Empire Ears Odin Review - Is this the best in-ear monitor in 2020?
Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
When I think of Empire Ears IEMs I think of two things: really good technical performance, and somewhat ‘flavor’ oriented tunings. Admittedly, I haven’t heard all of them, but for every one that I have heard so far, they seem to be designed deliberately to best suit a specific audience. For those who really love massive overbearing bass, the Legend X may be exactly what they’re looking for. For those who want a much leaner, brighter tuning, the Zeus IV comes to mind (now being produced by Drop), and for anyone looking for a V-shaped sound with bass and treble spice, the Valkyrie, Bravado and Hero IEMs seem to fit the bill. I can safely say that I’m not in any of these more niche audiences for the kind of tuning I like, and I think I’m a bit more typical in my taste. Unfortunately this has meant that I haven’t yet been able to find an Empire Ears IEM that’s for me, despite having owned several of them in the past.
Because of this, the big question on my mind when evaluating the new Odin flagship, that comes in at a truly staggering price of $3399, is whether or not this is finally an Empire Ears IEM that has the kind of balanced and agreeable tuning that will appeal to a wider audience. Is it something that’s going to appeal to more than just those of us looking for that specific flavor? Let’s find out.
- 11 Proprietary Drivers, Tribrid Design
- 2 Next Generation W9+ Subwoofers - Sub-Bass, Bass
- 5 Proprietary Balanced Armature Drivers - 2 Low-Mid, 2 Mid, 1 Mid-High
- 4 Premium Electrostatic Drivers - 2 High, 2 Super-High
- 7-Way synX Crossover Network
- EIVEC - Empire Intelligent Variable Electrostatic Control Technology
- A.R.C. Resonance Mitigation Technology
- Impedance: 3 Ohms @ 1kHz
- Sensitivity: 108dB @ 1kHz, 1mW
- Bespoke Stormbreaker UPOCC Copper Litz Cable, Quad Conductor Dual Gauge Design
- iFi iDSD Micro Black Label
- iBasso DX160
- iBasso DX220
- A&K SR15 (now updated to SR25)
- Chord Mojo
Build, Design & Comfort
The Empire Ears Odin uses their typical Acrylic shell design, which I personally like a lot. This isn’t something that’s going to show chips over time like certain other painted IEM shell designs. I also find the Odin to be quite comfortable as a result. There are no jagged edges or anything to create issues with the outer ear, and while the nozzle is slightly on the larger side I don’t have any issues getting a good fit and seal.
For aesthetics, the Odin is admittedly a bit much for my taste. It’s extremely eye-catching, and I generally prefer a more understated look. I suspect the aesthetic design was inspired by Norse mythology in keeping with its namesake ‘Odin’, revealing the multi-colored blending of the colors of the Bifrost. Keeping in mind that IEMs are also used portably out in public, maybe there will be those of us who really love the flashy look, and this could serve as ear jewelry as well.
For accessories, you get a hard carrying case - which I typically find to be a bit big and heavy to carry around. I much prefer softer cases, but I imagine it will be well-protected. The Odin also comes with a number of tips of different sizes, and I find these to generally work quite well. You won’t have to worry about getting aftermarket tips, comfortable and easy to get a good fit. The Odin’s cable has a 2.5mm termination, and uses the 2-pin style connectors. It’s lightweight, tangle free, looks and feels great, and it’s not microphonic. My only criticism is that the splitter is a bit on the large side, looking a bit like an old timey bolo tie.
The Odin uses an 11 driver ‘tribrid’ configuration, with 2 W9+ dynamic driver subwoofers for bass frequencies, 5 balanced armature drivers for the mids and upper mids, as well as 4 ‘estat’ type drivers for treble frequencies. Keep in mind that these aren’t the same as electrostatic transducers in headphones that require an energizer to drive. You can drive the Odin off any normal output or digital audio player, you’ll just need an adapter if you’re running the 2.5mm cable, or use a DAP with a 2.5mm balanced output.
At the moment, I can’t think of another IEM that I’ve heard with a better sense of overall image clarity and detail retrieval than the Empire Ears Odin. Yes, there are others that get close for detail, like the 64 Audio’s U12t or tia Fourte, but to my ear, at best they trade blows. The 64 Audio IEMs may have slightly better detail for treble frequencies where they make use of their tia BA drivers, and I do think those are probably a bit better than the estats Empire Ears have employed in the Odin.
But for bass and mids, the Odin has the edge for me. Now I think this is tricky because for many listeners, detail is more easily recognizable in higher frequencies - or at perhaps better stated - it’s easier to identify details in sounds that token higher frequencies, and for that, I am still willing to say that the U12t does a slightly better job. But once you start to key in on that same quality of image clarity for mids it becomes all the more interesting. Because even the Odin’s estats perform well enough that they don’t let down the excellent treble balance that’s also there. Needless to say, for anyone wanting the sharper, and more analytic treble detail (note - not as it relates to overall treble level or energy), there really is no substitute for the U12t in my opinion, but for everything else, I lean towards the Odin, and its treble detail is still good enough.
Speed & Dynamics
The Odin is well controlled, having a typical kind of speed you get from a multi-BA style IEM. It’s perhaps not as noticeable on the estats in the upper frequencies but once again I don’t find any noticeable shortcomings here.
The Odin also has an excellent sense of punch and impact, largely due to the dynamic driver in the bass. While not as bass elevated as many of Empire Ears’ other IEMs, the Odin still hits with authority, and importantly this is enhanced slightly due to where the bass comes down. We’ll get into this more with frequency response, but essentially the slight bass shelf comes down early enough that when your music tokens those lower frequencies you get a satisfying sense of impact. The 64 Audio U12t also has good dynamics - especially for an all BA design - but the Odin is still a bit more satisfying.
Soundstage & Imaging
The Odin’s sense of space is excellent for an IEM. I typically find this to be the biggest weakness in IEMs, and while it’s not the most spacious sound I’ve ever heard in an IEM, the presentation has this kind of all-encompassing and enveloping quality that I found was similar with the Legend X. The other interesting part of this is how precise the imaging and instrument placement is. I find this does lend some benefits to overall image clarity as well, but importantly the Odin’s separation ability is some of the best I’ve ever heard.
To describe the in-head localization, I find lateral definition to be slightly better than average, with front left and front right also being very well defined. The center image is still a little bit closer to me, but this is also because it’s not trying to fake any additional sense of space with tuning tricks in the upper midrange like you get with the Campfire Ara. There also seems to be, strangely, a sense of verticality for front left and front right with the Odin that I don’t typically find. On some tracks where the drums are on the bottom level, I hear certain instruments layered above as they come in from the sides. This could also be seen as a sense of depth that the Odin is able to deliver as well, where you can peer farther into the musical layers. It’s an enjoyable quality I find.
For material or transducer-related timbre, the Odin does have a slight sense of ‘BA timbre’ to it in the mids. This may be unavoidable. In my testing, this quality may be correlated with a higher level of 3rd harmonic distortion that typically shows up with BA transducers, and the Odin is no exception to that. This quality is most noticeable in the midrange around 1khz.
Thankfully the Odin doesn’t have any timbre issues for bass and treble though so overall it’s not that noticeable - at least not more so than other high end multi-BA configurations.
Frequency Response & Tonality
The following is how the Empire Ears Odin measures on the GRAS RA0402 Coupler. Keep in mind that this coupler dampens the resonance at 8khz that shows up with the older 711 couplers to make treble frequencies more readable. This means we can expect slightly more 8khz energy than what this coupler shows, but slightly less 8khz energy than what older 711 couplers show. The truth is likely somewhere in between.
The Odin’s bass level is very close to perfect for my taste. It’s slightly elevated but not to a level where it drowns out anything else in the mix. I think if you listen to music that doesn’t fully token sub-bass frequencies, the Odin may even come across as bass light. But when listening to anything that does reach down to 30hz, you feel the slight bump there.
Interestingly the Odin doesn’t have as strong of a bass shelf, meaning it doesn’t cut down towards the mids as strongly. I tend to think there are two ways of doing this, one is to have a strong bass shelf that elevates in the sub-bass and then cuts down strongly around 120hz, or you can have a more gradual slope, with the overall bass level being not quite as high. The Odin takes the latter approach, and this means that it doesn’t lose out on body in the lower midrange as significantly as something like the Thieaudio Monarch does (which takes the former approach).
Moving up into the midrange, the Odin is a bit mid-foward starting around 1.5khz all the way up to the upper mids around 3khz. I was worried about this becoming a bit glaring or shouty, but no matter what music I threw at the Odin, I was pleasantly surprised at how inoffensive this slight midrange bloom was. I think for some electric guitar recordings there’s a risk it could become fatiguing but I wasn’t able to find anything that made it so. Similarly, vocals are slightly forward in the mix with a moderate emphasis to their fundamental tones, but not to the point of sounding compressed. In short, the Odin’s mids have a kind of tonal richness that’s just on the edge of being too much in the upper mids, but I still find it to be on the right side of this.
The Odin’s treble is a bit relaxed in contrast to the mids, but it’s still well-extended and resolving, and I think this is important given the aforementioned upper mid emphasis. It retains excellent tonal balance throughout the treble, never sounding sibilant nor compressed. Remembering Empire Ears’ previous flagship the Wraith, the Odin has quite a bit more treble energy than that one. So for anyone who was worried by any mention of a softer, more relaxed treble, you can be confident that the Odin is nothing like the Wraith in that regard.
Overall, the Odin’s tonal balance is exactly what I was hoping for. It’s what I consider to be a generally neutral tuning with a slight emphasis to the upper midrange. This makes it neutral sounding with just the tiniest hint of character, avoiding perhaps the 'dullness' of neutral, while still retaining all of its excellent clarity that's underscored by appropriate balance between fundamental tone and resonant harmonics. In short, this is definitively the best and most balanced tuning of any Empire Ears IEM I’ve heard to date. It’s just a pity that it’s at such an extreme price tag.
Thieaudio Monarch - $730
At the moment, the Monarch (and Clairvoyance) are gaining quite a bit of hype - deservedly so - largely because of how well they do for the price. At the moment, I’m able to compare the Monarch to the Odin and I’ve come to a few conclusions. While the Odin is technically superior in terms of detail retrieval, the Monarch does impressively well at instrument separation and the ability to hold everything together during complex passages. In this regard, it’s quite similar to the Odin at a much more modest price.
For tonal balance differences, the Monarch is considerably more bass elevated, with a much stronger bass shelf that comes down around 120hz. This means it’s a bit more lean in the transition to the lower mids, sacrificing a bit of body and richness for its excellent slam and impact in the bass. It’s a tradeoff, but in general, I find the Odin does have a more agreeable tonal balance, being slightly more refined in the treble as well. With that said, for anyone looking for a similar carefully tuned presentation for mids and treble, with a bit more sub-bass definition, the Monarch is an excellent, much less expensive alternative.
64 Audio U12t - $1999
The 64 Audio U12t (12 BA drivers) has so far been my favorite IEM, and so it’s worth asking how the Odin stacks up. For bass and mids I prefer the Odin, but there really is something special about 64 Audio’s tia driver in the treble that makes it a bit more articulate. Still, for overall tonal balance, they’re both excellent. I can see a situation where I’d prefer the U12t, but also a situation where I’d prefer the Odin. The big advantage the Odin has over the U12t is the dynamic drivers in the bass. The U12t actually has a bit more bass, but because of the Odin’s dynamic driver punch and slam, the sense of impact is more enjoyable on the Odin. I’m currently 50/50 on which one I prefer.
64 Audio tia Fourte - $3599
While the Fourte has exceptional technical performance, I do find the Odin to have a more agreeable tonal balance. The Fourte to me sounds like you’re listening in a very specific, spacious room. The Odin, by contrast, sounds like a more neutral presentation that’s also a bit less spacious. I think that’s the key between the two, the Fourte relies on some frequency response related trickery for its space and stage, while the Odin doesn’t make that sacrifice. In the end, the Odin is my pick over the Fourte.
Empire Ears Legend X - $2299
The Legend X is Empire Ears’ bass monster (monstrosity?). It has wonderful technical performance with a spacious presentation, intense slam, and good detail. But the big drawback for me is that the Legend X has a bass shelf that extends way too far up the frequency response. It’s not about bass level here, it’s about where the shelf comes down, and for the Legend X, it just becomes overbearing to my ear. Bassheads may prefer the Legend X, but I much prefer the Odin’s tonal balance. It allows all the rest of the IEM’s technical aspects to come through in a much more clear manner.
I came into this review with the expectation that there would be some flavor or flare on offer, like I’ve been used to with Empire Ears in the past. By contrast, I’m happy to report that the Odin is the best sounding Empire Ears IEM to date, and not just that, this is one of the best sounding IEMs period. The big takeaway in my mind is that this is finally the IEM I’ve been wanting Empire Ears to make, one that doesn’t rely on tricks or hooks to grab attention - one that doesn’t just appeal to listeners looking for a specific flavor of sound, and one that doesn’t compromise on anything. Instead, the Odin is a well-balanced and technically impressive effort that will likely appeal to most listeners.
Having mostly nailed the tonal balance with the Odin, my only hope is that this type of tuning will trickle down to new models at more modest price tags. Maybe it’s easier to market flavor-oriented tunings at different price points, but in my mind they’ve captured a much better and more balanced tuning with the Odin that I think will simply be more appealing to more listeners. Achieving similar tunings at more accessible price tags should be the next challenge.
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