In-Ear Fidelity

Empire Ears Phantom: An Analysis

I’m sure I’m going to get some sort of flack for this, considering the fanbase that Empire managed to build around the pedestal that is the Phantom. Sometimes it seems like it’s Noble and their K10 all over again, but I digress.

The Good

Let’s start with the positives because I believe a review cannot be completely positive nor completely negative. The Phantom has a very unique sound, one that is unoffensive and non-fatiguing to most ears. It is smooth listen, very coherent and absent of jarring peaks as far as I could tell. The treble is very well done, presenting ample amounts of energy and yet controlled in a way that minimises harshness and strays clear of most sibilance. The high frequencies are a tough beast to tame and I’m happy to say that Empire Ears has managed to do so with flying colours.

The Bad

One of my main issues with the Phantom is its technical ability. Its dynamic range is low and as such its resolution lags behind the competition. Before anyone asks, power does help a little but does not ultimately save it. Perceived detail also takes a hit due to what I believe to be an overabundance of lower midrange emphasis, creating an aural sensation reminiscent of mud, veil and muffledness. This issue seems to be even worse than the UE18+ (which I consider to be already stepping on the boundary of being veiled) and results in smeared transients that is readily apparent in faster tracks with lots of percussion instruments.

Now, that is not to say that its technical ability is bad. Everything is relative after all; sound signature aside, the Legend X presents details better, as does the Andromeda. On the other hand, the Phantom does edge out the ER4.

The Ugly

I will say it outright. The Phantom is NOT a “natural listen”. Now of course, the definition of the word “natural” is different for so many, especially with everyone having different reference gear. For my reference gear which is a mix of various TOTL headphones like the HD800 (EQ’d), the Utopia/Clear and the Stax L700, various TOTL IEMs like the UE18+ and the Andromeda, and certain speakers like the LSR305, the Phantom does not sound right to me. Apart from the aforementioned issues regard veil and slow transients, the Phantom has a few issues regarding tone and timbre.

Vocals are rather coloured, prioritising males over females. Female vocals can get husky in certain tracks (where they’re not supposed to) which detracts from the feeling of “naturalness”. The vocals in general can also take on a nasally quality at times depending on the pitch and inflection. The timbre is off in many instruments, more particularly in those that are higher in pitch such as violins and flutes. On the other hand, it does bring focus to instruments that are lower in pitch such as cello and bass guitars, making them sound richer, meatier and much more pleasant and satisfying. In terms of personal preference, this is up to the listener (and the potential buyer) to decide if the tradeoff is worth it. In a semi-objective sense though, I’d say that calling the Phantom “natural” might be a bit of a stretch.

The Justification

S tier? The Campfire Andromeda is what I’d consider to be the “S tier gatekeeper”. Whichever IEMs that have the potential to be the best of the best (to my ears at least) will have to survive a comparison against the green goblin. To keep it short, the Andromeda is superior in dynamic range, perceived detail, soundstage width and positional ability. On the preference side of things, the Andromeda has more clarity while the Phantom is a denser, fuller sound. The Andromeda has a upper treble boost whereas the Phantom is more-or-less linear throughout.

A tier? My “A tier gatekeeper” would be the legendary ER4; XR for this listening session. In terms of tone, I’d consider the ER4 to be my personal benchmark for neutrality, keeping everything in check and leaving bias out the door. In terms of timbre though, the ER4 does lack weight to its notes, giving it a very light-footed and almost plasticky feel. The Phantom in comparison is very obviously skewed towards the lows in tone and is far from neutral in terms of vocals. In sheer technical ability, it does seem that the Phantom barely edges out the ER4 in resolution, though timbre-wise the Phantom is on the opposite end of the spectrum; where the ER4 is too dry and light with its notes, the Phantom is coloured and heavy on each hit.

Versus Legend X

I’ll add in this section here because I’m sure someone will ask for it. The Legend X and the Phantom, as many people will point out, are two veeeeery different signatures. The Legend X is heavy on the bass and has a more energetic top-end, a V-shaped signature to the Phantom’s warmish downsloping signature. The midrange of the Legend X is also coloured but in a different way to the Phantom; where the Phantom goes for richness and heft, the Legend X boosts the upper midrange to counterbalance its already thick and warm bass presentation courtesy of its powerful dynamic drivers, giving vocals a certain sort of sweet quality to it.

Final words and afterthoughts

At the end of the day the audio game is mostly preference, so if the Phantom jives if your genres then by all means go for it. However, I think it needs to be noted that the Phantom should not be considered a “safe pick” considering how coloured and unique it is. It’s not a sound that is common in the market, not because Empire Ears managed to figure out a special sauce tuning that works with anybody but simply because it’s a different sound and thus should be treated as such.

So, here you go. In my opinion, the Phantom is an odd fellow that has its strengths and weaknesses but ultimately not a general purpose IEM. Definitely one of those “try before you buy” IEMs.

Grade: C

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