JHAudio Layla ($2699)
Jerry Harvey’s Layla is a bonafide classic – the weapon of choice for dozens of professional engineers worldwide. So, how does the veteran compare to the new kid on the block? Surprisingly (or the opposite, rather) the Layla and the Phantom share several striking similarities. In tone, the two share the same track-first philosophy. The colour the soundscape assumes is determined by the recording and the chain, but both in-ears regardless maintain a sense of organicity; a lush humanity to the way instruments are presented. Where they ultimately differ is how much this lushness intrudes upon the proceedings. The Phantom possesses more flair. There’s a confident, muscular timbre to it that stems from its harmonic lower registers. On the other hand, the Layla comes across more strict; more cool, calm and collected.
The Phantom has a warmer bottom, a livelier midrange and a peppier treble, while the Layla’s all display a similar level of quiet confidence. There’s a nonchalance to its delivery that may come across less musical, but will appeal to engineers who are looking for the utmost truth; no more, no less. The Layla’s beauty, then, stems from quality. Its low-end digs among the deepest I’ve heard from balanced-armatures, and its resolution across the board is stunning. This is further exemplified in stage reproduction. The Phantom has an immense technical foundation, but the images that occupy it loom large and full. The Layla compacts its instruments, such that its expansive stage feels even more grand. It provides a theatrical experience that some may consider detached relative to the Phantom. As always, it’s a matter of preference.
HUM Dolores (¥200,000)
The Dolores is HUM’s brand new flagship. Like the Phantom, it’s posited as a reference-grade engineering tool. Although the two share similarities, they ultimately diverge in their interpretations of life-like. Although it shares the Phantom’s linear upper-treble, the Dolores posits a cleaner, more neutral tone – courtesy of a 10kHz peak and an attenuated low-end. Transients sound brighter and punchier, but they aren’t much crisper than the Phantom’s. Rather, they’re far more prone to brittleness with hotter recordings, like J. Cole’s verse on Royce da 5’9″’s Boblo Boat. So, the Dolores is cleaner in timbre, but far less forgiving. And although it lacks the sub-bass prowess or mid-bass warmth of the Phantom, the Dolores’s low-end scores high in speed, control and definition. Extension imbues it with sufficient physicality as well.
Space is where the two are most alike. Excellent bidirectional extension gives the Dolores a stable, well-resolved and richly-nuanced stage. The two are indistinguishable in width, but the Phantom wins out in depth. This is because of its laid-back upper-midrange, while the Dolores’ is more saturated. The former has a blacker background as well, but in terms of detail-led transparency, the Dolores has the edge with its sharper transients. Micro-details possess greater vibrance and attack. However, this compromises tonal transparency. Although it’s capable of discerning shifts in midrange structure, the Dolores doesn’t alter much from one recording to another in overall timbre and hue. So, I’d posit the Phantom as the mixing and mastering tool, while the Dolores is most viable in editing first and mixing second.
The Phantom is a modern classic – discerning, resolving and soulful all the while. Veering from vogue, Empire Ears’ co-flagship forgoes fabricated pizzazz to deliver music in its truest, purest form: A balance built for the professional. But, that’s not to say it’s without its own eccentricities. A harmonic heft tinges its sonic palate, as well as an adamant refusal to conjure any form of hard-edged transient attack; a slip away from the veiled cognomen. But years of experience have come to the Phantom’s rescue, for Empire Ears have truly instilled it with a wonderful technical foundation. Taken together, it’s not a signature all will love – especially those who live on air, crispness and crystalline clarity. But for the listener eager to explore the different flavours, fibres and hues that music has to offer, the Phantom reigns supreme.