What does a $750 pair of earphones look like? According to Massdrop, they have huge housings, 14 drivers per earbud, and a durable braided cable. The Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus are an absolute treat to listen to but aren’t the best for those with relatively small ears. We’re going to see who the Zeus IEMs are for, and if they’re worth your rent money.
Editor’s note: this review was updated on March 13, 2020, to offer the Etymotic ER4SE as an alternative.
Who are the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus for?
- Affluent audiophiles should be so lucky to enjoy the sound of 28 drivers, 14 per earbud, divvying up audio reproduction across the audible frequency range. Empire Ears uses a seven-way crossover network, preventing redundant frequency reproduction. This allows each driver to reproduce a limited range, yielding clear audio.
- Anyone who wants the best for relatively less should let their wallets fly at the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus. The original Empire Ears Zeus XIV retailed for just shy of $2,100, making the $750 price tag on the Massdrop partnership IEMs seem like a steal.
What’s it like to use the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus?
Just like the Massdrop x Noble Kaiser 10, the Empire Ears Zeus lack any and all frivolities and take audio seriously. The 14 drivers populating each housing are divided up accordingly: two for low frequencies, six for midrange frequencies, and six for treble frequencies. It may seem like overkill—and for the average listener, it likely is—but the end result is minimal harmonic distortion. The concept is similar to what we’ve seen from 1More, a more economically accessible brand, known for its Quad-Driver and Triple-Driver in-ears.
Empire Ears opts for quality over quantity by providing just five pairs of Final Audio high-density ear tips.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic makes up the outer shell and is adorned by a stainless steel nozzle. A 2-pin connector inset upon the casing makes it easy to replace the cable yet still requires force to separate the cables and housings. If the cable happens to break, you can either repair it or pick up a spare.
There’s only one way to wear the earbuds with the default cable: around the ear. Fashioning the headphones this way mitigates cable noise (microphonics), but if you have average or smaller-than-average ears, you’ll want to pick up an alternative cable. The ear hooks aren’t very malleable and repeatedly flopped over the tops of my ears during testing.
Massdrop and Empire Ears provide listeners with a fair number of inclusions such as a two-piece plastic carrying case, five pairs of Final Audio silicone ear tips, and an earbud cleaning tool. The tool is essential for maintaining optimal audio reproduction: as gross as it sounds, you can’t have clear audio if earwax is mucking up the drivers’ grills.
While it may seem that five pairs of ear tips is lacking, they’re high quality and sturdy, think quality over quantity. It would be nice to enjoy some memory foam ear tips, too, especially given the expensive nature of the Empire Ears Zeus, but I guess if you’re already paying upwards of $750, another $15 for alternative ear tips isn’t too bad.
The removable 3.5mm cable plugs directly into your computer or smartphone’s headphone jack. The earbuds don’t draw much power and are easily driven by your phone. If your phone lacks a headphone jack, you can always use one of those unsightly dongles or surrender to tethering yourself to a computer or amp if you enjoy the ritual.
How do the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus sound?
The 14 balanced armature drivers divide reproduction between lows, midrange, and treble frequencies. Bass and midrange notes are accurately reproduced while treble frequencies are slightly attenuated. The most important frequency range for music reproduction is 100Hz-900Hz, which is rendered nearly ideal with the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus; in short, this is about as close as you can get to a perfect bass response. The gentle, nearly imperceptible deviation from 100Hz-500Hz ensures that vocals and string instruments are relayed loudly and clearly.
Isolation is, bar none, some of the best we’ve seen from in-ears due in part to the ergonomic design of the housings and the high-density silicone ear tips. It did, however, take quite some time to achieve this level of seal during testing and in actuality, it was difficult to maintain this level of isolation when moving about.
Lows, mids, and highs
Frank Leon’s song HUFFING PAINT begins with a vocalized “ah” accompanied by tones to which crescendo just three seconds in. The track is then introduced with a series of synthesized beats, rings, and pops all of which vary in frequency. Lesser earphones have trouble reproducing each instrumental ingredient with clarity, but the seven-way crossover network is pulling its weight to sustain frequency separation throughout the song.
Leon’s voice is amplified over the underscoring beat without any noticeable auditory masking. Skip ahead to the chorus at 1:29; here, Leon sings, “I pushed my brother away. I pushed my brother away.” Even though his voice is markedly lower than the triangle hits, everything is heard clearly. The performance of the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus lends itself well to hearing mixes as they were intended, even if there’s a bit of a rolloff in the highs.
How do the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus compare to the Massdrop x Noble Kaiser 10 and others?
If you want to stay within the Massdrop collaboration family, look at the Massdrop x Noble Kaiser 10 IEMs. These feature a more neutral treble response, slightly more adjustable ear hook design, and a greater selection of ear tips. Isolation isn’t as good as what you’ll get from the Empire Ears Zeus, neither is the perceived sense of 3D space.
There are other non-Drop affiliated options too like Audio-Technica and Shure, both of which are worth researching. Each brand has earned its keep within both the audiophile and consumer markets and produce reliable, high-end audio products.
The Empire Ears Zeus is a fabulous headset but is cost-prohibitive for most listeners.
Let’s start by looking at Shure, the Shure SE846 earbuds are extremely durable and have some of the best isolation performance in the market. The six-driver array may not sound like much compared to Empire Ears’ 14-driver system, but Shure’s ‘buds bode well for performers and audio engineers alike. The smaller nozzle diameter makes them generally more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time as there’s less pressure placed along the ear canal. You’re paying even more for these earbuds, but if you’re a performer who needs something built to last, this pick has clout.
A more affordable alternative is the Audio-Technica ATH-E70, which uses a triple-driver array to reproduce 20Hz-19kHz frequencies. Memory cable ear hooks are easier to adjust to small ears than the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus, promoting a more comfortable, custom fit. Just like the Zeus IEMs, the cable is removable. You sacrifice a bit of clarity with the ATH-E70, but you also save $350.
Ball out on a budget with the Etymotic ER2SE
The Etymotic ER2SE mid-tier earphones may be economically priced, but the sound quality puts more expensive earbuds to shame. The dynamic drivers pump out a fantastic, neutral-leaning frequency response that teeters on the line of the platonic ideal. Pretty much every dollar of the $150 you’re spending on this headset goes to sound quality and ergonomics: the nozzles are incredibly thin. This design makes the fit more comfortable for extended hours of wear. The company provides three pairs of ear tips, two of which are triple-flange silcone and one pair of memory foam earbuds. All of them do a great job of passively blocking out external noise, as Etymotic’s website will tell you, it’s mastered the art of the sound-isolating earphone.
Just as with the Empire Ears Zeus earbuds, the ER2SE housings can be removed from the MMCX cable. Again, this design means your investment will go a long way as its much cheaper to replace a cable than buy a new set of earbuds every time a cable frays, or your cat nibbles away at it. You’re also afforded a mixed-media zippered carrying case and filter removal tool with two spare filters. Suffice to say, you’re getting plenty of bang-for-your-buck with the ER2SE IEMs, making them a great alternative for listeners with less flexible funds.
Should you buy the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus?
Yes, the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus is a phenomenal headset for anyone able to accept the price. Some may scoff at $700 earbuds, but these really are something special. The ABS plastic looks great and the 14 drivers work beautifully to reproduce the most important parts of your music. Realistically, general consumers won’t be able to legitimize this purchase, but those who splurge on audio equipment won’t be disappointed with the Empire Ears Zeus.
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