre, with full-bodied instruments. To ensure a natural vocal presentation, its vocals are lightly warm, and sufficiently bodied. While its midrange is characterised by a warmer tone providing that sensual release of a saxophone, a controlled touch of sparkle highlights string instruments. The Phantom seems to sound both warm and clear; for more than anything, it is designed to sound true – to achieve a perfect balance on a wide spectrum of characteristics that contribute to a faithful, and most importantly, beautiful reproduction of music.
For where the Phantom shines is the naturalness of its sound. A tuning completed with a smooth but well-extended upper treble, to ensure the portrayal of a high level of detail, delivered in a smooth and coherent manner. Detail that follows from high resolution and clean separation, rather than increasing treble. Precise but smooth, and natural yet transparent; the Phantom’s tuning revolves around balance. Somewhere along the way the term ‘neutral’ has become associated with lack of bass, and sterile sound. But neutral was supposed to mean a lack of additional coloration, to allow the music to shine in its natural form: the music itself should be beautiful, and the monitor should reflect that – the Phantom’s sole purpose of existence.
Source and tips
Generally speaking, the Phantom can be considered as having a lightly warm tuning with a tilt towards naturalness, combined with a spacious stage and high resolution. But overall, it’s delicately balanced, and perceived as fairly linear. So subtle variations in bass, due to tips for instance, can shift its sound from warm and natural, to a more neutral or even bright signature, relatively easy. In a similar vein, it is equally transparent to the source, and will reflect its signature. Both my Sony and AK are on the warmer side, portraying the Phantom with a warmer than neutral signature. With the Lotoo Paw Gold, the Phantom becomes more neutral, with a clear and more stimulating signature reflecting the inherently more energetic LPG. So when using a brighter source, the Phantom will reflect that, trading more of its naturalness for an increasingly detail-oriented signature.
Tips are somewhat of a personal affair, since people might get varying results based on their own anatomy. For instance, people might find Spin Fits warm or bassy, but I’ve always had the opposite experience. Spiral Dots tend to be consistently warmer for me, but I’ve heard of impressions portraying them as brighter. In addition, source pairing will come into play, as warmer tips might work better with a brighter source, and vice versa. Therefore, perhaps read the following descriptions more as an indication of how the sound can vary with different tips, rather than a general rule of thumb.
Ordered from bright to warm:
–Spinfits: Spin Fits reduce the quantity of the bass, resulting in a leaner signature with an emphasis on upper mids and treble. The sound becomes more neutral, while losing the body of its instruments and accuracy of its tone; the treble is on the brighter side. Same effects can be observed for various cheap silicone tips. For me, these are the least preferred type of tips, and the furthest away from its intended tuning.
–Final Audio (Type E): The Final tips offers a nice bass response, combined with a neutral tonality, and slightly aggressive treble. It’s a stimulating sound that I like for genres like pop or EDM, although it might miss a touch of warmth to sound completely natural compared to the Spiral Dots, as well as a slight reduction in midrange body. This is an interesting option, though not the most representative for its intended tuning. By comparison, the Acoustone 07 tips are even brighter.
–Ortofon: These tips provide a balanced sound, which can be considered linear and fairly neutral. The Ortogons provide a sound that is neither bright or peaky, nor particularly warm. They’re not as clear-sounding as the above, though not as warm as those below. There’s an even clarity throughout the signature, accompanied by an airy and spacious stage. Accordingly, there is a tradeoff with the Spiral Dots: these sounds a bit more neutral and transparent, while the Spiral Dots add a touch of warmth for a more a natural sound.
–Spiral Dots: These have been my most used tips along with the Ortofon, forming the basis for the sound impressions. The Spiral Dots offer a warmish, natural sound, while retaining an airy stage and transparent sound, although some of the above edge it out with respect to the latter. Both the Spiral Dots and Ortofons offer a balanced sound, with a slight tradeoff for a warmer, more natural sound for the Spiral Dots, and a cleaner, more transparent sound for the Ortofons (or Final tips).
–Mandarin Symbio W: the Mandarin tips are yet a touch warmer than the Spiral Dots, coming closer to Comply tips. They trade a bit more transparency for an even smoother sound.
–Comply: At the other end of the spectrum of the Spin Fits are the Complies. The Comply tips are the warmest tips, trading more smoothness and greater instrument body for a slightly more intimate stage, with reduced airiness and transparency. For more treble sensitive people, or those that just prefer Comply of course, these might be the best options. The difference between Comply and Spiral Dots is not drastic as both lean towards the warmer side, but becomes increasingly greater when compared to Ortofon and especially Spin Fits.
Custom: The custom Phantom took a bit longer to develop, and some playing around to get right. Overall the custom and universal are highly similar, but there are some slight variations throughout the signature. For starters, the custom has a bit more mid-bass, as well as clearer treble. It isn’t brighter as the two balance each other out, but it does have a slightly better tonal balance, along with more body in its midrange. One might say the custom has the body and warmth in its midrange of the Spiral Dots, combined with the clear treble of the Final tips. Even so, the caveat is that the universal’s stage can be a bit more spacious depending on the tips, due to the additional touch of bass and midrange body of the custom. Taken together, the custom has a slightly better tone and greater body, or for the lack of a better word, it is a bit more ‘musical’. The universal counters with a slightly more spacious stage, resulting in a more effortless separation.
The primary comparison is of course to Zeus – Empire’s reigning emperor. The two share similarities throughout their general presentation. The Phantom’s midrange is slightly warmer in tone, providing a more accurate timbre for its instruments, and a smoother upper treble. Zeus in turn offers greater clarity and a brighter treble tone, resulting from its upper treble peak. Despite Zeus’ brighter tonality their level of detail is similar, as the Phantom combines slightly improved top-end extension, with an airier stage. Compared to Zeus, the universal Phantom’s mid-bass is roughly similar in quantity, while improving in sub-bass extension and impact. While both offer a similar three-dimensional stage and precise imaging, they differ in their vocal presentation. Zeus’ lower midrange tuning results in its a more forward midrange, highlighting especially male vocals. The Phantom in turn offers a more neutral vocal tuning in terms of forwardness; sufficiently dense and bodied, centered within its stage.
But the Phantom’s natural competitor is the 5-Way; that other IEM with a rare blend of timbre and performance. As with Zeus, the Phantom shares a few similarities; in the case of the 5-Way, its three-dimensional stage, and similar vocal reconstruction in terms of body and forwardness. However, they are equally defined by key differences, starting with their bass. In my opinion, the 5-Way has the best BA bass from an audiophile perspective, combining deep extension with a resolved mid-bass, natural in tone. The Phantom can’t quite match the naturalness of its bass, opting for a cleaner bass, with similar extension. The difference returns throughout the presentation. The 5-Way’s warmer tonality results in its exceedingly natural and organic signature, with warmer upper mids and a smoother treble. The Phantom trades some of its warmth for clearer, more melodious upper mids, as well as slightly greater instrument body. Its treble is a bit crisper, where the 5-Way’s is warmer, and a bit smoother. Taken together, the 5-Way has the warmer, more romantic tuning. The Phantom in turn offers greater transparency as well as a more versatile sound, while sharing a similar beauty in its timbre.
The Phantom represents my interpretation of perfect harmony between performance and timbre; one that ultimately leads to beauty, rather than a compromise between either. The advantage of such a tuning is that its timbre sounds accurate for both brass and string instruments, while remaining versatile over genres. Whether rock, pop, classical, or EDM, the Phantom sounds right, for just sounding true. Somewhere along the road, terms as ‘neutral’, ‘reference’, and ‘uncolored’ have become synonymous for boring, sterile sound. But the Phantom strives to restore its original connotation: to be as faithful to the recording as can be. A signature that doesn’t have to be bright to sound transparent, nor overly warm to sound accurate. Finding ultimate beauty in tonal accuracy, and allowing a high level of detail to emerge, in a natural manner. And it will sound absolutely beautiful for it, because your music is beautiful. You’ll listen to this IEM and appreciate the skill of the performing musicians, and the tone of their instruments.
Clearly, this won’t be the perfect IEM for everybody. There are as many differences in preferences, as there are people. But this is my daily driver, as I hope it will become for many like-minded individuals. Elegant, versatile, and what I believe to be one of the most natural-sounding monitors on the market – the keyword perhaps, is balanced. The 5-Way Ultimate set the standard for the previous generation of reviewers. I believe the Phantom can be a reference point for the next; a tool for reviewers, and a benchmark to compare iems against. And equally, a bridge between audiophiles and musicians, as witnessed by upcoming endorsements by two multiple Grammy award-winning engineers, Michael Graves, (two time winner), and Jeremiah Adkins (five time winner). One year after its inception, the shootout is completed with its own-themed iem – one designed according to the principles of the shootout.