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Empire Ears Phantom Review – The Hero We Deserve

Pros – 

Coherent, layered and wholly resolved midrange, Very wide soundstage, Dynamic bass

Cons – 

Intimate depth, Doesn’t provide a lot of treble energy or sparkle, Bulky uni housings

Verdict – 

The Phantom is the daily flagship, free of fatigue and always hiding a new nuance in plain sight for the listener to discover.


Introduction –

It seemed like yesterday when Empire Ears first flooded onto the scene, an applauded reception to a new exciting manufacturer ready to compete with the best. Their flagship Zeus pleased the ear of many, paving the way for the immensely popular Olympus line-up. The Legend-X and Phantom represent the continuation of Empire Ears, showcasing both innovation and a heavy appreciation of the traditional. And where the Zeus aimed for balance, their two new flagships sit comfortably on either side of that baseline.

Before heading into the review, an apology is in order. Those wanting tales of an enveloping soundstage, bass that resonates to the listener’s core and timbre adhesive with its verisimilitude will be disappointed. This is not that review. I spent 6 months living with the Phantom to provide a comprehensive long-term review and the most cohesive words I could muster. This review will be honest and down to earth. You can read more about the Phantom and buy one for yourself here.

 

Disclaimer –

I would like to thank Empire Ears very much for their quick communication and for providing me with the Phantom at a discounted price for the purpose of review. All words are my own and there is no monetary incentive for a positive review. Despite receiving the earphones at a reduced cost, I will attempt to be as objective as possible in my evaluation.

 

Accessories –

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Like many flagships, the Phantom makes a strong first impression with its unboxing. A black EE hard box opens to reveal a microfiber cloth and two soft pouches of varying size. Most notable is the inclusion of a pelican style hard case with metal faceplate engraved with the buyer’s name.

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Inside is the Phantom in addition to one of Effect Audio’s ARES II custom cables. Also included are 5 pairs of Final Audio E-tips in various sizes. This ensures a strong seal and a comfortable fit.

 

Design –

Empire Ear’s universal housings have come a long way, but there’s still work to be done when it comes to shaping. They have a plastic construction that feels light but also subjectively insubstantial for the asking price. That said, the finish is smooth with perfectly even surfaces and a complete lack of seams. Gold logos adorn each faceplate, lavishly complimenting their piano black colour scheme.

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The Phantom is a very thick earphone that protrudes quite far from the ear. That said, it isn’t too large with regards to width and height so it fits quite comfortably. Still, the rear angle could be slightly smoother, and it tended to produce mild discomfort for me during longer listening; most buyers will want to opt for the custom-fit option.  The nozzles protrude slightly and a small anti-helix protrusion aids stability. Unfortunately, the nozzle is very smooth and tips do tend to slide off, even the smaller bore E-tips included in the box.

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It’s also a fully-sealed IEM with an ear-filling design. It has a medium-deep fit depending on the ear-tip and its light-weight benefits stability. Isolation is very strong and can be further enhanced with foam or custom tips such as those from Custom Art. Few earphones isolate quite as much, even with the aforementioned custom tips, making these a great choice for frequent travellers.

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A non-recessed 0.78mm removable cable completes the experience. The Phantom comes with Effect Audio’s ARES II, a renowned custom cable that is sturdily built. The cable’s fit and finish is gorgeous with a genuine Oyaide right-angle plug and signature carbon-fibre y-split. Pre-formed ear guides provide a more comfortable experience than memory wire on top. This cable makes the Phantom easier to live with and its beefy construction grants peace of mind during daily use, a great addition!

 

Sound –

Tonality –

The Phantom comes across as reasonably balanced but with a warm tone and somewhat fuller notes. As such, it prioritises coherence and midrange note resolution over absolute clarity and micro-detail retrieval. The Phantom’s low-end is enhanced throughout with particular emphasis around upper-bass, filling in its midrange with additional body. The lower-midrange is, by comparison, attenuated just enough to provide separation and prevent congestion. Meanwhile, vocals are slightly forward, the upper-midrange slightly more so. This provides a clear vocal reconstruction that nonetheless avoids any semblance of thinness. Treble is most intriguing and, in turn, polarising.

The Phantom gradually climbs to a small lower-treble peak before a sharp fall-off. As such, it has plenty of detail presence and a surprising amount of crispness at times, however, its background is pitch black and sparkle is subdued. This grants the Phantom outstanding foreground/background separation and excellent separation despite its fullness. Treble sparkle has become a characteristic of high-end IEMs, however, the Phantom leans in quite the opposite direction. Though it doesn’t throw every minute nuance in the listener’s face, the Phantom nonetheless manages impressive technical feats and maintains the ability to be listened to for hours on end.

 

Bass –

This is one of the Phantom’s strengths, delivering superb, almost dynamic-driver like extension in addition to strong control that reins in a lush tuning. Sub-bass is emphasized but controlled, slam is heightened yet rumble is very well-defined. Mid-bass is less present by comparison, preventing over-warming while upper-bass is reasonably enhanced, producing a warm tone and a slightly tubby bass note presentation. Regardless, bass control is very high, enabling strong separation that mitigates bloat in light of the Phantom’s warmth. As such, notes are very punchy and strongly defined. In addition, decay is natural, never sloppy but also the especially fast especially compared to more neutral TOTL earphones that tend to redeem a more fine detail at the cost of quantity.

I would consider the Phantom to be one of the most dynamic BA earphones I’ve tested and it certainly impresses with its ability to provide richness while upholding excellent detail retrieval. As such, bloat and muddiness are a non-issue, surprising given its style of tuning, however, certain traits are unavoidable such as slight rounding and tubbiness of bass notes. Still, this is a very impressive performer, not too bassy for home use but full enough to remain engaging on the go. The Phantom suites listeners wanting a TOTL in-ear without compromising bass quantity, catering towards lovers of richness and warmth realised through excellent technical ability.

 

Mids –

This may be one of the more controversial aspects of the Phantom while simultaneously being its greatest asset; this earphone is smooth and almost redefines perceptions of naturalness, a statement I say with both positive and negative connotations. In direct comparison to other high-end IEMs, and likely most listener’s impression upon first listen, the Phantom can come across as overly full and a little boxy. It takes some time to appreciate the goal Nic, Dean and Jack were trying to achieve. After a brief adjustment and acclimatization to focussing on the midrange as opposed to bass and treble, it becomes clear that the Phantom’s speciality is its very complete notes.

To clarify, vocals and instruments are fleshed out and filled with detail, there isn’t a hint of over-articulation, thinness of artificial enhancement. In accordance, timbre is excellent, among the best I’ve encountered, and the Phantom is almost impossibly coherent and natural. Tone is undoubtedly on the warmer side and, in this sense, the Phantom produces an overly homogenous image that is not always faithful to the original recording but instead to what one would experience in a live setting. Still, the Phantom is not over-tuned to the extent that it introduces chestiness, muffle or bass spill, and separation is aided by a touch of lower-midrange attenuation.

Meanwhile, vocal presence is slightly bolstered and, as the earphone has a gentle rise in emphasis into the upper-midrange, vocal clarity is spot-on and never presents as either enhanced or veiled. A slight 4-KHz dip aids the Phantom’s velvety note presentation by increasing density and counter-acting the effects of its lower-treble emphasis on articulation. To clarify, I do not consider the Phantom to deliver perfect fidelity but a romanticised image that immerses and engages with its coherence nonetheless. The result is an earphone that has a simply gorgeous vocal reconstruction and an instrument portrayal that is a touch organic and filled with micro-detail and texture.

 

Highs –

Where many are drawn to the Phantom for its midrange, the high-end pleasantly surprised me over longer listening. Still, the Phantom’s high-end also serves as a vehicle to deliver its delicately structured midrange. However, it is tuned in a manner that greatly aids perception of space in addition to enhancing separation and maximising detail presence; all without compromising the midrange. It does so through a gradual climb to a 6-KHz peak which grants it a surprisingly crisp instrument portrayal with enhanced note attack. However, the Phantom quickly and steeply falls off into the middle-treble, producing an immaculately black background but also a rather dark presentation.

Where one would usually associate this with roll-off and a lack of headroom, the Phantom redeems itself through very strong extension into the highest octaves. Upper-treble is also on the darker side and the sparkle and energy characteristic of most TOTL in-ears is not present here. However, the Phantom is not lacking headroom or air due to its extension, instead, its stage becomes more expanded due to the background being substantially laid-back. Meanwhile, its presentation remains crisp and even a touch bright due to that 6-KHz peak that injects energy into its foreground. As treble does fall off, the Phantom is not the most detailed earphone and occasionally, cymbal shimmer can sound a touch truncated.

And yet, despite its darkness, that peak enables the Phantom to excel with acoustic with just enough clarity to service pop and jazz too. It does lack aggression and air for rock and doesn’t push micro-detail into the listener’s face. However, given adjustment to its rather mellow, dulcet tones, the Phantom hides ample nuance in plain sight. This is a TOTL earphone that one can listen to all day long and still uncover new details in familiar tracks, trading any semblance of initial wow for a gradual appreciation that develops during longer ownership.

 

Soundstage –

With great treble extension and a substantially laid-back background combined with a slightly forward foreground, the Phantom delivers one of the widest soundstages I’ve encountered. On the contrary, it has little depth so vocals are very intimate and tend to stand out amongst instruments. In this sense, despite the Phantom’s warmth and enhanced body, each note is easily discerned by the listener as they are given room to breathe. Still, the lack of depth can affect immersion, especially in comparison to other flagships that provide a more rounded experience.

As upper-treble isn’t overly present, imaging doesn’t come across as holographic but it is nonetheless quite accurate with sharp directional cues and a very strong centre image. Placement is very easy to discern and precise from track to track. On the contrary, separation is good but not outstanding. The Phantom is not a congested earphone, but it is quite full and not especially airy up top. As such, despite its stage’s excellent lateral expansion, the Phantom doesn’t sound as separated as other TOTL IEMs with more neutral note body.

 

Driveability –

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The Phantom has a very low-impedance and a high-sensitivity, it is one of the most efficient earphones I have on hand. In turn, it is very sensitive to hiss and also quite dependent on a low output impedance in order to deliver its intended sound. As higher output impedance sources usually darken the earphone, and the same effects are observable here, the Phantom is especially source sensitive as it is very much on the darker and warmer side already.

Shanling M0: Slightly softer sub-bass. Slightly larger mid-bass, but very punchy and well-controlled. Clear vocals, well-extended and nicely layered, slightly less warm. Treble has enhanced presence, slightly more detail presence but instrumentation can sound a touch thinner. More intimate soundstage but imaging and centre image are solid. Zero hiss.

Fiio M7: Slightly softer sub-bass slam, smoothly textured mid-bass slightly warmer and larger but still well-controlled. Well-layered midrange with slightly smaller, less-extended vocals. Well-detailed high-end with neutral detail presence. More intimate soundstage but imaging is sound. No hiss.

Fiio M9: Firm sub-bass slam, well-extended. Smoothly textured mid-bass, well-controlled and retains pleasing detail. Vocals are very well-extended and clear, lightly warm and nicely layered. Lower-treble is well-present and highs are nicely detailed. Soundstage has good expansion and imaging is accurate besides the centre image which tends to push slightly to the sides. Very slight hiss.

Shozy Alien+: Soft sub-bass with reduced extension. Bass is light but fast. Vocals are brought forward, they remain dense and well-bodied, if slightly less extended. Lower-treble is slightly attenuated, treble instrumentation becomes smoother but still has energy. Substantially narrower presentation with less expansion. Zero hiss.

Hiby R6: Softer sub-bass, reduced extension, but bass is more tonally neutral with less warmth. Well defined and fast. Vocals are brought forward, they remain dense and well-bodied, if slightly less extended. Lower-treble is notably attenuated, thin treble instrumentation and slight loss of detail. Narrower presentation with less expansion but imaging remains coherent. Zero hiss.

Fiio X7 MKII w/AM3A: Slightly smoother bass texture, a touch warmer. Well-controlled, medium/fast decay. Mids are a touch warmer but also smooth, well-layered. Well-present detail region, great retrieval, slightly more air. Expansive soundstage with accurate imaging. Faint hiss.

iBasso DX200 W/AMP5: Extended sub-bass, tight slam and well-controlled, defined mid-bass, fast decay. Very well-layered midrange, nice vocal extension with lightly warm tone. Enhanced detail presence, excellent retrieval. Out of the head stage with accurate imaging. Faint hiss.

 

Comparisons –

Hyla CE-5($940): The CE-5 is more V-shaped with a brighter background. It has better sub-bass extension and though its decay is a touch slower, the Phantom benefitting from a slightly more defined mid-bass, though the Hyla maintains excellent control and detail with superior dynamics. The CE-5 is not as warm as the Phantom, it is bassier overall on behalf of its larger sub-bass, however, its upper-bass and lower-midrange are substantially less present. As such, its midrange sounds more transparent, even slightly cool, it has less vocal body and both male and female vocals are less present.

That said, as it has more of an upper-midrange bias, clarity is much higher and vocals are more extended. They have a lighter character with a touch of over-articulation. The Phantom actually has a little more lower-treble delivering more attack while the CE-5 has more middle-treble and upper-midrange, netting greater detail presence nonetheless. It is the more detailed earphone even though it is thinner and its background is substantially brighter but also airier. It has similar treble extension which is reaffirmed by its brighter tuning. The CE-5 has a more rounded stage with greater depth but also less width. However, its imaging is not quite as coherent as the more balanced Phantom.

Beyerdynamic Xelento ($1000): The Xelento is bassier and more V-shaped. It has greater sub-bass extension but also sounds a touch more bloated due to its slower decay and greater focus on the mid-bass. The Phantom is tighter and faster despite being almost as full, its notes are more concise. The Xelento has less lower and centre-midrange so its vocals are more recessed yet it maintains adequate clarity through a climb in the upper-mids. It has more vocal extension but also sounds a touch over-articulated by comparison due to its lower-treble emphasis and lower density. The Xelento has a warmer voicing as its bass is more outstanding as opposed to its vocals so its midrange. The Xelento has a more present lower-treble, however, it focusses more on a 5K peak as opposed to the 6K peak on the Phantom.

This produces a more organic treble instrument reconstruction, the Phantom having sharper attack and subjectively more detail presence, the Xelento having a smoother and more organic portrayal. The Xelento has more air with a more neutral middle-treble which grants it some more atmosphere. However, the Phantom offers more extension at the very top so it doesn’t sound especially closed-off in direct comparison. Both offer exceptionally wide soundstages, but the Phantom has an edge with regards to imaging where it delivers a more layered and precise presentation.

Sennheiser ie800S ($1000): The ie800S is slightly brighter earphone. It has slightly better sub-bass extension and a tight slam at the very bottom. Its mid and upper-bass aren’t as present so it isn’t as warm, but it does have a touch of mid-bass emphasis that grants it some musicality. Its low-end is controlled and defined, it isn’t quite as fast and detailed as the Phantom, however. The ie800S has a substantially thinner midrange. However, it has similar vocal presence on behalf of a centre midrange push. In addition, the ie800S has a lot clarity due to its greater tonal transparency and slightly cool tone.

It also implements a dip around 4KHz, a well-done one at that, which means it doesn’t sound over-articulated as the Xelento occasionally could, however, it does lack body compared to these earphones. With a prominent 6K spike, the ie800S has plenty of detail presence and delivers a very crisp foreground. The Phantom is tuned similarly but is enhanced to a lesser degree, it is actually slightly more detailed as instruments have more body and texture. The ie800S also has a brighter background with a more present middle-treble. As such, it is airier and more open sounding. That said, the Phantom extends further and delivers higher resolution overall. It has a larger soundstage in addition a more layered presentation though the ie800S also images quite well.

Campfire Audio Andromeda ($1099): The Andro is brighter and slightly more tonally neutral, offering a more u-shaped signature overall. It has less sub-bass extension and power but has a lightly warm mid and upper-bass. The Phantom is the bassier earphone, it has slower decay but also sounds more dynamic and impactful, and it is just as detailed due to its high control. The Andro has a clearer midrange that benefits from greater transparency on behalf of the Andro’s leaner mid and upper-bass. The Andro has more of a vocal push and it is more linear into the upper-midrange where the Phantom has a small 4K dip for density. As such, the Andro sounds slightly thinned out but also has greater vocal clarity and similar presence overall. The Andro shares a 6K peak and it has greater emphasis than the Phantom.

This produces a noticeably crisper foreground with great attack and a slightly more aggressive detail presentation. The Phantom has more treble body and is a touch more detailed in the foreground, however, the Andro reveals more background detail due to its brighter tuning. This mostly stems from its more neutral middle-treble paired with a significantly more present upper-treble that gives it more sparkle and brings out the finer nuances. The Andro’s foreground sounds a touch tizzy as a result, however, its strong treble extension is more apparent than on the darker Phantom. Both earphones have excellent soundstages, the Andro has more depth and is more rounded while the Phantom has slightly more width. Both image well, the Andro being more holographic with sharper cues, the Phantom offering the more coherent and layered presentation.

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Campfire Audio Solaris ($1500): The Solaris offers a brighter, more tonally neutral sound with a focus on vocals. It has greater sub-bass extension and very solid slam at the very bottom. The Solaris has notably less mid and upper-bass sounding cleaner in tone and less bass orientated in general. Its decay is just a touch slower and its texture is smoother, however, it is very controlled, just as detailed and more dynamic. The Solaris is vocal forward with great clarity and a neutral tone, however, it sounds thin by comparison to the lusher Phantom. In isolation, neither the Solaris nor Andromeda sound thin, though the Solaris lacks any warmth in its midrange where the Andro had more bass to fill in body. The Solaris rather implements a sharp 4Khz trough that grants it great smoothness and a similarly velvety presentation to the Phantom. It doesn’t sound over-articulated while maintaining top-notch vocal clarity while the Phantom benefits from greater linearity and a more realistic timbre.

The Solaris has a more present lower-treble, being a slightly more isolated peak, treble instrumentation isn’t as well-bodied as on the Phantom. The Solaris also implements a slightly darker middle-treble that somewhat counteracts its notably enhanced upper-treble. This tuning opens up its presentation and grants its highs incredible energy and very present micro-details that the Phanotm cannot match. The Solaris extends further and offers a larger stage in all dimensions. Its imaging is more holographic with an abundance of micro-details and sharp cues, however, it also doesn’t layer like the more ample bodied Phantom that also benefits from more defined layers on behalf of its great foreground/background separation.

Noble Audio Katana ($1850): The Katana offers a more neutral tone and a brighter background. It has a touch less sub-bass extension combined with considerably less bass quantity throughout, especially regarding upper-bass. On the contrary, its bass is faster and cleaner, delivering more detail overall at the cost of being less dynamic and musical per say. The Katana has similar vocal presence and its midrange is quite natural neither sounding thin and stretched out nor especially smooth. It splits it right down the middle with just enough body down-low and not too much articulation up top. The Phantom is warmer and it sounds a touch more filled-in, it especially sounds smoother due to its upper-midrange tuning where the Katana is a touch cleaner and clearer.

Both excel with timbre in this regard and my personal preference between them varies from track to track. Both earphones also employ light lower-treble emphasis. What differentiates them most is their middle-treble tuning where the Katana is considerably brighter. As such, it is more detailed, bringing background details more to the fore and its foreground never suffers from the truncation the Phantom occasionally suffers from. The Katana extends a touch further at the very top and it has a pleasantly linear upper-treble. Its soundstage has a touch less width but notably more depth at the cost of centre image solidity. As before, the Phantom excels with its layering and coherent imaging while the Katana has greater separation at the cost of sounding less cohesive.

StereoPravda SB-7 ($2500): The SB-7 is the antithesis to the Phantom delivering a brighter sound with greater focus on treble. The Phantom offers greater bass extension and notably more emphasis throughout its low-end. However, though fuller, this comes at the cost fine detail with control being higher on the SB-7. The SB-7 is also a lot faster at the cost of being leaner and less impactful. The SB-7 continues this style of tuning into the midrange where it has substantially less body mainly on behalf of its less present upper-bass. On the contrary, its upper-midrange is more present creating a brighter, clearer and more revealing presentation.

It is more tonally transparent than the warm Phantom though it doesn’t have the same natural timbre, erring slightly on the brighter side of neutral. The SB-7 has a brighter high-end too. Actually, the SB-7 has less lower-treble, or rather, it stands out less. Instead, it delivers a more organic treble on behalf of its upper-midrange tuning while a more sizable middle-treble emphasis adds some energy, air and zing. It has more note clarity where the Phantom is crisper in the foreground but also slightly less extended and bodied.

Hidition NT-8 ($2500): The NT-8 offers a more diffuse-field neutral tuning with less warmth and a brighter background. It has similarly strong sub-bass extension, if not a little more combined with similar emphasis that grants it a solid impact at the very bottom. The NT-8, however, does not have the same mid and upper-bass body, instead, adopting a much more neutral tone. It has a faster low-end combined with a smooth texture so it retrieves a lot of detail without fatiguing or dominating the presentation. This leads into a very slightly cool, bright midrange that contrasts to the lush Phantom. The NT-8 has a touch of raspiness due to its focus on vocal presence and clarity. Vocals are more present on the NT-8 but also thinner.

On the contrary, it has great upper-midrange extension and avoids over-articulation. Treble is well realised with a balanced lower-treble and touch of middle-treble emphasis that aids openness. Upper-treble extends very linearly, providing natural sparkle and atmosphere. The NT-8 has a larger soundstage and greater depth, its imaging is more holographic though it isn’t as layered or clean as the Phantom due to its brighter style of tuning and smaller note size set to a larger space. Technically, the NT-8 holds an advantage though some may still prefer the Phantom’s more organic and grounded tuning.

 

Verdict –

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Ultimately, when buying a TOTL IEM, one has to consider what they’re searching for in this hobby, whether it be for maximum thrill or greater immersion. The Phantom caters towards the later, not captivating with its sparkle and micro-detail presence, but continuing to engage with its forward, velvety vocals, extended low-end and exceptionally wide soundstage. Other flagships definitely provide more wow, however, the Phantom is an IEM that you can pick up at any hour and listen without fatigue all the while picking up minutiae within the song. The Phantom is the daily flagship, free of fatigue and always hiding a new nuance in plain sight for the listener to discover.

The Phantom can be purchased from Empire Ears (Custom/UNIfor $1799 USD. I am not affiliated with Empire Ears and receive no earnings from purchases through this link.

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