Empire Ears Empire Studio Reference (E.S.R)

General Information

Empire Ears Empire Studio Reference (E.S.R)

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Pros: Balanced, non-fatiguing sound
Cons: Shallow fit
Female vocals attenuated
Needs a good quality cable to shine
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I acquired these from a fellow headfier after being captured by their sound at the recent London Canjam.
They came with a single-ended Ares II cable which I sent back to Effect Audio in Singapore to be upgraded to a 4.4mm balanced 8W. I had bought a second hand 2.5mm balanced Ares II 4W just before the upgrade offer was released so will also be comparing the 4W to the 8W.

Hardware:
iBasso DX228 (Mango OS, High gain, Apodizing filter), Fiio 4.4mm-2.5mm adapter. All hardware, IEMs and cabling is my own.

Specifications:
3 balanced armatures with a custom 4-way crossover.
Frequency response: 10Hz - 40kHz.
UPOCC 26AWG 2-pin Effect Audio Ares II cable available in single ended and balanced terminations.

Design and Fit:
A rather bland and uninspiring form factor. The acrylic universal shell is a little thicker in the midsection compared to my iBasso IT04s. The resultant shallow depression straddling the helical crus means that they protrude a little more and feel less secure in my ears. The shorter nozzle also contributes to this feeling of relatively shallow insertion. I used the supplied bi-flange silicone tips.

Playlist: A mixture of 16/24 bit FLAC and DSD256, ripped from CD via JRiver Media Centre.

Level 42 – Children Say (acoustic version)
Hot Chip – Hungry Child
Daft Punk – Voyager
Goldfrapp – Anymore
Boards of Canada - roygbiv
Robyn – Dancing On My Own
Anden – Walls (extended mix)
Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer
Level 42 – Dream Crazy
Bjork – It’s In Our Hands
Jo Hisaishi – The Sixth Station
Imagination – In The Heat Of The Night

Sound:

Lows: The midbass is mellow but a little dry. Still articulate though. On Hungry Child I notice that the subbass does not bleed into the mid bass or mids leaving the vocals and keyboards clear. On Sledgehammer the fretless bass loses some texture and timbre. I would say a good example of BA bass overall but lacking a little attack.

Mids: Overall smooth delivery of horns, keyboards and guitars. Full male vocals and brass. The piano and strings on The Sixth Station are particularly rich. Unfortunately female vocals are sweetened and ever so slightly thin. Not what you want from Bjork or Goldfrapp!

Highs: Textured and crisp transients but occasionally sweetened. Not particularly energetic or “fun”, though.

The soundstage is moderate in width and depth but lacks that “out of head” feeling or presence from other monitors (e.g. IT04).

My notes from listening to the 8W all have the same statements: “increased definition and separation”, “wider soundstage”, “increased channel steering”, “better grip on lower frequencies” but also “female vocals still a little sweetened”.

Would I buy the 8W over the 4W? Absolutely. If I already had the 4W? Probably, as I am always chasing that ever elusive magical sound shower. I'll probably upgrade the 4W into something else when the opportunity presents itself.

Summary: The ESR sound is balanced with no part of the tonal spectrum emphasised over another. A little warm and dry but non-fatiguing to listen to.

It would be interesting to compare the copper Ares II to a SPC or hybrid cable as I have a feeling that these might cool the sound and open up the soundstage a little more. Stay tuned for that review…..
Pros: Neutral tonality
Excellent stock cable
Decent accessories
Freedom to customize (termination and universal vs custom)
Cons: Shell may be too large for some
Nozzle is short and there’s no lip to secure the ear tips
Injecting the knowledge obtained from the studio into the development of the Empire Studio Reference (ESR), Empire Ears tuned this in-ear monitor (IEM) uniquely for discerning producers and engineers who need a neutral, uncolored reference IEM.

DISCLAIMER
This review is also posted on Headphonesty. I bought this pair of IEMs at full retail price. This is not a sponsored post, but an honest review written from a consumer’s point of view. Dollar to performance ratio is included below.

Introduction
Gathering a team of passionate engineers, musicians, and audiophiles, Empire Ears desires to design the finest IEMs in the world. With over 30 years of experience in this industry, Empire Ears successfully realized its ambitions with the release of the award-winning Zeus in 2015. The Legend X soon took over the Zeus’s legacy and it continues to prove Empire Ears’s quality in the industry.

"As the leader in our industry we are committed to never give up in our search for the extraordinary. Immersive sound signatures, cutting-edge design, and unrivaled build quality are the hallmarks of our IEM systems." - Empire Ears

Leveraging the experience gained in building the well-received Spartan, ESR is designed to present a more refined neutrality across the frequency spectrum. Adding pleasant warmth and greater body to the sound, it yields a more exciting midrange and ultimately generates greater resolution.

With this implementation, the ESR stands out for its well-balanced sound. It is one of the most balanced IEMs in Empire Ears's lineup. The ESR’s price to performance ratio creates a serious challenge to other IEM manufacturers. We will further discuss this in this review.
ESR_Instagram_1.jpg
- Empire Ears ESR -

Unboxing
I really like the packaging of Empire Ears: grand, elegant, while minimalistic. When you purchase any IEM from Empire Ears, the first thing that will catch your attention is the huge logo on the black box.
ESR_Logo.jpg
- A silver Empire Ears Logo will catch your attention immediately -

Opening the black box, you will find these accessories included:
  • Aegis Case
  • Carrying pouch for Aegis Case
  • Carrying pouch for ESR
  • Cleaning cloth
  • Final Audio Type E ear tips (XS, S, M, L, XL)
  • Cleaning tool
ESR_Accessories_1.jpg
- Cleaning cloth, quick start guide, and two pouches in the box. -

ESR_Aegis_Case.jpeg
- The Aegis Case. -

Opening the Aegis case, you find the ESR lying comfortably with the Effect Audio Ares II cable pre-installed. Besides the IEM, the additional ear tips and cleaning tool are also stored in the case.
ESR_Accessories_2.jpg
- Final Audio Type E ear tips and cleaning tool. -

ESR_With Cable.jpg
- ESR with pre-installed Effect Audio Ares II cable -

Specifications
  • 3 proprietary Empire Balanced Armature Drivers
  • 1 low, 1 mid, 1 high
  • 4-way synX crossover network
  • Resonance Mitigation Technology (A.R.C)
  • Impedance: 19.3 ohms @ 1kHz
  • Frequency response: 10 Hz - 40kHz
  • Sensitivity 112dB @ 1kHz, 1mW
  • UPOCC 26AWG handcrafted cable by Effect Audio
Build, Fit and Isolation
Empire Ears utilizes acrylic shell for most of its universal line-up. ESR has the same acrylic shell. The logo on the shell varies according to the models. The shell is relatively big when compared to other models such as the Jomo Audio Haka and Symphonium Audio Aurora that I recently reviewed.

However, the relatively large IEMs sit well in my ear with the correct choice of ear tips. I am using the Final Audio Type E ear tips provided in the box. I like these ear tips for their good isolation.
ESR_Front Look.jpg
- Gold Empire Ears logo on black acrylic shell -

There are 3 bores on the nozzle. The nozzle is relatively big and slightly shorter compared to other IEMs on the market. This might cause some issues in finding a good ear tip for the universal model for some users. I am lucky because the Type E ear tips fit me well.
ESR_nozzle.jpg
- 3 bores found on the nozzle of ESR -

Empire Ears ESR utilizes a 0.78mm non-recessed 2 pin connector. This is a common market standard, so a lot of third party cables can be found to replace or upgrade the original cable.
ESR_Connector.jpg
- 0.78mm non-recessed 2-pin connector found on top of the shell -

The cable provided in the box is the Effect Audio Ares II: a 26AWG Ultra Purity Ohno Continuous Cast (UPOCC) copper cable. This is an excellent cable with rigid braiding and a strong right-angled 3.5mm jack. When ordering this IEM, I was given the freedom to choose the termination: 2.5mm, 3.5mm, or 4.4mm. I chose 3.5mm so I can pair it with most of my amplifiers and digital audio players (DAPs).
ESR_cable.jpg
- Effect Audio Ares II -

ESR_Jack.jpg
- A rigid right-angled 3.5mm jack -

ESR_2 pin.jpg
- 2 pin connector with heat-shrinked ear guides -

ESR_Y split.jpg
- Black Y-split with Effect Audio and Empire Ears logo -

Pairing
For this review, I paired ESR with the Sony NW-WM1A, one of my favourite DAPs, and I used the unbalanced cable. For ear tips, I used the Final Audio Type E ear tips which are included in the package.
ESR_pairing.jpg
- Empire Ears ESR with Sony NW-WM1A -

Sound
Based on the ESR’s name itself, I suspected the presentation would be rather flat and dull before even listening to this IEM. Most of the studio reference IEMs exhibit this kind of sound signature in my experience.

Wrong! So very wrong. I “wowed” instantly when I first listened to this IEM. It is lively and full of emotions.

The overall sound signature can be considered neutral. I read some reviews while I listened to this IEM and noted that some reviewers do not consider it to be a neutral IEM. Here I wish to clarify what neutral means to me. Normally I call an IEM neutral when there is no emphasis or deficit at any region in the frequency spectrum. I think ESR did very well here. I call this a neutral IEM.

The response is very fast and accurate. This speed and accuracy is essential for musicians, artists, and engineers when producing music. The soundstage is wide and deep. I cannot find an IEM that has a better soundstage than Empire Ears’s IEMs. This is one of the unique selling points of Empire Ears.

Details are well-separated and the layering of instruments is presented decently. I do not find any congestion when listening to any of the review tracks. I can submerge myself in the sea of musicality when listening to ESR. It is an enjoyable reference IEM.
ESR_Instagram_2.jpg
- Another close look at Empire Ears ESR -

Lows
Deep, very deep. The depth of the soundstage is created mostly by the deep extension of the bass. The bass response is very fast and I appreciate fast bass (short decay duration). Slow bass (bass that decays slowly) can give a track more emotion and may be more gentle on your eardrums, but slow bass bleeding into the mids is a big taboo.

The body is full and well controlled. The amount of bass does not affect the rest of the frequency spectrum. This IEM is precisely and accurately tuned by Empire Ears!

The sub-bass rumble is when the ESR begins to shine. I am not a bass head but I really appreciate good quality lows. I fell in love with the sub-bass when I first listened to this IEM.

The lows response is very different when compared to the X series from Empire Ears.

If you are a fan of the X series (Bravado, Legend X, etc), you might need to audition this before making an impulsive purchase.

X series has a softer approach in the bass regions, like a wave hitting the beach, while the ESR’s bass is like a punch hitting a sandbag. This kind of solid impact is the best description of the ESR’s bass. Nonetheless, it is very accurate and the presence is significant!
ESR_Instagram_3.jpg
- Empire Ears ESR -

Mids
If you read my previous reviews, you will understand how much I appreciate good mids. I am a Mandopop and Cantopop lover. Good vocals are essential for me. What does“good mids” mean to me? The texture needs to be thick enough. What do I mean?

Texture is how the vocals and other mid frequency instruments are combined in a composition, thus determining the overall presentation of the mids in a piece.

This is very tricky because the vocals become too honky when the texture is too thick. When the vocals are too thin, they lose the spotlight. The stage will be taken over by other frequency regions.

The ESR has a good grasp on texture. The mids are rich, thick, and juicy. It has sufficient air and space in the mids to make the vocalists sound lively. When I am listening to Teresa Teng, she sounds sweet and silky smooth.

I always use Teng’s tracks as a reference when writing my impressions on mids for an IEM. Her vocals are special: you need a good amount of air to make them lively and the body needs to be sufficiently thick at the same time.

It is tricky, but I am glad that ESR got it right!

Positioning is tricky for the mids as well. Normally I prefer the vocalists to be positioned in the center of the stage, taking the spotlight, but sometimes it can become extreme. Overly forward vocals are a no-no for me because they become shouty, like the vocalist shouting at you without any musical instruments playing.

As mentioned earlier, the ESR is a relatively neutral IEM. There is no bias at any region of the frequency spectrum. The mids are positioned well in the middle and I appreciate this presentation. I get what I like in this IEM in both the lows and the mids.
ESR_Instagram_4.jpg
- Empire Ears ESR -

Highs
The highs are one of the key factors determining how long you can listen. If the IEM has peaks in the highs or is too energetic, it will cause fatigue during long listening sessions. ESR does not belong in the listening fatigue category.

Personally I have a good tolerance for highs. I seldom find an IEM to be too bright. I like the highs on the ESR. They are airy and spacious. If lows are a punch landing on a sandbag, the highs are a gentle breeze bringing you comfort.

When the punchy lows meet with the meaty mids and breezy highs - simply amazing.

The extension and decay on the highs is well-controlled. A lot of IEM manufacturers neglect the treble, causing the highs to extend and decay badly. What does poor treble extension or decay sound like? It sounds exactly like distortion. The silky highs break and form unbearable distortion at high frequency. It can be piercing sometimes, ruining the overall experience.

All these mentioned issues were addressed in designing the ESR. I salute the professionalism and mindfulness of the team who crafted the ESR.
ESR_pairing_2.jpg
- Another look at the ESR-WM1A pairing -

Conclusion
The Empire Ears ESR is a great choice not only those who are working in a studio; it also fits well for those who value neutrality in their IEMs. The amount of accessories, especially the Ares II from Effect Audio, made the ESR package more attractive. The ESR is fully built by the Empire Ears team in the USA to maintain the high quality.

The universal ESR retails for USD899. It can be purchased at most of the major audio retailers such as ConnectIT by Jade Gift Shop (Singapore) or directly from Empire Ears. For those who wish to get a custom version, the price starts at USD999 and the final price will depend on the customization of the artwork.

Empire Ears managed to challenge the common stereotype of studio reference IEMs. They are no longer dull and lifeless. The ESR is proof to the community that studio reference IEMs can sound fun and engaging!

Well done, Empire Ears!
Pros: Very efficient (you could probably drive them to deafening levels with some high school science project lemon batteries)
Excellent detail
Wide stereo field (though not as tall or deep).
Rich, engaging sound
Cons: V-shaped FR not suitable for many audio engineers (but it will be appealing to many audiophiles).
Overall Ratings

for the recording professional — 3.2/5.0
for the audio enthusiast — 4.3/5.0

  1. I’m not a professional reviewer; in fact this is my very first head-fi review. (Please be gentle.) I was not paid anything for this. As a part of the ESR/Bravado tour, I had to pay shipping to the next head-fi’er.
  2. All impressions were made using SpinFit tips and an SP1000M (single-ended) playing lossless files.
  3. YMWV — Your Mileage WILL vary; get used to it.
  4. Objects in this review may be closer than they appear.
  5. There has been no collusion in this review.
  6. No animals were injured in the making this review.
  7. Intended for use under adult supervision.
  8. Opinions stated here are solely the author’s and do not represent this station nor its corporate overlords.

The searching for reference monitors is akin to hunting for a mono-horned horse that is explosively bloated with prismatic methane*.

Consider this from two perspectives: manufacturers and consumers.

I already own 2 iems that their manufacturers refer to as reference: UERR and ER4SR. Since these are both “reference”, you’d think they would sound almost identical. No, they don’t (but you probably already knew that). Same is true for “reference” speakers. Even manufacturers do not agree on what is “reference” sound.

From an individual side of things.
  • We all hear differently. We all lose sensitivity to high frequencies as we age, starting in our twenties.
  • Our individual frequency response varies with volume (Fletcher-Munson et al.). An ideal FR for listening at 65 dB would be wrong if it listened to at 95 dB.
  • Add in to this “brain-burn”. Yes, I believe in this phenomena. Each of our other senses is highly adaptive. Why would hearing be different? (btw, I also believe in equipment burn-in, having spent several years for professional speaker manufacturers.)


*unicorn powered by rainbows.

Sorry, I don’t do audio porn. You’ll just have to take your putrid proclivities elsewhere.

Overall Impressions

Since the monitors are named ESR (Empire-ears Studio Reference), I first approached these iems from the standpoint of a recording engineer (which I was for several years). From this perspective, I found the frequency response to be inadequately uneven. There is just too much bass and treble at louder volumes. Once I cranked the volume down to low levels, the tonal balance smoothed out. But at those volumes, it was difficult to catch all the details needed to make a firm judgement on recording quality.

Still, the ESRs have many redeeming qualities that engineers require. The stereo field is quite wide, but neither too tall nor too deep (front/back). Some iems have a very tall signature, but it shrinks at the ends. This always sounds very artificial to me. The ESR isn’t the tallest, but its height is maintained across the full width. Same with the depth. The stereo field sounds just about perfect to me.

The ESR also boasts excellent dynamics and details. You can easily hear the exact nature of each instrument’s individual reverberation field through the very final decay.

However, the “v” shaped FR curve is a killer for me, from an engineer’s perspective.

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Once I took off my engineer’s hat, they became much more enjoyable! There is a lot of “fun” in these iems. They sound pretty much wonderful with most music genres. The ESR does great extension at both ends. Bass is very solid. I found the treble to be smooth and without any added sibilance.

Another nice thing about the ESRs is that they sound wonderful at low volumes. You can listen to them all day long without risking any hearing loss and still fully enjoy your music.

Of course, you really crank them up (but don’t try this at home, kids!). It is very easy to get lost in the music with them.


Would I buy them for use primary as a studio “reference”? No
Would I buy them for simply listening to music? Yes. The ESRs is a top contender if you are considering a quality iem in their price range.

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