For crinacle’s short impressions and non-audio opinions, refer to his unboxing post.
Empire Ears is a brand name that many would associate with luxury and, to a certain extent, excess. Whether it be their new flagships in the Legend X ($2,300) or the new Wraith ($3,500!!!), they seem to consistently aim for the top of the price bracket with their halo models in every instance. And the same holds true back in the day when the Zeus was the absolute top dog in both driver count and pricing, sporting a whopping 14 BA drivers and a “reasonable” price tag of $2,100.
The Zeus was their old top-of-the-line model and, according to some old posts, still available for purchase under manual request. But for simplicity’s sake, the entirety of Empire Ear’s legacy lineup (which also includes popular models such as the Spartan-IV) can be considered as effectively discontinued in favour of their shiny new (and very expensive) lineups. So when I heard that they were collaborating with Massdrop to bring a cheaper version of their flagship 14-driver beast to the masses, I was pleasantly surprised. At less than half the original retail price, no less.
So the big questions remain: what happens when a debatably-overpriced giant gets a huge price cut in today’s market? Can it stay afloat amongst the new kids on the kilobuck block?
Driver configuration: 14BA
Both the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus and the original Zeus-XIV have been kindly provided by Drop.
Frequency response analysis
This section is meant for those who have not learnt how to interpret the graphs that I create.
The measurements I create are all raw and uncompensated, hence flat on my graphs does not mean flat in real life. As IEMs bypass the ear structure and the head, a boost in the regions between 2kHz and ~6kHz is required for an IEM to sound at least neutral.
At a glance, the Zeus looks to have a mild wideboost boost from 800Hz down, which should suggest some warmth in the sound. The big problems in this IEM seem to revolve its odd pinna gain profile, which includes:
- Too early rise and peaking at 1.5kHz
- Inadequate gain at 3kHz
- Scooped out 4kHz
And of course, the big treble spike which happens to align with the coupler’s resonant point of 8kHz.
As you can see, regardless of whose target curve you use (mine, Diffuse Field or Harman), the Zeus seems to have significant issues in the midrange for the highlighted reasons above. On top of that, the large contrast between the midrange and the treble should also emphasise the perception of its treble response accordingly and potentially worsen sibilance issues (if they do exist).
While the treble emphasis on the measurements also happen to correspond with the coupler’s resonant point, this does not mean that the treble spike “does not exist” in real life. It simply means that the magnitude of the treble spike may not be as high as what is displayed on the graph, but will most likely still exist in listening.
This unit was loaned to me from crinacle.
Sonically, Massdrop’s version does sound very similar to the original Zeus XIV. I’d say the XIV has very slightly better bass but they are almost identical otherwise.
The tonal balance of the Zeus leans towards some subbass roll off as well as mid-treble peak, and so I’d describe the signature as lightly bright with an airy tone overall. While I don’t find the Zeus to be thin sounding, its tonal balance is offputting. Vocals can sound VERY forward and coupled with the hollow, slightly shrill timbre, and so makes for a coloured and unnatural listen. The presentation is very forward sounding that it sometimes catches me off guard as to how close the music can be. It’s close, yet remains unfocused.
I’ve heard reports of the Zeus sounding harsh with its treble response to some users. but I personally don’t have this issue unless I turn up the volume. However, it does have a spike around the mid-treble. For example, cymbals sound like they lack the necessary intensity in their attack, for instance in Steve Vai’s Tender Surrender (Where The Wild Things Are). With the mid-treble spike (probably has to do with presence and resonance around 8kHz), cymbals sound uneven.
If I had to come up with only a word to describe the MD Zeus, it would be “boxy”; specifically, in how off-putting the timbre and tonal balance of the MD Zeus is. Timbrally, the Zeus’ transients feels like it lacks focus and precision in its notes, specifically in the dead centre of the notes themselves. For example, in the opening drums in Paramore’s Part II; in the parts where the drums should sound solid and tight, the Zeus portrays the drums to have some feeling of hollowness and emptiness. On a similar topic, subbass extension has room for much more improvement, for instance in Regina Spektor’s Fidelity (U.S Version) where the drums lacks extension, depth and body.
This timbre holds true with any instrument, be it trumpets or vocals. It leaves me feeling a little uneasy hearing that the lack of focus in the sound. Perhaps it has to do with the 3k dip that shows on its graph.
To sum it up, the Zeus has issues with its attack transients which are exacerbated by the offputting tonality and “boxy” timbre. However, despite all this I find myself enjoying its presentation that arises from its decent separation/layering. That despite the weaknesses of its individual parts (bass, mids and treble), I still find the Zeus to be an entertaining listen. It may not have a natural tone or timbre but the way the it presents sound is unique. It is forward sounding with decent technicalities, presenting detail right at my face (albeit unnaturally). It has the speed (maybe because of the subbass rolloff) to back it up as well.
The MD Zeus is a polarising monitor with its unconventional tone. However I find myself liking the Zeus despite its flaws but I can see why the Zeus has its audience.