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Empire Ears Athena VIII

Rating:
4.75/5,
  • INPUT SENSITIVITY: 118 dB @ 1mW
    FREQUENCY RESPONSE: 20 Hz - 20 kHz
    IMPEDANCE: 15 Ohms @ 1 kHz
    DRIVER SET UP: 2 low, 3 mid, 3 high
    INTERNAL SPEAKER CONFIGURATION: 8 balance armature driver, 4 crossover network 5-way, 3 sound bore
    Available in Universal and Custom form
    http://empireears.com/model-overview/?ap=729

Recent Reviews

  1. Jackpot77
    Empire Ears Athena - the Goddess of Olympus
    Written by Jackpot77
    Published Feb 1, 2018
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Impeccable build quality, balanced but musical tuning, incredible sense of smoothness, good note weight, fantastic midrange, good clarity
    Cons - May lack air in the treble for some, can take a little time to adjust to the tuning, extension/quantity in the sub bass area could be better
    Empire Ears Athena – the goddess of Olympus
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    This review was originally posted on the UK blog I contribute to (https://audioprimate.blog) and has been reposted here for the good people of Head-Fi.

    Ratings
    Price (as of Dec 2017): $1299
    Website: Empire Ears

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    Introduction
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    For those who aren’t familiar with the current “big players” in the international Custom In-Ear Monitor industry, the Athena is (at time of writing) the third placed model in the Empire Ears “Olympus” line of in-ear monitors, sporting 8 balanced armatures per side, a custom moulded acrylic shell and a pricetag north of $1000.

    Empire Ears themselves are currently one of the big players in the CIEM field, having evolved from co-owner Jack Vang’s previous company Earwerkz to join with the hearing-aid manufacturing arm of the Vang family business (Savvitek) to take their production and design capabilities to the next level. They have a fairly large roster of stage musicians and other sound professionals on their books already, and are pretty well respected throughout the industry for the quality of their designs and the technical capabilities of their higher end models.

    I came across the Athena on my trip to CanJam London earlier this year, and was impressed enough after working through most of the Empire Ears range on their stall (plus the new “prototype” models they had there that day that are now starting to surface at shows like PortaFest in Japan) to order a set. The potent combination of a slightly thicker and meatier sound than the super-resolving Zeus (which I already own) and the trademark EE clarity in the mids and treble painted a very musical picture in my ears, and I wanted to be able to spend some proper time with the EE “middle child”.

    This review was originally intended to be posted a few weeks after receiving them, but unfortunately due to a combination of circumstances, this has turned into a more “long term” assessment than I was originally anticipating. That is far from a bad thing, as it has allowed me to really get to grips with the tuning and extract maximum enjoyment from these seriously underrated 8-driver earpieces.

    This review is an evolution of my initial impressions, so will share some paragraphs with my previous postings, amended or just flat out rewritten as needed.

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    Unboxing and aesthetics
    As the Athena shares an identical loadout and presentation, the unboxing section of this review has been shamelessly lifted from my recent Zeus-XR writeup – if you have already read that, please skip on to the sonics section below.

    For those who haven’t, I’m happy to report for fans of a good unboxing, this is about as high end as it gets, short of coming with its own butler. The IEMs come in a classy cardboard box with fold-over magnetic fastener, embossed with the Empire Ears Logo (in silver, rather than the gold of the Zeus). Opening the box, you will find another box – in this case, a personalised Empire Aegis case (think large Peli or S3 and you’re 90% there) with a metallic faceplate on the front, again sporting the Empire winged logo and the name of the recipient (or any other custom message you want to put on there).

    Also nestling in the package are a branded black microfibre polishing cloth (for keeping that all important shine on your ear jewellery), a velvet-style soft carrying pouch big enough to fit your precious cargo and a cable in and a larger black fabric bag, this time big enough to fit the Aegis case in. As with the polishing cloth, the two bags both sport the same classy silver branding prominently, leaving you in no doubt which firm’s product you are handling.

    Completing the package and nestled safely inside the precision cut foam inserts inside the carry case are the IEMs themselves, a standard Plastics One style braided CIEM cable and the ubiquitous cleaning tool/brush from getting ear-goo out of the sound bores.

    For a custom IEM this is a nicely considered load-out, and the high quality feel and well thought out extras completing the package lend a very nice sense of quality to proceedings. Nothing too flashy, nothing superfluous, but what is provided is obviously of a high standard and sets the tone for what is to come.

    Moving on to the IEMs themselves, I opted for a solid purple shell and an abalone faceplate, after being mightily impressed by the look of the abalone shells on the Canjam demo models. In person, they look even better than the rendering from the jazzy design tool on Empire Ears’ website, with a smooth gloss finish and impeccable build quality throughout. The shells are smooth, light and pretty low profile for an 8-driver IEM but still feel sturdy, and are free of any imperfections or air bubbles as far as I can see. The join between the faceplate and the main IEM body is also flawless, with a silky smooth transition and no seam or grain to be felt on the polished shell at all. These IEMs really are an example of how to produce a custom acrylic shell right, looking and feeling top notch.

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    General impressions
    The Athena are not at first listen a particularly flashy IEM, with a nicely agile but solid sounding lower end and a clean rather than sparkling treble. There is a nice sense of balance to the sound, without any immediate “wow” factor that usually kicks in with a more typical V shaped signature, or with something that carries more emphasis in one particular frequency range. There is something appealing about the warmth and balance of the presentation that becomes immediately apparent, so these are far from unappealing at first listen, but this is definitely a design that grows on you over time, rather than burning bright and then fading as the novelty wears off. It is also a tuning that your brain needs time to adjust to in order to appreciate the nuance and detail hidden behind the bigger and bolder “flavour” that immediately hits your ear.

    The overall tonality is a little warm, with a little lift in the bass (centred around the mid bass rather than sub-frequencies) and an emphasis on vocals. Treble is as clear as a tee-totaller’s skin, presenting a nicely smooth but detailed upper end devoid of any nasty treble peaks or harshness. The warmth of the sound and slight push in the mids means that these aren’t an overly airy monitor, but they do give a good sense of width along the x-axis, and decent depth. The presentation is compact and solid rather than ethereal and floaty, with a very grounded feel to the sound, rather than a massive sense of space in the upper echelons.

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    Bass
    In terms of bass, the Athena has a bit more presence than the Zeus, with a nice sense of dynamism to the sound. The balance tilts more towards mid-bass than sub, with a slight hump (or “thumb”) in the middle of the mid-bass frequency range to lift it slightly above neutral in quantity. There is enough bass quantity to be considered musical, but certainly not enough to be considered a bass-heavy monitor. Being an all-BA affair, the impact is never going to match up with the volume of air that a dynamic driver can move, but there is a nice sense of urgency and snap to the lower end, and bags of texture and detail. Like most balanced armature setups, the Athena don’t carry a huge “slam factor” when it comes to moving air in and out of your eardrum, but the snappiness and speed of the bass does provide a nice feeling of punch on my harder hitting test tracks, in particular the kick drum.

    The sub-bass is capable but not outstanding, producing a faint rumble in the true depths rather than a earth-shaking roar. As with its big brother, drum sounds are rendered beautifully, with good imaging and a highly realistic tone – between the Athena and Zeus, I would say that Empire Ears have nailed the most realistic tom-tom sound reproduction I’ve yet heard (a very niche award, to be fair, but worth noting).

    The style of presentation is smooth, but not 100% liquid, straddling the line quite effectively between a textured and chalky feeling BA style bass and a looser and slightly wetter feeling dynamic driver. Listening to “Hello, It’s Me” by Sister Hazel, the chocolate goodness of the main bassline oozes in to the track, not quite flowing freely, but adding a nicely dense layer of viscosity to the sound as the bassline fills up the track.

    “Bad Rain” by Slash is my hallmark for quality bass texture, with a snarling bass riff at the 20 second mark that should come with a leash and a collar. The Athena is all about the texture and the snap, painting a slightly lean but menacing picture in the ears, allowing the listener to hear the individual bass guitar strings vibrating as the rasping rhythm fires through. Detail levels are high, and the layering is also very good for a dual-BA setup – it doesn’t quite approach the millefeuille-esque number of sonic layers something like the Campfire Vega or 64 Audio U8 can kick out down low, but this is certainly not a one-note or squashed together presentation by any means.

    Giving the dual-bass drivers something a bit smoother to get stuck into, “Get Lucky” from Daft Punk hits all the right marks sonically, the slinky bassline dropping and dropping, only losing a smidgeon of presence as it scrapes right down into the floor of the track. It is smooth and velvety, giving the track plenty of foundation without sounding overpowering, and lending a pleasant warmth to proceedings. This isn’t a sound that will have bassheads purring with delight, but there is enough quantity and weight to the notes to stop this being described as strictly neutral or thin, with a nice sense of body that should satisfy all but the most ardent fans of brain melting vibrations.

    More sub-bass laden tracks like “Heaven” by Emile Sande or “Why So Serious” from the Dar Knight soundtrack fare less well on the Athena, producing a small tickle in the eardrum in the really low passages, rather than the all encompassing thrum that both tracks demand. It’s the one subjective area of weakness here, so if you listen exclusively to sub-bass driven genres, then this probably won’t be your go to IEM of choice – for most modern rock and guitar or piano based fare, the bass is certainly more then adequate in both quantity and quality to keep a smile on your face as you work through your music collection.

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    Mids
    Much like the old Aurisonics ASG series, mids are something that Empire Ears have become reknowned for. The Athena doesn’t deviate from that, serving up a nice steaming dollop of sound in this frequency band that is fairly forward, highly resolving and just plain great sounding. On first listen, the mids don’t scream detailing, but as you listen, plenty of nuance and audio plankton presents itself as the songs unfold. Ironically, despite being the most obvious area of expertise that the Athena exhibits, it is the one that has taken my brain the longest to completely tune into. Like its older sibling the Zeus, this is a midrange that rewards the time and effort you take to get used to its specific style of presentation.

    Clarity and smoothness are the order of the day, with a weighty presence to electric guitar and rock music in general, and enough bite to keep things interesting where the track calls for it. For me, the vocals sit slightly in front of the other mid-band instrumentation (as they would on stage), and apart from a sense of resolution which isn’t normally available in the sort of dive-bar music venues I frequent, there is a nice “live” feel to the presentation for traditional guitar or band based music. The overall note presentation errs on the side of thickness, presenting a fairly large audio image in my ears. There is a good sense of weight and a nice undercurrent of warmth running through it. There are no audible spikes in the male or female vocal ranges, both carrying a similar sense of presence and smoothness to my ears.

    Listening to someone like Beth Hart is a pure pleasure on these IEMs, “Mother Maria” sounding raw and emotional in its delivery, each breathless line of lyric sounding like the singer is literally whispering them into a microphone positioned a few inches above your forehead. Mavis Staples is another pleasure, the larger than usual vocal imaging bringing the veteran soul singer’s voice right up close and personal, allowing you to bask in the rich texture of the quieter phrases as well as the more powerful moments.

    “Love and Trust” by Ms Staples also helps me identify the ability of a monitor to separate mid range instrumentation and vocals, possessing a multi-layered gospel chorus and overlapping electric and acoustic guitars all operating in roughly the same sonic space. The Athena does well with this track, allowing you to identify the various singers in the chorus line pretty cleanly without detracting from the wonderful blending of the sound, and laying both guitar lines cleanly over the top without blurring the edges. Due to the warmth of the tuning, it never feels like there is a massive sense of space or artificial separation between these layers, so this isn’t the most overtly technical sounding IEM you will find in this price range. That being said, once you have clicked with the tuning, there is ample resolution and clarity to be had in all but the most cluttered of tracks.

    Looking for sibilance and sharpness, I ran a little Chris Stapleton and Emile Sande through their paces. Stapleton’s famously ear shredding chorus on “Whiskey and You” passed my eardrums without incident, and the first few tracks from Sande’s debut album did much the same. Rather than blunting or smoothing over any rough edges, the more “natural” clarity and resolution of the Athena allows harsher tracks to play without artificially enhancing their sharper edges, making this a very smooth and buttery listening experience for most things I have thrown at it to date.

    Rock tracks play out particularly well on the Athena, with a nice sense of heft to electric guitar riffs and a good sense of dynamism and attack. This is more of a smooth and substantial feeling sound rather than crunchy and aggressive, but what the Athena occasionally lacks in perceived “edge” it more than makes up for with solidity and detail. Listening to something like “Blame It On My Youth” by Mr Big from the golden era of 80s rock supergroups, the opening chords are full of distorted detail, Paul Gilbert’s harmonic-driven guitar onslaught hitting with solidity and shredding when needed.

    Piano based tunes fare equally well, the warm tone of the IEMs lending a very euphonic tinge to the music. “Natural Blues” by Moby sounds absolutely superb, the simple piano phrases blending well with the bluesy vocal and the solid bassline to paint a very enjoyable presentation. This aren’t the most hyper-accurate of IEMs in terms of tonality or timbre (if you are looking for that, the Zeus would be your logical port of call in the current EE range), but they portray a reasonably accurate tone on most instruments, just adding a splash of colouring where needed to bring a nice sense of musicality to the overall sound.

    To round out the tour of musical instruments living in the midrange, I threw a bit of brass into the rotation from a recent find, Trombone Shorty. The smooth funk of “Here Come The Girls” sounds like the lovechild of James Brown and John Legend, velvety vocals mixing with Shorty’s classic trombone licks to get my feet tapping like an impatient 5-year old waiting in line for the toilets. Again, the tone is wonderfully smooth and natural sounding, and while I don’t have a huge amount of experience listening to the real thing, the brass section sounds solid and organic rather than harsh or metallic.

    If I had to sum up the mid-range presentation, I’d say that while it is almost certainly the star of the show, it comes across more like Nile Rogers than Miley Cyrus. The Athena is content to let you bask in the cool and super-smooth excellence of its delivery without hitting you over the head with obvious attention-grabbers or resorting to disrobing certain frequency ranges just to keep your attention. Creamy, smooth but resolving at the same time, the Athena hits just the right balance to be considered a true mid-range expert in this price bracket.

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    Treble
    The treble on the Athena is a little less emphasised than on their big brother the Zeus, and in fact remind me a little of the Audioquest Nighthawk in execution. There is no sharpening or artificial emphasis to accentuate micro-detail – it is still there in the sound, but just feels a little less apparent until your brain adjusts to the signature. These aren’t a headphone for those fans of screaming crystalline crunch and blistering heat, but if you like your high end non-fatiguing and clear as a bell, you will be on to a winner here. I genuinely think you would have more chance of finding Lord Lucan than you would of finding bothersome treble peaks on all but the harshest recorded tracks, but at the same time the treble doesn’t feel blunt (once you have adjusted to it). It just sits slightly behind the more prominent mids and rings clean and clear throughout the range, sitting squarely in my ideal tuning bracket for most IEMs, so is definitely a winner for my preferences.

    As you would expect, perceived extension isn’t huge – the warmth and thickness of the presentation lead to a lack of air in the top end, and a de-emphasised higher register. Instead, the sound is presented in a clear and almost “rounded” manner, with a jet black background (depending on the source) surrounding each individual note.

    This presentation actually works quite well for some electronic tracks, “Go” from The Chemical Brothers sounding full and energetic in the top end as the swirling synths in the chorus kick in to overdrive. The hi-hat on this track epitomises the overall treble presentation for me, hitting crisply but fading out almost immediately, the decay being kept short and muted and killing a little of the natural “splash” you associate with cymbals.

    Kicking over to my preferred geetar-screech rock, “Starlight” by Slash and Myles Kennedy is up next. The guitarwork in this track is deliberately dissonant to begin with, and the Athena keeps this firmly in the realms of smooth and solid rather than accentuating the jagged edges of Mr Hudson’s work. There is a nice sense of crunch to the high notes, so the edges certainly feel defined, but again it feels solid and clean rather than sparkly or overly sharp. Personally, this works well for me, but if you are looking for an IEM with more treble emphasis then you may want to look at other models in the EE lineup before the Athena.

    The comparative lack of air in the higher registers lends the sound an almost “closed in” feeling in the top end, giving the higher notes a ceiling to work beneath and deaden themselves on rather than let them reverberate off into a cavernous concert hall. Again, preference will play a key role here, but I think it works well with the other tuning choices to give that final dash of solidity and roundness to the sound.

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    Separation, layering and soundstage

    The 8 driver setup of the BA are certainly technically capable, pushing a little wider than the periphery of your head in both directions and also exhibiting a good amount of depth in the Z-axis. The stage is slightly more oval to my ears than round, but there is still a good sense of scale for something tuned so warm. This warmth does bring the instruments a little closer together than something like the U8 or Andromeda, but it feels natural for this sort of sonic presentation, and contributes to the quite cohesive feel of the soundstage, which feels more like a live concert stage in some respects rather than a studio recording room. The staging feels solid rather than cavernous, keeping each instrument well placed in its own physical space but locating the players closer together on the stage (think small dive bar stage rather than Sydney Opera House).

    Layering is good, stacking each different strand of music quite densely on top of the next while still keeping them discernible. Again, the warmth of the tuning and the stage size limit the overall effect somewhat, but the Athena are definitely a capable monitor in this regard, keeping multiple strands of music cohesive but still packing in plenty of texture and nuance. This is not a tuning built for hyper-detailed or hyper-analytical listening, evoking more of a feeling of soul and cohesion to the music you listen to rather than dissecting it. Overall, the Athena has a solidly packed but still nicely separated sound, laid out on a realistic feeling stage – both elements work in harmony with the tuning to evoke a very musical but still technically proficient and real-feeling sound.

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    Synergy and hiss
    The Athena comes as stock with a nice stock braided cable in black, looking very much like an upgraded version of the standard “Plastics One” cable used across the CIEM industry. The eagle eyed among you will notice that it isn’t that cable that features in the pictures above. While the stock cable was perfectly fine for listening, as I am now running an Effect Audio Ares II+ on my Zeus-XR, I happened to have a perfectly good Whiplash Audio SPC upgrade cable that came with the EE flagship just sitting around unused. After some serious battling to get the stock cables removed (what do EE use to fit them into the sockets – a rocket launcher?!) I tried this cable out with the Athena to see if there was any appreciable sound difference. I must admit I’m very much on the fence on the benefits of cables in general, but have noticed a more pleasing tonality to the Zeus-XR with the Ares II+, and also prefer the sound of the Athena with the SPC upgrade. For me, it adds a shade more emphasis up top for an added perception of clarity, while still keeping the warmth and body of the baseline tuning, so balances out the sound a little better for my personal preferences.

    The Athena are a mildly warm sounding monitor, but I actually found them pairing very well with one of my warmer sources (the Echobox Explorer) so far. The Opus #3 also runs very nicely with these, adding a little more perceived clarity and separation at the expense of a little body to the sound. The other source I found particularly enjoyable is the LG V30, with LG’s latest audiophile flagship handling the Athena with a sonically black background and great sense of energy. This combo packs plenty of dynamism behind the solid midrange landscape and allows the technical capability of the drivers to shine. It is marginally behind the Opus #3 in terms of separation between instruments, but otherwise comfortably holds its own and adds a little extra body down low.

    I have tried the Athena with a few balanced sources (using both an 8-core SPC cable and the Ares II+ I use with the Zeus, and I didn’t notice any drastic sonic improvements, over and above the actual implementation of the balanced output compared to the single ended out in some instances (the Aune M1S). The Athena are an IEM that don’t require a vast reserve of power to hit full headroom, so don’t need to be driven balanced, unless the balanced out on your source is drastically better than the single ended option. In fact, the Athena could probably be driven just by holding the end of your IEM cable close enough to your amp for it to pick up the residual electromagnetic waves it’s that easy. So while it will scale well with the quality of amplification on offer, it certainly doesn’t need any more output juice than even the most puny of DAPs can provide.

    The final note in this section is on hiss. Yes, the Athena hiss. Yes, it’s almost in the same order of magnitude as the Zeus-XR (to my ears). No, once the music starts it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and with some sources won’t be audible at all. If you have a particularly “hissy” source, that probably won’t pair too well with these IEMs if you are sensitive to that sort of thing. For most people, it certainly won’t be an issue. One random note – much like the Zeus, the Athena don’t seem to particularly like the “Current Mode Amplification” technology that Questyle use. While I never had a chance to run the Athena with the QP2R I had on loan for a few months, the CMA400i desktop unit I now have shares the same underlying amplification trickery, and this particular pairing seems to generate less “magic” than other sources I have, with a greater than average helping of ssssss-ing in the background. I don’t know if this will carry over to the QP2R, but all I can say is that both the QP2R and CMA400i sound superb with most of my other in-ear gear but markedly average with my two Empire Ears IEMs, so take that as you will.

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    Comparisons
    64 Audio U8 (w/ M20 APEX module)
    The Athena comes in a little more expensive than the U8 at $1299, compared to the $999 offering price of the 64 Audio model (when it was on sale – it has recently been removed from the 64 Audio site as part of their “line refresh” as of December 2017). They both share an 8xBA driver count, with the U8 packing half its total driver complement into a quad-low setup, using two each for the mid and high ranges, and utilising a slightly more traditional 3-way crossover in comparison to the more complex 5-way system employed on the Athena.

    In terms of packaging and accessories, the honours are fairly evenly split. The 64 Audio loadout is more pocket or bag friendly, but just lacks a little bit of pizzazz in direct comparison to the more high end feel of the EE offering. Fit, aesthetics and comfort aren’t a fair comparison here, as I opted for the CIEM version of the Athena, utilising one of EEs spectacular looking Abalone faceplates to really make the IEM stand out visually, in stark contrast to my “none more black” set of U8s, which look cool in a functional Henry Ford Model T kind of way, but don’t really set the heart pumping or caress the inside of the ears like a good custom fit.

    Sound wise, in the lows the Athena’s slightly higher than neutral bass presence doesn’t really compete with the U8 and its quad-woofer setup here. The bass still feels present, but slightly “flat” in direct comparison to the ultra-textured 64 Audio model, with less sub bass presence and a slight emphasis on midbass in direct comparison to the more evenly distributed U8 (although the U8 has more bass across the board, it is more evenly balanced between the two areas). Listening to something like “Palladio” by Escala on the 64 Audio model, the brooding cello sweeps that build up as the song gets going feel thicker and more textured, with a heavier sub-bass rumble and rounding to the sound. This is hardly surprising given the U8 is the basshead model of the 64 Audio series, so while the Athena is certainly not anaemic or bass-light in sound, the U8 is definitely the winner here if you are looking for a monitor with a more emphasised and bass-capable low end.

    If bass is the normal playground of the 64 Audio line, the midrange is traditionally the area of strength for Empire Ears, and that is how it plays out here. Where the U8 has a nicely laidback and smooth feel to the sound in this area, the Athena matches that smoothness, but pushes the sound further forward in front of the bass and has an almost effortless sense of clarity in direct comparison. For guitar and vocal based music, the Athena is the more aggressive and energetic of the two sounds, with comparatively less warmth in the midrange and a little more edge to the individual notes.

    Vocals are pushed further forward on the stage, with a greater feeling of clarity in comparison to the more velvety and rounder presentation of the U8. The U8 certainly doesn’t feel veiled in the mids, but once you have adjusted to the Athena’s more forward styling, there is a touch more micro-detailing and clarity apparent around the fringes of the sound in direct comparison to the 64 Audio model. The U8 counters with a sweeter tinge to the sound and a touch more weight around the upper bass/lower midrange transition, so this is more a battle of styles than a clear win or loss for either IEM. Listening to “Black Muddy River” from Gregg Allman’s last album, the Athena just has the edge in terms of the vocal delivery and delicacy of the gossamer-like acoustic guitar that is so gently layered in the back of the mix. In comparison, the U8 presents the track in a warmer and more euphonic style, with Allman’s voice a little further back against the instrumentation and the guitars almost fading into nothingness in the edge of the sound.

    Treble is similar on both, neither monitor having a particularly emphasised or sparkly top end. The Athena is the crisper of the two in this regard, with a dash more emphasis in the highs and a more even balance between mids and treble in comparison to the slightly attenuated (in volume, not extension) top end of the U8. Clarity and detailing is again edged by the Athena here, just adding in a little extra dash of perceived resolution over the smoother 64 model. Neither model is tuned with any harshness in the upper frequencies, making both a very smooth and crystal clear ride with most of my music collection.

    Soundstage is won by the U8, with a larger presentation and more space between the instruments. In fairness, EE do offer the option of an ADEL port (the predecessor to their own APEX tech that was used by 64 Audio up until recently), so this may even the odds somewhat, but I haven’t had the pleasure of spending any time with an ADEL-equipped Empire model as yet, so I can’t confirm that for certain. Layering is a mixed bag, with the U8 comfortably holding the whip hand in the lower end, but passing the torch to the Athena once you leave the bass-ment. Separation feels a touch better to me on the U8, with the additional soundstage size coming in to play here – it is marginal though, with both IEMs being very capable in this regard.

    In terms of gear synergy and driving power, the U8 is harder to drive than the Athena by a considerable margin (about 15 volume steps out of 120 on my Sony A36), although neither are in the hard to drive bracket. The U8 is also more susceptible to changes in source output impedance, becoming leaner and cleaner as the OI goes up, whereas the Athena is more stable. Finally, the U8 definitely wins the battle of the background noise if that is something that bothers you, with the Athena inheriting its ability to hiss with almost all but the most silent of sources directly from its big brother the Zeus. To be fair, neither IEM produces a level of noise that I feel is noticeable when the music is on, so this is just for the sticklers out there.

    Overall, both models are excellent examples of what can be achieved in the $1k IEM bracket, providing tunings that are musical and engaging, without crossing the line into overly analytical or losing sight of the music in pursuit of technical perfection. The fact that both monitors also possess excellent technical aspects is an added bonus. As far as calling an outright winner, I can’t make my mind up – the U8 offers a velvety richness to the sound and sweetness to the tone that is very addictive, and sounds good with almost all genres of music, the additional push down into the sub bass frequencies really rounding out the sound into an almost speaker-like experience. The Athena has a more accomplished midrange and treble, yet still carries enough bass presence and warmth to sound engaging and musical. Overall, if I could only choose one I would probably err towards the Athena for its slightly better technical prowess without sounding analytical, but for day to day listening and just sheer enjoyment of music I can’t fault either IEM.

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    Campfire Audio Andromeda
    The Andromeda is the current co-flagship of the acclaimed Campfire Audio range, sporting 5 balanced armature drivers in comparison to the Athena’s 8, but utilising a proprietary resonating chamber (called TAEC technology) to achieve its excellent high end extension and staging. They are priced at around £1099 at time of writing, so slightly cheaper than the Athena.

    Starting with the bass, the Athena has more quantity than the Andromeda, which is north of neutral but not overly reknowned for its bass volume. Quality is again similar, both IEMs producing good texture and detail in the lower end, with the Andromeda sounding a little less forward and bodied than the warmer and more “in your face” style of the Athena. To be fair, neither IEM could be considered a basshead tuning, so please take this in context, but the Athena definitely feels like it delivers more substance in the low end, possibly at the expense of a little of the tautness and control that the Andromeda shows in this regard. Sub bass is won by the Athena, with a little more overall impact in this region than the Andromeda.

    Moving to the mid-range, this is definitely a battle of different styles, with the Athena presenting a much more forward sound in the vocal ranges, pushing the singer right to the front of the stage and halfway over the front row. As explained in the main body of this review, this can take a little getting used to at first – in comparison, the more neutral positioning and “cooler air” of the Andromeda staging leads to the Andro initially seeming like the more detailed and clearer monitor. Once the brain kicks in to the Athena signature, there is less of an obvious difference, but the Athena still feels less expansive and spread out than the Andro. Guitars have a crunchier and more crystalline tone on the Andromeda, feeling slightly more organic on the Athena. The resolution of both monitors here is excellent, with the Athena providing more body and emphasis in the midrange in comparison to the more neutral but still exceptional sounding Andromeda.

    Treble is presented very differently on both IEMs, with the Athena putting out a clear and clean treble, but lacking in air and sparkle in comparison to the more soaring and spacious Andromeda. The Andromeda also has the better perceived extension here, the space around the notes in the rafters giving the impression of a much higher “ceiling” for the sound. Neither monitor is prone to sibilance with most tracks, with the Athena being the slightly smoother and more forgiving of the two in this regard.

    Accessories and loadout is better on the Empire IEM, with their carrying case and various bags and cloths giving a slightly more luxurious feel than the standard Campfire presentation, with the exception of the SPC Litz cable provided with the Andro. Build quality is a draw, with the high quality acrylic CIEM manufacture looking flawless on the Empire gear, and standing up well to the iconic all-metal Andromeda design. Comfort and isolation wouldn’t be fair to compare, as the Athena is a CIEM and the Andromeda is a universal model with a famously polarising angular design, which either fits like a glove or feels like sticking a modern art sculpture into your inner ear (fortunately, I’m in the former category).

    Separation and layering are a mixed bag, with the warmer and more forward Athena still doing an excellent job of peeling the sound back into layers around the listener, but sometimes lacking the more airy and widescreen style presentation of the Andromeda and the additional space between instruments on the soundstage that provides.

    The Athena is actually one of the only IEMs in my collection easier to drive than the Andromeda, and hisses marginally less on my less forgiving sources, which was surprising. The Andro are hands down the easiest to drive but least forgiving of hissy sources of any piece of audio gear I have heard on my audio journey so far, so if the hiss on the EE model bothers you, I would suggest that the Andro may not be your cup of tea in that regard.

    Overall, these are two very different IEM tunings, neither of which comes out as a clear winner. If you like your sound crystal clear and spacious while hovering around the musical/neutral border, I would suggest the Andromeda. If you prefer a more forward midrange and slightly warmer and more musical slant to proceedings, the Athena will be the winner here. with both IEMs providing bags of resolution, detail and texture, neither would be a bad choice in this price bracket.

    [​IMG]

    JH Audio / Astell & Kern Angie (V1)
    The Angie is one of the original “Siren Series” models from the universal IEM series launched by Jerry Harvey Audio and the reknowned DAP manufacturer Astell & Kern. Like the Athena, it is an 8-driver all balanced armature affair, packing in two bass drivers, two for the midrange and JH Audio’s proprietary quad-high driver setup (called soundrIVe). It also packs in the phase alignment waveguides that the JH series of IEM are famous for, called Freqphase. When originally launched, the Angie retailed at around the $1099 mark, and the second “Full Metal Jacket” series version with the all metal housing still holds a similar price.

    Like the Athena, it is positioned below the flagship models, but also like the Athena, it is certainly capable of locking horns with many IEMs in that sort of category from other manufacturers. Starting with the build end ergonomics, the Angie is one of the largest IEMs (custom or otherwise) I have come across, with a universal shell that is actually bigger than the full-CIEM version of the Athena. It shares a similar build quality and aesthetics, with a full carbon fibre weave shell and black and red faceplates that look absolutely superb. Fit wise, the Athena win the battle (as you would expect), with the Angie sitting very comfortably in the bowl of my ear, but protruding out by about half a cm on either side, making them look a little like Frankenbolts.

    In terms of comfort, the JH Audio model are actually surprisingly ergonomic, and provide a similar level of insertion / seal with their ultra long nozzle as the Athena CIEM. Both models can be worn for hours without too much issue, and both feel pretty pleasant in the ear, with the Athena just edging the comfort battle due to their custom moulded nature.

    Moving on to sound, the Athena has a similar sort of tuning to the Angie, being marginally more warm in tone but sharing a similar forwardness in the midrange. The Angie have a tunable bass capable of being varied by up to 10dB (centred around the 60Hz band), and at my “default” setting on the tuning cable of between 2 and 3pm on the dials, they have slightly more mid-bass presence than the Athena. The JH model exhibits more of a mid bass “hump” than the Athena, with a little more overall volume in that region, trading off some of the snap that the Athena is capable of for a slightly meatier impact and longer lingering aftereffect. Listening to something like “Bad Rain”, the Angie has a slightly heavier boom to the kick drum, and a slightly “wetter” feel to the bassline as it kicks in, with texture detail pretty even between the two.

    Sub bass extension and overall presence is similar on both IEMs, with the Angie having a little more quantity and rumble, but both staying in the same ballpark. Both IEMs handle the drop down into sub bass well, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” being equally well handled as the bassline scrapes along the floor. As the frequencies keep dropping, both monitors start to lose body and emphasis, presenting a sub bass that has a little rumble but no massive sense of presence. Neither monitor would be my go-to if I was looking for something to excel with sub-bass driven genres, but for rock and guitar or orchestra based instruments (my day to day listening), both monitors are firmly in their comfort zone.

    Moving on to the midrange, both the Angie and the Athena share a forward slant to their tuning, with both presenting a detailed and emotive mid range, especially for vocals. It is difficult to call between the two IEMs, with the Athena presenting the vocals in a slightly denser and more concentrated manner to my ears, with the Angie just feeling a slight bit more diffuse. Vocals are the star of the show in both presentations, artists like Beth Hart and Foy Vance coming through with a sense of emotion that lesser monitors can sometimes fail to capture. There really is little to split the two IEMs in the midrange, both faring very well with electric and acoustic guitar-led tunes, having enough crunch to keep them exciting but both erring on the side of body and roundness rather than presenting any jaggedness or raw edges. Sibilance isn’t really an issue with either IEM either, both being rather forgiving to all but the most harshly recorded tracks. Detail levels are similarly high on both IEMs, with the Angie having slightly more “overt” detail retrieval when it comes to picking up the finer micro-detail around scuffed guitar notes and room noises, but sharing a similar sense of clarity to the Athena otherwise.

    It really does take a microscope to split these two IEMs in this area for me, with the most discernible difference to my ears is the slightly wider sense of separation in the X axis on the Athena, and the slightly deeper and more 3D feeling instrument positioning on the Angie.

    Lastly, the treble is an area where I would say the Angie has a slight lead, using half of its 8-BA layout to provide plenty of detailing and a nice sense of airiness and extension. The Athena feels a little blacker and more closed in as you climb into the upper echelons, presenting a thicker but not hyper sharp treble that is certainly more than capable but not quite as delicate as the JH Audio model. Neither feel hugely sparkly or razor sharp, both being bested by something like the Campfire Audio Andromeda in this particular regard, but in both cases it suits the rest of the tuning for the monitor.

    In terms of power requirements, the Angie is considerably harder to drive than the Athena, requiring 10 to 12 additional clicks (out of 75) on my LG V30 to attain the same volume levels as the Athena. The Angie also hiss considerably less than the Athena on my noisier sources, maintaining a blacker background with things like the Hifiman Supermini.

    These two IEMs have far more similarities than differences, being vocal-centred and forgiving takes on a technically proficient but musical sound. Or in other words, they both sound great without any massive leaning towards bass or treble, and they push the vocals just far enough forward and pack them with just enough detail to really capture the listener. These IEMs slot perfectly into most rock and acoustic genres, so much so that I can’t split these two out into one clear winner, with both having subtle but appreciable differences in longer listening sessions that will suit slightly different genres of music better for my personal tastes. If the ability to alter the bass output matters to you, and you aren’t worried by the huge shell size compared to similar 8 driver models on the market, then the Angie may be your thing – if you are looking for a smaller, slimmer design with a slightly more solid feel to the midrange and similarly superb vocals, the Athena will be your go to.

    [​IMG]

    Empire Ears Zeus-XR (CIEM)
    The Zeus-XR is the current flagship of the Empire Ears Olympus range (as of late December ’17), and is widely acknowledged as one of the most technically proficient IEMs currently on the market in the TOTL bracket. It has almost double the number of balanced armatures providing the sound as the Athena, with a whopping 14-BA setup, and a tuneable sound signature (by means of a switch on the faceplate) which switches between 7 or 8 crossovers to give two unique flavours to the sound. It currently retails for around $2400 without the ADEL module.

    For the purposes of this comparison, I mainly used the XIV setting on the Zeus, as this shares a more similar tuning ethos – I also used the Athena with the Whiplash SPC cable that came with the Zeus, as this presented a slightly clearer and more enjoyable sound to my ears than the Athena stock cable (marginally, not massively). Sonically, the two IEMs are cut from the same cloth, with the Athena presenting a slightly more musical take on what the Zeus can achieve, at the cost of a small percentage of the absolute clarity and resolution the 14-driver flagship is capable of.

    Starting with the bass, the Athena sounds slightly more emphasised in the low end than the Zeus, although neither stray anywhere near basshead territory. The speed and detailing are similar through both IEMs, sharing a similar resolution, and the Athena also shares the Zeus’ uncanny ability to resolve drum sounds as realistically as anything I have ever heard. Moving up to the midrange, the XIV has a similarly forward tuning as the Athena, and is highly resolving, but feels just a fraction in front of the Athena when compared directly. Through a good source, the Zeus just feels like it is squeezing a tiny bit more texture out of the notes, and presents it with a touch more clarity. As anyone who is familiar with top-end in ear monitors will be familiar with, this really is in the realms of diminishing returns, but noticeable nonetheless.

    The treble is slightly less of a struggle, with the Zeus pulling ahead in quality and detail retrieval, but keeping a similar sort of tonality to the Athena, just presenting a little more of the good stuff. In fact, the additional capability up top is probably the major differentiator between these two IEMs, diffusing some of the warmth that is more prevalent in the presentation of the Athena and presenting a slightly cleaner but still musical take on things. When the switch on the Zeus is flicked to the R (for “Reference”) setting, this becomes more obvious, feeling like someone has opened the door in a stuffy room and let some cooling air in to the Zeus’ signature.

    In terms of separation and layering, the Zeus-XR is the more capable IEM, the extra little nuances of detail here and there and the less warm background allowing the music to be presented with more pinpoint accuracy than the already excellent Athena. The Athena goes for a more smooth and laid-back vibe in comparison, with the Zeus just melting away a little more of the fat around the notes to present everything in crystal clarity.

    Overall, this was a far closer battle than I first expected (or my ears tell me when listening separately). Both IEMs are obviously tuned with the same aim, and unless you are shooting for the absolute best, the Athena will satisfy all but the most ridiculous demands for detail retrieval and overall sound quality – however, if you are willing to stump up the extra c. $1k, the Zeus will take you a few small steps further up the audio mountain, and also allow you to tweak the sound slightly between a cooler and more reference signature (the R setting) and the more mid forward and warmer XIV configuration. Personally, I’m very glad I own them both.

    [​IMG]

    Final thoughts
    Having the privilege of writing about audio gear in this price bracket can be a double edged sword sometimes. When you are looking at something manufactured with this level of complexity, it is almost a given that all the performers will be technically excellent in multiple ways, so it is more a case of identifying if the excellence works for you and your preferences, rather than identifying if something is subjectively good or bad. Sometimes a piece of gear just “clicks”, and other times it grows on you like middle-aged spread, just chipping away unnoticed until it’s part of your listening status quo, and you can’t imagine yourself without it.

    Where it comes to the Athena, they hit me with an enjoyable signature almost from the off, but after spending a good few months with them, it is the extra bits and pieces hidden in the background that have really come to make me appreciate one of the unsung heroes of the Empire Ears line. There is clarity and resolution in spades if you know where to look for it. It isn’t the overt micro-detail that usually comes with accentuating the 5k region (or other areas of the frequency range to enhance or sharpen the sound) that is the most common way to build a “revealing” monitor in this sort of price bracket. The resolution and clarity from the Athena comes from the purity and cleanliness of the note presentation, and the highly capable layering and separation of space between the instruments. Nothing is overly sharpened, but it has just enough room to breathe despite the warmness of the staging to present the macro detail a little more cleanly in your ears, allowing you to rebuild the music in your head and “catch” little phrasings and instrumentation noises that can otherwise get drowned in the sound. To be clear, this won’t be the most hyper-resolving sound you will ever hear (for that, you should really be looking at the big brother of the EE range, the Zeus), but it will allow a surprising amount of insight in to the music for a signature so outwardly smooth and warm in presentation.

    Perception is an interesting thing – for fans of the EE lineup, the Athena is considered very much a “mid-range” monitor, being more expensive than the highly regarded Spartan and sitting way below the pinnacle of the series (the Zeus). This seems to lead to people skipping over this model in favour of one end of the scale or the other, but in my opinion this is an IEM that can (and should) be considered alongside some of the giants of the $1k price bracket like the Campfire Andromeda and the JH Audio Angie as a fine technical performer, with the requisite splash of that unique EE “house sound” to make it stand out from the crowd. It is a monitor that is musical rather than neutral, balanced rather than exaggerated and just damn fine sounding. If I didn’t already own the Zeus, I would quite easily think this was a TOTL effort from the manufacturer, rather than the third model in their pecking order, such is the sense of accomplishment with the tuning.

    For the price, these may not be the most neutral or “audiophile sounding” monitors out there (although they certainly aren’t lacking for technical prowess), but sometimes musicality is just more enjoyable than absolute technicality – it’s a line Campfire Audio tread well with their flagships, and having heard the Zeus-XR and now the Athena, I would say it’s something that Empire Ears can also do extremely well too. The Athena just miss out on the full 5 stars in the Audio Quality bracket due to the slight lack of air up top and the relatively subdued subbass, but that is purely subjective, and certainly doesn’t stop me considering them in the same sort of performance bracket as the highly lauded Andromeda. Value for money is similar – while $1299 is very competitive for an 8-driver IEM in this quality bracket, the existence of things like the Andro just stop the Athena from bagging the full house. It’s a well trodden line, but at this sort of price bracket the quality of sound really is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The Athena won’t be twice as good as a $600 iem (which is already pretty rareified air for all but the most hardcore audiophiles), but if you are looking for a musical but resolving IEM with plenty of soul and truly top notch build quality, the Athena is an easy recommendation.
      acap13, Grimbles and Wyville like this.
    1. Grimbles
      Really enjoyed this review mate
      Thanks for your thoughts. These are in the realms of pure dreams for me at the moment. But one day... :)
      Grimbles, Feb 2, 2018
  2. PokerFaze
    The Goddess of Wisdom - The Empire Ears Athena-VIII ADEL
    Written by PokerFaze
    Published Mar 6, 2017
    4.5/5,
    Pros - Amazing accessories, well balanced, rich and engaging sound, crystal clear and extended treble, silky smooth mids, punchy and well defined bass
    Cons - Isolation is subpar, mids might be too warm for classical music, ADEL module might flex for some, distant sound due to ADEL causes loss in resolution
     ​
    IMG_7692.jpg
    “When I close my eyes and listen,
    I don't just hear the music;
    feel it.”
     
    This is my first official review, so please, do leave me some feedback on how I did! Don’t be afraid to suggest improvements as well :)
     
    Full disclosure: I ordered and paid for with my own money, the non-ADEL version of the Athena via the local dealer, Music Sanctuary under the Black Friday 2016 promotion. After which, Jack offered to upgrade me to the ADEL version at a discounted rate in exchange for my honest feedback.
     
    Do note that this will not bias this review and my opinions as I approached this review objectively. I would have written this review regardless even if Jack didn’t ask for it.
     
    Due to a mix-up in the order, I have both the ADEL and non-ADEL versions of the Athena in my possession, which I will use extensively for the purpose of comparison for this review. However, please be reminded that this is a review for the ADEL version nonetheless.
     
    Please bear with me. This is a rather lengthy review, as I would like to leave no stone unturned and be very detailed as to portray as accurately as possible to you – the reader – the overall sound profile as well as the benefits and sacrifices that ADEL brings to the table.
     

    TL;DR

    Pros:

    Amazing accessories, well balanced, rich and engaging sound, crystal clear and extended treble, silky smooth mids, punchy and well defined bass, ADEL introduces health benefits
     

    Cons:

    Isolation is subpar, mids might be too warm for classical music, ADEL module might flex for some, distant sound due to ADEL causes loss in resolution and micro-detailing
     

     ​

    ee-reverse-logo.png

     

    EMPIRE EARS

    Starting out as EarWerkz, Empire Ears have come a long way. Their current line-up, the Olympus Series is as impressive as it sounds (pun-intended). From the (now famous) entry level 2-driver Supra, to the 14-driver behemoth of a flagship Zeus, there is an IEM for any sound signature preference.
     
    Recently, Empire have tag-teamed with Asius Technologies to now bring the ADEL technology to their IEMs.
     
     

    Customer Service

    This is where I will have to give credits where it’s due. As mentioned earlier, there was a mix-up in my order and when my IEMs first arrived, they were the regular non-ADEL Athena. After contacting DJ, who was very gracious about it, arranged for a new set to be built and shipped out the same week. Jack and DJ also allowed me to keep the non-ADEL unit for the duration of my writing of this review, and thus I am able to bring very detailed comparisons between the ADEL and non-ADEL Athena.
     
    I faced some issues with the ADEL MAM; the pressure that I feel with the right module is considerably more than the left, similar to that of a regular non-ADEL CIEM, and Jack has been very patient and has not once disappointed. Although, some of my emails did went unanswered until prompted. Jack put me in contact with Steve, also known as @canyonrunner here on Head-Fi and he too, has been extremely helpful when I was facing issues with the MAM.
     
     

    Athena-VIII ADEL

    I decided to get a custom IEM after suffering from non-fitting universal IEMs for a while now. I used to own a CIEM before from a local manufacturer, Advanced AcousticWerkes. However, they did not fit very well and I sold them away after they started to break seal. After which, I purchased a 2nd hand JH16 but never got around to reshelling them so I sold those away as well. I then purchased a JH Roxanne Universal V1 which I used for a while but sold them away after as well as they did not fit my ears very well.
     
    I stumbled across the Athena while I was at Music Sanctuary. I was auditioning IEMs that were within my budget before one of the staff there recommended the Hermes to me. I really enjoyed listening to the Hermes, and after some comparisons with other IEMs around the same price, I was almost adamant on getting it as the Hermes seems to fit my sound signature preferences best.
     
    Until I was introduced to the Athena.
     
    Long story short, I fell in love with it and bought the Athena on the spot. At the time, I purchased the non-ADEL Athena due to financial constraints. However, after researching up on ADEL, I realized that it might be something useful to me as I had extremely sensitive ears and the pressure build-up in my ears from using IEMs would get so bad after an hour that I would need to stop using them for a while.
     
    After some serious consideration, I figured “go big or go home” and asked Jack if it were possible for me to upgrade to the Athena ADEL. At that point, he offered to upgrade me at a discounted rate for my honest feedback and the rest is history.
     

     ​
    IMG_7722.jpg
     
    The unboxing was an experience that was like no other, in my opinion, even surpassing the like of Apple. All Empire IEMs come in a matte black box with the silver EE logo embossed on the top. Apollo and Zeus will come with a gold EE logo embossed instead.
     
    Opening the magnetic flap will reveal an EE logo from the dust bag right on top. Flipping that open will reveal the IEM pouch, cleaning cloth and beginners’ manual. Once those have been removed, you will come face to face with the EE Aegis case with your name (or whatever you have indicated when you order) engraved on it.
     
     ​
    IMG_7731.jpg
    That’s a lot of wings.

    Accessories

    Empire Ears Athena-VIII ADEL
     
    Empire Aegis Case
    Empire Dust Bag
    Empire IEM Pouch
    Empire Cleaning Cloth
    Cleaning Tool
     
    Empire Ears probably has the one of if not the best accessories pack out of any IEM manufacturer out there. While other manufacturers provide the bare minimum of a protective case and a cleaning tool, Empire goes all out and includes a dust bag and an IEM pouch that has the EE logo embossed on it on top of the laser-engraved personalized Aegis case and cleaning tool.

     

    Specifications

    8 Proprietary Empire Ears Drivers
    5-Way Crossover Design
    1. Triple High Drivers
    2. Triple Mid Drivers
    3. Dual Low Drivers
     

     ​
    IMG_7757.jpg
     
     
    I got my impressions done by a professional audiologist when I first ordered it from Music Sanctuary, and I got a perfect fit on my first try. Seal would not break no matter what I did, which includes shaking my head violently, doing jumping jacks, and pouncing around in circles. The fit is that good.
     
    I have always believed that less is more – I am a sucker for minimalism. Therefore, I went with a rather simple design; I got the ruby faceplates with a clear shell with the dual E logo on the right and the ADEL logo on the left. The result is just beautiful. The shade of the ruby faceplates was just gorgeous and the clear shell was extremely clear.
     
    The finish was really good as well. It is smooth all-around with no rough patch or edges. There were some tiny bubbles however, but that is unavoidable as they are made by hand and not 3D-printed.
     

     
    IMG_7763.jpg
     
    Do note that the section on sound is written based off the Athena ADEL with the stock cable using the M.A.M. set to fully open running out of my MacBook Pro using a combination of lossless FLAC and Spotify Premium Extreme.
     

    Soundstage

    With thanks to ADEL, the soundstage is very wide, and natural. It is also extremely 3D; instruments placement is very easy to spot and is well separated. Soundstage is also very immersive and it puts you right in the middle of the action; it is as if the band is surrounding you in a circle and performing.
     
    The overall sound is a little distant though, which makes it hard to pick up minor details although it adds to the overall immersion and separation. This is also no doubt one of the characteristics of ADEL which is why the Athena ADEL will never match the non-ADEL Athena in terms of resolution and technical prowess. The O1 “carrot” modules might change that though, but I have not tried them yet so I shall not digress.
     
     

    Bass

    Bass has a very prominent presence in the sound signature of the Athena. It is tight and punchy and full of definition. The bass is also very well controlled and doesn't bleed into the midrange or treble. The attack and decay is fast; the Athena is able to keep up well with fast tracks with ease. The sub-bass is articulated excellently and is extended, with depth texture, which contributes to the immersive sound signature of the monitor.
     
    When I listen to Roxanne by The Police, the drums in the beginning hit hard and fast with the reverberation afterwards makes my hair stand. There is also depth and texture to the reverberations; I could feel that the drums were organic and “alive”.
     
    The Athena, however, is not a bass-head monitor. The bass quantity will not satisfy bass-heads, especially so with ADEL, as bass is noticeably reduced.
     
     

    Midrange

    The midrange is very sweet sounding with absolutely no veil whatsoever. And while I would not describe the mids to be forward, they are definitely not recessed. It is very smooth and rich, and a little warm, making it very immersive and enjoyable.
     
    Female vocals, in particular, stand out the most. I really enjoyed listening to Adele’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall. Her powerful vocals coupled with the sweet, transparent and smooth sounding midrange prowess of the Athena sends me into euphoria and I am completely swept away; it was as if I was in the Royal Albert Hall sitting in the front row listening to her.
     
    With that being said, I do feel that the midrange can be a little bit too warm on certain kinds of music, such as classical piano music which makes it sound a little unnatural.
     
     

    Treble

    The treble is by far, my favourite aspect of the sound. It is ridiculous how extended and crystal clear the treble is. The treble is a little bit on the sparkly side but it is not aggressive and in-your-face. It is never sibilant to my ears, nor does it distort at high volumes. Detail retrieval is also insane and it is very, very clear.
     
    My favourite band is One Ok Rock. They are a Japanese band. When I listen to Kanzen Kankaku Dreamer from Niche Syndrome and Cry Out from XXXV – which are my 2 reference tracks, the cymbals on both of the tracks are so transparent and clear that I am able to hear each individual crash, that I was not able to hear before, which is just insane and every time those 2 tracks came on, I could feel Goosebumps at how good they sound.
     
     

    Overall Signature

    IMG_7736.jpg

     
    The Athena is very balanced with a slight emphasis on the bass. It is ever so slightly warm and has a very rich tonality to the sound, which results in a very dynamic and immersive signature. The Athena is full of energy and shines on genres such as Rock, EDM, and certain kinds of Pop. While the Athena is not the most versatile monitor out there, it is still certainly quite the chameleon. On slower and quieter genres such as acoustic and singer-songwriter, with thanks to the warmth and richness in the sound, are very immersive and intimate; it feels like the performer is performing the song right next to you.
     
    There is one genre that does not really perform well on the Athena: classical. While they do still sound good and extremely immersive (orchestral music is very thoroughly enjoyable), as mentioned in the midrange section, it is just a little too warm for my liking. The Athena also just does not have that sheer technical performance and resolution that will really bring out the best in the genre, so that is a point worth considering if your playlist is primarily classical.
     
    Personally, I’m a rock guy; 70% of my playlist is a sub-set of the rock genre, but I especially enjoy listening to old-school 80s to 90s Rock on the Athena.
     
    You will notice that I used the word “immersive” a lot when describing the sound. And that is because it is what I feel that the Athena does best. It immerses you into the music and it’s like you are in a whole other world. When I close my eyes and listen, I don't just hear the music; I feel it.
     

     ​

    IMG_7764.jpg

     

    Isolation:

    Let’s address the white elephant in the room. Isolation with ADEL is just not goodWhen the MAM is fully opened, with music playing at a reasonable listening volume, I can hear my surroundings. On the MRT (Singapore’s equivalent of the subway/metro), I am able to hear the announcements over the intercom with no difficulty. Even with the MAM fully closed, the isolation is still pretty subpar.
     
    Definitely a downside if you are used to the isolation of a regular CIEM. On the Brightside though, you are able to hear when someone is calling out to you, and there is also some safety benefit when using the ADEL CIEM while you are commuting as you are able to hear your surroundings. This is all done on the assumption that the volume is set to a reasonable listening volume though.
     
     

    Fit:

    If I were to describe the difference of the fit in terms of pneumatic pressure in 3 words it would be the following: night and day.
     
    Using the non-ADEL unit was comfortable. I got a perfect fit the first time, and the seal would not break no matter what I did. But my ears are rather sensitive to pressure, so after using the Athena for an hour or so, the pressure build up and ear fatigue would be so bad that I would have to take the IEMs out and let my ears rest for a while.
     
    ADEL changes everything. Right off the bat when I put the Athena ADEL into my ears, I could feel the difference. The pressure is simply not there. Y'know the "locking" of any CIEM that you put into your ears and the vacuum seal? It is simply not there. And so, I am able to use the Athena upwards of over 4-5 hours at a time and still not feeling the pressure build up. It is like magic.
     
     

    Non-ADEL vs. MAM:

    With the ADEL MAM set to fully open, some of the bass is taken away. Don't get me wrong, the bass boost is still there, just that a little of it has been shed off, and suddenly I found the Athena to be more versatile than ever. It has become less warm and more balanced in nature, but at the same time not losing that energy that makes the Athena so enjoyable. Not only that, the soundstage has now been opened up. If you were to ask me, the thing that I missed the most from the Roxanne is the crazy huge soundstage that the non-ADEL Athena just does not have. However, with the ADEL MAM, I find the soundstage to be very comparable to the soundstage on the Roxanne, but at the same time being more natural and it is simply mind-blowing to me.
     
    When I adjust the MAM to fit each individual ear, suddenly, most of the pressure is gone. It is a weird feeling at first; it is as if you are not using any IEM at all. It feels very “natural” for a lack of a better word. While the most of the pressure has been released, I experienced a significant issue with the membrane flexing. It got so extreme to the point that it got pretty annoying really quick so I usually don’t really bother with it and just leave the MAM fully open. As for sound, the soundstage has now opened up considerably however, there is a major loss in the bass and sub-bass presence.
     
    When it is closed all the way, the sound is similar to the non-ADEL Athena, but it is just not quite there yet. Bass impact and overall sub-bass presence is still lesser than that of the non-ADEL unit.
     
    The non-ADEL unit still sounds more intimate and less distal, as such, it is easier to pick up minute details. Some resolution and micro-detailing is definitely lost when ADEL is implemented. As such, in terms of raw, unadulterated technical prowess is still better on the non-ADEL unit.
     
    As for pneumatic pressure, even with the MAM all the way close, I still feel less pneumatic pressure in my ears than the non-ADEL unit.
     
     

    Non-ADEL vs. B1:

    With the B1, the Athena ADEL is definitely more balanced than the non-ADEL unit. The bass has been reduced rather noticeably and sub-bass has less presence. I did find the sub-bass to be a little thin and there is not as much rumble. Treble is clearer and is more articulate. Bass is more controlled and tight. Soundstage on the B1 is definitely much wider than that of the non-ADEL Athena.
     
     

    Non-ADEL vs. G1:

    Unlike the B1, there is rumble in the sub-bass and is very well textured, but at the same time is very controlled and not all over the place. Treble is slightly elevated and more present. Overall bass presence of the G1 is rather similar to the non-ADEL unit; roughly 80% as much as the non-ADEL Athena. As always, soundstage on the G1 is wider than that of the non-ADEL unit.
     

     

    G1 vs. B1 vs. MAM:

    The G1 will be used as the point of comparison for this segment, as the B1 and MAM are actually rather similar.
     
    In terms of sound signature, The G1 has the most bass out of all of the ADEL modules. The amount of bass is on par with the MAM fully closed, but with less isolation. Treble is also the most aggressive with the G1. The B1 and MAM gives the Athena a balanced sound; no one frequency is more prominent than the others, but at the same time, retaining the energy of the Athena sound signature. 
     
    The G1 overall increases the bass and treble, but at the same time retaining a balanced sound; the G1 does not make the Athena sound V-shaped. The MAM and B1 are rather similar in signature, with the MAM being able to control the isolation and soundstage.
     
    Soundstage however, is smallest on the G1. B1 has a wider soundstage while the MAM has the widest soundstage when adjusted to each individual ear. In addition, it is also possible to control how large the soundstage is when using the MAM. However, when the MAM is fully closed, the soundstage is slightly smaller than the G1.
     
    Isolation is worst on the MAM when it is adjusted to each individual ear, but is the best when fully closed. The B1 and the G1, as well as the MAM fully open have similar levels of noise isolation and comes between the MAM fully opened and MAM adjusted to each individual ear.
     

    Comparisons

    All comparisons were done using the Athena ADEL with stock cable and the MAM on fully open. Do note that comparisons were done using the universal demo sets against my custom Athena.
     
    Disclaimer: all demo units used for comparison are from the aforesaid local dealer, Music Sanctuary. I am in no way affiliated for Music Sanctuary nor do I work for them. I chose these IEMs for comparison as I feel that they will be a good gauge of performance for the Athena ADEL and comparisons that I think will be of interest to you, the reader.
     

    ZEUS XRA

    All comparisons done with MAM fully open with stock cable on both IEMs.
     

    Zeus-Reference

    The Zeus-R ADEL is much brighter than the Athena ADEL. The mids are less forward and there is significantly less bass. It is also less warm than the Athena ADEL. The Zeus-R is more resolving and as such, there is more details.
     
    The treble is much clearer but less tamed than the Athena. There is much more sparkle and details. The mids are not as smooth as the mids on the Athena ADEL, but they are more natural sounding and transparent than the warmer sounding Athena. There is less slam and authority in the bass and rumble in the sub-bass. Soundstage on the Zeus is slightly more open than the Athena.
     

    Zeus-XIV

    The Zeus-XIV ADEL is still brighter than the Athena, however now, the mids are elevated and the bass has more authority. The Athena ADEL is still warmer sounding than the Zeus-XIV and there is more bass on the Athena.
     
    The treble is identical to that of the Zeus-R. However, the mids are more forward and smoother but is not as warm and sweet-sounding than the Athena. Vocals on the Athena are more prominent and sweet. Bass still does not has as much authority than the Athena and the sub-bass still has less rumble. The bass is more controlled on the Zeus and is tighter.
     

    64 Audio A12

    The A12 is darker sounding than the Athena. The treble on the A12 is less extended and transparent than the Athena. The mids are more forward and smoother on the A12. Vocals are also sweeter sounding and more intimate. The bass is also punchier and the sub-bass has more presence and rumble. The bass on the A12 is deeper and more textured than the bass on the Athena.
     
    However, the soundstage on the Athena completely blows the A12 out of the water, which could be attributed to ADEL vs. APEX. Detailing on the Athena is also better than that of the A12 as the Athena is brighter sounding. Overall, the A12 is smoother sounding than the Athena. The A12 is more lush and full sounding too.
     

    64 Audio A10

    The treble on the A10 is less extended than the Athena. However, in terms of transparency they are rather comparable. The mids on the Athena is smoother and more forward. The Athena is also warmer-sounding. There is also more bass on the Athena.
     
    Compared to the A10, the bass is deeper and and has more authority. Sub-bass is also more textured and has more presence. The Athena is more rich and lush. However, the A10 is more balanced than the Athena. Soundstage is also much wider on the Athena.
     

    Jomo Samba

    The Samba is brighter and faster than the Athena. The mids are more forward on the Athena and is also fuller sounding. The Athena is warmer than the Samba, therefore, the Samba is more balanced.
     
    The Samba is also more resolving and has better detail retrieval than the Athena. The Athena has more bass and sub-bass presence. The bass on the Athena is deeper and has more texture. Overall, the Athena is smoother and more lush and full sounding than the Samba.
     

     
    IMG_7780.jpg
     
    For those who care, or is interested, here is my current set up at the time of writing.
     

    Cable

    I am currently pairing the Athena-ADEL with a cable from a popular Singaporean outfit, SG AudioHive. SG AudioHive has raked up a reputation in the local audio scene as a brand who sells upgrade cables at an extremely affordable price while still not compromising quality. They also provide repair services for cables, IEMs, and headphones.
     
    The particular cable that I purchased from them is a pre-production 4-braid 26 AWG Silver-Plated Copper Litz. The exact model and its series is not finalized yet, but I will update this review when it has been finalized!
     
    In comparison to the stock cable, the SG AudioHive cable adds additional sub-bass presence with the bass being punchier. The treble has also been ever so slightly lifted, resulting in slightly more extension adding to the overall sparkle.
     
    Aesthetics too, do not disappoint. The braid-work is excellent and the Y-Splitter is made of a bronze-coloured metal with some leather wrapped around with a wooden ball slider, which is rather rustic and charming; I really like it.
     
    Overall, the sound adds to the overall dynamics and while it will not blow $200-$300 cables out of the water, it is an excellent replacement or first upgrade cable.
     
    Unfortunately, SG AudioHive is currently only accepting local orders.
     
    IMG_7773.jpg
     

    Source

    Being broke after purchasing the Athena ADEL, I am just running it out of my Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and my MacBook Pro :)
     
    As the Athena is very sensitive, the hiss is pretty substantial with both sources, and sometimes, I will admit, it is rather distracting. However, for my current finances I just cannot afford to purchase a dedicated player unfortunately.
     

     ​
    IMG_7782.jpg
     
    The Athena is the full package; it is an excellent sounding monitor, and the accessories that come with them are unparalleled. The shell work is excellent, it is comfortable and the build is of extremely high quality.
     
    But you may ask:
     
    Is ADEL any good?
    I would say that It is subjective. Sure, the Athena ADEL is not as resolving as the non-ADEL Athena; the minor nuances and some detailing is lost, making the Athena ADEL not as technically capable as the non-ADEL Athena; sure, the isolation is not very good, but the changes in the sound; the versatility of being able to change the signature slightly by swapping out ADEL modules, and health benefits are also some points to consider.
     
    Personally, I would grab the Athena ADEL any day.
     
    Is it “end-game” potential?
    Definitely. (but then again, who am I kidding, this hobby is never-ending)
     
    Is it worth the money?
    You’re darn sure it is.
      acap13, Wyville, proedros and 7 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. linux4ever
      Very well written review. Every detail was covered in concise paragraphs. The comparisons with ADEL & Non-ADEL and other IEMs was very informative. Keep writing more. There are many good DAPs available from $150-$500 and once you pair it with your IEMs you'll be rocking non-stop :)
      linux4ever, Mar 9, 2017
    3. PokerFaze
      @Burma Jones:
      Thank you very much for the kind words! :)
       
      @willywill:
      The only IEMs in this review that I own are the Athena ADEL. The rest are demo units from Music Sanctuary and the non-ADEL unit will be returned to Empire this weekend. If you read the review properly, I did mention that in the review itself.
       
      @ironpeg:
      Thank you very much for the kind words! :)
       
      @linux4ever:
      Thank you! I try my best to make the most out of my comparisons to benefit those that do not have access to the IEMs as well as ADEL and non-ADEL!  I'm actually saving up for the Fiio X5III at the moment, hopefully, I can purchase one soon.
      PokerFaze, Mar 10, 2017
    4. linux4ever
      Fiio X5iii seems to be having good specs, good day chips and many good features and at the price point of US$399. Can't beat that. all the best in getting your Fiio X5iii soon.
      linux4ever, Mar 11, 2017

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