Pros: Impeccable build quality, balanced but musical tuning, incredible sense of smoothness, good note weight, fantastic midrange, good clarity
Cons: May lack air in the treble for some, can take a little time to adjust to the tuning, extension/quantity in the sub bass area could be better
Price (as of Dec 2017): $1299
Website: Empire Ears
For those who aren’t familiar with the current “big players” in the international Custom In-Ear Monitor industry, the Athena is (at time of writing) the third placed model in the Empire Ears “Olympus” line of in-ear monitors, sporting 8 balanced armatures per side, a custom moulded acrylic shell and a pricetag north of $1000.
Empire Ears themselves are currently one of the big players in the CIEM field, having evolved from co-owner Jack Vang’s previous company Earwerkz to join with the hearing-aid manufacturing arm of the Vang family business (Savvitek) to take their production and design capabilities to the next level. They have a fairly large roster of stage musicians and other sound professionals on their books already, and are pretty well respected throughout the industry for the quality of their designs and the technical capabilities of their higher end models.
I came across the Athena on my trip to CanJam London earlier this year, and was impressed enough after working through most of the Empire Ears range on their stall (plus the new “prototype” models they had there that day that are now starting to surface at shows like PortaFest in Japan) to order a set. The potent combination of a slightly thicker and meatier sound than the super-resolving Zeus (which I already own) and the trademark EE clarity in the mids and treble painted a very musical picture in my ears, and I wanted to be able to spend some proper time with the EE “middle child”.
This review was originally intended to be posted a few weeks after receiving them, but unfortunately due to a combination of circumstances, this has turned into a more “long term” assessment than I was originally anticipating. That is far from a bad thing, as it has allowed me to really get to grips with the tuning and extract maximum enjoyment from these seriously underrated 8-driver earpieces.
This review is an evolution of my initial impressions, so will share some paragraphs with my previous postings, amended or just flat out rewritten as needed.
Unboxing and aesthetics
As the Athena shares an identical loadout and presentation, the unboxing section of this review has been shamelessly lifted from my recent Zeus-XR writeup – if you have already read that, please skip on to the sonics section below.
For those who haven’t, I’m happy to report for 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 (in silver, rather than the gold of the Zeus). 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 silver 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, a standard Plastics One style braided CIEM cable 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 solid purple shell and an abalone faceplate, after being mightily impressed by the look of the abalone shells on the Canjam demo models. 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 and pretty low profile for an 8-driver IEM but still 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.
The Athena are not at first listen a particularly flashy IEM, with a nicely agile but solid sounding lower end and a clean rather than sparkling treble. There is a nice sense of balance to the sound, without any immediate “wow” factor that usually kicks in with a more typical V shaped signature, or with something that carries more emphasis in one particular frequency range. There is something appealing about the warmth and balance of the presentation that becomes immediately apparent, so these are far from unappealing at first listen, but this is definitely a design that grows on you over time, rather than burning bright and then fading as the novelty wears off. It is also a tuning that your brain needs time to adjust to in order to appreciate the nuance and detail hidden behind the bigger and bolder “flavour” that immediately hits your ear.
The overall tonality is a little warm, with a little lift in the bass (centred around the mid bass rather than sub-frequencies) and an emphasis on vocals. Treble is as clear as a tee-totaller’s skin, presenting a nicely smooth but detailed upper end devoid of any nasty treble peaks or harshness. The warmth of the sound and slight push in the mids means that these aren’t an overly airy monitor, but they do give a good sense of width along the x-axis, and decent depth. The presentation is compact and solid rather than ethereal and floaty, with a very grounded feel to the sound, rather than a massive sense of space in the upper echelons.
In terms of bass, the Athena has a bit more presence than the Zeus, with a nice sense of dynamism to the sound. The balance tilts more towards mid-bass than sub, with a slight hump (or “thumb”) in the middle of the mid-bass frequency range to lift it slightly above neutral in quantity. There is enough bass quantity to be considered musical, but certainly not enough to be considered a bass-heavy monitor. Being an all-BA affair, the impact is never going to match up with the volume of air that a dynamic driver can move, but there is a nice sense of urgency and snap to the lower end, and bags of texture and detail. Like most balanced armature setups, the Athena don’t carry a huge “slam factor” when it comes to moving air in and out of your eardrum, but the snappiness and speed of the bass does provide a nice feeling of punch on my harder hitting test tracks, in particular the kick drum.
The sub-bass is capable but not outstanding, producing a faint rumble in the true depths rather than a earth-shaking roar. As with its big brother, drum sounds are rendered beautifully, with good imaging and a highly realistic tone – between the Athena and Zeus, I would say that Empire Ears have nailed the most realistic tom-tom sound reproduction I’ve yet heard (a very niche award, to be fair, but worth noting).
The style of presentation is smooth, but not 100% liquid, straddling the line quite effectively between a textured and chalky feeling BA style bass and a looser and slightly wetter feeling dynamic driver. Listening to “Hello, It’s Me” by Sister Hazel, the chocolate goodness of the main bassline oozes in to the track, not quite flowing freely, but adding a nicely dense layer of viscosity to the sound as the bassline fills up the track.
“Bad Rain” by Slash is my hallmark for quality bass texture, with a snarling bass riff at the 20 second mark that should come with a leash and a collar. The Athena is all about the texture and the snap, painting a slightly lean but menacing picture in the ears, allowing the listener to hear the individual bass guitar strings vibrating as the rasping rhythm fires through. Detail levels are high, and the layering is also very good for a dual-BA setup – it doesn’t quite approach the millefeuille-esque number of sonic layers something like the Campfire Vega or 64 Audio U8 can kick out down low, but this is certainly not a one-note or squashed together presentation by any means.
Giving the dual-bass drivers something a bit smoother to get stuck into, “Get Lucky” from Daft Punk hits all the right marks sonically, the slinky bassline dropping and dropping, only losing a smidgeon of presence as it scrapes right down into the floor of the track. It is smooth and velvety, giving the track plenty of foundation without sounding overpowering, and lending a pleasant warmth to proceedings. This isn’t a sound that will have bassheads purring with delight, but there is enough quantity and weight to the notes to stop this being described as strictly neutral or thin, with a nice sense of body that should satisfy all but the most ardent fans of brain melting vibrations.
More sub-bass laden tracks like “Heaven” by Emile Sande or “Why So Serious” from the Dar Knight soundtrack fare less well on the Athena, producing a small tickle in the eardrum in the really low passages, rather than the all encompassing thrum that both tracks demand. It’s the one subjective area of weakness here, so if you listen exclusively to sub-bass driven genres, then this probably won’t be your go to IEM of choice – for most modern rock and guitar or piano based fare, the bass is certainly more then adequate in both quantity and quality to keep a smile on your face as you work through your music collection.
Much like the old Aurisonics ASG series, mids are something that Empire Ears have become reknowned for. The Athena doesn’t deviate from that, serving up a nice steaming dollop of sound in this frequency band that is fairly forward, highly resolving and just plain great sounding. On first listen, the mids don’t scream detailing, but as you listen, plenty of nuance and audio plankton presents itself as the songs unfold. Ironically, despite being the most obvious area of expertise that the Athena exhibits, it is the one that has taken my brain the longest to completely tune into. Like its older sibling the Zeus, this is a midrange that rewards the time and effort you take to get used to its specific style of presentation.
Clarity and smoothness are the order of the day, with a weighty presence to electric guitar and rock music in general, and enough bite to keep things interesting where the track calls for it. For me, the vocals sit slightly in front of the other mid-band instrumentation (as they would on stage), and apart from a sense of resolution which isn’t normally available in the sort of dive-bar music venues I frequent, there is a nice “live” feel to the presentation for traditional guitar or band based music. The overall note presentation errs on the side of thickness, presenting a fairly large audio image in my ears. There is a good sense of weight and a nice undercurrent of warmth running through it. There are no audible spikes in the male or female vocal ranges, both carrying a similar sense of presence and smoothness to my ears.
Listening to someone like Beth Hart is a pure pleasure on these IEMs, “Mother Maria” sounding raw and emotional in its delivery, each breathless line of lyric sounding like the singer is literally whispering them into a microphone positioned a few inches above your forehead. Mavis Staples is another pleasure, the larger than usual vocal imaging bringing the veteran soul singer’s voice right up close and personal, allowing you to bask in the rich texture of the quieter phrases as well as the more powerful moments.
“Love and Trust” by Ms Staples also helps me identify the ability of a monitor to separate mid range instrumentation and vocals, possessing a multi-layered gospel chorus and overlapping electric and acoustic guitars all operating in roughly the same sonic space. The Athena does well with this track, allowing you to identify the various singers in the chorus line pretty cleanly without detracting from the wonderful blending of the sound, and laying both guitar lines cleanly over the top without blurring the edges. Due to the warmth of the tuning, it never feels like there is a massive sense of space or artificial separation between these layers, so this isn’t the most overtly technical sounding IEM you will find in this price range. That being said, once you have clicked with the tuning, there is ample resolution and clarity to be had in all but the most cluttered of tracks.
Looking for sibilance and sharpness, I ran a little Chris Stapleton and Emile Sande through their paces. Stapleton’s famously ear shredding chorus on “Whiskey and You” passed my eardrums without incident, and the first few tracks from Sande’s debut album did much the same. Rather than blunting or smoothing over any rough edges, the more “natural” clarity and resolution of the Athena allows harsher tracks to play without artificially enhancing their sharper edges, making this a very smooth and buttery listening experience for most things I have thrown at it to date.
Rock tracks play out particularly well on the Athena, with a nice sense of heft to electric guitar riffs and a good sense of dynamism and attack. This is more of a smooth and substantial feeling sound rather than crunchy and aggressive, but what the Athena occasionally lacks in perceived “edge” it more than makes up for with solidity and detail. Listening to something like “Blame It On My Youth” by Mr Big from the golden era of 80s rock supergroups, the opening chords are full of distorted detail, Paul Gilbert’s harmonic-driven guitar onslaught hitting with solidity and shredding when needed.
Piano based tunes fare equally well, the warm tone of the IEMs lending a very euphonic tinge to the music. “Natural Blues” by Moby sounds absolutely superb, the simple piano phrases blending well with the bluesy vocal and the solid bassline to paint a very enjoyable presentation. This aren’t the most hyper-accurate of IEMs in terms of tonality or timbre (if you are looking for that, the Zeus would be your logical port of call in the current EE range), but they portray a reasonably accurate tone on most instruments, just adding a splash of colouring where needed to bring a nice sense of musicality to the overall sound.
To round out the tour of musical instruments living in the midrange, I threw a bit of brass into the rotation from a recent find, Trombone Shorty. The smooth funk of “Here Come The Girls” sounds like the lovechild of James Brown and John Legend, velvety vocals mixing with Shorty’s classic trombone licks to get my feet tapping like an impatient 5-year old waiting in line for the toilets. Again, the tone is wonderfully smooth and natural sounding, and while I don’t have a huge amount of experience listening to the real thing, the brass section sounds solid and organic rather than harsh or metallic.
If I had to sum up the mid-range presentation, I’d say that while it is almost certainly the star of the show, it comes across more like Nile Rogers than Miley Cyrus. The Athena is content to let you bask in the cool and super-smooth excellence of its delivery without hitting you over the head with obvious attention-grabbers or resorting to disrobing certain frequency ranges just to keep your attention. Creamy, smooth but resolving at the same time, the Athena hits just the right balance to be considered a true mid-range expert in this price bracket.
The treble on the Athena is a little less emphasised than on their big brother the Zeus, and in fact remind me a little of the Audioquest Nighthawk in execution. There is no sharpening or artificial emphasis to accentuate micro-detail – it is still there in the sound, but just feels a little less apparent until your brain adjusts to the signature. These aren’t a headphone for those fans of screaming crystalline crunch and blistering heat, but if you like your high end non-fatiguing and clear as a bell, you will be on to a winner here. I genuinely think you would have more chance of finding Lord Lucan than you would of finding bothersome treble peaks on all but the harshest recorded tracks, but at the same time the treble doesn’t feel blunt (once you have adjusted to it). It just sits slightly behind the more prominent mids and rings clean and clear throughout the range, sitting squarely in my ideal tuning bracket for most IEMs, so is definitely a winner for my preferences.
As you would expect, perceived extension isn’t huge – the warmth and thickness of the presentation lead to a lack of air in the top end, and a de-emphasised higher register. Instead, the sound is presented in a clear and almost “rounded” manner, with a jet black background (depending on the source) surrounding each individual note.
This presentation actually works quite well for some electronic tracks, “Go” from The Chemical Brothers sounding full and energetic in the top end as the swirling synths in the chorus kick in to overdrive. The hi-hat on this track epitomises the overall treble presentation for me, hitting crisply but fading out almost immediately, the decay being kept short and muted and killing a little of the natural “splash” you associate with cymbals.
Kicking over to my preferred geetar-screech rock, “Starlight” by Slash and Myles Kennedy is up next. The guitarwork in this track is deliberately dissonant to begin with, and the Athena keeps this firmly in the realms of smooth and solid rather than accentuating the jagged edges of Mr Hudson’s work. There is a nice sense of crunch to the high notes, so the edges certainly feel defined, but again it feels solid and clean rather than sparkly or overly sharp. Personally, this works well for me, but if you are looking for an IEM with more treble emphasis then you may want to look at other models in the EE lineup before the Athena.
The comparative lack of air in the higher registers lends the sound an almost “closed in” feeling in the top end, giving the higher notes a ceiling to work beneath and deaden themselves on rather than let them reverberate off into a cavernous concert hall. Again, preference will play a key role here, but I think it works well with the other tuning choices to give that final dash of solidity and roundness to the sound.
Separation, layering and soundstage
The 8 driver setup of the BA are certainly technically capable, pushing a little wider than the periphery of your head in both directions and also exhibiting a good amount of depth in the Z-axis. The stage is slightly more oval to my ears than round, but there is still a good sense of scale for something tuned so warm. This warmth does bring the instruments a little closer together than something like the U8 or Andromeda, but it feels natural for this sort of sonic presentation, and contributes to the quite cohesive feel of the soundstage, which feels more like a live concert stage in some respects rather than a studio recording room. The staging feels solid rather than cavernous, keeping each instrument well placed in its own physical space but locating the players closer together on the stage (think small dive bar stage rather than Sydney Opera House).
Layering is good, stacking each different strand of music quite densely on top of the next while still keeping them discernible. Again, the warmth of the tuning and the stage size limit the overall effect somewhat, but the Athena are definitely a capable monitor in this regard, keeping multiple strands of music cohesive but still packing in plenty of texture and nuance. This is not a tuning built for hyper-detailed or hyper-analytical listening, evoking more of a feeling of soul and cohesion to the music you listen to rather than dissecting it. Overall, the Athena has a solidly packed but still nicely separated sound, laid out on a realistic feeling stage – both elements work in harmony with the tuning to evoke a very musical but still technically proficient and real-feeling sound.
Synergy and hiss
The Athena comes as stock with a nice stock braided cable in black, looking very much like an upgraded version of the standard “Plastics One” cable used across the CIEM industry. The eagle eyed among you will notice that it isn’t that cable that features in the pictures above. While the stock cable was perfectly fine for listening, as I am now running an Effect Audio Ares II+ on my Zeus-XR, I happened to have a perfectly good Whiplash Audio SPC upgrade cable that came with the EE flagship just sitting around unused. After some serious battling to get the stock cables removed (what do EE use to fit them into the sockets – a rocket launcher?!) I tried this cable out with the Athena to see if there was any appreciable sound difference. I must admit I’m very much on the fence on the benefits of cables in general, but have noticed a more pleasing tonality to the Zeus-XR with the Ares II+, and also prefer the sound of the Athena with the SPC upgrade. For me, it adds a shade more emphasis up top for an added perception of clarity, while still keeping the warmth and body of the baseline tuning, so balances out the sound a little better for my personal preferences.
The Athena are a mildly warm sounding monitor, but I actually found them pairing very well with one of my warmer sources (the Echobox Explorer) so far. The Opus #3 also runs very nicely with these, adding a little more perceived clarity and separation at the expense of a little body to the sound. The other source I found particularly enjoyable is the LG V30, with LG’s latest audiophile flagship handling the Athena with a sonically black background and great sense of energy. This combo packs plenty of dynamism behind the solid midrange landscape and allows the technical capability of the drivers to shine. It is marginally behind the Opus #3 in terms of separation between instruments, but otherwise comfortably holds its own and adds a little extra body down low.
I have tried the Athena with a few balanced sources (using both an 8-core SPC cable and the Ares II+ I use with the Zeus, and I didn’t notice any drastic sonic improvements, over and above the actual implementation of the balanced output compared to the single ended out in some instances (the Aune M1S). The Athena are an IEM that don’t require a vast reserve of power to hit full headroom, so don’t need to be driven balanced, unless the balanced out on your source is drastically better than the single ended option. In fact, the Athena could probably be driven just by holding the end of your IEM cable close enough to your amp for it to pick up the residual electromagnetic waves it’s that easy. So while it will scale well with the quality of amplification on offer, it certainly doesn’t need any more output juice than even the most puny of DAPs can provide.
The final note in this section is on hiss. Yes, the Athena hiss. Yes, it’s almost in the same order of magnitude as the Zeus-XR (to my ears). No, once the music starts it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and with some sources won’t be audible at all. If you have a particularly “hissy” source, that probably won’t pair too well with these IEMs if you are sensitive to that sort of thing. For most people, it certainly won’t be an issue. One random note – much like the Zeus, the Athena don’t seem to particularly like the “Current Mode Amplification” technology that Questyle use. While I never had a chance to run the Athena with the QP2R I had on loan for a few months, the CMA400i desktop unit I now have shares the same underlying amplification trickery, and this particular pairing seems to generate less “magic” than other sources I have, with a greater than average helping of ssssss-ing in the background. I don’t know if this will carry over to the QP2R, but all I can say is that both the QP2R and CMA400i sound superb with most of my other in-ear gear but markedly average with my two Empire Ears IEMs, so take that as you will.
64 Audio U8 (w/ M20 APEX module)
The Athena comes in a little more expensive than the U8 at $1299, compared to the $999 offering price of the 64 Audio model (when it was on sale – it has recently been removed from the 64 Audio site as part of their “line refresh” as of December 2017). They both share an 8xBA driver count, with the U8 packing half its total driver complement into a quad-low setup, using two each for the mid and high ranges, and utilising a slightly more traditional 3-way crossover in comparison to the more complex 5-way system employed on the Athena.
In terms of packaging and accessories, the honours are fairly evenly split. The 64 Audio loadout is more pocket or bag friendly, but just lacks a little bit of pizzazz in direct comparison to the more high end feel of the EE offering. Fit, aesthetics and comfort aren’t a fair comparison here, as I opted for the CIEM version of the Athena, utilising one of EEs spectacular looking Abalone faceplates to really make the IEM stand out visually, in stark contrast to my “none more black” set of U8s, which look cool in a functional Henry Ford Model T kind of way, but don’t really set the heart pumping or caress the inside of the ears like a good custom fit.
Sound wise, in the lows the Athena’s slightly higher than neutral bass presence doesn’t really compete with the U8 and its quad-woofer setup here. The bass still feels present, but slightly “flat” in direct comparison to the ultra-textured 64 Audio model, with less sub bass presence and a slight emphasis on midbass in direct comparison to the more evenly distributed U8 (although the U8 has more bass across the board, it is more evenly balanced between the two areas). Listening to something like “Palladio” by Escala on the 64 Audio model, the brooding cello sweeps that build up as the song gets going feel thicker and more textured, with a heavier sub-bass rumble and rounding to the sound. This is hardly surprising given the U8 is the basshead model of the 64 Audio series, so while the Athena is certainly not anaemic or bass-light in sound, the U8 is definitely the winner here if you are looking for a monitor with a more emphasised and bass-capable low end.
If bass is the normal playground of the 64 Audio line, the midrange is traditionally the area of strength for Empire Ears, and that is how it plays out here. Where the U8 has a nicely laidback and smooth feel to the sound in this area, the Athena matches that smoothness, but pushes the sound further forward in front of the bass and has an almost effortless sense of clarity in direct comparison. For guitar and vocal based music, the Athena is the more aggressive and energetic of the two sounds, with comparatively less warmth in the midrange and a little more edge to the individual notes.
Vocals are pushed further forward on the stage, with a greater feeling of clarity in comparison to the more velvety and rounder presentation of the U8. The U8 certainly doesn’t feel veiled in the mids, but once you have adjusted to the Athena’s more forward styling, there is a touch more micro-detailing and clarity apparent around the fringes of the sound in direct comparison to the 64 Audio model. The U8 counters with a sweeter tinge to the sound and a touch more weight around the upper bass/lower midrange transition, so this is more a battle of styles than a clear win or loss for either IEM. Listening to “Black Muddy River” from Gregg Allman’s last album, the Athena just has the edge in terms of the vocal delivery and delicacy of the gossamer-like acoustic guitar that is so gently layered in the back of the mix. In comparison, the U8 presents the track in a warmer and more euphonic style, with Allman’s voice a little further back against the instrumentation and the guitars almost fading into nothingness in the edge of the sound.
Treble is similar on both, neither monitor having a particularly emphasised or sparkly top end. The Athena is the crisper of the two in this regard, with a dash more emphasis in the highs and a more even balance between mids and treble in comparison to the slightly attenuated (in volume, not extension) top end of the U8. Clarity and detailing is again edged by the Athena here, just adding in a little extra dash of perceived resolution over the smoother 64 model. Neither model is tuned with any harshness in the upper frequencies, making both a very smooth and crystal clear ride with most of my music collection.
Soundstage is won by the U8, with a larger presentation and more space between the instruments. In fairness, EE do offer the option of an ADEL port (the predecessor to their own APEX tech that was used by 64 Audio up until recently), so this may even the odds somewhat, but I haven’t had the pleasure of spending any time with an ADEL-equipped Empire model as yet, so I can’t confirm that for certain. Layering is a mixed bag, with the U8 comfortably holding the whip hand in the lower end, but passing the torch to the Athena once you leave the bass-ment. Separation feels a touch better to me on the U8, with the additional soundstage size coming in to play here – it is marginal though, with both IEMs being very capable in this regard.
In terms of gear synergy and driving power, the U8 is harder to drive than the Athena by a considerable margin (about 15 volume steps out of 120 on my Sony A36), although neither are in the hard to drive bracket. The U8 is also more susceptible to changes in source output impedance, becoming leaner and cleaner as the OI goes up, whereas the Athena is more stable. Finally, the U8 definitely wins the battle of the background noise if that is something that bothers you, with the Athena inheriting its ability to hiss with almost all but the most silent of sources directly from its big brother the Zeus. To be fair, neither IEM produces a level of noise that I feel is noticeable when the music is on, so this is just for the sticklers out there.
Overall, both models are excellent examples of what can be achieved in the $1k IEM bracket, providing tunings that are musical and engaging, without crossing the line into overly analytical or losing sight of the music in pursuit of technical perfection. The fact that both monitors also possess excellent technical aspects is an added bonus. As far as calling an outright winner, I can’t make my mind up – the U8 offers a velvety richness to the sound and sweetness to the tone that is very addictive, and sounds good with almost all genres of music, the additional push down into the sub bass frequencies really rounding out the sound into an almost speaker-like experience. The Athena has a more accomplished midrange and treble, yet still carries enough bass presence and warmth to sound engaging and musical. Overall, if I could only choose one I would probably err towards the Athena for its slightly better technical prowess without sounding analytical, but for day to day listening and just sheer enjoyment of music I can’t fault either IEM.
Campfire Audio Andromeda
The Andromeda is the current co-flagship of the acclaimed Campfire Audio range, sporting 5 balanced armature drivers in comparison to the Athena’s 8, but utilising a proprietary resonating chamber (called TAEC technology) to achieve its excellent high end extension and staging. They are priced at around £1099 at time of writing, so slightly cheaper than the Athena.
Starting with the bass, the Athena has more quantity than the Andromeda, which is north of neutral but not overly reknowned for its bass volume. Quality is again similar, both IEMs producing good texture and detail in the lower end, with the Andromeda sounding a little less forward and bodied than the warmer and more “in your face” style of the Athena. To be fair, neither IEM could be considered a basshead tuning, so please take this in context, but the Athena definitely feels like it delivers more substance in the low end, possibly at the expense of a little of the tautness and control that the Andromeda shows in this regard. Sub bass is won by the Athena, with a little more overall impact in this region than the Andromeda.
Moving to the mid-range, this is definitely a battle of different styles, with the Athena presenting a much more forward sound in the vocal ranges, pushing the singer right to the front of the stage and halfway over the front row. As explained in the main body of this review, this can take a little getting used to at first – in comparison, the more neutral positioning and “cooler air” of the Andromeda staging leads to the Andro initially seeming like the more detailed and clearer monitor. Once the brain kicks in to the Athena signature, there is less of an obvious difference, but the Athena still feels less expansive and spread out than the Andro. Guitars have a crunchier and more crystalline tone on the Andromeda, feeling slightly more organic on the Athena. The resolution of both monitors here is excellent, with the Athena providing more body and emphasis in the midrange in comparison to the more neutral but still exceptional sounding Andromeda.
Treble is presented very differently on both IEMs, with the Athena putting out a clear and clean treble, but lacking in air and sparkle in comparison to the more soaring and spacious Andromeda. The Andromeda also has the better perceived extension here, the space around the notes in the rafters giving the impression of a much higher “ceiling” for the sound. Neither monitor is prone to sibilance with most tracks, with the Athena being the slightly smoother and more forgiving of the two in this regard.
Accessories and loadout is better on the Empire IEM, with their carrying case and various bags and cloths giving a slightly more luxurious feel than the standard Campfire presentation, with the exception of the SPC Litz cable provided with the Andro. Build quality is a draw, with the high quality acrylic CIEM manufacture looking flawless on the Empire gear, and standing up well to the iconic all-metal Andromeda design. Comfort and isolation wouldn’t be fair to compare, as the Athena is a CIEM and the Andromeda is a universal model with a famously polarising angular design, which either fits like a glove or feels like sticking a modern art sculpture into your inner ear (fortunately, I’m in the former category).
Separation and layering are a mixed bag, with the warmer and more forward Athena still doing an excellent job of peeling the sound back into layers around the listener, but sometimes lacking the more airy and widescreen style presentation of the Andromeda and the additional space between instruments on the soundstage that provides.
The Athena is actually one of the only IEMs in my collection easier to drive than the Andromeda, and hisses marginally less on my less forgiving sources, which was surprising. The Andro are hands down the easiest to drive but least forgiving of hissy sources of any piece of audio gear I have heard on my audio journey so far, so if the hiss on the EE model bothers you, I would suggest that the Andro may not be your cup of tea in that regard.
Overall, these are two very different IEM tunings, neither of which comes out as a clear winner. If you like your sound crystal clear and spacious while hovering around the musical/neutral border, I would suggest the Andromeda. If you prefer a more forward midrange and slightly warmer and more musical slant to proceedings, the Athena will be the winner here. with both IEMs providing bags of resolution, detail and texture, neither would be a bad choice in this price bracket.
JH Audio / Astell & Kern Angie (V1)
The Angie is one of the original “Siren Series” models from the universal IEM series launched by Jerry Harvey Audio and the reknowned DAP manufacturer Astell & Kern. Like the Athena, it is an 8-driver all balanced armature affair, packing in two bass drivers, two for the midrange and JH Audio’s proprietary quad-high driver setup (called soundrIVe). It also packs in the phase alignment waveguides that the JH series of IEM are famous for, called Freqphase. When originally launched, the Angie retailed at around the $1099 mark, and the second “Full Metal Jacket” series version with the all metal housing still holds a similar price.
Like the Athena, it is positioned below the flagship models, but also like the Athena, it is certainly capable of locking horns with many IEMs in that sort of category from other manufacturers. Starting with the build end ergonomics, the Angie is one of the largest IEMs (custom or otherwise) I have come across, with a universal shell that is actually bigger than the full-CIEM version of the Athena. It shares a similar build quality and aesthetics, with a full carbon fibre weave shell and black and red faceplates that look absolutely superb. Fit wise, the Athena win the battle (as you would expect), with the Angie sitting very comfortably in the bowl of my ear, but protruding out by about half a cm on either side, making them look a little like Frankenbolts.
In terms of comfort, the JH Audio model are actually surprisingly ergonomic, and provide a similar level of insertion / seal with their ultra long nozzle as the Athena CIEM. Both models can be worn for hours without too much issue, and both feel pretty pleasant in the ear, with the Athena just edging the comfort battle due to their custom moulded nature.
Moving on to sound, the Athena has a similar sort of tuning to the Angie, being marginally more warm in tone but sharing a similar forwardness in the midrange. The Angie have a tunable bass capable of being varied by up to 10dB (centred around the 60Hz band), and at my “default” setting on the tuning cable of between 2 and 3pm on the dials, they have slightly more mid-bass presence than the Athena. The JH model exhibits more of a mid bass “hump” than the Athena, with a little more overall volume in that region, trading off some of the snap that the Athena is capable of for a slightly meatier impact and longer lingering aftereffect. Listening to something like “Bad Rain”, the Angie has a slightly heavier boom to the kick drum, and a slightly “wetter” feel to the bassline as it kicks in, with texture detail pretty even between the two.
Sub bass extension and overall presence is similar on both IEMs, with the Angie having a little more quantity and rumble, but both staying in the same ballpark. Both IEMs handle the drop down into sub bass well, Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” being equally well handled as the bassline scrapes along the floor. As the frequencies keep dropping, both monitors start to lose body and emphasis, presenting a sub bass that has a little rumble but no massive sense of presence. Neither monitor would be my go-to if I was looking for something to excel with sub-bass driven genres, but for rock and guitar or orchestra based instruments (my day to day listening), both monitors are firmly in their comfort zone.
Moving on to the midrange, both the Angie and the Athena share a forward slant to their tuning, with both presenting a detailed and emotive mid range, especially for vocals. It is difficult to call between the two IEMs, with the Athena presenting the vocals in a slightly denser and more concentrated manner to my ears, with the Angie just feeling a slight bit more diffuse. Vocals are the star of the show in both presentations, artists like Beth Hart and Foy Vance coming through with a sense of emotion that lesser monitors can sometimes fail to capture. There really is little to split the two IEMs in the midrange, both faring very well with electric and acoustic guitar-led tunes, having enough crunch to keep them exciting but both erring on the side of body and roundness rather than presenting any jaggedness or raw edges. Sibilance isn’t really an issue with either IEM either, both being rather forgiving to all but the most harshly recorded tracks. Detail levels are similarly high on both IEMs, with the Angie having slightly more “overt” detail retrieval when it comes to picking up the finer micro-detail around scuffed guitar notes and room noises, but sharing a similar sense of clarity to the Athena otherwise.
It really does take a microscope to split these two IEMs in this area for me, with the most discernible difference to my ears is the slightly wider sense of separation in the X axis on the Athena, and the slightly deeper and more 3D feeling instrument positioning on the Angie.
Lastly, the treble is an area where I would say the Angie has a slight lead, using half of its 8-BA layout to provide plenty of detailing and a nice sense of airiness and extension. The Athena feels a little blacker and more closed in as you climb into the upper echelons, presenting a thicker but not hyper sharp treble that is certainly more than capable but not quite as delicate as the JH Audio model. Neither feel hugely sparkly or razor sharp, both being bested by something like the Campfire Audio Andromeda in this particular regard, but in both cases it suits the rest of the tuning for the monitor.
In terms of power requirements, the Angie is considerably harder to drive than the Athena, requiring 10 to 12 additional clicks (out of 75) on my LG V30 to attain the same volume levels as the Athena. The Angie also hiss considerably less than the Athena on my noisier sources, maintaining a blacker background with things like the Hifiman Supermini.
These two IEMs have far more similarities than differences, being vocal-centred and forgiving takes on a technically proficient but musical sound. Or in other words, they both sound great without any massive leaning towards bass or treble, and they push the vocals just far enough forward and pack them with just enough detail to really capture the listener. These IEMs slot perfectly into most rock and acoustic genres, so much so that I can’t split these two out into one clear winner, with both having subtle but appreciable differences in longer listening sessions that will suit slightly different genres of music better for my personal tastes. If the ability to alter the bass output matters to you, and you aren’t worried by the huge shell size compared to similar 8 driver models on the market, then the Angie may be your thing – if you are looking for a smaller, slimmer design with a slightly more solid feel to the midrange and similarly superb vocals, the Athena will be your go to.
Empire Ears Zeus-XR (CIEM)
The Zeus-XR is the current flagship of the Empire Ears Olympus range (as of late December ’17), and is widely acknowledged as one of the most technically proficient IEMs currently on the market in the TOTL bracket. It has almost double the number of balanced armatures providing the sound as the Athena, with a whopping 14-BA setup, and a tuneable sound signature (by means of a switch on the faceplate) which switches between 7 or 8 crossovers to give two unique flavours to the sound. It currently retails for around $2400 without the ADEL module.
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 small 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 stray anywhere near basshead territory. 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 XIV has a similarly forward tuning as the Athena, and is highly resolving, but feels just a fraction in front of the Athena 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. As anyone who is familiar with top-end in ear monitors will be familiar with, this really is in the realms of diminishing returns, but noticeable nonetheless.
The treble is slightly less of a struggle, with the Zeus pulling ahead 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 on the Zeus is flicked to the R (for “Reference”) setting, this becomes more obvious, feeling like someone has opened the door in a stuffy room and let some cooling air in to the Zeus’ signature.
In terms of separation and layering, the Zeus-XR is the more capable IEM, 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. The Athena goes for a more smooth and laid-back vibe in comparison, with the Zeus just melting away a little more of the fat around the notes to present everything in crystal clarity.
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 (the R setting) and the more mid forward and warmer XIV configuration. Personally, I’m very glad I own them both.
Having the privilege of writing about audio gear in this price bracket can be a double edged sword sometimes. When you are looking at something manufactured with this level of complexity, it is almost a given that all the performers will be technically excellent in multiple ways, so it is more a case of identifying if the excellence works for you and your preferences, rather than identifying if something is subjectively good or bad. Sometimes a piece of gear just “clicks”, and other times it grows on you like middle-aged spread, just chipping away unnoticed until it’s part of your listening status quo, and you can’t imagine yourself without it.
Where it comes to the Athena, they hit me with an enjoyable signature almost from the off, but after spending a good few months with them, it is the extra bits and pieces hidden in the background that have really come to make me appreciate one of the unsung heroes of the Empire Ears line. There is clarity and resolution in spades if you know where to look for it. It isn’t the overt micro-detail that usually comes with accentuating the 5k region (or other areas of the frequency range to enhance or sharpen the sound) that is the most common way to build a “revealing” monitor in this sort of price bracket. The resolution and clarity from the Athena comes from the purity and cleanliness of the note presentation, and the highly capable layering and separation of space between the instruments. Nothing is overly sharpened, but it has just enough room to breathe despite the warmness of the staging to present the macro detail a little more cleanly in your ears, allowing you to rebuild the music in your head and “catch” little phrasings and instrumentation noises that can otherwise get drowned in the sound. To be clear, this won’t be the most hyper-resolving sound you will ever hear (for that, you should really be looking at the big brother of the EE range, the Zeus), but it will allow a surprising amount of insight in to the music for a signature so outwardly smooth and warm in presentation.
Perception is an interesting thing – for fans of the EE lineup, the Athena is considered very much a “mid-range” monitor, being more expensive than the highly regarded Spartan and sitting way below the pinnacle of the series (the Zeus). This seems to lead to people skipping over this model in favour of one end of the scale or the other, but in my opinion this is an IEM that can (and should) be considered alongside some of the giants of the $1k price bracket like the Campfire Andromeda and the JH Audio Angie as a fine technical performer, with the requisite splash of that unique EE “house sound” to make it stand out from the crowd. It is a monitor that is musical rather than neutral, balanced rather than exaggerated and just damn fine sounding. If I didn’t already own the Zeus, I would quite easily think this was a TOTL effort from the manufacturer, rather than the third model in their pecking order, such is the sense of accomplishment with the tuning.
For the price, these may not be the most neutral or “audiophile sounding” monitors out there (although they certainly aren’t lacking for technical prowess), but sometimes musicality is just more enjoyable than absolute technicality – it’s a line Campfire Audio tread well with their flagships, and having heard the Zeus-XR and now the Athena, I would say it’s something that Empire Ears can also do extremely well too. The Athena just miss out on the full 5 stars in the Audio Quality bracket due to the slight lack of air up top and the relatively subdued subbass, but that is purely subjective, and certainly doesn’t stop me considering them in the same sort of performance bracket as the highly lauded Andromeda. Value for money is similar – while $1299 is very competitive for an 8-driver IEM in this quality bracket, the existence of things like the Andro just stop the Athena from bagging the full house. It’s a well trodden line, but at this sort of price bracket the quality of sound really is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The Athena won’t be twice as good as a $600 iem (which is already pretty rareified air for all but the most hardcore audiophiles), but if you are looking for a musical but resolving IEM with plenty of soul and truly top notch build quality, the Athena is an easy recommendation.