Empire Ears (EE) open the year 2021 with some new and exciting products. One of them is the ESR MKII, the next iteration of their ESR ("Empire Studio Reference") in-ear studio monitor.
While the original ESR came with 3 balanced armature drivers, the 2021 ESR MKII has a 5-driver hybrid design with 3 balanced armature drivers and 2 electrostatic drivers. The ESR MKII is aimed primarily at professional users such as musicians and studio technicians or sound engineers, which does not mean that music lovers will not enjoy it too.
5 Drivers, Hybrid IEM Design:
Universal In-Ear Monitor
3 Proprietary Balanced Armature Drivers - Low, Medium, High
2 Premium Electrostatic Driver - Ultra High
4-Way synX Crossover
EIVEC - Empire Intelligent Electrostatic Control Technology
ARC Anti-resonance connection technology
Impedance: 3.9 Ohm @ 1kHz
Frequency response: 10 Hz - 100kHz
Sensitivity: 111dB @ 1kHz, 1mW
Handcrafted Alpha-IV 26AWG UPOCC copper braid
< br> Note
My test report consists exclusively of my own thoughts, opinions and impressions about the product. I paid for the product I tested, it was not provided to me for free. All pictures were taken by myself, unless otherwise stated.
Burson Audio Soloist 3XP / Composer 3XP Combo ( Main test source)
Cayin N8 DAP
Cayin N6 II DAP with E02 module
Empire Ears Alpha-IV cable (2.5mm symmetrical)
Music selection / test playlist
Voices, mids, acoustic guitars etc.
Tenacious D - Tenacious D - Wonderboy
Marily Manson - The Pale Emperor - Day3
Chris Jones - Moonstruck
Sara K. - Hell or High Water - I Can't Stand The Rain, Stars
Ana Tijoux - 1977 - Partir de Cero
T Tenacious D - Tenacious D - Kielbasa
NIN - The Downward Spiral - Hurt
Johnny Cash - The Essential - Ring of Fire
Stephen Coleman - Westworld Season 2 Soundtrack - CREAM
Sound stage, treble, electric guitars etc.
Alice in Chains - MTV Unpl ugged - Rooster
Korn - MTV Unplugged - Freak on a Leash
Anneke van Giersbergen - Symphonized - Feel Alive
Howard Shore - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Blunt the Knives
Dynamics, Bass, Subbass
The Diary - The Gentle Storm - Endless Sea | Gentle Version |
Wardruna - Runal iodine: Ragnarok - Tyr
Hans Zimmer - Man of Steel OST - Look to the Stars
Hans Zimmer - Pearl Harbor OST - Tennessee
Ice Cube - Raw Footage - Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It
Andreas Vollenweider - Vox - Enchanted Rocks
Packaging & Accessories
The packaging for all Empire Ears (EE) products is more or less the same, which makes sense to me as there is a consistency across the entire range indicates.
You get a beautifully designed white cardboard box with the Empire Ears logo and the name or logo of the respective product. It's neither too big nor too small and exudes class and style. It consists of an outer "slider" cover and a more stable inner box.
If you open the magnetic flap of the box, you will find a compartment inside with a quick guide and a " Thank you card "from EE, congratulating you on the successful purchase. Underneath, the IEM and cable are ready for you to pull out and enjoy the music. In a noble drawer underneath there is an aluminum plate with various Final Audio silicone tips that you can choose from.
The great thing about it is that Empire Ears not only offers the standard sizes S, M and L, but XS, S, M, L and XL, which makes it easy to has a wider range of tips that you can adapt to your ears. Since my ear canals are slightly different sizes, it makes it easier for me to get a good fit. However, I would have liked a selection of foam attachments, as I generally prefer foam to silicone. The included attachments work well.
Last but not least, there is the fantastic Pandora case from EE, a black aluminum capsule for the safe transport of the precious in-ears. It is built like the proverbial tank and is engraved with the Empire logo and the name of your product.
Quality of workmanship & fit
The processing quality of the ESR MKII is excellent, just like with all in-ears from EE. To be honest, I didn't notice any difference in build quality between the entry-level and top-end products. For me, that's just a sign that they don't compromise on quality, regardless of price. I like that!
The new ESR MKIIs are black with a brushed silver front plate and a silver logo that "hovers" over the brushed silver. The design is rather subtle and looks very stylish and noble to me. The fit and comfort, at least for my average-sized ears, is good, although the rather long sound opening enables a good seal. As a result, the IEMs do not sit flush in my ears, but protrude a few millimeters, which is not a problem for me.
EE use a variant of the Ares II from Effect Audio, which they call Alpha-IV or simply A4. You have the choice between 3.5mm single ended or 2.5mm symmetrical. It's a beautiful, classy and well-made cable and I particularly like the slim connector and the super small Y-split. Yes, the cable looks beautiful in my opinion.
What I like less is the stiffness of the cable. Personally, I prefer slightly softer, more flexible cables. However, the cable noise is at a low level / not an issue. In terms of sound, I have no complaints at all. It's a good cable.
How "flat" and true to source are these improved studio in-ears?
As the name ESR (Empire Studio Reference) suggests, EE regards this IEM as their reference for a flat and uncolored studio monitor. Since I usually prefer the X-series consumer products as I'm not a pro, I didn't really know what to expect. However, I do own the Phantom studio monitor (which is much more expensive), so I had a rough idea of what a "flat" reference studio in-ear might sound like. I was both right and wrong.
The overall tonality is actually nicely balanced and, as far as I can tell, neutral. No frequency seems excessive and I assume that the frequency response corresponds to the description "flat". Since I am not taking measurements, I cannot confirm this with data. It's just my impression after listening to music, watching movies, and playing something with the ESR MKIIs for a week.
One thing that stands out immediately is that the ESR MKIIs are playing the music the way they do it is, that is, good recordings sound good, bad recordings bad. But that's the point of a reference studio in-ear monitor, isn't it?
The combination of symmetrical armature and dual electrostatic (E- Stat) driver delivers a nicely detailed and smooth high frequency range with no boost. Strings and guitars sound very natural to me. Since there does not seem to be any increase in altitude, you might miss the typical "sparkle" that you are used to from other, more consumer-oriented devices, but that is not the case. It's all there, but you have to get used to a completely different set-up, or rather - to the lack of one.
I first noticed this with my EE Phantoms, but after a while I started doing that Enjoy the overall quality of a natural frequency response. This is just perfect for long listening sessions.
Voices, both male and female, are reproduced very naturally and stand out from the rest of the composition without the Impression of an artificial frequency increase. Like the high-frequency range, the entire mid-range is nicely separated and overall balanced.
Bass / Bass
The bass of Balanced Armature (BA) drivers is very different from dynamic drivers (DD). The frequency response is flat, neutral and tight, which is of course also intended. There is no deafening roar and hum like the EE Valkyrie MKIIs or the EE Legend X, which use dedicated subwoofers.
This bass reproduction reflects what was recorded, nothing more, nothing less. Still, the ESR MKIIs surprised me in a good way because their bass response is by no means lifeless or completely devoid of sub-bass, as I expected. It's all there - when it's in the shot. It is a pleasure to hear Jeff Goldblum and the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra on Cantaloup Island. I feel like I'm actually attending the concert.
Surprisingly, the sound stage seems above average to me. Live recordings sound spacious, while everything in the music - the instruments, the singer (s), the audience - is well separated. I had a key moment when I was playing a game and all of a sudden I heard a noise from outside. I took the ESR MKIIs off only to find that the noise was actually coming from the game itself.
Channel separation / Instrument separation
The channel separation is really very good. The instrument separation is excellent, depending on the source material. You can tell that these IEMs were made for professionals who need to be as close as possible to the truth.
The ESR MKII are neutral sounding IEMs with a apparently flat frequency response that presents you with what's in the music without leaving anything out and without adding or raising anything. They are indeed made to analyze and dissect music, but somehow they still manage to convey emotion and enjoyment. I can't really figure it out. And I mean that in a good way!
Gain / Adaptability / Scalability
The ESR MKII are quite sensitive IEMs, they don't need a lot of amplifier power to run their Work to be done. And since their specialty is faithful reproduction, they will show their main strength with a neutral source. In my test, I found the combination with Burson Desktop DAC / Amps very good in this regard.
Should you want to deviate from the path of total truth, you can pair them with less neutral sources. I tried my Cayin DAPs and enjoyed the extra warmth and energy the ESR MKII received from this combination. Basically, you can adapt these studio IEMs to your current task pretty well, which I find quite interesting.
< When paired with the right source, the ESR MKIIs give the truth and nothing but the truth. They are aimed primarily at music professionals, but are sure to meet the needs of other users as well. Anyone who prefers more neutral music reproduction or is just looking for an in-ear for a more relaxed and fatigue-free listening experience should find this set very interesting.
I enjoyed my time with the ESR MKIIs, although I usually prefer the prefer fun-oriented type of headphones. Funnily enough, I've even used them for movies and games and never once felt like something was missing. Not once did I feel the need to switch to a different set of in-ears. As I said, I'm not a sound engineer or a musician, but I believe these IEMs will certainly appeal to a wider range of users than just professionals. They are more expensive than their predecessors, but they make up for it with greatly improved technology, beautiful optics and, above all, sound reproduction that really deserves the name Empire Studio Reference.