Empire Ears ESR MKII

Empire Ears ESR MKII is a hybrid IEM, consisting of triple balanced armatures and dual electrostatics, alongside a completely reengineered 4-way synX crossover. It is priced at $1099.

Introduction

Let’s have a bit of an intro about the brand. The company has been around for close to
7 years. Some of you may know them by their previous moniker “EarWerkz”. In 2015, Jack Vang together with his father, Dean Vang, joined forces to create one of the best IEM manufacturers based in the US. That brand is what we now know as Empire Ears.

Today, I am proud to present to you one of their latest IEMs, “The ESR MKII”.
ESR stands for Empire Ears Studio Reference. The ESR is Empire Ear’s take on what an
In-Ear Studio Monitor should be. To them, this presents the“flattest” rendition of what the recording should sound. The IEM we’re looking at today is the 2nd generation of the model. It now comes equipped with dual EST drivers handling treble duties.

The current ESR MKII comes in two flavours, the universal version at US$1,099 and the custom version at an additional US$200 premium. It’s not cheap per se, but it’s not overly expensive as well. At this price point, the ESR MKII falls into the EP line as its entry-level option. It falls just behind the Phantom as the “middle point” and the Wraith as the flagship.

Since I’ve never heard the original ESR, I am unfortunately unable to give you guys a comparison. However, what I could give you is what has changed from the 1st gen ESR. The 1st gen had a simple 3-way, triple BA driver setup. So, that’s 1 driver for the lows, 1 for the mids, and 1 for the treble. The MKII now comes in a 5 driver configuration with those dual EST drivers handling the super high.

You can read up more about the other tech inside the ESR MKII on Empire Ears website.

Packaging

The ESR MKII was packed in a rather elegant white box. The previous Empire Ears box was black, so this was quite a surprise for me. I believe their new line now comes with this box. This change started with the release of the X Series flagship Odin, and its release companion, the more“budget-friendly” Hero.

Inside the box, we also get the usual accessories: Final E tips, metal case, cleaning cloth, owner’s guide, and the awesome Empire Ears stickers.

The ESR MKII also comes with the new Alpha-IV cable. The cable is still manufactured by Effect Audio. I believe that the cable might be a reworked Effect Audio Ares or Maestro cable. You have the option to pick between 2.5mm balanced or 3.5 single-ended terminations. My review unit comes with the latter. For my reviews, I usually try to stick to the stock cable as that is what the manufacturer had intended for its users to use. Plus, Empire Ears take a lot of time picking cables for their IEMs. It would be a waste not to use theirs.


Design and Build

The IEMs themselves look absolutely stunning with the brushed aluminum faceplates and the silver Winged Empire Ears logo to top it off. The shell is made out of a single acrylic unibody, making the build look seamless and sturdy. I am confident to say that it’ll stand the test of time. It may not be as extremely sturdy as full-metal shells with the likes of the Sony IER-Z1R, but with its lightweight semi-custom shell, it’ll definitely fit a majority of ears better than the Z1R

Fit

For the fit, I feel like Empire Ears had done a great job with how they shaped their new models. I have read that Empire Ears had taken the shell format of the Odin and incorporated that into their“MKII” lineup. This lineup includes the Valkyrie, Bravado, and the ESR that we have here. Now, several people have stated that the shells are quite a bit chonkier compared to their “Asian” counterparts, especially considering the 1st gen Valkyrie was quite a bit thinner in comparison. But with comfortability, seal, and fit, they fit me like how a custom IEM should.

It’s been a documented fact over on Head-Fi that my ears just swallow up even the chonkiest of IEMs (I’m looking at you Layla *wink*). Heck, I am even able to force-fit a few people’s custom IEMs quite comfortably. So fit has never been a big issue with bigger shells. Super long nozzles with thinner shells, however, is a different story (Sorry Lola, but you’ve been hurting me lol). So thankfully, Empire Ears have a“shorter” nozzle on their IEMs. However, a more pronounced “lip” for a more secure fit for eartips would be ideal. Other than that, I’m a huge fan of the overall fit of the ESR MKII. Now we’re finally moving on to the sound section!

Sound

I’ve mentioned earlier that these are Empire Ears’ take on a Studio Reference sound. So have they done it? Do they deliver on that promise? To me, the answer is yes.

The overall sound signature of the ESR MKII does fall in line with their promise of a reference sound. But they’re not “flat” to the point of boredom. Instead, they are neutral with enough warmth and energy to sound great with casual listening as well.

Bass

Alright, let’s start with the bass. In my opinion, the ESR MKII’s bass presentation is just a pinch north of neutral. It gives this section just enough presence and warmth to make it a little less boring for casual listening sessions. The bass goes fairly deep but I do have to say that it isn’t the ESR MKII’s greatest strength. But when the mix calls for it, like with the track ‘All Mine’ by PLAZA, it does deliver decent enough rumble. When it came to bass texture, speed, and control though, it performed well above my expectations. On heavier and meatier metalcore mixes, like the track ‘Coma Blue’ by Annisokay, the bass has never fallen apart with the presentation. This control makes sure you can still hear details in the mix even in the lowest of breakdowns. Drumkicks are quite nasty (in a good way) as well. In this price range, this is a great IEM for mixing drums especially. But for stage monitoring, I still think I’d need more bass energy and presence than what the ESR MKII can offer when I perform. Also, I have to mention that it comes close to the Layla’s bass presentation at around 12 o’clock. However, unlike the Layla, it does not have the option to adjust the bass to the listener’s liking. I’ll elaborate in the comparison section of the review.

Mids

Moving on to the mids!
I still believe this is the ESR MKII’s strongest suit. The overall mids presentation is full-bodied and just has enough thiccness in the lower mids to bring the likes of male vocals enough forwardness to go along with the excellent airiness of female vocals. One of the things I love most about these is that they don’t seem to favour a single vocal registry. I’ll leave the track ‘Cigarette’ by offonoff (Feat. MISO, Tablo) on here for you to checkout. It’s a very chill song having both male (2 actually, offonoff sings, and Tablo raps) and female (MISO has a breathy yet warm vocal tone. I love this type of female vocal tone) vocals and they all sound even in range.
For bigger K-Pop groups like IZ*ONE, consisting of 12 members, the vocal layering sounds amazing on the ESR MKII. I’ve mentioned this and it shocked me during my first initial impressions video. With their song ‘Spaceship’, It made it easier to pinpoint the members’ different voices when they all sing together. The harmonization just sounded that much more revealing, which is excellent for mixing. But would it be my go-to IEM when I listen to my usual vocal-heavy music? Uhh…Unfortunately, no. While it is great at layering, its reference “flat” tuning makes it stellar for pretty much just that. It is great to use for referencing mixes and making sure nothing is out of place, but lacks the sense of air and emotion that some of my other vocal go-to’s can offer.
I’ll be comparing it to some of my vocal-heavy hitters on the comparison section to explain more on what it lacks outside of it being a stellar studio reference monitor. I also have to mention that I’m enjoying how the ESR MKII handles distorted guitars. Acoustic and classical strings sound amazing too, but man, the way electric guitars sound on it is just a joy to listen to. Have a listen to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ song ‘Jump Around’ as an example. If you’re into rock music or metal and you don’t need an overly THICC presentation, the ESR MKII should be on your radar.

Treble

Personally, I think the ESR MKII’s highs are its second strongest suit. It extends well to the highest regions while keeping sibilance in check. They have enough treble energy to not sound dull in this section. Sparkle is present and sounds oh so delicate and never piercing. This energy helps give edge and detail to string harmonics as well. Instruments that fall within this range, such as the mighty TRIANGLE, just sound so satisfying. Like in the song ‘Glass Iro No Natsu’ by Negicco, the triangle in the chorus and the chimes throughout the song gives off such a nice timbre and edge with the ESR MKII. Honestly, I had never noticed that triangle was in the mix before. It may have been there, but it was never presented to me the same way as the ESRMKII.

Soundstage and Imaging

The ESR MKII’s soundstage isn’t exactly the biggest. It’s more on the intimate side. But this helps out with keeping things within reach when mixing. While it may not be massive, the stage is still wide enough to have a sense of space between instruments. Imaging is another one of the ESR MKII’s strengths. Instrument placements and positioning are highly accurate. Nothing falls out of place with the presentation. As lame as it sounds, it does have a studio feel to the staging and imaging of the ESR MKII. It feels like you’re at the studio with the artist performing for you. But yeah, no complaints with the staging and imaging performance of the ESR MKII

Comparisons

We’re here now guys. We’ve finally reached the comparisons section of my review. That was quite the journey, but I hope you’re still with me. I have decided to choose five other IEMs to compare the ESR MKII to. Four are potential “upgrades” or “options” depending on how you see it. And one is a much older IEM that’s been in the industry for a while. I want to compare to see (or in this case, hear) if the ESR MKII would be in the upgrade path of the Shure SE846 owners out there.


Vs JH Audio Layla (-12BA-CIEM: $2,199 AION: $3,499 USED: <$1,000)

When I was doing my first initial impressions of the ESR MKII, there were parts of sound that reminded me of my “oldest” TOTL IEM, the JH Audio Layla, that I still have on hand. I’ve had them for close to 6 years now, so I’m extremely familiar with how they sound. They’ve been my go-to reference tuned IEM when I used to perform live drums and when I mix tracks I cover. So let’s get it started!

Bass: In the bass department, I decided to go with the 2 o’clock setting on the bass dial of the Layla. It is the most common setting people use, and it is what I used with previous comparisons as well. Do also keep in mind that it’s this bass dial that makes the Layla and the other JH Audio IEMs a lot more flexible in the bass area.

Due to having less energy in the upper-mids, the bass of the Layla feels like it punches harder and comes out more forward than the tamer, yet still a pleasing bass response of the ESR MKII.I also have to mention that it’s a 4BA vs 1BA bass, so it’s quite impressive to hear such a pleasant bass presentation from the ESR MKII. To even out the bass on the Layla, I usually go to 12 o’clock, and this matches more closely to the ESR MKII’s overall “flatness”. This also evens out the “dipped” upper-mids of the Layla. But it still bears its fangs when you listen to IEMs that have “elevated” upper mids and go back to the Layla. I will go into further details about it in the mids section.

Although I enjoy both of the IEMs’ bass presentations, if we’re talking about bass texture, detail, control, and the flexibility to change the amount of bass, the Layla wins this department.

Mids: So 4 BA vs 1 BA for the mids as well. The Layla’s THICC and lush mids were what charmed me to get them when I first heard them. It was perfect for the majority of the music I used to listen to. In the past, I used to listen to more “Metal” music. This was during the time I had a break from Asian Pop music, and the Layla’s mids were just eargasmic to my ears. But with my music taste shifting more towards Asian music now, I noticed the lack of upper-mid elevation and energy. The Layla suffers in its overall midrange presentation. This is where the tonality of the ESR MKII’s midrange wins me over. It has more than enough upper-mids energy even for my casual listening. When it comes to vocal texture, I do have to give the Layla the edge for male vocals, but when it comes to female vocals, the ESR MKII’s presentation just coincides with my preferences better (The Layla’s THICC vocals are nice tho, just lacking the added “air” I usually like with female voices, especially higher-pitched ones). So if you’re looking for an IEM that has a more“even”vocal presentation and doesn’t favour one vocal range, the ESR MKII would be my recommendation of the two. But if you have a huge sensitivity to elevated upper-mids (Not that the ESR MKII is overly elevated in this regard), the Layla’s softer and lusher upper-mids would be more pleasing.

Highs: Due to the Layla’s softer upper-mids/lower-treble, it does somewhat make it appear “darker” in comparison to the ESR MKII’s more energetic rendering. The Layla does give off a pleasant sparkle, but it’s nowhere near as present as the ESRMKII’s. To my ears, the added treble energy that the ESR MKII has does make it easier to distinguish micro details. The Layla is still highly technical, but with its “darker” presentation, it was a little lacking in bringing those micro details as forward as the ESR MKII. But this will vary depending on the individual’s preferences and sensitivities. So in that regard, just pick the one that would be a more comfortable “listen” for you; especially when it comes down to long sessions in the studio.

Staging/Imaging: When it comes to the soundstage, I feel that both have a different presentation. The Layla has more width from left to right, while the ESR MKII takes things slightly more towards the front. This presentation does make it seem like the Layla gives a more “You’re with the performers on stage” feel compared to the ESR MKII’s “Monitoring the band in the studio” feel. In the imaging department, while both are precise, the ESR MKII just presents the instruments clearer, thus making them easier to pinpoint.

With all of that said, I still have great respect for the Layla. I’ve been with her for over half a decade after all, so it shows. I’m excited to hear the new Jolene as well. Which to me, seems like a hybrid born from the Layla and Lola. But as of right now, with my current taste and preferences, I’ll have to pick the ESR MKII as my new go-to “Reference” IEM.

Wait, wait wait, but the Layla is still more expensive and it’s a TOTL IEM you might say. Well yes, it is still more expensive if you buy“new”. The custom and the AION universal are more than double the price of the ESR MKII. Here is where “preferences” truly come into play. Not only that, you also gotta remember that the Layla has 2015 tech inside of it.

Also, I don’t know how much “better” the AION version is from the 1st generation Layla that I have (aside from the better and smaller shells). But you can easily get the same one that I have or even the Full Metal Jacket version, which is even sturdier and a tiny bit smaller, for way under $1000 USD. If you have similar preferences as I do, I’d definitely give the ESR MKII a listen. But if you have the sensitivities to the regions I have mentioned, you cannot beat the Layla. And hey, you can find them cheaper if you buy them used. Just make sure the larger shells the Layla have fits you well, because she’s quite the THICC one.


Vs JH Audio Lola (-6BA, 2DD-CIEM: $1,599 Uni: $1,599 USED: <=>$1,000)

Bass: Just like the Layla, I have set the Lola’s bass dial at 2o’clock as well.The dual BA lows setup of the Lola gives a more sub-bass focus in the bass department. As a result, it gives the bass notes a deeper rumble while the single BA from the ESR MKII has a mid-bass bump, giving you more warmth and a heavier punch. It’ll come down to your preferences again on which type of bass presentation you’d prefer. To me, while I do love mid-bass punch the ESR MKII gives me, the deeper sub-bass focus of the Lola is quite a bit more enjoyable. Not to mention, you can always dial up the bass slightly to get a bit more of that mid-bass punch the ESR MKII has.

Mids: Dual DD mids vs single BA mids… I’ve mentioned that the ESR MKII’s midrange performance was its greatest strength. Well, how does that compare to the Lola’s? A lot of people that have heard the Lola swear by its midrange organic presentation and texture. And I do agree with them. The Lola’s midrange is very natural, not as overly THICC as the Layla’s but has more than enough body to give instruments and vocals that fall within this range a meaty presentation. But again, just like the Layla, it suffers from a lack of energy in the upper mids. While it gives pleasant rendering to male vocals and acoustic guitars, it just doesn’t have the same edge and detail the ESR MKII’s midrange has. I thought the Lola would be better with electric/distorted guitars since it’s Slash’s favourite IEM when performing, but I have to say that I favour the ESR MKII’s rendering of electric guitars better. Meanwhile, I prefer the Lola’s thiccer notes for acoustic guitars more. Ultimately, it’s a difference in preference. So be sure to try both out before you decide whether you prefer the meatier more musical mids of the Lola vs the technical and more detailed midrange from the ESR MKII.

Highs: The Lola has a bit more energy in the treble compared to the Layla, but it still sounds softer and somewhat thinner compared to the thiccer notes the ESR MKII produces for the treble. The Lola has a nice shimmer but it’s way softer when you A/B itto the ESR MKII. It sounds less detailed as well. In regards to technicalities, I would consider it as one of the downsides of the more organic and musical approach JH went for with the Lola.

Staging/Imaging: Much like the Layla, the Lola seems to deliver a width-focused presentation for the stage. Its presentation is wider than the ESR MKII. The ESR MKII does take the cake with their frontal depth and centre imaging though. I feel the ESR MKII has better pinpoint accuracy with its imaging capabilities than the Lola. But at this point, this is nit-picking. Both are great performers in this regard. You only have to take into account which stage presentation you’d like better. No complaints here from me.

Overall, as a performer’s monitor, I would definitely choose the Lola. But as a studio monitor, it’s hard to beat the presentation and technicalities of the ESR MKII.


Vs Empire Ears Zeus XR ADEL (-14BA-CIEM[Special Order]: $2,479* USED: <=>$1,000)

The flagship of Empire Ears’ Olympus line was released back in 2016. Since then, it had quite afew iterations: the original XIV, followed by the R, then the switchable XR, and finally the XR with ADEL tech. The XR-ADEL model is what we’re gonna be comparing with the ESR MKII. Will the older previous flagship still hold a candle to its newer yet cheaper sibling?

Bass: The Zeus that I have is the one with the ADEL tech, which is similar to 64 Audio’s APEX module that most of you might be familiar with. And funnily enough, I am using the 64 Audio M20 APEX module on the Zeus. This gives us an added-20dB of noise isolation with pressure relief and has the “best” bass rendering out of the ones I’ve tried so far. But even with that module together with the switch being in the more energetic “XIV” mode, the slightly “anemic” bass of the Zeus can’t hold a candle to the warmer yet neutral bass rendering of the ESR MKII. Bass presence isn’t the Zeus’ strong point. And I do have to say that the Zeus is a more specialized IEM. While it may be anemic, the Zeus’ bass, whether in the Reference mode or the XIV mode, is still highly detailed. It just doesn’t have the same deep-reaching rumble and heavier hitting punch as the ESR MKII. If you’re after a true “flat” bass response, the Zeus is your best bet. But if you want something north of that while not being overbearing, I would choose the ESR MKII.

Mids: Alright, so we’re getting to both of these IEMs’ strongest suits. Personally, I think the Zeus is a midrange specialist IEM. While the ESR MKII has full-bodied and even midrange across the board that doesn’t favour either vocal range, the Zeus gives even more thiccness to the midrange but does favour female vocals on the XIV mode. It just pumps more blood into the veins of the midrange. Voices just come out with more emotion on them compared to the more analytical vocal rendering of the ESR MKII. But if you switch the Zeus to the R mode, it does bring it to a similar reference and even rendering for vocals. This softens the energy on female vocals and brings them more in line with male voices. For midrange musical pleasure, it’s hard to beat the Zeus. But for an overall more neutral approach for reference purposes, the ESRMKII still comes out on top.

Highs: Alright, we’re moving on to the highs now. The Zeus produces a softer treble presentation here. Sparkle is still present and still produces some nice micro details, but not to the extent of the ESR MKII. I guess the difference in tech and age just gives the ESR MKII an advantage here. The energetic and very well-controlled highs of the ESR MKII is just a more pleasurable listen to my ears whether for casual listening or mixing. The more I compare the ESR MKII’s treble to other IEMs, the more I’ve been thinking that the treble might be tied with the midrange as the ESR MKII’s strengths.

Some of you may have troubles with an energetic treble presence. If that is the case, the Zeus’ softer treble might be a better choice for you.

Staging/Imaging: There’s no contest here. The Zeus’ staging dwarfs the ESR MKII’s. It’s just enormous comparatively. Vocals on the Zeus’ stage just surround and encapsulate you. The spatial cues are just magnificent on the Zeus. That’s not to say the ESR MKII is lacking. It’s simply a difference in presentation. So once again, it will come down to your needs and preferences. The imaging details of the ESR MKII are a touch more forward, thus making it easier to understand instrument placements.

Overall, with technology, age does seem to creep in on the Zeus. While the midrange performance is still top-notch and that enormous stage is such an experience to listen to, the newer ESR MKII just trumps it in detail retrieval and its overall bass and treble rendering. Empire Ears has done a great job with the ESR MKII. I’m enjoying every bit of it.


Vs Empire Ears Wraith (-7BA, 4EST-$3,499 USED: <=>$2,500)

The Wraith was released back in 2019 and is still holding onto its title as Empire Ears’ flagship in its EP line. The first time I heard the Wraith, I was honestly taken aback by how detailed and effortless it sounded. So how does the “entry-level” of the EP line stack up to its flagship sibling?

Bass: Both of the IEMs reach pretty deep in the sub-bass. Both give pleasant texture. Though I do have to say the ESR MKII gives it a bit more presence and it also has a more satisfying rumble and a slightly meatier punch. But overall, they’re quite similar in the bass section. I do have to say that the Wraith does seem to be more detailed in the bass. Even though you don’t feel as much of the bass as the ESR MKII, you can hear the bass guitar strings decay quite a bit better. It’s quite the experience honestly. I don’t know how much of this is due to the Wraith having dual BA’s for lows compared to the single BA found on the ESR MKII, but the difference in detail is definitely noticeable. It might be minor but it’s there. So if you’re after a meatier bass section between the two, the ESR MKII is your pick. On the other hand, if you want less presence but more detail in the bass, the Wraith is your bae.

Mids: The Wraith is just similar to its predecessor, the mighty Zeus, as midrange monsters, but just with a slight difference in presentation. The Zeus had a spacious presentation in the midrange, allowing the vocals to surround and encapsulate the listener. Meanwhile, the Wraithis more intimate and more romantic with its presentation. This presentation makes the Wraith’s midrange more engaging than the ESR MKII. Vocals, guitars, and other instruments that fall in the midrange just sound majestic and sit perfectly within my preference. The ESR MKII is still definitely capable and has a more even presentation across the vocal ranges. And I may even favour its distorted guitar rendering better than the Wraith. But other than that, the Wraith is just a few steps above it. In my opinion, if you like the more reference approach to the mids, the ESR MKII is the definite choice. But if you prefer a more intimate and that oh so romantic midrange, there is nothing better than the Wraith.

Highs: Both IEMs have a very nice treble presence. To my ears, I would say the Wraith has more sparkle up top than with the ESR MKII. I mentioned the mighty triangle in the Negicco song on the treble section of my review. Well, it’s even more prominent on the Wraith. It’s just a step above the ESR MKII. I enjoy the Wraith’s treble presentation quite a bit more. I should write my Wraith review soon, but I still have like 7 more reviews in my backlog to do. So my IEMs will just have to wait.

The ESR MKII’s treble appears to have more edge on the tail end of cymbal crashes compared to a smoother tone on the Wraith though. Again, it will depend on your personal preferences. Some may prefer a smoother presentation, while others may prefer an edgier one. My vote goes to the Wraith since they don’t tire my ears out and I get to experience amazing sparkle.

Staging/Imaging: I’ve mentioned that the ESR MKII has nice frontal depth to the staging. Well, the Wraith makes that even deeper and more spherical. Another amazing thing about the Wraith is how it makes vocals sound intimate while everything else around it feels more spread out. On the imaging side, the Wraith might have a very slight edge since it’s able to keep its accuracy even with an even bigger stage. The Wraith shows who’s the flagship here. But do keep in mind that the price of the Wraith is equivalent to 3 ESR MKII.

In conclusion, I believe the ESR MKII is the better reference IEM while the Wraith is more of an all-rounder. Even though the Wraith doesn’t have the“fun”bass I usually like, it destroyed everything else I’ve heard so far in the vocal department. So if you can afford the Wraith and have similar preferences as I do, do give it a listen. But for the performance to price ratio, I can’t deny that the ESR MKII is quite appealing.


Vs Shure SE846 (-4BA-$999 USED: <$700)

Alright, we’re coming down to the Shure SE846. I included this since I wanna give people that own one a comparison. I’m sure there are quite a lot of people that own one of these since they’ve been around for ages. Even today, you can purchase them for US$100 cheaper than the ESR MKII.

So how does this 2013 tech compete with the newer ESR MKII? Is the ESR MKII a worthy upgrade to SE846 longtime owners? Or is it a better option for people looking at the SE846 as their next IEM purchase at a $100 premium? That’ll be my job to compare these two to the best of my abilities. So read on to see which is right for you.

Bass: Man… the Shure SE846 still impresses me with its sub-bass performance. The bass goes deep, like really deep. It’s still crazy to think that this has a BA driver handling the bass. Shure has done a great job with creating the woofers on these as it still satisfies the basshead in me. The ESR MKII just couldn’t touch the Sub-bass presence of the SE846. The ESR MKII also goes deep, but just doesn’t provide the same satisfying rumble as the Shure. The ESR MKII shows more bias on the mid-bass side of things, and it’s in this section that gives bass hits a bit more punch. But due to the more neutral tuning of the ESR MKII, it just doesn’t compete when it comes to bass enjoyment. I can tell that the SE846 was meant to be more of a performer’s monitor in this regard. The Shures can definitely be used as mixing monitors as well. But the ESR MKII just has a slight advantage when it comes to detail. But man, the basshead in me is just rooting for the old-timer SE846, so I’ll give the cake to the SE846 in the bass section. Let’s see how the SE846 competes in the other ranges.

Mids: Alright, mids… yeah, I kinda knew where this was going already even before doing the A/B comparison. As expected, the Shure just couldn’t compete with the detailed, and evenly sounding mids of the ESR MKII. The ESR MKII gives more body to the vocals, especially towards male voices and just has a better rendering to my ears. The Shure could still satisfy and perform well, but the ESR MKII is better in this department. I’ve also noticed that the Shure favours female vocals a bit more by giving them more weight, while the ESR MKII gives a bit more edge and clarity to female voices. That’s the biggest difference I noticed. If you listen to a majority of female vocal-heavy music, I would recommend the Shure as the detailed and “edgy” female vocal rendering of the ESR MKII might bothersome. But I personally quite enjoy it being “edgy”. So if you’re just like me, then I’d pick the ESR MKII.

Highs: For the SE846, I am using the White filter that gives more treble presence, and it is my go-to filter. Although the Black filter gives an even warmer bass response, the treble loses focus and just sounds meh to my ears. With the white filter, the treble does seem to be more aggressive on the Shures. In comparison, the ESR MKII gives you tamer and less harsh sounds. Detail wise, I say I’d still give it to the ESR MKII as it accomplishes sublime detail retrieval without being overly aggressive. I can imagine the SE846 to get quite fatiguing sooner than with the ESR MKII. Both give me a satisfying treble tho, so it’ll all be down to your preference as usual.

Staging/Imaging: I’ve mentioned before that the ESR MKII doesn’t have the biggest stage. But in comparison to the Shure, it does present you with a wider left to right presentation. And to add to that, the ESR MKII has better frontal depth perception. Imaging seems to be pretty close, but the ESR MKII does give you a slight edge with it having more clarity in between notes.

Overall, do I think the ESR MKII could be an upgrade to the SE846? I would say no, not really. They have quite a different tonality. The SE846 has an overall neutral presentation but it also gives you that exciting bass boost that the Empire Ears doesn’t have with their warm neutral approach. If fist-pumping bass is something you desire, the ESR MKII isn’t it. But if you want something very technical and precise, the ESR MKII would be the better option.

Conclusion

While I’m sure there is someone out there that would enjoy these for both work and play, its overly “reference” presentation would keep me from taking it on my daily commutes. I need a bit more “fun” or “character” in the IEMs I take with me in my rotation. But other than that, the ESR MKII is a highly technical and revealing IEM, with an even midrange presentation. It has pleasing treble energy with enough sparkle to keep you engaged with the mix. For the price and for what Empire Ears intended it to be, the ESR MKII is worthy of your attention.

Recommended.


Gear used during this review for the sake of comparison and as an accompanying equipment:

  • IEMs – JH Audio Layla, JH Audio Lola, Empire Ears Zeus XR-ADEL, Empire Ears Wraith, Shure SE846
  • Sources– Sony NW-WM1A, Onkyo DP-X1, FiiO BTR5, Topping E30, DROP THX 789 AAA.

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