Pros: Sublime detail retrieval, very coherent tuning, switchable crossover modes, mid range clarity and expression, non fatiguing but truly transparent sound, superb build quality
Cons: A little on the expensive side, prone to hiss with most sources, not a drastic difference between the two modes on some DAPs, not much else
List Price: $2399 (empireears.com)
These in-ear monitors were made for me by Jack Vang and the team over at Empire Ears in Norcross, Georgia (the American one) as a result of a very lucky entry into their recent Head-Fi giveaway to win a pair of the Zeus-XR and an Effect Audio Leonidas cable. These were the contest prize, and provided without any stipulation or requirement for me to write a review or endorsement. The views expressed here are my honest opinion of the gear received.
I am a fairly recent convert to audiophilia but a long time music fan, also aspiring to be a reasonably inept drummer in my spare time. I listen to at least 2 hours of music a day – I prefer IEMs for out and about, and a large pair of headphones when I have the house to myself and a glass in my hand. Recently started converted my library to FLAC and 320kbps MP3, and do most of my other listening through Tidal HiFi. I am a fan of rock, acoustic (apart from folk) and sarcasm. Oh yeah, and a small amount of electronica. Not a basshead, but I do love a sound with some body to it. My ideal tuning for most IEMs and headphones tends towards a musical and slightly dark presentation, although I am not treble sensitive in general. Please take all views expressed below with a pinch of salt – all my reviews are a work in progress based on my own perceptions and personal preferences, and your own ears may tell you a different story.
I first heard about Empire Ears about 18 months into my journey into audiophilia – the urge to try every IEM under £300 was fading, I thought I knew what sort of sound signature I preferred and I was slowly looking up the ladder at the more expensive “marquee” audio brands all the seasoned reviewers and Head-Fi forum members often quoted. Being honest, after seeing the price of the Empire flagship (the at the time newly released Zeus-XIV) and living in a country where demoing in-ear headphones isn’t permitted due to hygiene regulations, I figured the closest I would ever get to finding out what they sounded like was reading about it on the internet.
Fast forward a year or two and due to a combination of bloody minded masochism in reading forums about IEMs I’d never likely own and a whopping slice of luck in winning their Zeus-XR giveaway, I found myself inadvertently sitting at the top of the IEM tree with approximately $2400 worth of in-ear monitor in my sweaty palms (along with a nice $800 cable from Effect Audio just to set it off). This in itself would be praiseworthy enough for most people, but this is where the story starts for me in terms of Empire Ears. Despite the fact they were effectively giving away something that is worth about the same as a lot of people’s monthly take home pay packet, the interaction and customer service I received was a breath of fresh air, with Jack @ Empire willing to chat through various mediums (Head-Fi, FB Messenger etc) to help me with the IEM design, giving suggestions on which gear he thought would match well with the Zeus and providing updates to an impatient customer while I was waiting for my prize to be manufactured. It’s a small thing, but it seems to be the norm with this company if you read the various posts on the main audio blogs – the interaction is human, helpful and very down to earth, and impressed me almost as much as the IEMs themselves.
As a background to the few people reading this who don’t know who Empire Ears are, they rose from the ashes of Jack Vang’s previous CIEM manufacturer Earwerkz, when he realised that the rapid growth of the original brand was becoming unsustainable in the company’s previous form. Joining up with his parents’ manufacturing business (Savvitek – handily specialising in hearing aids, amongst other things) allowed Earwerkz to keep up the lead times and customer service that they initially set out to provide, and allow the brand to grow into something a little grander, hence Empire Ears was born. The title of their debut range (the Olympus series) should give some indication of the aspirations for this firm – this is a premium brand, and is looking to produce premium products. Do I think they have succeeded with the Zeus-XR? It won’t come as much of a shock to you to say a resounding yes on that front – if you want to know how, please read on.
Unboxing and aesthetics
With a pricetag high enough to buy you a second hand car (and a half decent one at that) in most countries, expectations are justifiably high that unwrapping the Empire Ears flagship will be a top notch experience. I’m happy to report for those fans of a good unboxing, this is about as high end as it gets, short of coming with its own butler. The IEMs come in a classy cardboard box with fold-over magnetic fastener, embossed with the Empire Ears Logo. Opening the box, you will find another box – in this case, a personalised Empire Aegis case (think large Peli or S3 and you’re 90% there) with a metallic faceplate on the front, again sporting the Empire winged logo and the name of the recipient (or any other custom message you want to put on there).
Also nestling in the package are a branded black microfibre polishing cloth (for keeping that all important shine on your ear jewellery), a velvet-style soft carrying pouch big enough to fit your precious cargo and a cable in and a larger black fabric bag, this time big enough to fit the AEGIS case in. As with the polishing cloth, the two bags both sport the same classy gold branding prominently, leaving you in no doubt which firm’s product you are handling.
Completing the package and nestled safely inside the precision cut foam inserts inside the carry case are the IEMs themselves, an unspecified Whiplash 2-pin braided upgrade cable in a silver colour (composition unspecified, although I remember reading somewhere it is Silver-Plated Copper or SPC for short) and the ubiquitous cleaning tool/brush from getting ear-goo out of the sound bores.
For a custom IEM this is a nicely considered load-out, and the high quality feel and well thought out extras completing the package lend a very nice sense of quality to proceedings. Nothing too flashy, nothing superfluous, but what is provided is obviously of a high standard and sets the tone for what is to come.
Moving on to the IEMs themselves, I opted for a Black and White swirl faceplate, with smoky black translucent shells. In person, they look even better than the rendering from the jazzy design tool on Empire Ears’ website, with a smooth gloss finish and impeccable build quality throughout. The shells are smooth, light but feel sturdy, and are free of any imperfections or air bubbles as far as I can see. The join between the faceplate and the main IEM body is also flawless, with a silky smooth transition and no seam or grain to be felt on the polished shell at all. These IEMs really are an example of how to produce a custom acrylic shell right, looking and feeling top notch.
As these are my second pair of CIEMs, I already had a recent set of ear moulds I was pretty happy with the fit on, so was able to use these to build the Zeus-XRs without too much hassle. Jack and his team did ask a few questions when they arrived as the impressions has been “patched” by the previous manufacturer, but after answering those they proceeded with the build and got the IEMs back to me in about 3 weeks including shipping (pretty much bang in line with what is currently quoted on their website).
On testing the fit, I actually find that the Zeus sit a little more comfortably than the original CIEM – whether it is just a quirk of the slightly thicker shell and fuller mould used or just a bit of magic on EE’s part I couldn’t say, but I am certainly more than happy with the seal and the result. Once used to the longer insertion depth of a custom in-ear, I find I can wear them for hours on end with no physical ear fatigue, which is something that can’t be said for a few of my universal in-ears , unfortunately.
This is the section everyone cares about the most in an audio review (and why not – you don’t exactly listen to the box) – how does the gear actually sound? It won’t come as much of a surprise to find out that the Zeus-XR in both crossover configurations sounds absolutely exceptional. This isn’t a sound that smacks you in the face with how good it is the first time you hear it (for me, the only IEMs that have ever truly done that have been the Campfire Audio flagships) – it is more of a sound that creeps up on you over time, the various nuances unfolding in your mind and slowly reshaping your personal baseline for what really good sound is.
If that sounds like a lot of hype, you are probably right – all I know is that after a few weeks of listening to the XRs, going back to anything other than the TOTL monitors in my collection left me wishing for the clarity and pinpoint precision of the Zeus. The resolution these monitors are capable of is simply staggering with a good source, making even ultra-capable IEMs like the AKT8IE Mk2 and Campfire Andromeda sound slightly muted in direct comparison. This isn’t simply boosted treble masquerading as micro detail or resolution, with a healthy dose of listening fatigue afterwards – this is audio that exudes a sense of cleanliness and purity about the execution of each note, without any of the background noise or distortion that usually accompanies it, and absolutely no strain on the ears of the listener after many hours of enjoyment. The sound is smooth but oh-so-clear, and once your brain burns in to the unique signature, it becomes very addictive.
In terms of tuning, the Zeus-XR wears two hats, being able to switch between the older 7-crossover Zeus-XIV setup and the newer 8 crossover configuration used in the Zeus-R with the flick of a small switch on the faceplate of each IEM. Both tunings are very similar, with the “R” setting providing a slightly leaner and more reference sound in comparison to the warmer and meatier sound produced by the XIV setup. In both configurations, the bass is a little raised (very slightly in the case of the R) over dead neutral, with more emphasis on mid rather than sub bass, but still retaining impressive extension down low. The mids are forward, creamy but exceptionally clear, producing bags of micro detail and nuance, and treating both male and female vocals to the sonic equivalent of the red carpet. The vocals are emphasised but not too overcooked, sitting about half way between a neutral and fully forward stage position for me. The treble is again wonderfully clean, with good extension but no massive sense of air, trading that final dash of sparkle for a crystal clarity and good note weight. The overall impression is of a musical sounding but balanced presentation, with decent but not excessive body and note weight and a rounded but still detailed treble.
Delving into the bass first, this is the area the Zeus is weakest in for my personal taste. Admittedly, it is a little like pointing out that Mike Tyson had a weaker left handed knockout than his right rather than an actual flaw, but still, when you are this close to total perfection it almost feels wrong not to at least try and be objective. The bass on offer is solid and textured, with excellent detail and good speed, keeping up with Slipknot style bass drum barrages without any major effort and retaining excellent texture and control all the while. There is a decent bass extension down into sub bass frequencies with a slight roll-off in terms of strength in the really low registers and a steady rise in strength and quantity up into the mid bass, having a slight but not drastic emphasis in the XIV setting and a more linear transition in the Reference mode. It feels nimble and slick, but not overly liquid (possibly just in comparison to the midrange), keeping a nice fluidity to the sound without becoming overly lush or wet. Impact is decent for an all-BA setup, and while it doesn’t have the visceral impact that comes with the air movement a top end dynamic driver can generate, it is still pretty punchy.
Kicking in to my playlist, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by Elvis Presley and the Royal Philharmonic is up first. The surprisingly bassy intro feels velvety and nuanced, with a nice solidity of presentation. It isn’t the thickest or most prominent rendition, but still drives the song forward nicely, rendering kick drum still hits with authority. In fact, drum “tone” is one of the first things that really stood out for me listening to the Zeus – as an amateur drummer (of admittedly little repute), the sound of stick on drum head sounds almost too realistic, giving the best rendition of how an actual drumkit sounds up close that I have heard. The only thing lacking is the raw power and air movement that a dynamic driver can produce (I’m looking at you, CA Vega), but in all other aspects it is scarily lifelike.
Staying with drum sounds, “Enter Sandman” and “Sad But True” by Metallica fire through the Zeus next without breaking stride. Percussion sounds aggressive and visceral, with a sharp bite to the snare drum hits, retaining just enough body (a common theme here) to the sound to avoid losing impact. The very unique Metallica drum “sound” can sometimes swallow up quieter passages in their music on warmer monitors, but here it remains clearly defined and separate, allowing the tracks to breathe properly, emphasising precision over raw power.
Moving on, “Hello, It’s Me” by Sister Hazel, I usually use this song for testing bass liquidity and texture, and the Zeus certainly doesn’t disappoint here. The underpinning baseline practically slinks out of the earpieces, filling up the lower end of the track with a muscular but still lithe rendition, plenty of texture and agility along with just a hint of smoothness to pad out the edges. With some monitors this track can feel like liquid chocolate, but to keep on the food analogies, the Zeus feel more like a chocolate fondant: crisp and textured on the edges, with a molten liquid core sitting just under the surface and occasionally bubbling out. The rasp of the strings on the bass guitar as they vibrate feel almost too real, adding some bite to the bouncing bassline without detracting from the sense of body in the notes. It’s a difficult line to tread, with most monitors I hear going too far one way or the other, but here the tuning of the Zeus is pretty much spot on for my tastes.
Working through my last staple test track for bass bite and bark, “Bad Rain” by Slash and Myles Kennedy kicks in with its customary menace, the growling texture of the off-left bass guitar appearing at the 20 second mark and practically letting you see the low-gauge strings on the bass player’s rig vibrate as the riff comes to life. Unlike Sister Hazel, this track leans a little more towards texture than body, just lacking a final piece of solidity to really knock it out of the park down below. The bass digs as low as it needs to without ever sounding weak, but this is definitely a track that prefers the XIV configuration to really come to life. I find the R feels just a little too clinical and lean for the almost punk-rock leanings of this type of song.
Switching it up to some more electronic fare in a search for sub-bass, “Heaven” by Emile Sande presents a lower end that is present but never skull crushing, giving a little tickle in the frontal lobe rather than the sort of seismic event behind the ears that occurs when you play it through the AKT8IE or Vega. The rest of the percussion is crisp and dynamic, the subtle clicks behind the main snare drum pattern adding rhythmic complexity to Sande’s EDM anthem and layering in nicely to the driving beat.
“Omen” by The Prodigy sounds crisp and crunchy, just lacking the final touch of sub bass heft to really kick the song into overdrive. Detailing and texture are top class, even highlighting the background crackling in one of the samples used, which was a new experience for my ears (and a long-loved audiophile cliché, but true nonetheless). This is another track that definitely benefits from the XIV configuration, the extra dash of thickness and low end oomph adding just a touch more of the requisite aggression and menace to Flint’s growling and Howlett’s grungy synth refrains. Switching to “Thunder” off the same album provides a more driving and potent sense of bass, with the song centring more on the mid bass rather than the deeper reaches. It serves as a good reminder that the Zeus is certainly bass capable, placing a very solid foundation for the distorted guitars and twisted vocals to sit on.
If there was one preconception I had about the Zeus, it was that the midrange was where the magic was supposed to happen. I’m happy to say, the popular rumours are correct, with both the R and XIV crossover variants producing a solid, ultra-resolving and downright impressive mid-range sound. Starting with the XIV, the mids are forward and slightly warm in tone, pushing forward into the listener’s ears like the guitarist and singer are perched just in front of you in the studio, or leaning over the crowd in a small venue. There is a thickness and weight to the presentation that gives the music a feeling of solidity, without crowding the stage or blurring the lines between each note. It is this sense of resolution that is for me the real beauty of the Zeus, able to keep the body and soul of a passage of music while still putting all the little nuances out on display.
In comparison, the R setting takes a little of the warmth out of the room in the bass/midrange transition, and pushes the singer a little further back towards the main body of the music. By definition, this is the more “reference” of the tunings, with a more neutral balance between the bass, mids and treble. It also aids the feeling of airiness, giving the staging a little more black space around the instrumentation to my ears. My preference between the two is definitely the XIV, as the extra warmth and weight of the guitars and vocals in most of my tracks is simply a joy to listen to in this configuration. The R also holds it own with some of my more complex or contemplative music, so the fact that you get both tunings in one IEM shell is an added bonus.
Firing through some tester tracks, the first up is “Hello, It’s Me” by Sister Hazel; the silky richness in Ken Block’s voice is unmistakeable, the XIV sitting the vocalist just behind the ears and pushing his deeper-than-a-double-stacked-Chicago-pizza delivery right out the front of your forehead. This track has a prominent bassline, so the ability to pull the baritone vocals above the underpinning rhythm track is crucial to really mastering the track, and is something the Zeus has no problem with.
In search of more vocal impressions, the next track in line is “Beautiful Wreck” by Shawn Mullins – Mullins’ throaty vocals are the star of the show here, with a rich texture to the lower notes that accentuates his almost-spoken delivery, surrounding it with the instrumentation in a small but perfectly formed 3D stage. The intimacy and forwardness of the mid range presentation comes to the fore here, giving weight to the sound and making me picture the singer performing in the corner stage of some small roadside bar. No idea why, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Having ticked off the delivery of vocals, the next checkpoint on my mid range journey is “Whiskey and You” by Chris Stapleton, which is one of my usual testers for harshness or sibilance in this region. I’m happy to report that the usually hot bridge section of the song came through as smooth as buttered baby oil on an ice rink, but with no loss of detail or texture. The raspiness of Stapleton’s voice is accurately portrayed, but without treading into sibilance or harshness, while still leaving the grit in the vocal delivery. I couldn’t find any vocal shredding on my other guaranteed vocal rapier (“My Kind Of Love” by Emile Sande) either, with the Zeus representing the harshness in the vocal delivery but not letting it dominate the whole sound.
For a vocal centric IEM, Mavis Staples is a great test of just how good it is at conveying texture and emotion, her breathless delivery carrying subtly voiced inflections, a gravelly power and soaring smoothness, often in the same track. Slapping some tracks into rotation through the XR, every little nuance of the legendary singer’s delivery is carried straight from the studio mic into the brain of the listener, blending seamlessly with the gospel style chorus lines and floating just behind the eyeballs, like the sound was being poured directly into the skull. Individual voices in the chorus line are easy to identify, all possessing their own unique place in the recording while not detracting from the cohesive delivery. In fact, Staples sounds so good through the Zeus that I have happily let the whole of her latest album “Living On A High Note” drift through my ears in its entirety at least twice before I started taking any useful notes.
So, having established the vocal credentials of the EE flagship, how does it deal with the rest of the mid-band inhabitants like guitar and keys? Pretty damn well, is the answer. Listening to “Coco” by Foy Vance, the intro drifts in with subtlety, layering the hardly audible skids of fingers on frets into the sound without distracting from the main body. There are micro details presented without any unnatural “edge” or emphasis, the overall smoothness of the tuning still yielding the most minute of audible artefacts up to the listener without any effort. It takes a while to get used to this mellow clarity, but once you do, you realise exactly how much detail is being revealed without any need to resort to tuning trickery. This keeps the sound non fatiguing and natural, but still allows guitar and acoustic instruments their full range of expression. In fact, the smooth detail adds a nice roundness to the notes on most guitar based music, packing enough definition to avoid sounding blunt or veiled (in fact, the Zeus in both configurations are the clearest sounding monitors I own), but not having as many jagged edges as other monitors that use a bump in the relevant frequency range to sharpen the lines in the sound unnaturally.
Looking to see how the Zeus handled more chugging guitar fare (my staple audio diet when I’m not feeling mellow), a little bit of Slash and some Darkness were next through the test playlist. “Growing On Me” is one track I actually found I prefer the R setting on, the thickly mixed and overlapped twin guitar line that drives the song forward resolving a little more tightly in-ear without the slight bump in mid range warmth the XIV setting offers. This is one of the things that makes the Zeus so accomplished – unlike a traditional filter IEM where the signatures are broadly different and as a result less finely honed, both tunings on the Zeus are similar takes on the same theme, but still allow a little room for adjustment to get the ideal sonic “fit” for different tracks and gear. Slash was an easy win for the XIV, the crunchy layers of the guitar lead and rhythm that build up in the into to “Ghost” growling and snarling with distorted definition, kicking the energy of the track in to overdrive and getting my foot tapping along to the music every time. To be fair, this isn’t the most aggressive or high-energy midrange I’ve heard for rock music, but it certainly has more than enough life and speed to handle my music catalogue, and adds a layer of refinement to the chug of many of my favourite tracks that I can’t get with a lot of other gear.
Piano and stringed instruments also sound refined and clear, following the same natural but detailed presentation that helps the guitar based tunes shine. Tracks like “Natural Blues” from Moby and “Everybody Knows She’s Mine” by Blackberry Smoke just have a “rightness” to the sound of hammer hitting string on the piano notes, and the thickness of the midrange adds a nice sense of emotional heft to piano ballads and more honky tonk tracks. The piano presentation feels quite a lot like the drums to me in terms of realism, and the “just there” feeling it evokes is again one of the reasons the Zeus impresses me so much with the work its 14 driver setup is capable of, churning away behind the scenes to bring the recording studio directly into your ears, without colouration or interpretation.
In summary, the mids on this multi-BA beast of an IEM are truly one of the best around, and any music that doesn’t completely skip any involvement with this area of the soundscape will benefit hugely from the tuning and capability on offer here.
The treble in the Empire Ears flagship model (as of writing in August 2017) is as already mentioned a full bodied and clear sounding affair, emphasising clarity over outright crispness and purity of tone over sparkle or airiness. Anyone who has read my previous reviews will know that this is a treble tuning that resonates with me on multiple levels, so unsurprisingly this IEM works for me in a major way when it comes to the higher reaches of the sound. Extension is good but not absolutely stellar, remaining strong up into the higher echelons of the audible frequency spectrum, but lacking some of the effortlessness that something like the Campfire Andromeda can portray when moving around in the super-high soundscape. For me, the Zeus is a tight, focused blast of crystal clear water to the ears, filling the room in the sound with beautiful purity but not leaving a lot of empty space around it. It has height, but there isn’t a sense of open space above, just a sense of blackness and the ringing purity of the note that took you there.
Kicking into the first of a few test tracks, “Starlight” by Slash and Myles Kennedy sounds absolutely magnificent, the dissonant intro guitar harmonics and Kennedy’s falsetto-on-steroids delivery throughout most of the track hitting hard and clear without harshness or any lack of body. The cymbals on this track feel clean and crisply defined, if a little short in the overall decay, hitting with a tssk and muting off just as quickly. As with the other frequencies, the detail is there in spades, but presented in a nicely muted fashion rather than sharpened to an edge and jammed into the side of your ear.
For more electronic sounds, the tuning can actually work quite well – the splashy high vocal notes and synth breaks in the periphery of “Nobody To Love” by Sigma hang in the top half of the soundscape like some sort of ghostly echo, adding a layer of sophistication to the otherwise 100% “club banger” vibe of the track. “Children” by Escala also highlights the beauty of the top end sound, the banks of high keyboard and sparkling synth giving the top end of the track a solidity and presence that meshes brilliantly with the solidly planted foundation of stringed instrumentation that underpin the sound, and the violin that runs through it. In fact, orchestral instruments are beautifully rendered on the Zeus in either configuration, the delicate violin work on “Chi Mai” (another Escala track) carrying both texture and beauty as they fill the soundstage.
Trying to be impartial, while it certainly sounds good, it doesn’t sound quite as epic as it could with EDM, where the emphasis on bass and treble to carry most of the musical information in that genre negating the significant advantage the Zeus gains in the midrange over most of the competition. The treble presentation is slightly less airy than would be personally preferable to really capture the sparkling synth lines of something like “Go” by The Chemical Brothers in their best light. I should point out that for me, this is mostly a good thing – as mentioned, I prefer my treble clean and clear as a mountain spring rather than sharp and glittering (with a hint of hidden roughness) like an apology diamond. On the flip side, the staging on this track sweeps broadly from left to right with the keyboard fills that litter the chorus, giving a very good sense of space in the X axis, so for every “could do better” I come across on this IEM, there always seems to be a “I wonder if someone can do that any better” moment.
Soundstage, imaging and separation
The Zeus has an adequate if not massive soundstage, extending a little outside the head in both directions on the X-axis without stretching too far away from the ears. It trades off absolute width in comparison to other IEMs in the $1k+ club with an enviable sense of depth, producing a stage that is almost perfectly spherical, and solid feeling rather than diffuse. It also has reasonable if not breathtaking height, again in line with the expansion in the other two dimensions.
A good track to highlight the positional ability of the 14-driver configurations is “Cold Black Heart” by Shawn Mullins – it with a bongo drum style percussion coming in from behind the listener on both sides of the stage that joins with the more traditional drum beat in centre stage to form a powerful rhythmic pulse that drives the song along, the layers of jangling guitar and Mullins’ crooning attaching to the topmost edges of the beats. Drum sounds feel particularly realistic and perfectly spaced out to match the dimensions of a kit on this track, panning across the X-axis as the different drums are used, and the sound of hands hitting bongo skins singing just as true as the audible feel of the drum head impacts of the kick drum. As a (very poor) amateur drummer, this realism is quite uncanny, the almost live sensation and exact placement of each impact bringing into focus how stylised some of my other IEMs actually sound in direct comparison.
Moving on to “Sometimes We Cry” by Tom Jones and Van Morrison, this track starts with a velvety bassline and some subtle finger picked guitar, and opens up into a duet between Van the Man and Jones the Voice, replete with room noise, two of the best voices in recent music history and some great backing. One of the defining characteristics of this track is the position of the two singers in the stage, with Jones occupying a slot just to the right of the centre and Van Morrison occupying the left-centre area. With the Zeus, it feels as if both singers are singing directly at you from their respective positions, leaving a strong mental imprint of the veteran crooners standing shoulder to shoulder in the studio and belting out their best take into the mic stand stood between them. The only IEM I have heard that has given me that strong an audio image of the artists’ positioning was the JH Audio Angie, so for me this is definitely on another tier to other IEMs in my collection in that regard. Holographic is a very overused term in audio reviewing, but I feel in this instance it is quite appropriate for this track.
Another highlight for me was listening to “Burning Love” from the Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic collaboration album – the string introduction that opens the track slowly snaps into focus, emphasising the clarity of the presentation as the volume builds. The layers of the orchestral backing throughout the track are excellent in terms of positioning, the dueling banks of violins positioning themselves in the upper left quadrant of the stage, with deep choral voices coming in from low down on stage right and Presley hunka hunka’ing his way around the middle ground while jangling guitar kicks off on the right and some stand up bass starts filling the left hand side of the soundscape.
In terms of separation, Metallica usually present a good challenge to most IEMs, with some album tracks sounding like they were recorded in a bucket and mixed with a stick blender. Despite this, the Zeus still manages to retain excellent separation and spatial cues for the more delicate passages in tracks like “The Unforgiven” or “One”, which can get swallowed in the muted kick drum recording and thick rhythm guitar in warmer monitors. Hetfields’ voice carries enough gravel to fill a medium sized quarry, but always retains its own space in the recording rather than blending into the mid-ground guitar. This is an IEM that can be forgiving when it needs to be, using the detail and imaging capabilities it has to make the best of less than sparkling recordings, rather than putting them through the shredder for all to see.
A final note on the overall prowess in these areas comes from listening to the “Mosely Shoals” album by Ocean Colour Scene. For those who aren’t familiar from this classic of the 90’s Britpop era, it has a fantastically mellow vibe to the whole album, being deliberately recorded on old school recording equipment from the 60s and 70s. The high quality analogue presentation really shines through, with fantastic timbre across the board. Guitars are hard panned left and right, feeling like the speakers for each guitar are facing directly into the relevant ear. Separation without detachment from the musical content of the song is sometimes difficult, but the Zeus manages it without any fuss, the coherent centre image of drums and vocals pinning the track firmly down around the other floating instrumentation on the soundstage.
Tonality and dynamics
When I started rewriting this review for the third (or maybe fourth) time, I realised that even after pouring my brain out on to the screen regarding the tuning and technical proficiency, I hadn’t covered one of the other areas that make the Zeus stand out – the tonality. I’ve already mentioned the natural edge to the sound and the coherence of the drivers, but technical prowess only goes so far for me if the end result is too “stylised”, so the thing that brings it all together is the sense of realism that can be achieved with the right setup.
Listening to “Scars” by James Bay, for instance, the palm muted opening chords and Bay’s half-whispered croons reverberate nicely into the ear, building as the heavy drum kicks in into something sweeping and powerful, bringing the regret and sadness in the lyrics into the atmosphere of the track. It’s always an eye opening moment when an IEM manages to capture the essence of a track and transport you there into the moment, and in this track the Zeus certainly do that.
“Virginia” by Whiskey Myers is a dense and smooth sounding recording with usually benefits from a warmer monitor in my opinion. The mix of Cody Cannon’s booze soaked voice and the intertwining country-style slide and acoustic guitars bathe the listener in the aural equivalent of a relaxing bath when done right. The Zeus doesn’t disappoint, bringing the vocals up front and centre and filling the lower end of the spectrum out enough to keep the laid back vibe and smoothness rolling on while the good ol’ boys on the geetars do their work. It isn’t so much the detail or the crispness of the sound that impresses here, it is just that is has that ring of authenticity that makes it sound real. Guitars sound like you hear them in a poorly lit music club, drums bang like you know they should, handclaps sound like the applause you have heard in a million different situations in the real world. It all just feels tonally right. The Zeus is capable of letting you hear the fingers moving on a fretboard, but it doesn’t do that by amplifying the band of sound that detail lives in until it is louder than its surrounding, it does it simply by being clear enough to present the whole picture, and letting the brain do the rest.
Listening to a track like “S.O.B” by Nathaniel Rateliff where the underpinning rhythm of the track is made up of a room full of hand claps and finger clicks and some foot stomping bass drum really helps underline just how natural this set of in-ears can sound. While I haven’t spent enough time around things like a viola to tell the difference between real and almost right, a clapping hand is something most people should be more than familiar with in the flesh, unless they have had a REALLY tragic upbringing. The same with a stomping foot. Here the Zeus in both configurations just lets you imagine you are standing there in the room, listening to every nuance almost as it was recorded.
Finally, the playlist for this section comes to “Castles In The Sand” by Thunder – not the best mastered track in my collection, but the Zeus does carry a nice sense of weight to the drums and the dynamic shifts in the song are rendered beautifully. One of the principal songwriters in this band is the drummer, and this is definitely captured in the overall presentation, the ebb and flow between swinging powerchords and quieter acoustic passages never sounding flat or forced. Guitars are clean and bluesy, and Danny Bowes’ voice sounds genuinely impassioned as he sings a song about missed chances and regret. Again, small things, but these just help highlight that despite the attention to (and reproduction of) detail across the board, the Zeus are just as capable of reproducing the underlying “soul” of a piece of music as well, and capture the shades of light and dark that can make music so enthralling.
Sensitivity and DAP pairings
One thing I had heard before listening to the Zeus was that they hiss. A lot. Having spent a few months with them now, I can confirm that yes, they do hiss with certain sources. Yes, on some noisier DAPs it is pretty loud (comparatively). Personally, I’m not overly sensitive to audible hiss, so it doesn’t both me, but for tracks mastered before the loudness wars, the quietness of the background can accentuate the one obvious negative of the Zeus setup on certain rigs – this unfortunately is something you can’t get away from.
I’m not remotely bothered by this in all honesty, and as soon as the music starts with 99% of my collection, the hissing disappears anyway. I have tried the Zeus-XR in both configurations with a few different DAPs I have had at my disposal, and while in the main they retain their base tuning and sound, I have noticed a little variance in synergy, which I will attempt to outline below:
Questyle QP2R – this provides a beautiful sounding pairing, the weight of the QP2R blending well with the detail of the XR to provide a thick yet crystal clear sound, and a very musical presentation. Curiously, the unusual amplification tech packed into the Questyle actually affects the sound of the Zeus more markedly than other DAPs I have tried, as it audibly (to me, anyway) lessens the difference between the XIV and R modes when switching between them, tilting the sound more towards the thicker XIV presentation, and only providing a slight boost in airiness and more “reference” style mids when the R mode is engaged, as opposed to the more marked changes on other similar tier DAP models. Overall, I’d still say the pairing was good, but not ideal if you want the full benefit of the two different signatures. Hiss is noticeable but light, and can be heard to engage as the amp circuit kicks in if there is no music playing.
Opus #3 – this is a more analytical and uncoloured sound than the QP2R for me, and plays beautifully with the Zeus in both modes, showing a clear difference between them and allowing the full resolution of the IEMs to be brought to bear without providing a sound that is overly sterile or too far towards analytical. Minimal to no hiss on either balanced or single ended as far as I could tell, with a nicely black background that allows the full resolution of the R mode to become apparent.
Hifiman Supermini – far from ideal pairing for me, as while the tonality is actually quite well suited to the natural sound of the Zeus in XIV mode, the powerful output of the Supermini actually pumps out the most audible hiss for me, so much so that even I can pick it up during tracks. As I’ve mentioned in previous writeups, the Supermini could make two plastic cups and a piece of string hiss, so pairing it with super-sensitive IEMs isn’t the best idea.
Echobox Explorer – this is another DAP with a pretty powerful output circuit, but does have surprisingly good synergy with the Zeus (I prefer the XIV setting with this DAP). The Explorer has a slightly warm and almost tubey style sound coming from the Burr-Brown DAC chip, and is capable of thickly weighted notes that carry good detail, much like the QP2R. This marries up well with the base tuning of the XIV, providing a full bodied sound that can still utilise the Zeus’ superior resolution and clarity to provide a sonic image that isn’t too dense or cloying, while still feels supremely musical. While it can’t beet the QP2R for out and out musicality, the Explorer comes pretty close, and allows the XR to behave far more normally with the crossover switch. In terms of hiss, it is audible with no music playing but not hugely distracting, and again can be heard when the amp kicks into life.
Trinity Phantom Hunter – this is another flagship, but this time sitting in a much lower price bracket (£500) compared to the £2k+ the Zeus-XR retails at. It is a little of an unfair comparison, but I have included it as the Hunter is tuned to be an absolute detail monster in its price class, so does provide an interesting reference point to the Empire Ears double-flagship. In terms of the bass, the Hunter’s single 8mm dynamic driver (with dual voice coils) is definitely capable of more volume, with a variety of different tuning filters available to tune the bass from “slightly anaemic” to “Why are my fillings melting?!”, depending on preference. Due to the tuning of the Hunter and the unusual acoustic chambering technology used in the titanium shells, the bass is more akin to an all-BA setup, so keeps up quite well on speed compared to the double-armatured lower end in the Olympus model. It is a little more midbass focused on the heavier filters than the Zeus, which has more of a balance between mid and sub bass to my ears. Quality is taken by the Zeus, unless you are looking for a real bass cannon – it just has more balance and snap in the lower end, and a higher level of detail retrieval which complements the overall sound a little better than the more neutral sounding filters on the Trinity model.
Moving on to the midrange, and this is where the differences in approach (and quality) become apparent. The Hunter is tuned with a pretty brutal spike in the high mids to accentuate detail, and plenty of heat further up in the treble to go along with it. This can work beautifully on sparse acoustic numbers, with the almost diffuse 3D presentation and ultra-revealing nature of the midrange allowing some super-high levels of micro-detailing. The flipside is the almost unpleasant sharpness on some more busy tracks, with most of the filters unable to tame the heat. In contrast, the Zeus provides a more forward midrange in both configurations, with considerably more warmth and natural timbre to the sound than the very cold and analytical Hunter. The Zeus is also capable of the same or higher levels of detail retrieval, but manages to do this while remaining smooth and natural throughout the frequency, relying on the capability of the driver and crossover network to produce a clean and resolving sound, rather than a boost in the relevant frequency band.
Treble is similar, with the Hunter providing a brutally sharp at times treble, with plenty of energy and fizz, some remarkable positional cues and staging, but just too much heat up top in comparison to the more clear and weighty Zeus. For fans of a hyper-analytical sound signature, the Hunter will be more aligned to their preferences, and certainly isn’t a bad IEM once properly amped and filtered, but the price difference does show here, with the Zeus able to retain the detailing without the sharpness for an overall more enjoyable (if far more expensive) tuning.
In terms of build and ergonomics, this is actually a draw, as the Hunter is made from titanium, and has a small and uber-ergonomic shell design, competing on comfort and almost on isolation with the full-CIEM Zeus. Also, soundstage is quite well matched, with the Hunter providing a slightly more diffuse but very positionally accurate soundstage, compared to the dense but hyper-real Zeus positioning. Overall, a convincing win for the Zeus, as the price tag would imply.
Campfire Audio Andromeda – this is one of the current co-flagships of the highly acclaimed Campfire Audio range, and has one of my favourite tunings on an IEM. It bears quite a few similarities to the Zeus in both configurations, presenting music with a natural and musical tonality and emphasising clarity over hyper-definition. The Andro has slightly more mid-bass presence, and is more prone to swings in sound signature with different sources due to the impedance curve, so sounds a little thicker in the low end on my Shanling M2S than the XR, which holds a more consistent sound on various differing sources. Both IEMs are very easy to drive, and tend to hiss with all but the blackest of sources.
In terms of the bass, the Andro presents a slightly more organic and warmer overall sound, with a little more heft in the mid-bass and similar extension but a shade less body in the sub bass region. Both offer excellent texture and control, being two excellent examples of a well-tuned balanced armature bass – compared to a high end dynamic driver like the Vega they can lack a bit of impact and physicality, but neither can be described as anaemic or bass-light, both treading on territory that sits just a little north of neutral. For me, it depends what genre I am listening to as to which I think is “better”, with both tunings suiting slightly different styles of music. In terms of overall quality I think the Zeus just shades it, but that is as much preference as a definite night and day differential.
Mids are an interesting comparison, with the Zeus’ famous mid-forward sound coming up against the silky smoothness of the Andromeda. This is an area that is too difficult to call, with the Andromeda carrying a little more weight, but the Zeus feeling slightly airier and more resolving. Both IEMs have excellent clarity, and can really evoke the emotion in a vocal line when needed. At this level, it is very difficult to pull the two apart, and these truly are two of the best midranges in the game at the moment (in my opinion, of course – the usual caveats about personal taste and the subjective nature of sound apply).
Moving up to treble, this is again another example of different styles but similar excellence, with the Andromeda feeling cavernous and airy up top, and the XR showing a laser-like focus and clarity, but a little less “sparkle”, having a cleaner and less diffuse tone. Again, both are at the top of the tree in execution and quality, with the Zeus carrying a little more weight and feeling a little sharper on occasion, and the Andromeda giving a real “out of head” experience and sparkle to the higher treble reproduction.
Overall, despite the difference in cost, these are two of the best operators in the higher end of personal audio at the moment, and for many, personal preference about the sound they are after will be as important as the technicalities of the IEMs at this sort of level. For my money, the Andromeda has a more immediately enjoyable sound, but the Zeus in both configurations just pulls clear in terms of clarity and overall resolution, while still retaining an emotional connection to the music.
Empire Ears Athena (CIEM) – the Athena is a recent addition to my collection, and was ordered at Canjam London as I was looking for a more everyday carry version of the Empire Ears house sound to wander around with day to day, rather than toting the Zeus everywhere with me. It sits third in the “pecking order” of EE IEMs, below both the Apollo and Zeus models, and sports an 8xBA design and a pricetag that is just over half what the Zeus-XR currently retails for. There are still two BA drivers taking care of the bass, but in comparison to the Zeus it has exactly half the number of drivers to reproduce the mid-range and higher frequency output.
For the purposes of this comparison, I mainly used the XIV setting on the Zeus, as this shares a more similar tuning ethos – I also used the Athena with the Whiplash SPC cable that came with the Zeus, as this presented a slightly clearer and more enjoyable sound to my ears than the Athena stock cable (marginally, not massively). Sonically, the two IEMs are cut from the same cloth, with the Athena presenting a slightly more musical take on what the Zeus can achieve, at the cost of a tiny percentage of the absolute clarity and resolution the 14-driver flagship is capable of.
Starting with the bass, the Athena sounds slightly more emphasised in the low end than the Zeus, although neither could be described as basshead monitors. The speed and detailing are similar through both IEMs, sharing a similar resolution, and the Athena also shares the Zeus’ uncanny ability to resolve drum sounds as realistically as anything I have ever heard. Moving up to the midrange, the Athena has a similarly forward tuning as the XIV, and is highly resolving, but feels just a fraction behind the Zeus when compared directly. Through a good source, the Zeus just feels like it is squeezing a tiny bit more texture out of the notes, and presents it with a touch more clarity. This really is in the realms of diminishing returns.
The treble is slightly less of a struggle, with the Zeus pulling ahead slightly in quality and detail retrieval, but keeping a similar sort of tonality to the Athena, just presenting a little more of the good stuff. In fact, the additional capability up top is probably the major differentiator between these two IEMs, diffusing some of the warmth that is more prevalent in the presentation of the Athena and presenting a slightly cleaner but still musical take on things. When the switch is flicked to the R setting, this becomes more obvious, feeling like someone has opened the door in a stuffy room and let some cooling air in.
In terms of separation and layering, the Zeus-XR is the more capable IEM here, the extra little nuances of detail here and there and the less warm background allowing the music to be presented with more pinpoint accuracy than the already excellent Athena.
Overall, this was a far closer battle than I first expected (or my ears tell me when listening separately). Both IEMs are obviously tuned with the same aim, and unless you are shooting for the absolute best, the Athena will satisfy all but the most ridiculous demands for detail retrieval and overall sound quality – however, if you are willing to stump up the extra c. $1k, the Zeus will take you a few small steps further up the audio mountain, and also allow you to tweak the sound slightly between a cooler and more reference signature and the more mid forward and warmer XIV configuration. Personally, I’m very glad I own them both.
Astell & Kern AKT8IE Mk2 – this is an unusual comparison, but the sonic signatures aren’t that far apart (if not identical), and this is currently the flagship in-ear produced by Beyerdynamic (in its Xelento variant), so I thought it was worth including.
Sonically, the AKT8IE is a bassier take on the musically neutral sound the Zeus strives for, carrying a good balance and emotion through the mid and high ranges, but fleshing out the mid and sub bass with a little more weight, thanks to the Tesla-tech single dynamic driver used to produce the sound. The Mk2 has fixed some of the original issues people had with the tuning of the Mk1 version, namely a lack of treble presence (not detail, as it was always a very capable driver, you just couldn’t hear it). In terms of detail retrieval, the miniaturised Tesla technology does push a lot of detail into the sound, falling just a little short of the Zeus’ exemplary resolution. I do find the T8IE to have a slightly warmer and airier sound than the Zeus, thanks to the boosted lower end.
In terms of bass, the dynamic driver is not massively quick, but does capture a lot of texture and detail, and adds this to a good physical slam factor to make this more of a basshead friendly in-ear than the more restrained Zeus. Moving through to the midrange, the Zeus is more forward than the T8IE, pushing the singer and instrumentation closer to the listener than the more recessed feeling midrange the A&K exhibits in direct comparison. Both mid ranges have good detail levels, with the Zeus again just pulling ahead, despite having a thicker note weight and slightly fuller sound through the midrange. The T8IE sounds a little sharper and more crunchy with electric guitar, with the Zeus carrying more solidity to the sound in response. Both midranges are capable of capturing emotion in both male and female vocals, portraying artists like Elvis and Chris Stapleton in all their glory. Stapleton actually provides the only moment approaching sibilance or harshness with the T8IE, which feels a little more “raw” in the vocal ranges of his track “Whiskey And You” than the thicker and more rich sounding Zeus.
Coming to the treble, the Zeus pulls a little clear here in both configurations, a stronger treble emphasis helping to highlight the micro-details in the high ranges with a little more ease than the more laid back (in comparison) T8IE. Neither treble is anything less than top notch (the Mk2 version of the A&K model seemingly having fixed the “missing” higher end in the tuning revision), but the Zeus simply has slightly more presence and a crystal clarity that help accentuate the good stuff.
Soundstage is similar on both, the T8IE feeling a little further back in terms of stage positioning due to the less forward mids, but keeping a similar width to the Zeus. Depth seems slightly better on the Zeus, but that is more of an impression rather than an empirical measurement. Separation is better on the Zeus through the midrange, due to the higher bass presence on the T8IE warming the stage a little in the transition between bass and mids for me.
In terms of packaging and design, both are flagship level presentations, with the A&K providing both a balanced and unbalanced cable (their attempt at a Linum BaX style thin cable, which is excellent) and a large variety of bespoke silicon tips and Comply wax guards in various sizes. Despite the fact my Zeus-XR is a custom IEM, comfort is actually won by the AKT8IE, which has the most comfortable teardrop/pebble style design I have come across for an in-ear, and sits in the concha with no irritation for hours on end once you have a good seal. This isn’t to say the Zeus is uncomfortable (it isn’t), but compared to the deep insertion into the inner ear a CIEM requires, the T8IE just sits unobtrusively in the outer bowl of the ear. As a result, isolation is definitely better on the Zeus.
Overall, these are both monitors near the top of their game, packing in nicely emotional midrange presentations and good technical capabilities. For half the price, the A&K is definitely a contender for the $1k top flight, but like the Andromeda comparison above, the Zeus just has a little more under the bonnet to push ahead in a few technical areas, and has a simply beautiful midrange tuning that makes it the winner for me if I could only keep one.
Campfire Audio Vega – another unusual comparison, but the Vega is the defacto “flagship” in terms of pricing in the Campfire Audio line, and is rightfully acknowledged as one of the best (if a little divisive) of the crop of universal IEMs currently on the market at time of writing. This comparison is a battle of power over precision, with the single diamond(like) dynamic driver of the Vega bringing a sense of weight any dynamics to the music that offers something completely different to the more precise and ultra-resolving Zeus in either configuration.
The overall signature of the Vega is a punchy, all-forward sound, with a large bass presence and physical weight to the sound. Despite the bass punch on show, the mids and highs are also projected forwards, leaving a stage that is no more than average size but extremely well separated and layered. In comparison, the Zeus presents a bigger and broader 3D image to the sound, spreading out further in all directions and leaving a more apparent sense of space between each note.
In terms of bass, the Vega produces a sound that most IEMs wouldn’t be able to generate with a nuclear powerpack attached, throwing slabs of air out through the nozzle into the listener’s ear like a belt fed machine gun. This is a monitor that can satisfy the basshead cravings for all but the most extreme of bassheads, and it shows. Compared to the Zeus, the Vega feels thicker, heavier and carries a fair bit more quantity. In terms of speed and quality, the diamond driver tech used by Campfire is actually pretty quick for a dynamic, keeping pace with the Zeus’ more nimble all-BA setup through most of my complex tracks. While not lacking in texture or detail, the Zeus just edges ahead here in these areas, presenting a bit less volume and a lot less slam in exchange for a more easily heard texture and definition to the low-end notes. The only area where this isn’t true is in the sub-bass, with the Vega having a stronger presence in the sub frequencies compared to the more subdued Zeus.
Moving through to the mids, the Zeus feels a shade more forward, and carries more obvious clarity than the fuller sound generated by the Vega. Both driver setups are technically very capable in terms of detail retrieval, but I feel the Zeus has a clearer edge here when pulling apart more complex passages of music, especially in the R configuration. In direct comparison to the Vega, the Zeus actually sounds a little thin in the midrange, which should tell you everything you need to know about exactly how much body the Vega imparts to the sound (helped by a healthy dollop of bass thickness down below).
In the treble, the Zeus feels a little smoother but clearer than the Vega, with the weight from the bass and midranges of the CA model adding a similar sense of heft to the high frequencies that can warm the water a little in terms of perceived resolution. The Vega actually carries a little “edge” to the higher end send that helps cut through the weight, but in comparison, the smooth detail of the Zeus just seems a shade cleaner and clearer in both definition and delivery. Both are similarly capable when it comes to extension into the rafters, with the slight crispness in the treble of the Vega adding a little more of a metallic “pop” to cymbal crashes, in comparison to the more muted but detailed Zeus presentation. In fairness, calling the Zeus more detailed in the treble in comparison to the Vega is like pointing out the Bugatti Veyron is quicker than a Lamborghini Murcielago – they are both exceptional, and most normal people would bite your hand off to own either model, and so it is with these two IEMS.
Rounding things out, soundstage is a deeper, wider and more 3D affair on the Zeus compared to the more compact and densely layered Vega. Separation is actually not far apart on both, but the comparative extra space on the Zeus soundstage makes this easier to pick up by the listener (for me, anyway). In terms of driving power, the Zeus is considerably easier to drive to a workable volume than the Vega, but both monitors can scale exceptionally well with better source gear, the Vega being able to take more out and out power from high end portable amps or desktop rigs than the more sensitive Zeus. In terms of hiss, the Vega just doesn’t hiss with my current gear, in comparison to the low level hiss that the Zeus can exhibit on some of my lineup. Dynamics are won by the Vega, with an ability to render light and shade in terms of dynamics in a passage of music that I have yet to hear bettered – again, like the treble, the Zeus is no slouch here, but just comes up against the out and out master for me in this current area out of the gear I’ve heard.
Build and ergonomics are a draw for me, the comfort of the CIEM Zeus being balanced by the easier insertion and use of the Vega, with a similar comfort level due to the low profile design of the Vega shells. The Vega lacks the customisation options and true higher end “tweaking” options of the Zeus, but the build is excellent, the design eyecatching and the comfort nothing to sniff at, so I feel it’s honours even in these areas.
Overall, these are two very different approaches to tuning, with the Vega presenting a thick, muscular sound that positively fizzes with energy, in comparison to the more rounded, detailed take provided by the Zeus. If I had to choose one to keep I would probably pick the Zeus-XR (even at roughly twice the price of the Vega, which would be a consideration for most sensible people), but both are aimed at evoking very different reactions. The Vega provides a weight and solidity to the sound that sucks me so far into orchestral or rock music it takes a map to find my way back out again, while the Zeus presents music (and details within the music) in such a beautifully clean and pure manner than I find myself listening to albums on repeat time and again without ever feeling the need to disconnect myself from the music. Neither IEM can do what the other can in that aspect, but that is as a direct result of their excellence in the other area, so it is as much about the mood you want to achieve when listening to them as the music itself when choosing which one to use. Much like the Athena comparison above, I’m very glad I own both of these particular IEMs.
|Frequency Response||10 – 23000 Hz|
|Included cable||Whiplash braided SPC (no model name)|
At the vangaurd of technical development with it’s capability to switch between 14 driver flagship configurations, the Zeus-XR comes with a high pricetag and very high expectations. I’m glad to say, in the world of ever diminishing audio returns, the Empire Ears team have produced something very special. Both tuning variations produce music of the highest clarity, without sounding forced or artificial, squeezing every last drop of resolution out of both the source and the music itself and laying it into a beautifully natural tapestry of sound. From the snappy but textured bass, through the rich and ultra-resolving midrange and into the smooth waters of the crystal clear treble, this is a monitor that doesn’t really put a foot wrong. Yes, you could petition for more bass, but at the same time it never feels bass-light or anaemic. You could ask for a wider or airier soundstage, if switching to the R setting isn’t enough to satisfy those cravings, but that still isn’t worth swapping for that glorious vocal presentation. You could even ask for a touch more bite and sparkle in the treble, but that would take more away than it adds (in my opinion), and detract from the beautifully balanced but clear high end. Nothing I can think of to add or detract would make this monitor any less appealing by its absence – this is quite simply a beautiful piece of audio tuning. In fact, two beautiful pieces of audio tuning, as both the “R” and “XIV” crossover modes have their own strengths and weaknesses, but still both feel wonderfully right when you are listening to them.
When I spoke to Dean Vang at Canjam London and asked him how he managed to get the coherence the Zeus manages over both the 7 and 8 crossover setup, he just remarked that he tunes the IEM for how a singer or musician would want it to sound – as close to natural as possible, no more or less. It’s a simple ethos, but seems to be remarkably astute, as this is what makes the Zeus so compelling and special to me. I’ve tried my best to be impartial, and to find flaws (as evidenced in the previous paragraph), but even with my cynical reviewer’s hat on, it is difficult to pick holes in something this enjoyable, and this accomplished.
As these were a competition prize, it’s easy for me to say they are worth the money, but for me, if cash is no object and you are looking for something that is truly exceptional and at the current pinnacle of what an IEM manufacturer can do with some acrylic, a double-handful of crossovers and 14 balanced armature drivers, the Zeus is a god amongst mortals.