PROS: Rich Male Vocals and Lower Midrange Instruments, Instrument Layering
CONS: Lacks Linearity and Timbral Accuracy After 1kHz
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. Its rather a warm and thick sounding IEM with a focus on lower mids.
I really like how the Phantom is tuned from bass to 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 bass congestion issues. This warmth is not a result of enhanced lower-mids, but rather due to subdued upper-mids. The warmth really help male vocals and instruments like cello to have an alluring presentation. But as the upper-mids lack sufficient quantity, female vocals, violins and pianos don’t sound right.
So when talking about timbre of instruments on the Phantom, it is essential to mention the instrument, as depending on where the majority of the overtones of the instruments 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. This is what is responsible the predominant warm and rich tone on the Phantom, but at the same time, this non-linearity from the upper-mids and onwards is what affects the transparency and timbre of the instruments in the upper registers. 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.
On the non-tonal aspects, Phantom scores above-average in most aspects, but nothing really stands out, except may be the layering. Making full use of the depth in the stage, layering is quite good. But the lateral separation is not outstanding as the stage isn’t very wide. But I do have to mention that, for an IEM with a thick tone, Phantom does not have congestion issues. The stage is cube shaped with good amount of depth, just like on the Zeus. While this type of soundstage provides excellent focus, people who like a vast soundstage may left wanting more space. In fact, the overall presentation is actually quite reminiscent of the Zeus. As a result, the overall placement is also a touch forward and the imaging is excellent.