The Studio Empire
Pros: Good detail
Better cable than most
Cons: Sub-bass won’t blow your mind (or ears)
Up for review today are the Empire Ears (EE) ESR Mk2 (ESR.) These are one of the cheapest EE offerings available and are tuned to offer a studio-like experience for the listener. The ESR is a five-driver hybrid with 3x BA drivers, 1 each for low, mid, and high, and 2 Electrostatic drivers for the high and super high. There’s a ton of Empire Ears tech built in, and these are one of the highest-reviewed IEMs in this price range, the other being the Thieaudio Monarch Mk2 (MMk2), which I have available for comparison against this set for this review. If you don’t feel like reading the full review below, just know that these have a really great tuning and can go head-to-head with much more expensive IEMs – BUT, they are low on bass.
Build Quality / Comfort:
The build quality on these is good, though my used set has a small bubble in the shell, and it doesn’t look as good as it probably did when new. Other than that, the shell has a quality feel to it and the brushed steel underneath the resin with the EE logo has a pretty classy appearance, though it’s nowhere close to EE’s usual gorgeous faceplates. So, if you need your IEM to look like the aftermath of a Color Run, look elsewhere (EE Valkyrie or Odin.) The ESR comes in a nice box with solid accessories including one of those unscrewable solid metal cases that feels like you could run it over with a clown car (VE8 and Mezzo have the same case.) It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering to open like the Aroma Thunder’s case, so no worries there. The ear tip selection is nice (Final Audio, though I’ll be using my favorite Spinfit W1s (you can get some here if you want: https://amzn.to/3XXwVHp)), and it comes with a super cool cleaning cloth as well (completely unnecessary – you have a shirt (I assume, if not, put a shirt on man)).
The cable on the ESR is the Alpha-IV, a 4-core copper cable made from 26 AWG Litz copper. This is a decent quality cable, though it can get a little tangly and kinks easily, it is easily one of the best stock cables I’ve seen included in a while (beaten only by the Mezzo’s cable.) Mine came terminated in 3.5mm, but other options are available as well (I won’t be using it because the modular Kinnera Leyding is just about perfect, you can get one here: https://amzn.to/3Yil9XY.) It is not modular like the MMk2’s, but you can buy adapters from EE’s site if you want one. The ESR is very comfortable and my Small Spinfit W1 fits well on the nozzles and provides a good seal. This is a medium size IEM, and smaller than the Monarch for those who worry about the size of those (the ESR is far more comfortable.) Oh, and it’s not super thick either, very slim IEMs – not like the Sumo Wrestler Mezzo or Thunder – literally I can’t think of a more perfect size IEM, though the nozzles are a little on the big side.
Sound / Source / Comparisons:
Looking at the squig.link frequency response graph, the MMk2, and the ESR are very different in almost every measure – odd because I like the sound on both of them. Obviously, the Monarch has increased sub-bass over the ESR – unsurprising considering that studio monitors are rarely super bassy. The mid-bass however is slightly stronger on the ESR. In the mids and high-mids, the two IEMs are pretty similar until above 2k Hz. After that, all bets are off and they diverge heavily in the highs – the ESR has the most pronounced drop I’ve ever seen at 10k+ Hz, but there are not a lot of discernable sounds up there anyway. Both IEMs have the 8k peak and somewhat of a mid-treble dip.
I will be running the ESR and MMk2 from my Shangling M3 Ultra (M3U) from Tidal Hi-Fi. On 4.4mm balanced output from my Shanling M3U, these are the second easiest IEMs to drive with only 20/100 volume needed. That’s great for battery life on mobile players like the M3U. The only one lower was the Vision Ears VE8 at 19/100 – impressive stuff since the MMk2 runs at 35-40/100.
As usual, I don’t like breaking down headphones solely by frequency range since every song has bass, mids, and highs (and I can’t tell the difference between vocals at 1900 Hz and 2100 Hz.) So, I will start with bass-heavy songs, then move to mids-focused and lastly highs-focused songs, then break down each song by how all the pieces are presented. You can find my Tidal test tracks playlist in my signature if you want to compare them to your headphones. I will be doing a back-to-back between the EE ESR Mk2 with the Leyding and Spinfit W1 and the MMk2 with the stock cable and Spinfit W1 (yeah, I own two pairs of them now specifically for comparisons.) The first song is my favorite bass-test song, David Guetta’s “I’m Good(Blue).” The ESR starts with some really strong bass drums and good impact (as implied by the graph.) The hi-hats are easy to hear and not abrasive. The mid-synths and sub-bass are really good with the sub-bass coming in stronger than the FR chart implies but definitely less than the MMk2. The soundstage is good but smaller than the MMk2 – it doesn’t come in flat or 2D though, just smaller. The overall experience is really good. Switching to the MMk2, we get less impact on the intro drums with more reverb. The hi-hats sound about the same and the mid-synths come in cleanly with the sub-bass having that breath-stopping quality. The sub-bass really overwhelms here with the MMk2 – which can be good or bad depending on your preference. I find the ESR a little more comfortable. The MMk2 also has that bigger soundstage.
For a mids-based song, I am using eleventyseven’s “Appalachian Wine.” The intro strings and clapping comes through very clearly and the vocals and acoustic guitars sound as beautiful as I’ve ever heard. The chorus sounds great, with a medium-sized soundstage, forward-sounding mids, and great clarity. The bass drums can be heard in the background, but they’re muted – pretty normal for this song. Also, the organ at the end sounds amazing. This song really illustrates why the ESR is so highly rated (and the reason I picked one up for review.) If you want a cheaper IEM to give you chills on your favorite mids-based songs, this is definitely a good option. The MMk2 also does great with strings and has an even larger soundstage and more bass (using more power.) The MMk2 can have more slightly more abrasive vocals, but this is nitpicking at this level (kind of the point of these reviews.) The MMk2 is definitely less comfortable and the sub-bass can overwhelm some of the other pieces on the MMk2. Still, both of these are very good IEMs, and you’ll have to decide what is more important to you.
For highs, I’ll be using Panic! At The Disco’s High Hopes to test for sibilant “S” sounds. The intro horns sound really good, with full body, and the bass and sub-bass come in nicely. Unfortunately, the vocals DO have sharpness and sibilance in the “S” sounds. It’s distracting enough for me to not want to listen to this song. So, switching over to the MMk2. The horns still sound good with good bass/sub-bass. The sibilance and sharpness the ESR had is significantly decreased on the MMk2. There’s still a little, but not enough to complain about since a LOT of high-end IEMs can have some issues here – which is why I use this song. Still, the Monarch wins this song.
Switching another Highs test song, Michelle McLaughlin’s “Across the Burren” can give a lot of IEMs trouble. The ESR portrays the opening notes really well. There is little to no sharpness on this song, likely due to the decrease in the treble between 2-4k. The ESR has a good portrayal, but I have heard better on this song (costing 1.5x as much.) The MMk2 does a solid job with this song, though I’ve heard better now. The notes still come in a little sharp and that’s likely due to the hump between 3-4k Hz. Overall, it’s not bad, but it’s not amazing either. The ESR wins this song.
Yes, that’s Dominic Toretto’s Charger R/T. The ESR Mk2 is a really good kilobuck IEM (that you can probably find cheaper, I know I did.) If sub-bass is not your thing, these will fit the bill and provide a good presentation. If you want more sub-bass, a bigger soundstage, and you’re OK with the weaknesses of the Monarch, then get those – they are cheaper new but cost more used and there are comfort issues and fit issues to keep in mind. The ESR are not at the level of the VE8, Mezzo, or Thunder, but they cost a LOT less. Overall, the ESR is a really good IEM. So, between these and the Monarch, you can’t go wrong, but you’ll have to choose what’s more important to you.
You can buy them from Audio46 using my affiliate link if you want: https://audio46.com/?ref=wolfhawkaudioreview.com
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