At a certain point in nearly every headphone enthusiast’s lifetime they begin to contemplate purchasing a pair of custom-fit in-ear monitors (CIEMs) rather than universal-fit earphones. The primary reason for making the switch is fit. Compared to even the best universal-fit earphones, CIEMs will feel more comfortable, will always achieve an occluded seal, and will eliminate the need for eartips. There is a reason that CIEMs are the top-of-the-line offerings for most manufacturers.
Several years ago, I reviewed Empire Ears then pre-eminent CIEM, the Zeus, and found it to be Olympian in performance. It has been discontinued. Empire’s latest top-tier CIEM is the Phantom from the firm’s EP series range, whose models all feature Empire Ear’s new synX crossover. Although Empire doesn’t go into much in the way of technical specifics, they claim synX is “a supercharged crossover technology that designates more individual audio bands per driver than any other crossover design currently in existence.” They also claim this new crossover can “eliminate any signs of phase incoherence between the drivers.” We shall see.
The Phantom CIEMs contain five balanced armature drivers (two low, one mid, one high, and one super high) and a five-way crossover to control them. Knowles and Sonion make these drivers for Empire, with each driver built for a specific target response. The drivers are constructed with specialised reeds and low-mass diaphragms so they remain efficient enough to be powered even by a regular smartphone. The Phantom’s drivers also employ ferrofluid to dampen acoustic peaks, reduce internal vibrations, and improve longevity by cushioning the components from shock when the in-ears are dropped. Empire coats every driver, crossover, and sound tube surface with a proprietary anti-resonance compound (A.R.C.), which effectively increases each component’s mass while also physically damping it at the same time.
Looks matter. Empire offers a dizzying array of colours, inlays, and graphics options for the Phantom. I chose a translucent blue faceplate for the left and translucent red faceplate for the right with silver Empire ears logos embedded in their centres. The bodies are translucent grey so I can see all the Phantom’s inner workings. Empire had my impressions on file from three years ago so there was no need to make a new set. The new Phantoms fit perfectly, even better than the Zeus had. A major reason for the better fit is that the Phantom earpiece is smaller and does not protrude as deeply into the ear canal as the Zeus did, so it is less physically intrusive.
As you would expect with a premium product, the Phantoms come with lots of accessories, including two soft bags (one for the in-ears themselves and one for the heavy-duty waterproof 'Pelican' style watertight case), a cleaning cloth and cleaning tool, and the supplied Phantom cable. In fact, the signal cable is sourced from the specialists at Effect Audio; it is a hand-crafted Ares II cable, featuring UPOCC 26AWG Litz copper conductors with flexible insulation. The braid was strong yet flexible, and far more robust than the stiffer and thinner cabling that came with the Zeus.
The most noticeable sonic difference between the Zeus and the Phantom are the size and specificity of their soundstage presentations. The Zeus creates a larger but less specific and less focused soundstage than the Phantom. I suspect the Zeus’ additional drivers combined with the Phantom’s new crossover are the primary reasons for the Phantom’s greater spatial precision. The Phantom’s bass control and extension certainly was the equal of the Zeus as was its dynamic contrast and impact. I was especially impressed by the Phantom’s ability to preserve not only the pitches but also the textures of low bass.
The Phantom delivered a combination of superb resolving ability with a relaxed presentation that never sounded hyped-up or overly hi-fi-like. These qualities made most listening sessions last longer than originally intended because it was so darned hard to stop… sort of like eating those potato crisps.
If you are at that stage where a pair of custom-fit in-ear monitors figures in your future, the Empire Ears Phantoms deserve a place on your short list.
Type: custom-fit in-ear monitor
Drivers: Balanced armature
Frequency Response: 10Hz–40kHz
Impedance: 10 ohms
Sensitivity: 117 dB/1mw
Connector: Industry standard two-pin connectors for the earpieces, with multiple termination options for the amplifier end of the signal cables.
Weight: Not specified
Price: $1,799 US
Atlanta, Georgia USA
+1 (770) 945-0065
Model-specific information: https://empireears.com/products/phantom-custom-in-ears