Note – Before anything, I want to tell you that ESR are very tip dependent and I don’t think the stock Final E-tips pair well for the sound signature. They do provide a comfortable fit but the sound signature is slightly harsh and intense with these on because of its prominent 8kHz peak. In fact, ESR sound way better with foam ear tips, even better if the foam ear tips are squishier. I tried multiple foam ear tips, from Comply to AliExpress T400 ones and they all work well.
The sound analysis is written with regular T400 foam ear tips on the ESR.
Summary – Empire Ears call ESR their flattest monitor targeted for mixing and mastering engineers. But honestly, perception of reference differs as it depends on the school of neutral one considers reference. Is it Diffuse Field Target (DF), Harman Target (HT) or a complete flat line that you consider reference or neutral sounding?
Well, I’m a musician/audio engineer and so for ease of things, my primary and easiest test to decide on how good a reference IEM is, is to compare the overall sound signature to my near-field studio monitors in my studio that I use as reference on a daily basis for my work. Ideally, they are what I’d want a reference IEM to substitute in times when I’m on tour or travelling and can’t carry my monitors (or headphones) along. To give you quick insight, I have an acoustically treated pro-studio room for my recording, mixing and mastering work. My studio monitors are also claibrated for absolute Flat Frequency Response (FFR) using Sonarworks Reference 4. Of course, I don’t expect the IEM to model near-field FFR studio monitors perfectly and so I’m comparing them more idealistically and not as stringently.
Here is how ESR sounds compared to FFR studio monitors as reference along with some Diffuse Field and Harman Target IEMs I have in my possession.
- Bass is nice, tight and impactful (depending on the song’s mix) but has more fullness than reference.
- Lower mids are north of neutral and are fuller sounding than reference and DF/HT-neutral.
- Upper mids are smoother and not as forward, prominent or defined as reference and DF/HT-neutral.
- Lower treble is much more sparkly than reference or DF/HT-neutral.
- Upper treble and air is on the smoother side compared to reference.
Let’s dig in deeper to find out more about ESR as well as how it sounds for casual listening.
Bass – Dua Lipa’s Pretty Please and Cool are nice reference songs indicative of well mixed bass. In that, ESR’s bass character makes bass pop while always keeping it in control. The sub-bass is not as prominent as it is in 64 Audio’s U12t or Moondrop S8 but is tight with nice rumble down low. Mid-bass is well present and the overall bass tonality and timbre are good, though the overall character is fuller than reference/neutral yet fun to enjoy bass playing.
Mids – Lower mids around 250-500Hz are fuller than neutral and so the instrument body is fuller and richer but ESR is still a clean sounding IEM. Upper mids aren’t as forward or prominent as you would expect from a reference IEM. As a result, instruments are not as prominent or sharply defined yet ESR makes up for it with good resolution, which is commendable since it is just a 3 driver config. If you consider a famous reference IEM like Ultimate Ears’ UERM, it’s bass and lower mids were more neutral and not as full while the upper mids were more present and defined relatively to its own lower mids as well as compared to ESR. ESR has a slight tilt towards the lower mids which tilts the mids character to fullness and richness rather than sharper upper mids definition. A bit more bite and crispness in the upper mids would’ve made ESR shine even brighter as a reference IEM. Nevertheless, if you take the reference aspect away, it is surely is a musical IEM which you can use for fun and casual listening.
Treble – ESR achieves its clarity and definition more from its prominent lower treble peak which is around 8kHz. Now even though it adds nice sparkle to the instruments, like UERM’s lower treble peak did too, ESR’s peak is more prominent and that in turn makes the sound signature sound a bit intense and harsh with the stock Final E tips. So, for that I use foam ear tips which reduces the peak enough to balance it out nicely with the rest of the signature, enough for it to not be a problem anymore. There is no sibilance with foam ear tips but is slightly present with Final E tips. ESR’s treble character adds openness and liveliness to its fuller lower mids body and as a result opens up the signature, adding more depth, clarity and definition. Upper treble and air are on the smoother side and ESR could have surely done with better extension up top like the U12t. Because of its treble character, ESR is unforgiving of poor production and recordings but that doesn’t stop it from sounding musical with well produced music.
Soundstage, Imaging, Separation & Resolution.
ESR’s soundstage has a big performance room like sense of space where width is good but height and depth are slightly above average. Imaging is accurate even though instrument definition isn’t the sharpest because of its smoother upper mids. Separation between instruments and resolution for bringing out the details is good, especially for a simple 3 driver setup.
Custom Art Fibae 7 – Custom Art recently introduced special pricing of €990 for universal Fibae 7 stock shell design which puts it in ESR’s competition. Fibae 7 has 7 BA drivers whereas ESR has 3. Fibae 7 is actually tuned closer to Harman Target curve and so it has a more forward and defined upper mids presentation. Fibae 7’s sub-bass shines in isolation because of cleaner lower mids presentation whereas ESR’s bass and lower mids both sound fuller and punchier. ESR’s lower treble is more present which can sometimes come off as harsh whereas Fibae 7 has a natural fall-off starting around 6kHz. Fibae 7’s upper treble has better extension than ESR. Fibae 7 has a bigger soundstage which is wider and deeper. Fibae 7 also has better resolution and instrument definition owning to its 7 drivers and upper mids tuning.
ItsFit Fusion – Fusion is a tri-brid with 1DD+2BA+1 Magnetostatic driver. Fusion is tuned towards a lively and dynamic signature whereas ESR is tuned to be a reference style IEM. Fusion has a dynamic bass presentation with more sub-bass presence. Fusion lower mids are cleaner but positioned slightly behind in the soundstage whereas ESR’s lower mids are fuller and more forwardly presented. Fusion’s upper mids have more definition with an airier feeling whereas ESR’s upper mids are flatter yet resolving. Fusion’s treble makes its signature more lively and exciting whereas ESR’s treble is smoother for the most part except for the singular lower treble peak. Fusion has a wider and deeper soundstage whereas ESR’s expands naturally.
Shozy Pola39 – Pola39 has a config of 1DD+2EST. ESR’s bass has more of BA bass strengths but good impact like a dynamic driver whereas Pola39 flaunts its dynamic driver character with good speed. Lower mids in ESR are fuller whereas Pola39’s are more open and leaner. Pola39’s upper mids are again more open and defined whereas ESR’s are relatively flatter and not as defined. Pola39’s treble is more exciting, open and airy whereas ESR’s remains flat till around 8kHZ but then has a sudden high peak there which adds sparkle but also adds harshness when used with wrong ear tips. Pola39 remains sibilance free mostly and has more air post 10kHz which allows for its unique open signature. ESR’s upper treble is on the smoother side. Pola39’s soundstage is bigger and airier as compared to ESR.
Moondrop S8 – S8 is an 8BA set which is tuned to Moondrop’s version of Harman Target curve called Virtual Diffusion Sound Field (VDSF). As a result, S8 falls in Fibae 7’s category and has a more forward and defined upper midrange character, more neutral lower mids and mid-bass. ESR’s bass is no slouch and has good impact whereas the lower mids are fuller. ESR has more present lower treble whereas S8 sounds smoother and more natural. ESR’s soundstage is little wider whereas S8’s soundstage is deeper. They both have good resolution but S8 has better instrument definition owing to its forward upper midrange character.
So there you go! ESR falls short as a true reference IEM but ends up working well as a musical sounding IEM instead. I know I’m being nitpicky here, but hey, blame it on my trade which involves using reference products on a daily basis for my job. What ESR does well is balance, resolution and coherency but you need to use the right tips to achieve the best balance (or just take my tip and use foam ear tips like I did). $700-1200 price segment has a lot of tough competition, with us having tested a couple of them recently. Even though ESR is just a 3 driver, it does resolution and details well to strongly compete with those IEMs with all its calibre. So, definitely give it a try if you get the chance and if ESR hits close to your preferences.
Gear used for testing and review.
- DAPs – iBasso DX160 and Hiby R6 Pro
- Laptop – Apple Macbook Pro 15″
- Phone – OnePlus 7 Pro
Reference Songs list.
- Normandie – White Flag album
- Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia album
- Dave Matthews – Shake Me Like a Monkey
- Foo Fighters – The Pretender, Best of you & Everlong
- Coldplay – Paradise, Up in flames & Everglow + Everyday Life Album
- Ed Sheeran – Thinking out loud, Bloodstream & Galway Girl
- Chainsmokers – Somebody, Sickboy, This Feeling & Closer
- John Mayer – Slow dancing in a burning room, Stop this Train & Say
- Gavin James – Always & Hearts on fire
- Switchfoot – Meant to live & Dare you to move
- Porcupine Tree – Sound of Muzak, Blackest Eyes & .3
- Our Lady Peace – Do You Like It & Innocent
- Linkin Park – Papercut, Somewhere I belong & Talking to myself
- Maroon 5 – She will be loved, Payphone & Lost stars
- Lifehouse – All in all & Come back down
- Breaking Benjamin – Diary of Jane
- Karnivool – Simple boy & Goliath
- Dead Letter Circus – Real you
- I Am Giant – Purple heart, City limits & Transmission
- Muse – Panic station
- James Bay – Hold back the river