By Andrew Park (@Resolve)
Both IEMs were provided on loan for evaluation by headphones.com
I recently had the opportunity to do a high end IEM comparison, and the 64 Audio U12T blew me away, redefining for me what I thought was possible with balanced armature IEMs. The U12T was unequivocally the best IEM I had heard up until that point. Needless to say, 64 Audio has now been on my radar more than ever before.
This time around I've been able to evaluate the Tia Trió, a $2300 hybrid IEM that was originally going to get a review all on its own, until a Community Forum member pointed out that the Trió has a very similar tuning to the Empire Ears Legend X. As it happens, the legend X was next on my list, and so I thought why not do them both at once to see how they compare. This is also a hybrid driver IEM, and not only does it have a similar tonality, it's also the same price. The question is, which one will come out on top? In my mind, there is a winner.
It should be mentioned that hybrid driver IEMs generally use dynamic drivers for bass frequencies, and both of these do that, with the Legend X even using 2 of them to handle the bass. But the main benefit to using dynamic drivers is that they generally have higher excursion capabilities to impart the kind of punch and slam quality that makes those frequencies a lot more fun. Contrast this with pure balanced armature driver IEMs, which generally aren't able to provide that same sense of impact (with the exception of the U12T).
These days the bass and treble focused sound signature isn't exclusive to more consumer-oriented headphones anymore (especially when you consider currently popular music genres). Those of us looking for the absolute pinnacle of technical performance can still enjoy our music with this kind of 'V-shaped' tonality. Therefore, the outcome of this comparison comes down to the following important question:
Which IEM does a better job of implementing the hybrid design for this kind of sound signature?
SpecsEmpire Ears Legend X
- Drivers - 7 Proprietary Drivers, Hybrid Design (2 W9 Subwoofers, 2 Mid, 1 Mid-High, 1 High, 1 Super High)
- Impedance - 14 ohms @ 1kHz
- Sensitivity - 102dB @ 1kHz, 1mW
- Cable - 26AWG UPOCC Litz Copper Cable, Handcrafted by Effect Audio
- Carrying case - Yes
- Price $2299
64 Audio Tia Trió
- Drivers - 2 precision BA drivers, 1 dynamic driver (1 tia high, 1 high-mid, 1 dynamic mid/low)
- Sensitivity - 104db @1kHZ @1mw
- Impedance - 5.5 +.5/-1.5 Ω from 10Hz – 20kHz
- Carrying case - Yes
- Price - $2299
Build, Design & Fit
Both IEMs fit me perfectly, and while I like the design for both, I find that the Legend X nails the sleek yet understated design and styling that I love: slick black rounded edges with the gold winged Empire Ears logo across the front. Not only does it look fantastic, it also feels sturdy and premium without any edges or separate pieces to it. The Tia Trió leans more towards to understated side of things, but it also feels solid without any jagged edges, with just a single seem where the two pieces connect.
For the cable, the Legend X is the clear winner. It uses an Effect Audio Litz Copper Cable, and while I'm not particularly interested in how this contributes to sonic qualities, I absolutely love this cable for both its ergonomics and aesthetics. It's light, tangle-free, and everything down to the connectors looks and feels premium. The 64 Audio Tia Trió once again is on the understated side by contrast, with a simple black cable. It does the job just fine but it doesn't impart the same convenience that the Legend X does.
Winner: Legend X
In general, both IEMs exceeded my expectations. It should be noted that while these are expensive, flagship products, for most listeners it should be obvious why they cost as much as they do. With that said, they both have different strengths and weaknesses for technical performance. It's also clear that while both IEMs have a similar tonality, they are each developed with a different sonic philosophy in mind, and this shows up in the technical performance as well.
Both IEMs have some unreal detail retrieval capabilities - much more than my go-to Campfire Andromeda. For textural nuances, structural definition of the images, and surgical precision, they're both excellent. The Tia Trió in my mind has slightly better detail retrieval for treble at around 8.5khz, where the Legend X exhibits a more etch, coming across with a more aggressive sound, but for the rest of the treble they're about the same. For bass, I have to give the edge to the Legend X though, again not by a lot. As we'll see though, bass performance is something I prefer on the Trió - it's just that for isolating textural nuance and detail for lower frequencies, I have an easier time doing that with the Legend X.
Speed is excellent for both IEMs, perhaps more noticeably fast and tight on the Trió. The legend X performs well throughout most of the frequency range, however it suffers from lack of tightness and control in the bass. This may sound a bit strange because I just said that the Legend X has better bass detail, but the Legend X is also noticeably more elevated in the bass and obscures the mids a bit around 200hz. This causes it to lose some of the perceived immediacy of tightness and control that the Trió has. The Tia Trió's ability to stay tight and controlled for bass frequencies in spite of its bass emphasis is a truly addictive quality, and something I don't find all that often.
Winner: Tia Trió
With the two W9 dynamic drivers handling bass frequencies, the Legend X slams harder than anything I've ever heard. When first evaluating the Tia Trió I had naively thought to myself "does anything hit harder than this?". Remember, the Trió also uses a dynamic driver to handle the bass, so it also hits with authority. Moving to the Legend X once again demonstrates something new with IEMs - a new level of excursive capability for bass response. After hearing the Sony IER-Z1R at a meet, I was impressed with the bass slam and impact as well. But I don't remember it hitting as hard as this. The one downside though again is that due to the lack of bass control, the Legend X's bass slam and punch characteristics are overshadowed by the bass taking over the rest of the frequency response a bit.
Winner: Legend X
Stage & Imaging
IEMs don't generally impress me for stage all that much, and neither of these change that trend. There's only so much that can be done with devices that are meant to protrude into the ear canal. The Tia Trió is well-defined for its imaging laterally and across the front, without any noticeable gaps - but it's still a fairly intimate and "in-your-head" experience. Nothing out of the ordinary for in-ears. The Legend X, however, provides a unique sense of space that envelopes the listener in sound a bit. In some ways it reminds me of that "all around me" feeling I get from my main over-ear headphone the ZMF Verite. It's as if there's another layer of depth that isn't quite there with the Trió. Importantly, the Legend X also does a better job of surgical precision imaging, with slightly better instrument separation.
Winner: Legend X
Both IEMs exhibit a certain amount of balanced armature timbre. For anyone wondering what this is, it's a kind of metallic smearing effect that can potentially obscure details. For the Trió, I hear it most noticeably for piano recordings, but more for strings with the Legend X in the treble. Neither are particularly bad offenders in this area though - certainly nothing like the Drop X Zeus IV or many other pure balanced armature driver IEMs.
Normally this is where measurements would show up, however the MiniDSP EARS rig I'm currently using is particularly inconsistent and inaccurate with IEMs. This is partially because the ear-canal isn't shaped to anything (it's just a hole to a microphone), and even though the compensation is meant to take this into account, I still find the results unrealistic. I will be using a more accurate in-ear coupler soon.
While both IEMs have a similar V-shaped tonality, they actually don't sound all that similar when compared side by side. The Legend X is considerably more elevated for bass frequencies, and it also elevates into the lower mids around 200hz, while the Tia Trió thankfully doesn't. This causes the Legend X to not sound as tight and well-controlled in the bass, while the Tia Trió is able to retain that quality. Still, the Legend X also has incredible texture and detail capability for the bass, so while the elevation encroaches on the mids a bit, it's still possible to isolate details and instrument lines. The mids for the Tia Trió are also not as withdrawn as they are on the Legend X. I find that the Tia Trió only really dips around 1khz, while the Legend X is recessed all the way from 400hz-1khz relative to the bass and treble.
For treble frequencies (5khz and up), both IEMs bring back ample energy to appropriately compensate for the bass elevation, however because of the Legend X's increased bass response, it needs to add a bit more. My one complaint with the Legend X's treble is that there's a slight elevation at 5khz (just like other Empire Ears IEMs I've tried), and this can occasionally cause cymbals to sound ever so slightly compressed. The tonal focus for the primary hit of the cymbal is elevated over the splash quality, and this causes cymbal hits to not sound quite as resolving. Think of what happens when you elevate 400hz to 2khz by 5-10dB - it causes your music to sound muffled and veiled, because the tonal focus for instruments that fall within this frequency range is elevated above their resonant harmonics and overtones. Effectively the "ringing out" quality of instrument tones is overpowered by the initial tone, and this leads to a muted and compressed kind of sound. Now imagine that same quality for cymbal hits, and that's what I get ever so slightly with the Legend X - but it's also much more subtle than a 5dB boost.
But it also has to be said that the Legend X has some of the most refined treble of any of their lineup, I just find that the Tia Trió does it a bit better. Specifically, the Tia Trió impresses me most with how it's able to handle the consonant range at 8.5khz. It's not over-emphasized, but it still provides enough energy to be exciting. When I worry about harsh sibilants ('S', 'T', and 'F' sounds for vocals), it's usually because they're grainy, etched, or over-emphasized to give the false perception of detail. With the Tia Trio, that range is ever so slightly forward, but because of its highly capable 'Tia' driver, it's still incredibly smooth without any grain or etch to it. This is an important quality that I find immediately recognizable, and should be appropriately praised - especially within an audio landscape for V-shaped equipment where an over-emphasis is all too common.
In any case, I find the overall tonal balance for the Tia Trió more well-refined and more mature than that of the Legend X. It's as if the Tia Trió is going for a well-calculated and carefully refined tuning, with a balanced frequency response and tonality as the ultimate goal, where as the Legend X is just a great way to demonstrate groundbreaking new technology for bass frequencies in IEMs. And while the end result is good for both, it's clear that the Legend X has a less cautious implementation of the 'V-shape' tonality, and 64 Audio were a bit more reserved calculated in its implementation for the Tia Trio.
Winner: Tia Trió
The Legend X's bass emphasis makes it a good choice for electronic and modern genres (EDM, rock, pop, hip hop), however the Tia Trió is also ideal for those genres. On the other hand, the Legend X is not as well-suited to warmer music like jazz because the bass elevation often gets in the way and crowds out everything else. My test tracks include a wide range of genres, but when I got to the jazz section with artists such as Molly Johnson and Patricia Barber, using the Legend X was like doubling down on the warm tones that style of music already exhibits. The Tia Trió, by contrast, is more versatile for a wider range of genres. It's not ideal for jazz, classical and acoustic, because once again it does have a bit of a 'V-shaped' sound signature, but it's still capable for those genres - and I'm especially impressed with how its bass emphasis doesn't lead to a bloated or loose sound. The Trió bass retains tonal definition even for tracks that have that warmer, thicker sound on their own.
While they trade blows, for me the 64 Audio Tia Trió comes out on top. It does everything I enjoy about hybrid driver IEMs, including excellent bass slam and definition, while at the same time demonstrating a carefully refined tuning. The Legend X does outperform the Tia Trió in a number of categories, such as stage and dynamic impact, but I find the Tia Trió to be the more mature implementation of that fun 'V-shaped' sound signature. It's has tighter and more controlled bass, even if the Legend X hits harder overall, strong performance across the board, and it has a more balanced tonality overall. Ultimately this makes it the more enjoyable IEM for my tastes, however for anyone looking for strict technical ability in an IEM, for certain genres, or with a willingness to add a touch of EQ, there's still an interesting argument to be made for the Legend X.
Winner: Tia Trió
Watch the video review here:
- Andrew Park (@Resolve)