PROS: Rich Male Vocals and Lower Midrange Instruments, Good Depth, Layering and Imaging
CONS: Lacks Transparency, Slightly Veiled, Muddy and Congested Sounding
Thanks to Empire Ears for providing a discount on the purchase of my set of Phantom Custom In-Ear-Monitors.
Phantom is the flagship model of the EP series from Empire Ears. This was an interesting product for many reasons. First, EE had brought down the driver count to 5 (5 x Balanced Armatures), compared to Zeus’ 14 drivers, which also helped reduce the price down to USD 1,799. What really caught my attention about the Phantom was, the tuning choice. After going through a phase of chasing the last bit of resolution, I was in the market for an IEM that prioritized tonality, without compromising a lot on technicalities. I had a few IEM options in mind, but those IEMs had one or more quirks that stopped me from pulling the trigger. Right around that time, Phantom was announced and many audiophiles, who got a chance to try the Phantom at shows seemed impressed, and they described its tone as “Natural”. This feedback and EE’s credibility for creating the Zeus, gave me the confidence to purchase a custom pair of Phantom IEMs.
Product Link: https://empireears.com/products/phantom-custom-in-ears
When dealing with subjective terms like ‘natural’, it can be open to interpretation, so it is essential to define it first. Per my definition, a natural sound is a tuning choice that is tilted slightly towards the warm and smooth side of neutral, while still maintaining the linearity in the frequency response. Based on my experience with EQing headphones and a couple of stereo speakers, this type of natural sound can be achieved by tuning the frequency response to have a marginal downward slope from bass to the treble, with a gradual roll-off below 60Hz and above 10kHz. The linearity helps keep the timbre intact, and the downward slope imparts the warmth and body. The sub-60Hz roll-off is to prevent the IEM from taking a dark tone and the roll-off beyond 10kHz ensures the smoothness. Now, the Phantom does have a warm and smooth sound, with respect to its downward sloped tuning and a treble roll-off. But it did not meet my definition of natural, as it lacked the linearity beyond the 1kHz point. It’s rather a coloured IEM that sounds rich and thick.
I really like how the Phantom is tuned below the 1kHz mark. The bass is linear and well balanced between the sub and mid bass, so neither overpowers the other. It gives equal weightage to sub-bass rumbles and mid-bass punches. While it may not be a very powerful bass, the bass is not as weak as on the Zeus. Of course, Zeus might display better technicalities in the bass, but Phantom finds a better balance when it comes to power vs technicality. The result is one of the well done BA bass that doesn’t always grab your attention like how IEMs such as LegX or U12 do. Although I describe the Phantom as warm, the warmth exists more in the midrange than in the bass, so there is no issues of bloated bass. The pervasive warmth in Phantom’s sound is more a result of sufficient upper-mids and shelved down upper-treble than a bump in the lower-mids. The warmth and thickness provides weight and emotion to male vocals and lower-mid instruments. But the lack of sufficient presence in the upper-mids, makes female vocals and instruments such as violins and pianos, sound wrong and lacking in melody.
So when talking about how the Phantom performs in terms of timbre, it comes down to the type of instrument, as depending on where the majority of the overtones of the instruments or notes reside, the timbre of the instrument could be right or wrong. Following the upper-mids, treble starts off with a lower-treble peak. But soon after the peak, the treble is shelved down quite abruptly instead of gradually. This uneven tuning above the 1kHz impacts the overall coherency of the IEM. The lower treble peak does help add definition and articulation, so the mid-range notes don’t sound too blunt or soft. But the peak is a bit overdone, to compensate for the lack of upper-mids and treble. As a consequence, this peak can become fatiguing/harsh overtime, especially if the recording has a lot of energy in the lower treble region. While the lower treble peak tries to restore clarity in the presentation, it is unable to compensate for the lack of upper-mids and therefore the IEM is void of mid-range balance and thus results in lack of transparency, or in Head-Fi terms, it sounds veiled.
On the non-tonal aspects, Phantom scores quite well in some aspects, and performs below average in some. For example it does depth, layering and imaging precision very well compared to some of its competition, it falls short in dynamics, width and separation and dynamics. Because this is a thick sounding IEM, the lack of sufficient width leads to congestion in busy passages. So what you have is a stage that is cube shaped with good depth but average width. While this type of soundstage provides excellent focus on instruments on the sides, it falls short when it comes to conveying the spatial cues. But like its older brother Zeus, it manages to get the imaging quite precise.