Empire Ears Hero In Ear Monitors Review
Jay Garrett gets to play with some special, premium-priced American in-ear monitors. Just for one day, sort of…
AUD $1,999 RRP
Empire Ears is a family-owned business based in Atlanta, Georgia. It has built its name over the past thirty years by producing some exceptional in-ear monitors featuring the company's custom drivers and crossover technology, alongside some striking jewel-tone shells sporting exotic imported amboyna burl wood and abalone shell faceplates.
Recently, Empire Ears announced the headline-grabbing, credit card-baiting $4,999 flagship Odin. However, around the same time, the brand also launched the $1,999 Hero that we see here. Rather than following the Odin's multicolour faceplate, Hero sports a polished opaque onyx acrylic hollow-body shell complemented by a swirly, marble-esque black and white faceplate design, dramatically dubbed Titanium Blizzard. I'm sure I've seen them play live!
Within each of those attractive buds sits an Empire Ears Next Generation 9mm W9+ subwoofer, and a trio of the brand's proprietary balanced armature drivers (mid, mid-high, high) all allocated their duties by a four-way synX Crossover Network. The W9+ (or Weapon IX+, to use its full given name) driver is enclosed in a tuned bass-reflex system. It has a front-firing port and rear-firing vent to reduce distortion and enhance frequency extension without relying on an internal shell enclosure for volume, states Empire Ears. This is all said to result in an impressive 5Hz-40kHz frequency response and 105dB@1kHz, 1mW sensitivity. Impedance is quoted at 17.6 ohms @ 1kHz, which is pretty standard amongst hybrid IEMs.
Hero also employs Empire Ears' so-called Anti Resonance Compound technology. ARC consists of a proprietary combination of polymers that’s said to add relative mass to each component it touches, as well as absorbing unwanted vibrations. The apparent result is that the drivers can do their job without being obscured by resonance.
The Hero is presented in a swanky box guaranteed to kickstart ownership pride from the get-go. We were sent the Founders Edition which means there was some extra case candy including a serialised Founder's Edition plaque, a production photograph autographed by Dean Vang (Founder and CTO), Jack Vang (VP) and Catherine Young (CEO). Also, more scribbles on the packaging by the entire production team as well as Dean Vang's signature on each shell. The Hero Founder's Editions are limited to one hundred units.
The compact two-layer box holds the IEMs and cable carefully in the top compartment, with the lower deck sliding out to reveal the accessories. An extremely solid, branded, screw-top aluminium travel case opens to show a black satin cleaning cloth ready for the Hero. The other side of the drawer stores your five sizes of Final E tips plugged in their own aluminium tray with a little cleaning tool underneath.
The bundled 1.2 metre cable is Empire Ears' own Alpha-IV (A4) type – an apparently handcrafted four-core cable comprising proprietary 26AWG UPOCC Litz copper with multi-size stranding. Terminations are a durable, overmoulded .78 2-pin connector offered with either a 3.5mm right angle we were supplied with, or 2.5mm balanced termination. The cable appears well-constructed, and the supple PVC jacket makes it easy to coil into pockets. It’s is a good, low-microphonic lead.
Thanks to its relatively compact build and light weight, wearing the Heros is a comfortable experience, even over long periods. The shape and length of the nozzle and range of Final E silicone tips give the listener assurance that these in-ears will stay put and offers a good deal of isolation.
Tested through components ranging from iFi's impressive ZEN DAC to Auris Audio's valve-powered Euterpe – plus portable offerings such as Chord’s superb Hugo 2/ 2go pairing and Astell & Kern's KANN Alpha DAP – I found the Empire Ears Hero to have an obvious mid-band dip. Playback is clear with plenty of tonal contrast, thanks in part to the drivers all being allocated specific tasks. There is plenty of heft and low-end thump and a wonderfully crisp, energetic top end, characteristic of balanced armature transducers.
Female vocals – especially the likes of Tori Amos and Kate Bush – benefitted from these balanced armature drivers, giving their upper ranges a sweetness without becoming too brittle or whispy. For example, Silent All These Years from the former's album Little Earthquakes presented the vocals with an almost ethereal air which swirls dreamlike with the piano and string backing. Meanwhile, the latter’s vocal stylings were dramatically placed front and centre in Babooshka. Again, the piano was clear and punchy, and the shimmering tambourine cut through with realism. However, when the band joined in, there was a slight lack of depth from the percussion. The bass guitar almost disappeared into the background during the chorus, yet remained nicely lyrical in the verses.
Lower-ranging male vocals appear a little recessed through the Hero, and lose a bit of character; this took some of the emotion from tracks such as My Favourite Dress by The Wedding Present. It’s a shame as vocalist David Gedge's lyrics succeed by being emotive and heartfelt. Even Andrew Eldritch's rich baritone appeared somewhat reigned-in during Floodland's This Corrosion. However, the backing vocals of The New York Choral Society and Holly Sherwood were spine-tinglingly good.
PJ Harvey's Joy is an industrial-electronic track from her 1998 album, Is This Desire?, and this really started to illuminate the Hero's strong points. The low-frequency rumble was visceral while Polly Jean's vocals were uninhibited and expressive. However, it was Public Enemy's latest album What You Gonna Do When The Grid Goes Down? where the Hero began to shine. Tight hi-hats and deep basslines really suit these IEMs and their EQ choice, which resulted in a distinct bounce being added to my allocated daily walk around the neighbourhood partnered with the A&K KANN Alpha. The strong beats punched through with intent, and dialogue was clear thanks to the slightly dry presentation from the BA drivers.
The peaky treble does make tracks that already have noticeable sibilance, such as Selena Gomez's Wolves, for example, a tad more pronounced. This particular waxing was still enjoyable through the Hero, but if the sibilance was any more obvious then I would have to have tweaked my player's EQ.
London Grammar's Control proved expansive both in height and depth, with its electronic pop mix also suiting the Hero. I was expecting Hanna Reid's low vocals to lose some expression, but there didn't appear to be much evidence of that here. However, when her voice soared, it really brought the proceedings to life. The track's electronic kick drum struck home solidly and drove the song along with the sixteenths crisply metered out by the hi-hat sample at the other end. In between these percussive bookends, the various threads were presented with a stimulating rawness balanced by the W9+'s presence. That said, if you prefer warmer-tinged or darker sounding IEMs, these earphones might not fit your brief.
Feeding in some orchestral music via the Hugo 2/ 2go pairing, and the impressive degree of instrumental separation was the immediate take-home here. This was most apparent with strings and woodwind making great use of the Hero's upper midband and treble bias – violins had plenty of body, particularly. The same could be said for the clarinet on Copland’s Clarinet Concerto 2, too. Rather Fast (Andreas Ottensamer, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin) which came through better than I was expecting, although the pizzicato strings tended to fall foul of that dip in the lower midband. In fact, the double bass sounded more percussive than musical for most of the piece.
The rumble halfway through the opening of Hans Zimmer's Interstellar soundtrack highlighted the less-than-subtle crossover point from the W9+ dynamic driver to the low BA unit. This soundtrack is great for some low-frequency pipe organ action too, which also tested these IEMs’ handling of wide bandwidth output. This particular listening session's highlight was the sense of scale that the Hero produced, giving yours truly moments where I honestly forgot I was hearing the music through a pair of in-ear monitors. Whilst sat upon my sofa, I was transported to the stars. This cinematic score played well into the low-frequency skills of the Hero, where it managed to plumb the depths with musicality as well as presence.
The Empire Ears Hero is a modern in-ear monitor that best suits contemporary recordings. Feed it music that makes full use of its sub-bass rumble and crisp high-frequency energy, and you won’t be able to resist its head-bopping, foot-tapping exuberance. It also offers a welcome finesse enabling decent instrumental separation, helping it come across more AMG coupe than hammered hot-hatch. However, those looking for a more neutral presentation – more into Shostakovich than Skip Marley – would be better off looking elsewhere.