Empire Ears Zeus XR Adel Custom Earphones

Way back in 2015, I covered a pair of very nice sets of custom in-ear monitors from an emerging brand called Earwerkz. Their entry-level design, the Supra II, earned a spot on the Wall of Fame for its beautifully accurate presentation. The top dog Legend R got a "Stuff We Like" recommendation but didn't quite manage a place on the Wall. I attributed that more to the strength of our reigning champion, the similarly-tuned Noble K10, rather than any specific deficiency in the Earwerkz product.

In the postscript to that article, I mentioned Earwerkz coming out with an updated version of the Legend, and promised an update once I spent some time with it. I had every intention of making that happen but things moved too quickly and the Legend Omega was discontinued. In fact, Earwerkz themselves is no longer around as a company. Did they fail and fold up shop, a move not unusual with ambitious new CIEM companies? Not exactly. The company ended up making some changes and relaunching as Empire Ears, which upset the whole apple cart as far as timely reviews go.

Apparently, Earwerkz was growing faster than they could handle—something I predicted might happen in my Legend R write-up. Owner Jack Vang, unwilling to compromise quality or customer service in the face of impossibly-rapid growth, decided it was best to retool and form a new brand under the umbrella of his father's company. The company in question, Savvitek, is a larger firm which already handled OEM work for a number of existing CIEM brands, in addition to their presence in the medical field with hearing aids and such. So they were well-equipped to handle the kind of growth Earwerkz was experiencing. Thus Empire Ears was born.

That was quite some time ago, and I've gone back and forth with Empire many times by now. They keep sending their top model for review, and then coming up with some new ideas which bring even higher performance. Not wanting my review to cover an "obsolete" configuration, I keep sending the product back for updates, and by the time I get some listening time in with the new design, the process repeats once more. Even now, there's talk of new prototypes coming down the pike later this year. But I figure enough's enough—it's time to get this review posted, even if Empire Ears can't seem to sit still for very long.

History
The initial flagship in the lineup was the Zeus XIV, which if I recall correctly was the first CIEM design on the market to use an array of 14 drivers per side. That's an absurd number of balanced armatures to pack into each shell! That design used a complex 7-way crossover and had a sound signature which fell slightly on the warmer side of the spectrum, though clarity and detail were still excellent. It was a popular seller and remains available at $2,099.

Then came the remixed Zeus R which was the first model to use "proprietary" balanced armature drivers, still numbering 14 in each shell. The Zeus R had an enhanced 8-way crossover and was tuned with a more neutral sound—the "R" is for "Remastered" but in my head I keep thinking "Reference". This model could still do prodigious low-end response, but had an overall flatter balanced compared to the XIV. Zeus R is also still available at the same $2,099 price.

Before I could get that review out the door, the next big development came along—a partnership with Asius Technology. Tyll wrote about Stephen Ambrose's ADEL technology (as it existed at the time) way back in 2011 where he found the concept both promising and questionable. Casual observers of the HeadFi scene may recall the ADEL name as being associated with CIEM maker 64 Audio. Well, that relationship ended due to complex set of circumstances (which I won't get in to here), and ADEL technology is now available (optionally) in every model of the Empire Ears lineup. This meant yet another trip back to the lab for upgrades.

The XR
What I eventually ended up with is an interesting mixture of two Empire Ears flagships. The Empire Ears Zeus XR ADEL ($2,729) is an incredibly ambitious 14-driver design that could be said to have two CIEMs in each shell. A small switch mounted on each faceplate changes the crossover mode, allowing the user to choose between Zeus XIV and Zeus R configurations. Drivers are the same in either mode—this is not like the short-lived Noble Audio "Switch" where each selection used completely independent drivers and signal paths. The XR also features the proprietary ADEL modules which can be swapped out to achieve different sound signatures. As you can imagine, this makes for a large number of options and therefore a rather complex review.

Let's talk basics. First, the "proprietary" drivers, which started in the Zeus R and are now featured in every Empire model. As with other IEM brands who make similar claims, this is not a brand new line of drivers made in-house from the ground up, but rather customized units made to spec just for Empire Ears. They are almost certainly made by either Knowles Acoustics or Sonion, the two premier players in the balanced armature world. This is still a good thing—between these special drivers and that complex crossover, no other brand has a product quite like the Zeus.

Empire_Zeus_Photo_Tubes

Despite the 7 or 8 way crossover (depending on which mode is active), the sound ends up being routed through 4 sound bores which exit the tip of the canal. Those are described as being split into bass, mids, high mids, and treble. There's also a 5th bore used by the ADEL module. I have rather large ear canals and even so it's pretty impressive to see 5 bores packed so tightly together. I can't imagine how Empire pulls this off for smaller ears.

The company cares about cable quality, perhaps more so than some of our more objective-minded readers. To that end, Empire explains: "XR’s internals are individually wired and insulated with 7-strand, sapphire and gold, silver-plated copper Litz wires to eliminate acoustic feedback and further soldered with robust, ultra pure quad-eutectic for maximum conduction." Additionally, Empire ships a quality aftermarket cable with their Zeus—it used to be a BTG Starlight, and at time of writing is a cable from Whiplash Audio. Jack Vang tells me he may switch to something from Effect Audio in the near future, as these smaller cable manufacturers have a difficult time keeping up with Empire's level of sales. Note that Empire uses the standard 2-pin connection used by a wide variety of CIEM manufacturers, so cable options are plentiful.

Last but not least is the inclusion of the ADEL technology. You can read more about the concept at the Asius Technologies site but the general idea is an advancement of the "artificial eardrum" concept which Tyll discussed in his 2011 post. Empire explains it like so:

"ADEL is the world's first and only patented technology that safely delivers a louder, more spacious and richer sound—all while avoiding the risk of hearing damage caused by in-ear monitors. When the ear canal is sealed by an in-ear monitor, the driver vibrations create harmful pneumatic pressures in the confined space. The ADEL technology features a secondary eardrum that absorbs the pneumatic pressures produced by in-ear monitors and provides a much safer listening experience. It delivers sound the way it was meant to be heard. With the ADEL, bass sounds deeper, midrange is clearer and highs sound richer than ever."

Empire_Zeus_Photo_Modules

Aside from those claimed benefits, ADEL modules are used to tune the sound signature. The B1 (black module) is said to reduce bass by a small amount while giving a more spacious midrange and high frequency presentation. The G1 (red module), with a different membrane design and larger port, has a slight low end focus, though not by a huge amount. There's also a manually adjustable module (MAM) which Empire sent over, though sales have been halted for now due to some concerns about quality control. Mine seem to work just fine, allowing for variable tuning and also complete deactivation of the ADEL function by closing the port altogether.

Yikes—that's far more complex than the average "regular" custom IEM. Did Empire put all that technology to good use, or is it all a big marketing gimmick? Let's find out.

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.