Empire Ears Hero Review: Skewed Potential

Review written by @Precogvision

Preface

Empire Ears - from highly questionable IEMs like the Wraith to surprisingly good, if not niche, IEMs like the Valkyrie and Legend X, you never know what they’ve got cooking. When they announced a new wave of products hitting their lineup, I’ll admit that my attention went to their new flagship, the Odin. But not everyone can afford to drop $3400 on an IEM - heck, I know I can’t. Enter the Hero, their 1DD/3BA model that clocks in at $1349. While still far from being cheap, the Hero promises groundbreaking performance for its price bracket. I’ll be taking a look at whether the Hero delivers, and possibly, if it has what it takes to play with the big boys at a fraction of the cost. 

This unit was loaned by Headphones.com for review and will be returned at the end of the review period. As always, what follows are my honest thoughts and opinions to the best of my ability.

Source and Driveability

  • All critical listening was done off of an iBasso DX160 with lossless FLAC files. I used the stock cable and Final E eartips the Hero came with. 
  • The Hero is very easy to drive, and you shouldn’t have trouble powering it off of mobile sources. 
  • My music genres of preference include the following: Country music, K-Pop/J-Pop, EDM, and instrumental scores. 

The Tangibles

The Hero comes nested in foam cut-out with a slide-out tray underneath that contains more accessories: 

  • Alpha-IV, 4-core cable w/ 26AWG UPOCC Litz Copper
  • Empire Pandora Case
  • Empire Cleaning Cloth
  • Empire Cleaning Tool
  • Final Audio Type E Tips - SS, S, M, L, LL
Empire Ears Hero in-ear monitor | headphones.com

The Hero itself is fairly lightweight, and Empire’s usual attention to detail is present with a seamless plate-to-shell fit. The faceplate itself has a more muted aesthetic, although I do see some small hints of glitter infused. And hey, at least you won’t have to worry about your expensive IEMs getting stolen! Although I had no issues with fit or comfort, the Hero’s a larger IEM, and that should be a fair consideration if you have smaller ears. 

Moving to the cable, truthfully, much of my concern with cables is predicated on their practical use. A heavy, ridiculously braided cable doesn’t mean much to me if it makes it cumbersome to use the IEM; after all, an IEM is intended to be used in a portable capacity. The Hero’s cable is cool, it reminds me a lot of the Effect Audio cables. Something to note is that the pins don’t quite sit flush with the IEM, and there’s a tiny bit exposed. Not a big deal, but it does trigger my OCD. 

I’ve noted this in a previous review, but I like Empire Ear’s hockey-puck case a lot. It’s on the heavier side, but dang, the thing is bulletproof. Decent threading, a silicon interior for easy cleaning if necessary, plus you can custom engrave something on the outside lid if you buy it separately. 

In general? Nice, quality accessories and solid packaging. If there’s one thing Empire Ears knows how to do, it’s their presentation. 

Sound Analysis

Empire Ears has never been one to shy away from bolder tunings, and the Hero mostly bears no exception. It’s not quite as aggressive as some of their past work; however, make no mistake that this is a fun, V-shape tuning with an extra emphasis on the higher frequencies. 

Bass

The Hero utilizes Empire Ear’s proprietary Weapon IX+ dynamic driver; incidentally, I had my first run-in with this driver listening to their Valkyrie IEM. While I was impressed with its level of slam, it was clearly lacking some finesse in the attack, and the decay, while terrifically drawn-out, led to slight time-domain inconsistency with the rest of the IEM. So has the Hero fixed these issues? 

Well, yes and no. Coherency is (still) mostly non-existent and I think that the attack could be a lot cleaner than it is. However, subbass quantity has been slightly lowered from the Valkyrie - the Hero is still a very bassy IEM - and the absurd decay function neutered some too. This does result in a more controlled response to my ears. And luckily, the subwoofer’s sheer ability to push air hasn’t been touched, as I’ve heard few IEMs, if any, that can match it here. While still far from perfect, I find the Hero’s bass to be great for my excessive tastes. If you want visceral bass, to feel that slam and texture, look no further. 

Empire Ears Hero in-ear monitor | headphones.com

Midrange 

The Hero’s midrange leans towards more textured with a slight dip to the lower-midrange, followed by a fairly aggressive tilt to the upper-midrange. Alas, this is where some tonal quirks start presenting themselves with the Hero’s tuning. On all of my usual test tracks for sibilance, such as Taeyeon’s “Feel So Fine'' and Eric Church’s “Hell on the Heart,” the Hero’s anything but fine; rather, it’s hell on the ears. Sorry - couldn’t resist. Granted, there is sibilance inherently present on these tracks, but the Hero exacerbates it a good deal, frequently dragging out note prefixes and suffixes with an unpleasant poignancy. 

Let’s see, here’s some more critiques - mostly stuff that has to do with the intangible side of things:

  • The lower midrange dip doesn’t help matters with my predilection for country music. It’s a shame as I do like that type of upper-midrange tilt, and I think the Hero just takes it too far here. 
  • The midrange’s timbre lacks note density and clashes poorly with the Hero’s aggressive presentation. A prime example of dreaded “BA” timbre if I’ve ever heard it. This makes the transition from the DD all the more obvious in tandem with the subwoofer’s bombtastic slam.
  • And despite the perceived clarity the upper-midrange tilt brings, it often sounds less resolving than it should. I’m led to wonder whether what I’m hearing is note texture, or rather, transients that lack control and are smearing against one another overzealously. 

To be fair, these are all minor nitpicks that are to be expected at this price point. However, it stands that the Hero isn’t exactly punching above its weight here, and I’m left a bit miffed by what could’ve been. 

Highs

And yikes. There’s no way around it, the Hero is a very bright IEM. I hear a strong peak that carries throughout the lower and mid treble regions, putting a disproportionate emphasis on stick impact. As for the quality of said treble, unfortunately it likewise leans to the more uncontrolled side of things, diving into outright harshness at times. Leading hits have a tendency to randomly pop out of the mix; it’s all a bit jarring to say the least. And mind you, this is with the stock Final E tips - tips that I’ve found to kill the highs more than any other silicons.

I did build tolerance for the Hero’s upper frequency harshness with extended listening, but make no mistake that it was always present. Indeed, I suspect that this will be the most polarizing aspect of the Hero’s sound, and it dictated my listening more than I would’ve liked. But hey, if you enjoy a more aggressive, dirty treble response then this might be right up your alley. 

Empire Ears Hero in-ear monitor | headphones.com

Technical Performance 

This is a surprisingly technical IEM given its tonal balance. The most interesting thing to me, though, is how it manages to be so technical. For example, while detail retrieval is a separate matter, pure resolution is certainly a standout. The upper-midrange tilt in tandem with the elevated treble, as much as I’m not a fan of it, no doubt boosts perceived clarity. But this isn’t the only aspect with which the Hero manages to shift what I would otherwise consider a flaw to its advantage. 

In terms of imaging, the Hero falls within the vast majority of IEMs; that is to say, decidedly average. It’s fairly sonic-walled with some minor outward diffusal of the image. Furthermore, as I just alluded to, I think the Hero’s detail retrieval is somewhat dubious at times: Positional cues and layering are slightly above average; however, the Hero has a tendency to border on congestion due to its warm, timbral coloration and more confined staging. This is, of course, helped in no part by the Hero’s bold presentation which seems predicated on shoving everything in the listener’s face. However, there’s a caveat here. This triple-whammy of sorts gives the Hero a unique flavor, and if there’s one thing I can’t knock, it’s that the Hero has engagement factor. 

Similarly, the Hero has some interesting dynamics. Its macro-transitions skew to the slower side of things; they’re not the smoothest and are almost chunky in nature. It is scaling said shifts though. And as a result, while the Hero’s dynamics might not pop in the best way, there’s good dynamic contrast which complements the aforementioned bold presentation. All things considered? Love it or hate it for how it gets the job done, I wouldn't hesitate to say the Hero’s both a fairly dynamic and cohesive IEM.

Select Comparisons

64 Audio Nio: Not the fairest of comparisons, as the Nio does clock in at a few hundred extra. In general, you can expect the Nio to have a more smooth, laidback tonality while the Hero is a much more aggressive IEM. Depending on the module you have in the Nio, you can achieve similar bass quantities to the Hero. Both have good texture, rumble, although I do find the Nio to have more nuance while the Hero is more focused on dynamic slam. Their midrange and treble responses are also polar opposites. The Nio is warmer, more lush with its vocals while the Hero has a more edgy, crisp quality to its transients. In the treble, the Nio is more laidback, controlled, while the Hero is messier, brighter. The Nio is the safer IEM on paper and more pleasing to my ears in the intangibles.

Campfire Solaris 2020: This is probably one of the Hero’s most direct competitors, at least for its price bracket. To start with, I’m not the biggest fan of Solaris 2020’s bass; the texture and decay are very BA-like to my ears, and the Hero comes out the clear winner here despite being less controlled. Moving to the midrange, the Solaris 2020 has more noteweight to the lower-mids, so if you like male vocals, this might be the way to go. The Hero has an advantage in the upper-midrange, particularly in perceived clarity and note definition; I find the Solaris 2020 to bloat with female vocals. The Solaris 2020 has the better treble response to my ears. It’s a bit splashy at times; however, a good deal more controlled than the Hero’s which I can only describe as excessive. 

Intangibly, I don’t find the Solaris 2020 to be the most pleasing IEM. While you do get much more holographic imaging than the Hero, there’s a mix-match of note textures throughout the Solaris 2020’s frequency response that bothers the critic in me a good deal. Both are warmer, more musical IEMs. Really, it's a game of trade-offs between these two, and I think it’ll mostly come down to personal preference. 

Empire Ears Valkyrie: The Valkyrie takes an even more aggressive V-shaped tuning. To this effect, there’s a good deal more subbass quantity as well as decay to the Valkyrie’s bass albeit it being less controlled. While the Valkyrie’s midrange doesn’t suffer from sibilance like the Hero, it comes with its own set of quirks: Vocals are paper-thin and tend to get lost in its boosted bass and treble. Oh yeah, treble-wise, I think the Valkyrie strikes a better balance. On top of having less quantity, the Valkyrie’s extra bass actually helps to balance out those upper frequencies. While the Hero might be more balanced on paper, due to its midrange and treble quirks, it’s really a toss-up between the two of them for me.  

Empire Ears Hero in-ear monitor | headphones.com

The Verdict

I’m well aware that this review comes off as somewhat harsh; however, recall that the Hero promises “flagship levels of performance without the flagship admission”. If it wants to play with the big boys, then it’ll be assessed accordingly. 

So what’s the problem here? Well, the dichotomy between its upward skewed tonality and decent macrodynamics puts the Hero in a weird spot for my preferences. On one hand, I honestly can’t stand it on some tracks. It’s a disturbing cross between being engaging and fatiguing that alludes to something less than cohesive. Sure, said factors go hand-in-hand to an extent, but you can have your cake and eat it. The proof is in the pudding, as I do enjoy the Hero quite a bit on tracks that don’t play as much with treble. Like so, I’m hungry, and unfortunately, the Hero just doesn’t have what it takes to sate my palette.

In this reviewer’s opinion, Empire Ears would’ve had a very solid entry for the Hero’s price point if they’d simply dialed the treble back a notch - okay, more like a couple notches. As it stands, like most of the Empire Ears IEMs, I find that the Hero plays within a more limited niche. It is not a good all-rounder in any sense, and there’s reservations one should have going into it. But the Hero is far from being bad, and again, I can’t knock the Hero for having character. This is one of those few instances of which I think the marketing, “a renunciation of rules, preconceptions and everything that’s expected from it” mostly lines up with what you’re getting. For those the Hero does suit, it will likely do so nicely. It certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s surprisingly technical too. 

-Precogvision

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