Empire Ears ESR (Empire Studio Reference)
A studio reference IEM; Ohh great it is going to be boring!
Empire Ears and my ears haven't always gotten along; we've tolerated each other but haven't had many moments of enjoyment. Does the ESR change that?
Disclaimer: I purchased the Empire Ears ESR used with my own funds. I was not influenced, pressured or paid to provide this review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
3 Proprietary Empire Balanced Armature Drivers (1 Low, 1 Mid, 1 High)
4-Way synX Crossover Network
A.R.C. Resonance Mitigation Technology
Impedance: 19.3 ohms @ 1kHz
Frequency Response: 10 Hz - 40kHz
Sensitivity 112dB @ 1kHz, 1mW
UPOCC 26AWG Handcrafted Cable by Effect Audio
(Empire Ears: "Every aspect of the ESR was conceived, designed, and crafted to faithfully reproduce what the artist had intended. With the expertise of producers and mix engineers, including 2x GRAMMY Award winner, Michael Graves, we were able to understand firsthand what they require from in-ear monitors.")
The Empire Ears ESR is an uninspired, universal build. The ESR is rather bland looking, with the only noticeable markings being the EE logo on each shell. The all black shell with silver logo doesn't draw attention to itself like a lot of the offerings in the price range. I like the simplistic look and actually find it rather appealing.
The overall build is high quality, the 3d printed shell feels premium. The design is curved slightly and has a nozzle angle that isn't too short or too long, the nozzle is proper length for me. The shell is somewhere between small and chunky but it just works. The weight of the shells is very light. The ESR fits me like a glove. One thing of note, the nozzle does lack a lip thus some tips can have random moments of slipping off, this includes the stock Final Type E tips.
The included carry case is large and built solid, has plenty of protection but is too large for pockets.
The Effect Audio Cable is amazing and I love it; it looks and feels premium. The cable is well behaved, doesn't tangle or twist and the ear hooks are just the right amount of tension and memory.
The included Final Type E tips are some of my favorites and Empire Ears picked them specifically to use with the ESR. I find that the tip choice is a solid option that sounds very good but the 8k peak can be a bit intense at times. So, I actually prefer the JVC Spiral Dots a tad more; fit is slightly better for my ears and I also found that there was a small addition of air to the mids and treble that helped tame the 8k peak slightly. Isolation and separation of outside noises is good but not great; excellent for office settings, about average for mass transit. The ESR is extremely comfortable and I can wear them for hours upon hours; I have worn them for a full 8 hours without discomfort.
(I am not a professional producer or sound engineer but I do run the soundboard (Allen & Heath QU-24) at my church each week. I don't have any studio experience or training for a professional setting. So the sound impressions are based on my limited usage and whether or not they fill my needs.)
(All listening impressions were done with the JVC Spiral Dot tips.)
Bass: The bass of the Empire Ears ESR isn't like any bass I have heard on any other EE IEM I have reviewed; in fact, there isn't another IEM that I have reviewed that has bass like the ESR. Is that a good or a bad thing?
Definitely a good thing! The ESR has an authoritative presence in the bass that is dominate and controlled. The reaches are far and wide, the depth and layering is jaw dropping and the whole time you feel on the edge but not even close to going over. The details are all present and resolved with impeccable effectiveness. You will not miss a single moment. The speed and accuracy is spot on. There is an impacting power and percussive slam that lets you feel the moment and the enjoyment brings huge grins and giggles with it. But yet as crazy as this will sound, these aren't a basshead IEM, they are an analytical, critical listening IEM. The insane amount of detail, resolution, impact, slam and extension make the ESR bass the best I have heard in an IEM.
Mids: On other Empire Ears IEM that I have reviewed, the mids have been, more often than not, a disappointment, but this is not the case with the ESR. There is a little warmth about the ESR mids that sound so close to natural and realistic. The amount of air and space is spectacular. Everything is even and cohesive; there is a balance that not many IEM can match. The mids put you right there with the action and allow you to dissect each instrument and vocalist; critiquing each breath, strum, touch, tap and movement with ease. The ESR turns over each detail and places it on display with precision and accuracy. There is so much information and it is all resolved flawlessly. The ESR is never fatiguing or intense unless the track includes it. The notes have realistic body and weight and they are full and natural. The only minor gripe is that they have a slight BA metallic timbre but it is very subtle.
Treble: The Empire Ears ESR treble is perfection to my ears. There is crispness, airiness, sparkle, energy and control; the sensation of realism is incredible. The lower treble is controlled intensity, borderline too much but never crossing the line. The details whizz in from all over with precision and accuracy. The definition and refinement of the details is impeccable. The attack and decay is realistic. There is a small gripe and it's that there could be a smidge more air in the upper reaches.
Soundstage/Imaging: The EE ESR stage is deep and wide. When it comes to soundstages, you can get too wide, too deep and they lose the naturalism; the ESR has the proper balance. Everything sounds realistically placed and spaced. You can track movements and place seating arrangements without much effort because the ESR is doing what it is supposed to. Nothing feels awkward or misplaced, you know what you are seeing on stage is what you are hearing in your ear. The ESR stage is one of the most realistic that I have heard in an IEM. The ESR places you on the front row, center stage looking in and around.
Details/Resolution: The Empire Ears ESR is the most detailed and resolving IEM I own. The revealing nature of the ESR does come with a cost though, poorly recorded tracks. If you want to sort your music library by the good, the bad and the ugly recordings then the ESR is the IEM for you.
You may be surprised how many of your prized recordings aren't mastered so well after listening with the Empire Ears ESR. There is no detail left behind and every one of them is presented in it's best form. One other thing of note, is the crossfeed of the ESR, wow it is crazy good. When something is on the right side, the left side has a subtle amount audible or vice versa, Crossfeed is often overlooked in reviews, and sadly in a lot of IEM, but the ESR is fantastic with it.
Tone/Timbre: Now for my one minor gripe, BA timbre. The Empire Ears ESR is the best all BA IEM I have heard and own. The tone of vocals and instruments is spectacular and natural. The timbre does have a slight metallic edge to it, but it is so minuscule that it really isn't worthy of discussion.
ADV M5-12D: 12BA versus 3BA, well the winner should be obvious, more is better. Not so fast! There is a lot to like about both and there are a lot of similarities and a couple of differences. The M5-12D has a larger stage overall; more width, depth and layering, but the ESR is more pin point accurate. Tone and timbre is very similar and extremely hard to differentiate but the edge goes to the ESR. The ESR has a bit more note weight and that adds a touch of realism that the M5-12D lacks. Detail retrieval is crazy good on both and the real difference is the resolution which the ESR has a slight advantage, the M5-12D can be a bit splashy at times. In the smallest of small ways the ESR edges out the M5-12D.
M5-12D Review: https://youtu.be/f59cWHDzwMs
Meze Rai Penta: Two totally different sound signatures on display. The Rai Penta is a fun and engaging listen and the ESR is the analytical workhorse. The ESR has the upper hand with detail retrieval, resolution, note weight and clarity. The Rai Penta is close and competitive with tone and timbre and soundstage depth and layering. These two complement each other very well and I love having both in my IEM selection.
Rai Penta Review: https://youtu.be/QNI8xQidTsw
Drop Empire Ears Zeus: Siblings with a multitude of differences and a few similarities. The Zeus has 14 BA per side and the ESR has 3 BA. The Zeus is more mid forward, has slightly more BA timbre, has a thinner presentation and a bit more treble brightness that can cause fatigue. ESR edges out the Zeus in a very small way with detail retrieval and resolution. The Zeus has a tad wider and deeper soundstage and they are too close to call in imaging accuracy. I really like the Zeus but the ESR is better in the areas that matter the most, technicalities.
Drop Empire Ears Zeus Review: https://youtu.be/CsnsGPEBESU
Sony NW-WM1a: I've got to admit that this is an instant classic pairing. If you use an IEM and DAP at the office or on a plane or train then this is a pairing to consider. If you are looking for an IEM and DAP to use in a more active, portable setting then I would pass this over. This is a pairing made in heaven for my ears. There is a natural and realistic portrayal of vocals and instruments. The soundstage has realistic width, depth and layering. There is a satisfying thump in the bass and a note weight that hits home with truth and clarity. The treble is crisp and energetic with a life likeness that only gets fatiguing when the song is fatiguing. This is a sound that I wish everyone could experience.
NextDrive Spectra X: Okay so you don't want to tote around a bulky $1000 DAP, here is a great alternative. The Spectra X adds in a touch of warmth and lushness to the ESR. You still get all the natural and realistic vocals and instruments with that amazing soundstage and bass power. There is a little less energy and air to the uppers and the soundstage isn't as deep and wide. But I still like this for those moments when my Sony isn't available or logical.
Mytek Liberty DAC: I don't use IEM too often on a desktop setup but some seem more fit for the desk then portable, the Empire Ears ESR is one of those IEM. The ESR and Liberty DAC are a fantastic pairing. I do use the iFi Audio IEMatch as the ESR emits a slight hiss. There is an authority to the sound but not in a fatiguing way. Power in the bass that is controlled, mids are clean and accurate and the highs are energetic but controlled. There isn't any overreach from the Mytek, the ESR sounds true and real. There is a natural aura to the instruments and vocals. The soundstage imaging, depth and layering sounds believable. This is a great pairing that I truly enjoy and highly recommend.
Allen & Heath QU-24: The ESR is in its natural habitat on the QU-24. I used the ESR paired with the Allen & Heath QU-24 on several Sunday services at my church. It was fantastic and gave me all the details and accuracy that I was needing. The tone and timbre is spot on and sounds identical to what I was hearing when I took them out of my ears. The crazy amount of details that I could hear and place accurately. The ability to tell if one microphone gain was too high or too low and so much more. I highly recommend the Empire Ears ESR for monitoring and mixing purposes.
Conclusion: Hands down the best IEM I have purchased and my go to reference IEM. The Empire Ears ESR is a musical, analytical, neutral reference IEM that I highly recommend, if you can find one for purchase. I absolutely love the EE ESR, am I bias, yeah a little. I wouldn't recommend an IEM unless I would use it myself after reviewing and the ESR isn't going anywhere but back in my ears.
Meze Rai Penta: https://mezeaudio.com/products/rai-penta
Mytek Liberty DAC: https://mytekdigital.com/hifi/products/liberty-dac/
Nextrdrive Spectra X: https://www.nextdrive-spectra.io/
Allen and Heath QU-24: https://www.allen-heath.com/ahproducts/qu-24/
YouTube reviews: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgMj7xJ1SDxGqqxZ5l3g_jg
Twitter: https://twitter.com/TalkDbs @TalkDbs
DBS Tech Talk research and review process: https://youtu.be/UkSnoZZNyYc
Audio Terms and Definitions: https://www.stereophile.com/reference/50/index.html
Meze Empyrean: https://mezeaudio.com/products/meze-empyrean
Hifiman Ananda: https://hifiman.com/products/detail/290
Sennheiser HD660s: https://en-us.sennheiser.com/hd-660-s
MrSpeakers Ether C (non flow version) https://danclarkaudio.com/
Meze Rai Penta: https://mezeaudio.com/collections/all/products/rai-penta
Meze Rai Solo: https://mezeaudio.com/products/rai-solo
Moondrop SSR: https://www.moondroplab.com/ssr
Monoprice Monolith THX AAA 788: https://www.monoprice.com/product?p_id=24459
Mytek Liberty: https://mytekdigital.com/hifi/products/liberty-dac/
Soekris DAC1421: https://soekris.modhouseaudio.com/soekris-audiophile-line/dac-1421
Tor Audio Roger: https://toraudio.com/main.html#
Massdrop THX AAA 789:
Grace Design SDAC-B: https://drop.com/buy/drop-grace-design-standard-dac-balanced?utm_source=linkshare&referer=FTSS2S
Geshelli Labs Enog 2 Pro: https://geshelli.com/shop/ols/products/enog2-pro-dac-metal-case
Geshelli Labs J2: https://geshelli.com/jnog
Geshelli Labs Erish: https://geshelli.com/shop/ols/products/erish-balanced
https://tidal.com/browse/playlist/5bbf80ce-33f3-4222-a1fc-6539a95415d6 (in order of playlist)
Tingvall Trio “Beat” - piano tonality
Sinne Eeg “We’ve Just Begun” - multiple layer soundstage
Molly Johnson “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” - female vocal tone
Leslie Odom Jr. “Under Pressure” - male vocal tone
Eric Clapton “Change the World” - soundstage, layering and placement
Yo Yo Ma “Ecstasy of Gold” - acoustic instrument timbre
Adam Baldych “Spem in Alium” - acoustic instrument timbre
Pain of Salvation “Stress” - percussion balance
Michael Buble “When I Fall in Love” - orchestral dynamics
Patricia Barber “Code Cool” - sibilance check
Christian Scott “New New Orleans” - shouty upper mids
Tool “Chocolate Chip Trip” - imaging
Hans Zimmer “Why So Serious” - sub bass extension
Marcus Miller “No Limit” - bass control
Dave Holland Quartet “Conference Of The Birds”- bass check
Ilhan Eshkeri “47 Ronin”- orchestra and bass dynamics
Hans Zimmer :2049” - sub bass extension
Cher: Believe - sibilance
Stanley Clarke - Passenger 57 main title - percussion, bass, separation and placement
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra - The Pine of the Appian Way - soundstage, imaging and separation
Houston Person - You are my Sunshine - tone and timbre
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