Empire Ears Phantom

Rating:
5/5,
  1. Wyville
    Empire Ears Phantom - Beauty to Behold
    Written by Wyville
    Published Jun 10, 2018
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Tonality, timbre, coherency, vocals, holographic stage
    Cons - Lightweight shells, case size not optimal for universal IEMs with aftermarket cable
    Empire Ears Phantom

    Disclaimer
    I would like to thank Jack Vang of Empire Ears for providing me with a discount in exchange for my honest opinion. No incentive was given for a favourable review.

    Empire Ears Phantom
    • Drivers: 5 BA (2 Low, 1 Mid, 1 High, 1 Super High)
    • 5-Way synX Crossover Network
    • A.R.C. Resonance Mitigation Technology
    • Cable: Effect Audio Ares II
    • Price: US$1,799

    Links:
    https://empireears.com
    https://www.facebook.com/EmpireEars/

    Preamble
    My relationship with the Phantom has, for reasons I won't dwell on, been somewhat tumultuous. I was very excited when I first heard about them, then events followed that left a somewhat unfortunate aftertaste and finally I found a real sense of contentment in having found IEMs with a signature that suits me to a tee. The last aspect is what this review is all about and why this preamble is, more than in any of my previous reviews, a true, or perhaps 'stereotypical', example of an audiophile's motivation for voraciously seeking to hear every new IEM (or headphone, or speaker) that is released.

    The saying "Welcome to Head-Fi, sorry about your wallet." might be a running joke, but at the heart of it is a realisation that this hobby is a thoroughly addictive affair and it soon becomes a vice for many who frequent the Head-Fi forums. What then if I told you that I managed to turn this vice into virtue? Would that be the proverbial Holy Grail to Head-Fi'ers the world over? A genuine reason to say to your loved one... "But honey, these here TOTL IEMs are an investment in my health and wellbeing!" Well, perhaps that might be setting the bar a little too high, but music therapy is gaining more recognition and my own working hypothesis is that the benefits become greater, the better the music fits personal preferences. So my audiophile journey has always been about exploring what makes music engaging and finding ways to optimise how immersive my music can be because I gain genuine benefits from it. In my case it helps me manage my ADHD on a day-to-day basis. I will spare you the technical details, but there are genuine neurophysiological reasons for why this is, and it can work for everyone.

    Where it has become clear to me that different IEMs can tailor optimally to different types of music ("But honey, I need multiple IEMs for my health and wellbeing!"), my primary focus has been on timbre and coherency. My main TOTL IEMs therefore needed to ooze naturalness with realistic sounding instruments. Several options made my wish list, such as the Ultimate Ears UE18+ Pro, Unique Melody Maestro V2, Warbler Prelude and Spiral Ear 5-Way Ultimate. However, when I heard about the Phantom I knew straight away that these were tuned with coherency and timbre as a top priority and I understood they were aiming squarely at becoming the new benchmark for technical performance. How could I resist?!

    That said, this expectation of course set the bar very high for the Phantom and me going for these instead of the alternatives meant they had a lot to live up to. So let's see if they did, or if all my hopes for musical ecstasy were crushed. After all, I am putting my health and wellbeing on the line here.

    Phantom2.png

    Build quality and fit
    The Phantom have a very nice ergonomic shape that I think will work exceptionally well for many people. They are also very light, a friend of mine even suggested they might float away if thrown in the air, and that makes for a very comfortable fit. I am however not entirely confident in the design choice here. When my Phantom arrived, they unfortunately had hairline cracks in the finishing layer. While this could have happened for a number of reasons and Empire Ears assured me it was nothing structural (and fixed it of course!) it did make me a little uneasy. In fact, I noticed that I subconsciously started treating these differently from my other IEMs, babying them and storing them separately. Not in the case that I got from Empire Ears, which I felt was not optimally sized for universals with tips and an aftermarket cable, but in a Peli 1010 case.

    I think that Empire Ears aimed for a lightweight and comfortable design, which I am sure many people will love, but I personally prefer a more rugged design. For instance, when I reviewed the 64 Audio U6 I read comments from people criticising the design, but I loved it because it was simple and clearly built with stage use in mind. Similarly, after I auditioned the Vision Ears line up and wrote my impressions, I added an "honourable mention" for the build quality of the demo units, which felt rock solid and very similar to the UE18+ Pro. My most recently reviewed IEMs, the Rhapsodio Zombie, are the same price as the Phantom but in a different league altogether when it comes to build quality. Sure they are heavy, but they are also capable of surviving the most intense use with ease.

    Perhaps I worry a bit too much because my view has been tainted by the cracks upon receiving them, but irrespective of that I just prefer a rugged build quality over this lightweight and more refined design.

    Where Empire Ears scores full marks in my book though, is in the choice of cable. Finally! TOTL IEMs with a truly high quality, ergonomic stock cable. Not only that, but all Empire Ears IEMs now benefit from coming stock with the excellent Effect Audio Ares II. Great choice Empire Ears!

    A Ghost.JPG

    Source
    All listening was done with my AK70 from balanced out.

    Presentation
    The Phantom are quite possibly the most beautifully balanced IEMs I have heard to date. I don't mean that in a reference sense, although I think they can probably be used as reference monitors, but rather in how instruments are balanced. While working on this review I spent a lot of time listening to classical music and Beethoven's 5th most of all. The image the Phantom present is absolutely superb and instruments layer in they way I had hoped they would, given what I knew about their tuning beforehand. Theory is great, but I have usually found IEMs to sound different from expected and in some ways the Phantom do that too, yet the end result is exactly what I had been looking for.

    The Phantom have a wonderfully holographic stage with the best sense of depth and one of the most stable images I have heard so far. They are warm and upon first listen warmer than I expected. Yet the more I listened, the more I noticed how well each section of the orchestra was balanced. It is dynamic warmth, dictated by the instruments themselves. The bass section adds impact and warmth, violins and cymbals (etc) add air and sparkle at the high end, while in between sits an astonishingly good midrange. This is not just superbly balanced based on each frequency coming through with an accurate and natural amount of presence, but also because the tonality at every point is spot on. Each instrument, in every range, playing any note, sounds, to my ears damn near perfect. And this is why I listened so much to Beethoven's 5th.

    By now I know Beethoven's 5th better than any piece of music. I especially know John Eliot Gardiner's interpretation very well and it allows me to illustrate what the Phantom's qualities do for me. The 5th is a revolutionary journey expressed through music and Gardiner used period instruments to create more layering in the performance, modern instruments sounding too thick in his opinion. With all the IEMs I have heard so far this difference between the instruments has been implicit for me. I knew it to be so because Gardiner explained it in an interview and I could sense it when I was comparing his 5th to that of (for instance) Simon Rattle, but I felt none of the IEMs I tried could accurately convey the difference. The Phantom can do that. So much so that it left me with a renewed appreciation for the incredible skills required for conducting classical symphonies.

    Let me take you on this revolutionary journey... The 5th consists of four movements. In the first movement Beethoven sets out his revolutionary ideals with bold statements expressed through the universally recognised four opening notes. Gardiner injects pace here, conducting at 108 bpm, and the Phantom present the notes resonant and impactful, just as you expect from a passionate statement: The bold sounding tympani, the dramatic brass instruments and sharp and precisely played notes. In the second movement Beethoven expresses his faith in our (human) ability to achieve those ideals. Everything slows down and starts to flow delicately, with instruments transitioning seamlessly from one to another and the Phantom clearly defining each instrument based on tone while maintaining the coherency and fluidity in the notes. In the third movement the revolutionary journey starts in earnest and brass instruments come up bold, uplifting and with intent. Occasionally the bass strings will give the impression of dispersion, only to fall back in line with equal intent. And then everything slows down again with delicate tones, beautifully presented against the pitch-black background of the Phantom. Only a few instruments come through, ever more silent until the drum roll starts and strings begin to increase the sense of anticipation until... La liberté! Freedom! In a burst of exuberance the tympani and brass instruments come back, accompanied by strings, woodwinds and goose bumps every time I listen to it with the Phantom. It is glorious, incredibly layered and flows like a key cinematic scene from an India Jones movie. Because of the accurate tonality, the coherency and outstanding layering, the sense of drama is the very best I have heard so far.

    This is where the qualities of the Phantom come through unmistakably. Moreover, this does not just work for classical music, but almost every other kind of music as well. The Phantom perform exceptionally well with Caro Emerald's 'Acoustic Sessions', one of my favourite albums with the Phantom, and they will do Indie Rock, Jazz, Blues, pretty much everything you can throw at them. Any weak areas? Perhaps something like EDM, where I prefer more energetic, bass-heavy IEMs.

    Bass
    The Phantom's bass is, like every other aspect of their signature, a beautiful balancing act. It is an extended bass and the track 'Polyrytmi' by Carbon Based Lifeforms makes that very clear by stepwise going lower down to a rumble and the Phantom follow that with ease, but the Phantom also exercise restraint. There is a beautiful natural resonance to bass instruments like the cello and double bass that I consider to be very accurate and I can hear the resonance in the body of the instrument. It is not just a warm sound, it genuinely sounds like I am listening to a large, resonant instrument. It is what I love so much when I listen to Caro Emerald, where the double bass is perfectly placed. The mid-bass might however, to some people, be lacking a little bit. Because I am a bass-head I do on occasion feel I prefer a darker signature, for instance with the Rolling Stones, where I prefer the "smoke-filled blues bar"-type atmosphere that bass-heavy IEMs like the (slightly bonkers) Rhapsodio Zombie create.

    Still, this is really just a matter of preference and I would not want the Phantom to be any different because any more mid-bass and it would upset the balance for classical and other types of acoustic music. There is enough bass presence for instruments to have the right level of natural resonance that is inherent to them and the sub-bass extension adds excitement to ensure musicality. In fact, I was really surprised by how well the Phantom did with genres such as metal, like for instance Disturbed, where drums were impactful and added a real sense of energy. It was like the music transformed the Phantom from Jekyll into Hyde.

    Mids
    Oh these mids... So good... (Insert image of Homer Simpson drooling.) I am a huge lover of great mids and vocals, and for that reason the Vision Ears VE5 have been among my very favourite IEMs. I think the Phantom's mids rival those of the VE5, but I unfortunately could not compare the two because I do not have the VE5 at hand anymore. The Phantom have very clear mids with a hint of warmth. It takes some getting used to, as the strengths of the mids are not readily apparent. The Phantom are not bright detail monsters, but you are doubly rewarded when listening attentively with an exceptionally natural sounding mid-range.

    The balance between female and male vocals is just about perfect. When I listen to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis or Mozart's Requiem, which are performed with large choirs, the separation and layering of the voices is incredibly good with male voices having a good deal of authority, while female vocals come through crystal clear. A little birdy explained to me beforehand that the Phantom were tuned to have "perfectly balanced" vocals and the more I listen to them, the more I tend to agree with that. Especially with intimate vocal music such as Agnes Obel, Madeleine Peyroux and London Grammar, I was impressed by how natural it sounded. Strong, well defined and crystal clear. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, David Draiman's characteristic voice (which is anything but clean) easily took centre stage in the midst of all the violence of drums and electric guitars in Disturbed's (aptly named for this section) "Voices". The Phantom really impressed me by how much they managed to capture the energy and emotion in that voice.

    Mid-range instruments of course sound exceptional because of their accurate timbre and this is why the Phantom work so wonderfully well for classical music. To be able to distinguish similarly sounding instruments with ease, based purely on tonality is such a big deal in conveying the emotions of a piece. To borrow a term from photography, it was like the Phantom have a higher dynamic range in terms of tonality. It is so easy to follow the sometimes very subtle tonal fluctuations in classical music, where the tone ebbs and flows along similar sounding instruments.

    Treble
    The treble is incredibly well extended and a bit attenuated overall, an important way to create the natural tonality and outstanding resolution. For me this treble is spot on, but I will add that I have changed the tips from Final Audio with other, full silicone tips to take away some of the edge that the Final tips can cause in the treble. I have also switched the cable from SE to balanced out, which on the AK70 is a little more laid-back in the treble. The result is a very smooth, sparkly and at times almost ethereal treble. Cymbals in rock or metal are clearly heard and well placed, but might for some people feel a little polite. However, brass instruments and any type of string instrument (violin, guitar, etc) in acoustic music come through with a little bite that I think works incredibly well. A brass instrument has to have that sort of authority to be able to rise above the other instruments, any more laid-back and the tonality of these instruments would be adversely affected.

    Phantom_PlusSound.png

    Aftermarket cables
    -Effect Audio Lionheart-
    In my opinion synergy is key to getting the most out of aftermarket cables and this is regardless of price. Case in point is Lionheart, which is my favourite cable and was the one I was looking for most of all to try out. This unfortunately turned into somewhat of a disappointment, as Lionheart simply did not synergise as well as I had expected. Don't get me wrong, the sound was very nice, but it departed too much from the Phantom's main strength; their tonality. I felt this was in particular the case for brass instruments and strings, as I just explained in the treble section. It is just a little too laid back. Otherwise the pairing was a little more airy and wonderfully easy-going to listen to. Great, but not optimal.

    -PlusSound Exo Silver + Gold-
    Another surprise was the Exo Silver + Gold, which I would not rank among the most natural sounding cables (they were never intended for that either, so makes sense). Yet the pairing with the Phantom was really very nice. I liked it a lot. The Exo added brightness and air, extended the stage and yet instruments still sounded very natural. Not quite as good as with Ares II, but the resulting presentation was especially enjoyable for classical music. The Exo's added brightness helped details come through more easily and I felt violins got a little more prominence within the presentation of symphonies and sounded absolutely amazing solo (I love violins).

    -Effect Audio Ares II 8-wire-
    This pairing, in my opinion, hits a sweet spot for classical music and the 8-wire has become permanently affixed to my Phantom. It makes everything sound grand, which works wonders for classical symphonies. The 8-wire adds tons of air, pushes the mid-range slightly further forward and maintains the tonality of the 4-wire. Vocals sound eerily realistic at times and while I might have a slight preference for the 4-wire when it comes to more intimate music such as jazz, the 8-wire makes the Phantom sound more like full-size headphones and it is glorious.

    Phantom_8W.png

    Conclusions
    Apart from some concerns about the lightweight build quality and practical issues with the size of the case, the Empire Ears Phantom are very worthy of the moniker "TOTL". The Phantom are exceptional technical performers that offer accurate timbre, reproducing some of the most realistic instruments and vocals you are likely to hear from any IEM at any price point. They might not be for everyone, as their focus on timbre and coherency means they are not exciting detail monsters, but for anyone who prioritises accuracy, these should definitely be on your demo shortlist.
      ryanjsoo, natemact, Ike1985 and 23 others like this.
    1. View previous replies...
    2. Wyville
      Wyville, Jun 12, 2018
    3. Audiophonicalistic
      Could you do a quick comparison on these and andromedas? Thanks for the review, was looking for one for quite some time.
      Audiophonicalistic, Jun 14, 2018
    4. Wyville
      Thanks @Audiophonicalistic Unfortunately I don't have the Andromeda and have never been able to find a place to demo them here in the UK (I have looked because I was interested in those as well), so I have not even heard them.
      Wyville, Jun 15, 2018