The following is a rather lengthy section where I move through the different cable pairing with my Phantom. It is of course also possible to skip most of this and read only my impressions with the stock Ares II and those with Leonidas II.
Ares II (stock).
With the release of their two new X and EP series, Empire Ears collaborated with Effect Audio to ensure all the new models would come with the excellent Ares II as their stock cable, including of course the Phantom.
The Phantom have a warm and relatively intimate sound with an incredibly natural tonality. It is not the most airy sound, but the separation is excellent and that tonality is why I am so happy with my Phantom.
The first movement of Beethoven’s 7th starts with an easy flowing, but exciting introduction that builds up with ascending scales, one after another in a rhythmic fashion that gives that feeling of movement as in dancing. In between these ascending scales are moments of rest where a flute comes through, the tonality of which is sweet, full and accurate. With the build up in the ascending scales it does become noticeable that there is not a lot of air around instruments, but the separation through the accurate tonality of the instruments avoids it feeling too congested. It is intimate, but beautiful, with sweet violins that have a little bit of bite, horns and trumpets that rise above clearly, and a naturally resonant and impactful tympani. It is especially with solos that the Phantom show off their real strength, more so than at the peak of the ascends.
The slower second movement is in this case more the Phantom’s forte, where the black background allows for the delicately flowing strings to come through very well, with the gorgeous sounding tympani at the back providing the slow funereal pace, while clarinets and horns come through with clear definition and a powerful presence. It is a lovely dark atmosphere set by the realistic sounding instruments that make it flow beautifully.
The third movement then suddenly ups the pace with strings and woodwinds dancing around like hyperactive fairies, the distinct tonality coming through very well to shift your focus from left to right, back and forth, dancing around in the soundscape. This is offset by the occasional build up with brass instruments that I think sound excellent and provide a feeling scale and a sense of drama, contrasting wonderfully with the more delicate jumping fairies. It is not that delicate though, as the Phantom are full sounding and warm, but the effect is nonetheless there.
Then the fourth and final movement, by some described as sounding like yaks jumping around. I don’t hear that, to me it feels like a whirlwind, spiraling. Here the lack of air might be slowing the perception of speed down a little, but because the Phantom have excellent coherency it still flows beautifully and drags you along in the stream of energy that this movement presents. Again, the tonality is such an important factor here, as it separates the woodwinds and brass instruments very clearly to add depth and layering to the image. The image is like a whirlwind of music where occasionally a flute or trumpet rises above the chaos only to accentuate the tumultuous flow of which it is part. Towards the end it becomes the most musical cacophony of sound that brings the symphony to a climactic end in a way that is similar to collapsing when the music stops after an intense night dancing. It is a glorious crescendo that makes the symphony so satisfying right up to the very last note.
Ares II 8-wire.
Doubling up the wires with the Ares II 8-wire immediately gives a noticeable expansion of the stage and everything becomes a lot more airy. This helps to accentuate the tonality of the instruments with slightly added texture to the bass, a more open mid-range and slightly smoother treble. Overall the tonality stays very similar, but as I indicated in my review, Ares II 8W makes everything feel grand. This also means that the ascending scales of the first movement have a lot more air to breath and although the tonality is roughly the same, instruments sound more clearly defined against an even blacker background.
As a result of that blacker background, the second movement feels darker, as the stage expands revealing more of the darkness against which are set the strings that flow a little more smoothly, perhaps lacking a little of the bite they had with the 4-wire Ares II. In the background the bass strings are revealed a little more clearly and carry more weight and impact to add to the atmosphere.
In the third movement the extra impact of the tympani adds to the excitement and sense of pace that is suddenly injected into the symphony. The expanded stage and added air also increase the sense of instruments jumping around in the soundscape, with the clearer textures of the different instruments providing an even more dynamic feeling. The sense of drama is also increased, as brass instruments are more clearly defined and carry more authority as a consequence.
In the fourth movement the increased air does benefit whirlwind a little, but due to the way Ares II 8W places instruments within the expanded stage, the image is not quite ideal for this movement. The weight of the low end still holds down the perception of speed, which I felt was not helped by the slightly smoother treble. It feels like looking at that tumultuous flow of music from a larger distance, reducing some of the sense of immediacy, although the climactic end is still there.
This is where synergy with the source started to come into play. While Lionheart is one my favorite cables and its synergy with IEMs such as the Vision Ears VE5 is outstanding, the pairing Phantom + Lionheart + AK70 (balanced) did not synergize quite the way I liked it. I believe that the somewhat laid-back treble of the AK70’s balanced out caused everything to become just a little too smooth for my liking, loosing some of the bite in strings and power behind brass instruments. Switching to the SE out helped, but these days I also have the FiiO K3 at my disposal for a neutral source and here the synergy works better.
Lionheart offers a more balanced and refined sound compared to Ares II 4W/8W. The bass is a bit tighter and the treble feels more extended, transparency is improved and all this helps to give a sense of space in a stage that is not even that much bigger than with the Ares II 4-wire. Notes are not as full as with Ares II, but the naturalness of the tonality is maintained very well. Lionheart also adds a sense of liquidity to the sound that makes the ascending scales in the first movement flow beautifully. Now the Phantom get more of a sense of delicacy to them.
The second movement does not feel quite so dark, in part because the K3 is not entirely clean from its balanced out, but the transparency makes up for that, allowing subtle details to come through much more clearly. The texture of the bass strings comes through better and adds to the solemnness and sorrow. While not quite as dark, there is a more of a tangible feel of emotion to the second movement, something I always consider to be presented through the tonality of the instruments. The more texture and subtle details come through, the more powerful that is, and Lionheart does it very well. I also find that there is more of an ebb and flow in the feeling of darkness, further emphasizing the flow of emotions.
The third movement has more of a feeling of lightness and the fairies, through all their hyperactivity, seem to have lost some weight. There is more delicacy to the tones, while the tonality of the instruments is not harmed. Woodwinds still sound exceptionally good and brass instruments have the authority to add that touch of drama very well.
That lightness also works very well to add to the sense of speed in the fourth movement. More emphasis is now on the violins, providing the pace to make the whirlwind flow more fast and furious. The liquidity of Lionheart helps here as well and it flows as smooth as silk while the transparency means lots of texture and details come through. The very last part shows that the bass with Lionheart can still darken the image to create that musical cacophony and wrap up the symphony in an engaging burst of energy.
Eros II 8-wire.
Back to my AK70 for this pairing, as I felt that the synergy in this case was excellent. What Eros II does is close to taking the best bits of the Ares II 8W and Lionheart and combine them.
The stage is about the size of what the Ares II 8W gives the Phantom, but the image feels much more natural. It is airy and has the more delicate feel of Lionheart while maintaining a healthy amount of bite and texture in strings and the authority of brass instruments, even when listening from the balanced out of my AK70. The way the image is presented also feels more immediate, despite the size of the stage. For the first movement this means that the variations created with the ascending scales and the moments of rest become more pronounced and engaging. The solos do show that the instruments do not quite have the fullness they had when using Ares II, but they still sound very accurate and clearly defined.
The second movement is much like with Lionheart, less inherently dark, but the darkness ebbs and flows a lot more. The stability of the image and how instruments end up being placed feels incredibly realistic. Due to the slower pace, I felt this movement revealed a slight improvement in tonality of some instruments such as the clarinet, which sounded exceptional. The texture of strings is also really good and adds to the emotion of delicate string sections in this movement, which in turn makes the transition to the tympani more pronounced, again emphasizing the flow of emotions.
The third movement becomes very fast paced and exciting, but does lack some of the liquidity that Lionheart gives the Phantom. Emphasis is definitely on the strings here and it creates a great sense of speed and the fairies jump around large distances due to the increase size of the stage, but it all also seems to have lost some of its magic. Lionheart just added that little something extra that is so hard to pin down.
In the fourth movement that is once again noticeable. The image of the whirlwind is fast and furious, but does not flow with the same sense of liquidity as it did with Lionheart. It is still incredibly good and I feel the violins come through even better. There is a bite that Eros II 8W brings that is excellent and the overall result is special in its own right. Indeed, the final part of the fourth movement feels more energetic and that just adds to the sense of a climactic burst of energy before it all stops.
Moving on to Leonidas II was very surprising, as it seemed like Leonidas II took all the strengths of the previous cables, combined them and then added some more. The synergy is just superb. I initially had some reservations as the treble seemed to dance around my treble sensitivity a little bit, but that faded away over time and I really started to love everything about this pairing.
The stage is wide, deep and airy, and against the blackest background of these pairings comes the most clear sounding clarinet accompanied by bright and beautiful horns, full sounding flutes and strings that come in with incredible texture and bite. This starts the first ascend, which immediately draws me into the first movement like none of the other cables. Leonidas II makes the Phantom incredibly transparent with great clarity, tonality and that special kind of liquidity that Lionheart also had. It is just gorgeous. The tympani is tight, textured, but looses hardly any of that naturalness, making it more capable of adding pace that is contrasted by gorgeous sounding woodwinds to add delicacy and bright and authoritative brass to add excitement. The first movement setting the intention clearly, it is a joyous dance full of energy.
The increased transparency, clarity and blacker background combined with the full and natural mid-range tonality, makes the second movement even more solemn. The way the Phantom are now capable of reproducing instruments adds so much to the emotion. Even after I had been doing other things and was completely distracted, I got instantly drawn into the beauty of this presentation. It is delicate and it flows like silk in a warm breeze. This is standing still and taking time to reflect on the sacrifice given.
The third movement suddenly comes in and it is like a wakeup call. More than with any of the other cables does it feel like the instruments are fairies darting around the soundscape. The image itself feels very stable and it brings across the positioning of the instruments very precisely. The brass instruments have more authority than ever before and this adds an even greater sense of drama, as it contrasts more clearly with the delicate woodwinds and light strings.
The fourth movement then really drives home the absolutely gorgeous synergy here, as the whirlwind is presented in the most dramatic, immediate and incredibly fast flowing way so far. The contrast between the different instruments has not been greater, the texture and details coming through have not been clearer and it is all presented with that unique liquidity that is so hard to pin down what is causing it. It is fast and furious, and flows at an incredible pace. Jumping yaks? Someone must have given them roller blades because this spirals like a whirlpool. The amount of energy that comes across as the movement works its way towards the crescendo is so tangible and engaging.
This is what makes the pairing of Leonidas II with my Phantom such a delight for me. It sits on the edge between technical and musical, which is right where I prefer it to be. I recently also spent some time with Effect Audio’s flagship Horus and there I felt the pairing with my Phantom crossed just a bit too far into the technical, which had its own charm, but was simply not in line with my personal preferences.
“Hey! What about vocals?” I hear you ask. Well, all right because you insist, I will have a look at the 9th (this time conducted by Herbert von Karajan). The first three movements are without the chorus and as such it is much the same as with the 7th, but the final movement, the choral part, is especially spine tingling. With Ares II the vocals presented by the Phantom are really very good, with Ares II 8W they come forward, become very intimate and are quite lush, Eros II 8W moves them slightly back and gives them some clarity and strength, but Leonidas II… Oh boy, these might well be the best vocals I have heard with any IEMs and cable pairings. It is further back than with Eros II 8W, but so incredibly clear and powerful, just perfect for Ode to Joy. Both solos and choral sections come through with great intent and there is both excellent separation as well as excellent coherency. It feels natural, but has an impressive crystal clarity to it and I can’t help but be fully drawn into it. Absolutely gorgeous!
Every type of music I have listened to seems to sound incredibly good. From jazz to indie rock and metal to EDM, this pairing does everything exceptionally well for my preferences. In general I feel that Leonidas II tightens the bass a bit and adds some sub-bass extension, maintains a full and natural sounding mid-range, and adds sparkle to the treble without introducing any harshness. This seems to be a general characteristic with other IEMs I have used as well, such as the Jomo Trinity I reviewed recently, where I said: “Leonidas II improves transparency to astonishing levels, adds control to the bass while maintaining the warmth to build up the sound that the Trinity do so well. Guitars sound smooth while gaining even more texture, vocals sound superb and the treble is just as sweet. There is something truly special about this pairing.”
However, that synergy is important is clear from pairing Leonidas II with the Dita Fealty. It was a bit tricky because they use a slightly different connector, but it was still possible because of the standard 2-pin size. I was very curious to try it and found that while overall the changes were in line with what I expected, the treble ended up sounding a bit brittle. Not sharp or offensive, just slightly off. In this case I felt the pairing was not really an improvement over the stock cable, making it is a good example to show that my findings with the Phantom are not always going to be the same for other IEMs. A demo, especially with cables, is always advisable.
Leonidas II is without doubt a very special cable that as a 4-wire can outperform bespoke 8-wire cables. It tightens and extends the bass, maintains a full and natural sounding mid-range, and adds sparkle to the treble without adding harshness. It also increases both transparency and clarity. With the right pairing, such as with the Empire Ears Phantom, Leonidas II can achieve a very special synergy that is incredibly alluring and that, in my opinion, makes it worth its premium price. Definitely one that should be on the radar of any cable connoisseur.