Empire Ears Zeus XR Adel Custom Earphones Page 2

Empire_Zeus_Photo_closeup

With so many options to choose from, I figured it might be best to have a starting point which best represented the "core sound" of the Zeus. I started with the switches down which gives the Zeus XIV configuration. Inserting the MAM and closing it entirely, I was able to effectively remove ADEL from the equation. The resulting sound matched with what I recall hearing back when the Zeus first came my way.

Zeus XIV (non-ADEL)
I'd call this a somewhat warm presentation though generally well balanced overall. Compared to my reference Noble K10, the bass impact is clearly smaller here, with similar extension but much less quantity overall. The old Earwerkz Legend series was definitely tuned for more bass presence than this. What's here is nonetheless very fast and textured for demanding jazz or blues, with a solid rumble on tap for modern rock and electronic fare. If you're looking for an absolute bass monster though, I'm not sure this will be your best bet—Empire Ears has other models which better fit that preference.

The midrange is clearly something special. Rich, beautifully layered, and just a tad forward in the mix, these have a lifelike quality to them that very few CIEMs can match. And because the mids are so well done, the XIV configuration ends up being quite versatile—from Eden Atwood to Extol, Bearfoot to Benjamin Britten, the original Zeus does pretty much everything well.

Highs are again very impressive. There's plenty of extension and sparkle—significantly more than the Noble K10, and perhaps even the very energetic JH13 FreqPhase (V1)—but it manages to remain very natural and grain free. I own over 2 dozen CIEMs and can count on just a few fingers the number of competitors playing on this level.

The fact that all 14 drivers blend together so well speaks highly of the crossover design. I never get the feeling I was listening to anything other than a single coherent point source. Remember, there are 14(!) drivers in each earpiece, all working together. The designers really pulled this off incredibly well.

Overall the Zeus XIV is an extremely impressive platform for Empire Ears to build on.

Zeus R (non-ADEL)
With the general Zeus XIV signature somewhat figured out, I flipped the switches upwards and began listening in Zeus R mode, again with the MAM closed to simulate a non-ADEL version. After the usual minute or two for mental recalibration, I could tell that the R mode would be more to my liking—despite my usual preference for a more bass-heavy presentation.

"Neutral" is the word that comes to mind, but only if we avoid all the baggage it usually brings. This is no flat, boring "monitor" presentation. Bass impact is still completely satisfying but this time around it seems more focused around the lower bass frequencies. In comparison, the XIV almost sounds a bit overdone in the mid-bass region, though I certainly didn't get that impression when listening to it on its own. The Zeus R low-end performance reminds me of my Stax SR-007 mkII in that both are amazingly responsive and agile, and both extend down into the abyss, yet neither has the amount of bass presence some folks are looking for. I still consider both to have something of a bass emphasis, especially when compared to an Etymotic ER4S or Sennheiser HD800 type presentation which we often call "neutral". I think most folks would agree the Zeus R is not exactly neutral in that regard, but for me this is just about the perfect amount of low-end.

Midrange remains reference-caliber, if perhaps just slightly less forward. This is the one area where I do occasionally prefer the XIV configuration, as it just sounds so lush with vocals. That said, I think R mode offers a more honest representation of what's really on the recording.

The real standout aspect of the R-configuration is the treble, which somehow seems even more extended and clear. I'm not sure if the R configuration actually changes the high-frequency presentation or if it's just a psychoacoustic result of the tweaked bass and lower midrange. Whatever the case, I'd rank it at the very top of my list for treble extension and realism without any obnoxious peaks or grain. As a result of this extreme top-end clarity, the Zeus R images unbelievably well, and has a large, almost holographic soundstage presentation. The XIV ends up sounding a tiny bit smoother and thus more forgiving when playing poor recordings. Again, in most instances I tend to prefer the R.

So far, so impressive. Now to add in the ADEL modules and see how that aspect plays out. I'll be sticking with the Zeus R mode since I've established a consistent preference for it, but the ADEL modules impact either configuration in the same way.

Zeus R with ADEL B1 module
First off, I have to point out the changes brought by the ADEL modules as being fairly subtle. Especially at first. If you went into this expecting a complete transformation, you'd be disappointed. Look for subtle changes and don't get hung up on the marketing promises or forum hype. And give it some time.

When I adopted that approach with the B1 module, I began hearing its contribution to the sound as being a positive one in most respects. I heard two main improvements—first, it opened up the soundstage by a small but worthwile amount. The sense of space between performers was palpable. This setup is particularly appealing with large orchestral works and classic rock. Next, it reduced bass impact a tad but in exchange brought an even more convincing sense of realism to things like bass drum thwacks. This was a fair trade off on good recordings but a bit of a distraction on my punk and reggae albums, many of which aren't all that well done. Ultimately, though I consider it worthwhile much of the time, I would be a bit selective on when I might use this module.

Zeus R with ADEL G1 module
This one...finally. This is the combo that wrapped everything up for me in a neat little package. It has, without a doubt, the most impressive soundstage and the most accurate imaging I've yet heard from a cluster of drivers jammed into my ear. Bass response with the G1 is boosted tastefully over the B1 for a bit more slam, without the slight excess mid-bass I heard from the XIV configuration. I already mentioned the Zeus R having just about the perfect low-end quantity for me and the G1 keeps it around the same level, yet there's a perception of greater impact due to improved quality. Whatever the ADEL technology may or may not be doing, the net result is very welcome.

Treble response goes up yet another notch—eclipsing any other IEM I've experienced, bar none. Cymbal shimmer and piano high notes must be heard to be believed. This is the closest I've heard an IEM come to the experience offered by a top-notch Stax setup. If I close my eyes, I can "feel" the performance space around me, assuming I'm playing an excellent recording through a quality audio chain. This illusion of room acoustics is again better than any IEM I have ever encountered.

The sum total of the already exceptional Zeus R with the G1 ADEL module is nothing short of brilliant. This is beautiful, immaculately pure sound that ticks all the boxes for me. I now reach for it pretty much exclusively, despite having no shortage of worthy alternatives to choose from.

Critique
Downsides? Well, for starters, the ADEL technology inherently reduces isolation. There's a direct path to the outside world, blocked only by the ADEL membrane, so you won't get the same result as a completely sealed shell. I've seen folks argue about this on the forums yet it seems fairly obvious to me—solid acrylic versus a sound tube leading to a ported module? No question about it. I didn't find it to be particularly bothersome as I don't typically listen in loud environments. Your usage may vary. There was one aspect that caused me some trouble though: wind noise. On moderately windy days, when the wind hit my ears at certain angles, it produced a very distracting "buffeting" noise—loud enough to where I consider these IEMs pretty much unusable in those circumstances. I've spoken to some ADEL users who say wind noise is very minor for them, but others I know have the same highly-distracting result as I do. So plan accordingly.

The next negative I have to mention is price. Yes, the Zeus is a shockingly ambitious design. And it must be said that Empire Ears builds a fantastic product, with fit and finish commensurate for a world-class CIEM. Their accessory package is second to none. Service is up there where it should be as well, unlike some other big-name CIEM firms who continually struggle with issues in that area. Still, it's hard to ignore the fact that other statement products sell for less money—often significantly so. Keep that in mind as you shop around for options.

Next comes the dreaded hiss problem. Empire Ears has always had an issue with this, going back to the Earwerkz days where hiss could be almost unbearable on some models—something to do with their unique crossover designs. The Zeus tones it down to manageable levels but it's still more difficult than it should be to find a good match. For example, my Questyle QP1R gives a fair amount of hiss with the Zeus, as does the headphone out on my Anedio D2 DAC—both of those are generally silent with most other IEMs. I had the best results with HiFiMAN's HM901S using the IEM amp card, as well as the excellent Cowon Plenue 1, both of which brought reference-caliber sound on the go. For at-home listening, the Arcam rHead is one of the few matches I found with a nice silent background. This is just one more thing to consider when weighing your options.

Finally, as obvious as this might seem—the sound signature just may not be for everyone. Despite the numerous configurations available, there's still no way to get a huge, bass-heavy signature out of the Zeus. Nor is there a relaxed, forgiving presentation hiding among those ADEL modules. No, the Zeus has its own flavor, and neither the XR switch nor the replaceable modules transform it into something completely different. I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea just because the sound can be tweaked to some degree.

Empire_Zeus_Photo_Case

Final Thoughts
Empire Ears makes a lot of claims about their flagship design. After quite a bit of listening, I'm still on the fence about some of those claims. Frankly, I'm not sure the ADEL technology actually allows me to listen at lower levels. I don't know if it makes any difference in listening fatigue over the long term. And, tied to those two things, I'm not sure it really is better for my hearing in terms of preservation. Perhaps, as someone who tends to listen at lower than average levels, I'm outside of the target market for these benefits. Who knows?

What I am sure about is the Zeus XR ADEL being the best CIEM I've ever heard. Every iteration I tried was pleasing, but the Zeus R with G1 ADEL modules hits all the right notes for me. Whatever health benefits ADEL may or may not offer, I'm confident in declaring it a success when it comes to sonic properties. The Zeus R with G1 bests my other favorite CIEMs by a not-insignificant margin, advancing the state of the art and putting a huge smile on my face with each listening session. And that makes it worthy of a spot on the Wall of Fame.

Resources
Empire Ears home page and Zeus product page.
Huge Empire Ears discussion thread

COMPANY INFO
Empire Ears
5600 Oakbrook Parkway Suite 100
Norcross, GA 30093
(770) 945-0065
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Magoo's picture

Dude,

2 dozen IEM's?? How does that possibly make sense? What makes you need that many ? 2 dozen situations where each one fits? Maybe you are just doing your job? Of course retail probably was not paid for these?

And I feel bad for having 2 sets on full size HP's??

Just curious at the quantity like I am by guys that have 12TB of Music files I guess......

Ike1985's picture

A reviewer needs many IEMs in order to make valuable comparisons.

I have about 2TB of music (99% Flac 16/44). It's very easy to get that much when you download just a few albums a day for years. Unlike the streaming crowd I actually own my music and can listen to it without being online. This means a lot to me because music means a lot to me and the idea of not owning it or trusting someone else with it isn't a compromise I'm willing to make. Plus hard drive space is cheap now.

John Grandberg's picture

It's an occupational hazard I suppose. I've purchased many sets on my own, at full price, as nothing more than an enthusiast (stretching back for about 15 years since my first pair). I like having a neutral set for home use, a bassy pair for on-the-go listening, a kick-around set for the gym, etc etc. Then new stuff comes out a few years later and I want to try those as well. I'd argue the CIEM industry has been growing at a faster pace than other segments, so there are more worthwhile updates as time goes by as compared to speakers or amplifiers.

Resale value is poor on CIEMs so unlike regular cans, these stick with me forever.

And then there are the review units on top of all that.

It adds up after a while. Just check out how many headphones Tyll has!

Under "normal" circumstances, I'd probably be satisfied with just a couple sets these days: a higher-end unit for home use, and an affordable model (maybe dual-driver) that I wouldn't be afraid to have lost/damaged/stolen as I wear them all over the place.

Ike1985's picture

A reviewer needs to own many IEMs in order to make valuable comparisons.

Did you experience a loss of detail with ADEL? My experience with ADEL for 2 years: it increases stage size in all directions, reduces resolution, slightly reduces accuracy of positioning within stage, presents a more natural sound with regard to tone (especially in the low end), creates a more vibratory/tactile feel in sub and mid bass and obviously offers a pressure free listening experience. Are you someone who favors this sort of effect?

John Grandberg's picture

I don't perceive it as a loss of detail at all. If anything I find the detail extraction more lifelike. More natural. But it's probably a matter of perspective.

If I take the most ear-bleeding, bright system I can possibly assemble, which presents detail in an extremely in-your-face way - there will be someone out there who calls this "more detailed" and prefers it over a far more natural, realistic, but still very accurate presentation. Different strokes and all that. I'm not accusing you of this at all, just using a far-out example to show what I mean.

valius55's picture

may I ask what DAP is shown in the tittle picture ? thank you !

John Grandberg's picture
That's the Cowon Plenue 1.
Pro7omize's picture

Another case of higher price + more drivers automatically = better sound. Pretty sure I can find an IEM far cheaper than these that not only objectively outperforms these, but also subjectively as well.

John Grandberg's picture

I admit I do struggle with the high price. I tried to be very clear about that in my evaluation.

Overpriced is a relative value judgement though, and to my ears these do quite handily outperform the competition. It's tough to convey that to someone who hasn't heard them though, and I totally understand the price related hesitation.

For less money, Empire offers the excellent Spartan, and for even less, the Supra. Both sound great for a fraction of the price of Zeus.

Ike1985's picture

The market has decided that the Zeus is worth the asking price, markets determine prices not materials cost. Also remember that labor cost is significant with these extremely complex IEMs with many crossovers. Have a look at the EE website, read about the Zeus and all the processes that go into it:

custom made drivers
nano coating to eliminate magnetic interference between drivers
7 strans litz internal wiring to eliminate acoustic feedback
ultra pure quad eutectic soldering material
Dual crossovers in 8 way configuration for dual signatures
individual driver examination before use

etc

It isn't as simple as just placing and wiring drivers in a shell, at least not with EE.

, it's mind boggling.

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