21. May 2021 · Comments Off on Empire Bravado II and Odin In Ear Monitors · Categories: Headphones, Hifi News, Hifi Reviews · Tags: , , , , ,

EMPIRE BRAVADO II AND EMPIRE ODIN IN-EAR MONITOR REVIEW

Empire Bravado II and Odin In-Ear Monitors cost £799 and £3399 respectively. Stuart Smith plugs them in his lugs for a listen.

I’m not a huge fan of most in-ears, it has to be said. However, by the same token, it’s wholly impractical to lug about our Audeze LCDs if I want music on the go. At a push, I reckon I could get away with the Oppo PM1s we have but they are pretty large too. As it is my go-to in-ear headphones have been the Audeze iSine 20s which can be bagged for around seven hundred English beer tokens, though they are wholly ridiculous looking and not the most comfortable of things to have on your head given their plastic ear-hangers. Sound-wise the Audeze, for me, are about as much as I need for on the go and they are comparable in price to the Empire Bravado IIs we have here, though the Odins take the price of admission to what I consider to be stratospheric levels. I do, however, fully understand that for some a superlative listening experience is paramount wherever they may find themselves and there are certainly the portable players to match the Odins in cost.

I’ll split this review into two distinct parts but for both my point of reference will remain the Audeze iSine 20s – this may seem a mismatch but it will give readers a good idea of how similarly priced in-ears from Empire compare and then what can be achieved, or otherwise, by inserting a pair of in-ears that cost the same as a good pair of loudspeakers…or a cheap second-hand car. I’ll be using the same kit throughout the tests and that will be the laptop running media monkey through a Chord Mojo. The Mojo is ideal as it is the portable DAC I know well and it has two headphone outs for swift comparisons. I also did some listening with both sets through a Google 3XL.

EMPIRE BRAVADO II

The packaging is without a doubt very nice indeed. They come in a nice white box with a fold-out top that has the earphones and cable and then a pull-out drawer that contains a rather lovely metal screw open round carrying box, a set of Final Type E tips, and a cleaning brush – Empire suggests you clean the Bravados after each use.

The earphones themselves are a four-driver affair with these being: A W9 + Subwoofer that deals with the sub and bass frequencies, a balanced armature mid-driver, and 2 electrostatic drivers that deal with highs and super-highs. They have an onboard six-way synX crossover network to ensure the right frequencies go to the right driver and the cable is a copper Litz type that is made especially for Empire. The electrostatic drivers on these is controlled by an onboard doodad that Empire catchily calls EIVEC which has to be easier than saying Empire Intelligent Variable Electrostatic Control every time you want to trot it out. It’s beyond the scope of this review to go into details about this but basically, it’s there to stop the electrostatic element from taking over and dominating the other drivers because, as Empire put it, “Electrostatic drivers do not play nicely with other drivers”. The earphones are not knocked out in some Far-Eastern country but are made in the USA. The outer faceplate of the earphones themselves has a glittery effect that Empire calls Deep Field and which is named after the Hubble Telescopes image of the Universe.

All in all the package is pretty cool and the earphones look a bit glitzy but they aren’t over the top.

 

FEEL AND COMFORT

I was expecting the Bravados to be a lot weightier than they actually are but they are very light indeed. Popping them in the ear is simple, as is popping on your chosen eartips. The first thing you notice is the amount of background noise these cancel out. Shaking your head about doesn’t dislodge them and I’d be happy to go out for a bit of exercise in these.

The cable is pretty short but I think that is a positive as I just don’t want loads of cable getting in the way when I’m out and about.

The Comfort level is very good and I could easily see myself wearing these on long journeys without having to pop them out. Compared to the Audezes with their over-ear plastic doodad they are very comfortable.

One thing I did notice in use was that the cable jack, a right-angled affair of very good quality, got in the way somewhat, particularly with the Mojo/Poly in my jacket pocket, and I would have preferred a straightforward jack.

SOUND

I found myself having to turn the volume up a tad when switching from the Audeze to the Bravados but the immediate sonic improvements were clear. Listening to the analogue synth-driven Ssss by VCMG the detail in the recording just shone out with the Empires in place. Really, there is much more of a sense of the actual instruments’ timbre and texture. I also noticed that background sounds and instruments were easier to distinguish without having to strain to hear them.

Bass weight is more realistic to my mind, and the way I would describe these is as being much more an audiophile sounding in-ear than the Audezes. By that I mean they may seem a little polite at first listen, and I think this is a criticism that is leveled at a lot of higher-end products – they aim to be true to the recording rather than impress with bells and whistles like overblown bass. Now that may sound as though I am saying that the Bravados only play nicely with stuff I would call Audiophile kind of music (jazz, classical and female vocals) but I’m not suggesting that at all. What I am saying is that if you want fireworks and an immediate hit, however ultimately inaccurate this may be, then these may not be for you. If you are looking for a more realistic portrayal of the music then these are better headphones than the Audeze by a bit of a margin in my opinion.

Listening to Eeels’ Novocaine For the Soul was a very nice experience with my only criticism being that the bass felt a little one-dimensional, though again vocals and tops were superior to the Audezes.

Over to Buddy Rich’s live recording of Mexicali Noise I was impressed with the sense of speed and accuracy of the Bravados. Dynamically they just work really well and covey the nuances of the drums in particular very nicely indeed. There was also a sense of excitement and immediacy to these in-ears, albeit within a smaller headspace than the Audezes.

Jeff Buckley’s magnificent version of Hallelujah was conveyed beautifully here and the vocal came to the fore very well. There was a real sense of being able to see the artist move towards and away from the microphone. A very nuanced presentation and a bit of a goosebumps moment.

There isn’t the same out-of-head experience as with the Audezes and the soundstage feels narrower and more enclosed, but that extra isolation from external sound sources really does help you feel within the recording space.

CONCLUSION

There is no getting away from it, these are a very accomplished design and one that I would be happy to take away with me for the odd occasions that I find myself wanting to listen to music on the go.

They are secure enough in the ear for a bit of a brisk walk and are comfy enough to wear for long periods of time.

They don’t do overblown or exaggerated dynamics and are even across the frequency range, but they are a dynamic earphone that responds quickly to the music they are presented with.

They are similar in price to the iSINE 20 from Audeze that I use, but in my opinion, they are a more even and more capable (read audiophile) headphone that will appeal very much to that market, though they won’t suit those used to a more “enhanced” top and bottom sounding headphone.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality:

There’s no getting away from it that the Bravados are a nicely packaged and nicely put-together set of in-ears. They look blingy enough to satisfy those that like that kind of thing but aren’t over the top. The cable is good and just the right length, though the right-angled jack I found annoying.

Comfort:

I’m not great with in-ears at the best of time but found myself able to wear these for long periods without any discomfort. There are different eartips for different ear shapes and sizes.

Sound Quality:

Smooth even and yet dynamic are the takeaways from these headphones. They are silky smooth throughout the range and never become bright or overbearing. I did find the bass a little one-note at times. They offer a refined and audiophile presentation that will certainly appeal to that marketplace, though I feel younger folk more accustomed to in-ears that have been tuned to overly excite in the bass frequencies may feel they are lacking.

Value for Money:

Not cheap but nor is the competition.

Price: £799

We Loved:

Smooth and fatigue-free presentation

Silky smooth mid-range

Dynamic and speedy when needed

Even presentation

Great noise cancelation from external sources

Good build and design

Great packaging

We Didn’t Love So Much:

Bass can be a little “one note” at times

Need to have the volume turned up in comparison to the reference used

Not cheap

Elevator Pitch Review: A very nicely presented, built and designed in-ear headphone that has a high-end and audiophile sound. They will appeal to lovers of all genres of music that appreciate good accuracy of presentation at a fairly reasonable price. They don’t overblow anything and could be mistaken as being a bit on the bland side for some.

EMPIRE ODIN

The packaging on the Odins is very similar to the Bravado II only it is a block box.  You have the same top tray and slide-out drawer but with the Odins the box comes signed by the creators and with a thank you message written in hand. There’s also a signed note from Dean Vang, founder and CTO of Empire and a golden card giving you the number of your pair out of the 200 pairs made – these were number 183, which is also printed tastefully on the side of the earphones’ bodies. These particular Odins were the ‘Founders Edition’ – the first 200 pairs made were signed, but the ‘normal’ version is sonically identical.

Externally, and apart from a different sparkle effect (the Odin’s have a multicoloured glittery outer) they look pretty much the same as the Bravados. Visible differences are the plug ( a balanced jack) for which there is an adapter available and the cable which is cotton wrapped. The cable is in fact made by PWAudio and Pentaconn and called Stormbreaker. It’s made up of USA sourced OCC Copper Litz in a “quad conductor, dual gauge design”

Inside is where the Odins are somewhat different and the online marketing claims a frequency response of 5Hz to 100kHz – frankly my first comment on this was to turn to Linette and say “What a load of b&*)ocks”, but more on that in a bit.

So I said they were different from the Bravados inside and here is how. There are a total of eleven (yes eleven) drivers in each of the earphones – 2 “Next Generation” W9 subs that cover, not surprisingly, the sub and bass frequencies, 5 balanced armature drivers, two of which deal with low-mids, two that deal with mids and one that takes care of mid-highs. The final set of drivers are 4 “premium” electrostatic drivers with two handling the highs and two sorting out the super-highs – a bit like a couple of super-tweeters I imagine. There’s the EIVEC control tech’ for the electrostatics and the synX crossover as in the Bravados and then A.R.C (Resonance Mitigation Technology) that is annti Resonance Compound that is applied to the drivers, crossover and sound tube to dampen and absorb unwanted resonances.

There’s not much else to add to what they look like and Feel and Comfort are pretty much identical to the Bravado, with the exception of their being a silver emblem on the cable and a silver doodad to shorten the cable hang where it splits. Overall, I have to say I was pretty unimpressed with the Odins when compared to the Bravdos and from a purely “there’s not much different going on here and where’s that extra money coming from?” perspective.

SOUND

Reading my intro to the Odins you will be forgiven for thinking that I wasn’t expecting very much at all given that from the outside they look like a VERY similar product to the Bravado though much more expensive. MUCH more!

So I plugged them in and found the first tune that grabbed my attention and it was the Tiesto Kaleidoscope record – not really my usual listening fodder as this is very much “Big Room Trance”. Anyway, much as I turned to Linette with regards to the frequency response there was a similar reaction within about two bars which went something along the lines of “….ing hell these are a bit good”. This album I seriously bassy but it’s that pumping side-chained bass that some audiophile folk moan about ad-nauseam – often rightly so. It’s absolutely epic on these headphones and there is the effect of actually feeling the bass notes. This is as close as I’ve ever got with ANY headphones to a realistic portrayal of proper bass that you might get with a pair of loudspeakers. No, you don’t really feel it in your body as you get with proper full-range speakers (that kick to the chest) but it’s there and it’s palpable. 5Hz, I dunno (I’ll leave listening to test tones to others), but they go low and it’s absolutely controlled and wonderful. In fact, you do sort of feel the bass in your body – down the bottom of your spine – it’s an odd sensation and one you should try! Is it overblown in the bass? Not at all, it’s beautifully controlled and speedy.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Gesaffelstein’s Aleph record of late and it’s actually a record I do listen to a bit whilst traveling. There’s no other word to describe the way that this album is presented on the Odins than epic! Again that bass is low, but then everything else is so linearly presented and layered that it’s hard to not be drawn into the music.

Hardfloor’s remix of New Order’s Blue Monday is fantastic on these. The hollowness of that kick at the start of the track is brilliantly done and I suppose it’s little details like being able to clearly hear every effect and every nuance of the mix that really sets these earphones apart from the Odins and any other in-ears I’ve has the pleasure of listening to. The out-of-time hi-hats in the left channel are easy to pull out of the mix, but that’s not to say it sounds wrong or pulled apart – it’s not. Everything just seems to slot into place, but with that ability to focus in on a sound or instrument and isolate it.

I listened to a lot of dub and techno on these and they are brilliant at getting across that full frequency feel that you really need to get this music in its full effect. There’s a saying that goes something like “With great power comes great responsibility” and whilst it would be dead easy to listen to these and be marveled by that bass and detail, they are actually a remarkably well-balanced listen with vocals sounding clear, unforced and natural.

Eels’ Beautiful Freak and specifically Spunky is stripped down and you can almost see E stood at the microphone whilst almost speaking the vocal. You can really see him tip his head or move towards the microphone such is the detail these in-ears give you. Bass guitar at the start of Your Lucky Day In Hell is simple to follow and the effects on E’s vocal likewise easy to hear. The balance and detail these earphones have is nothing short of spectacular.

Whatever I listened to on the Odins sounded like listening with a fresh pair of ears, and, speaking as one who is not a huge fan of in-ears, I found them somewhat revelatory. Whether simple acoustic music or full-on techno the take-away from these is a huge depth of sound and scale and across the frequency range. There is also an eery kind of air to the upper registers that super-tweeters seem to bring to the party.

CONCLUSION

These are good in-ears. They are VERY good in-ears, but that comes at a considerable price.

The Odins are the best sounding in-ears I have ever heard – and that is by quite some margin. They have a sound that is so well-rounded and so lifelike it is almost uncanny. The amount of detail present is truly incredible but that is not an artificial detail that can be had by boosting the audible upper frequencies a bit. The bass is also lifelike and with heft, but again it’s not in any way artificial sounding.

They are an even and very balanced in-ear (read audiophile) headphone that will appeal very much to that market, though they have a certain party feel about them too  – a party for one, though.

They sound at their best with good sources and DACs but I got very good results out of the line out of headphone out of my computer too. That said, I would expect anyone who is going to spend this kind of money to have the best of DAPs too!

They are outrageously expensive in my opinion, but by the same token they are the best in-ears I have ever heard and come close to being the best headphone I’ve heard, period! With that in mind, and with a watering side-eye to the cost, the Odins have to get our top award.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality: As per the Bravados pretty much, though with a better cable and snazzy metal bits on the cable. The jack is also straight, which was a good thing

Comfort: As per the Bravados – very comfortable and with different eartips to suit different lugs

Sound Quality: Exceptionally good sounding. Detailed throughout the frequency range. Bass that has real weight and texture. A wonderfully sweet midband, particularly on vocals.  An airiness to the upper frequencies  Did I mention detail?

Value For Money: They are the price of a secondhand runabout car. They sound absolutely brilliant but the perceived value is difficult to evaluate in terms of them being just a pair of in-ears, albeit made in limited numbers. If I say they represent good value for money I’d be lying to you and myself – they just don’t represent good value for money, but then there are lots of things out there that I would love to own that don’t represent good value in absolute terms. However, If you are looking for the best in-ear experience and you have the dosh to throw at these then all I can say is go for it – I would if I could!

Price: £3399

We Loved:

The naturalness of everything

Detail, detail, and more detail without you ever feeling that you were being overloaded

Balanced and very refined sounding

Nice build quality and pride of ownership

That bass is uncanny!

We Didn’t Love So Much:

They cost more than I could justify for myself

They are a bit blingy on the outers of the in-ears’ casing

Elevator Pitch Review:

A luxury pair of in-ear headphones made in limited numbers with a sound that will shock – in a very good way. Bass performance is outstandingly accomplished, but then so is everything else across the frequency spectrum. The best in-ears I’ve ever heard, though that comes at a very considerable price!

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart Smith

Supplied By SCV Distribution

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