Empire Ears Bravado MKII

Empire Ears Bravado MKII

The original Bravado hit listeners with a powerful low end response and a visceral in your face delivery. Bravado MKII tries to preserve some of that energy, but combines it with more refined sensibilities. So, in the tug of war between its brutal origins and its new more tasteful characteristics, what wins out? 

The Build and Design

In previous years, flashy shells were reserved for Empire Ears flagship models, while virtually everything under $2000 got a simple black shell with different versions of the EE logo being the only visible differentiation. Now, each model has its own unique look, with the Bravado receiving the spacey “Deep Field” faceplate. While Deep Field is a great look, my seven-year-old son and I are a bit disappointed that they didn’t stick with the tiger-stripe faceplate seen in some pre-release versions.

The IEMs themselves are moderately sized and generally have a snug, secure fit. One thing to note is that the insertion depth on the nozzles is quite deep, which helps create a good seal, but also might be uncomfortable if you have a sharp bend early in your ear canal.

Empire Ears Bravado MKII

The biggest change in the Empire Ears package from the previous generation is that the box is now white, instead of black. Otherwise things remain largely the same. The IEMs are presented in the top, with the cable attached, and there’s a little drawer in the side which pulls out to reveal a case and a selection of Final eartips. The cable looks and feels a lot like the Effect Audio cables bundled with previous models, but it’s now branded as Empire Ears. The cable is bronze wire with a clear wrap, and has a little bit of stiffness to it. The jacks and connections feel solid and secure, with an overall feeling of quality.

The Sound

The Bravado MKII has a very strong v-shaped tuning, with the strongest emphasis being low in the subbass and in the region of the upper mids into the treble, with a deep valley in the middle. This is more or less the definition of a v-shaped, “fun” tuning. There’s impact and rumble in the low end, and then some sparkles and splashes up top. Mids? Where we’re going, we don’t need mids!

The bass emphasis is deep – I don’t think I can emphasize enough how deep it is – which also means that despite the low-end emphasis, the midbass and lower mids are never overdone, congested, or get in the way of the clarity of the presentation. On the other hand, this also means that the bass doesn’t have the round quality in the mids found on some other v-shaped IEMs. With the right songs though, there’s an insane visceral rumble that will stop at nothing in its attempts to shake your brain free from its bone cage.

The mids are not a strong highlight here – at least not the lower two thirds of the midrange. With Bravado MKII, bass is felt rather than heard, so there isn’t a ton of texture or detail in the lower mids, however, the upper half of the “V” is really more in the upper-midrange than the treble. This emphasis provides a lot of presence, character, and detail for vocals and lead instruments.

Empire Ears Bravado MKII

With the primary emphasis of the Bravado MKII being in the subbass and the secondary emphasis being in the upper-mids, there’s a slow roll-off starting in the lower treble regions which smooths out some of the top end. There is, however, just a touch of air at the very top which adds some sparkle.

The soundstage and imaging are excellent, probably largely thanks to the electrostatic drivers, which I’ve found provide a spacious high end response. The space doesn’t always feel particularly huge, but there’s a sense of cohesive layering and good positioning within the space.

I should note at this point that this review started out quite a bit different. My initial impression of the Bravado MKII was that it was bizarrely bright and completely out of character as “MKII” compared to the original. After several hours of listening, I started noticing the balance and tonality shift. After taking a break and coming back, I felt the bass really come alive. I’m going to chalk this up to two factors: 1. Probably the biggest factor is that because of its deep insertion, it can be difficult to get the fit just right, and a bad fit can really mess up your perception of an IEM’s tuning. 2. I think there was at least a small amount of burn-in needed to get the dynamic driver really going as intended. Once these factors were taken care of, Bravado MKII’s real tonality started shining through.

The first moment that I knew Bravado MKII was a genuine bass monster was at the 36 second mark in “Nice to Know You” by Incubus. The band kicks in, and Bravado tries to rattle your teeth out. There’s an interesting sense of separation between the upper end of the drums, with the cymbals and snare, and the lower end, where the kick and toms blend with the bass. It’s almost as if there was a mountain on one side where the guitar lives with the cymbals and another mountain on the other, piled high with bass and things that go thump. In the valley between, Brandon Boyd is loudly, clearly telling you “Goodbye.”

On Jack Johnson’s “Holes to Heaven,” I was impressed by the reproduction of the vocals and acoustic guitar. The band sounds natural and cohesive, with the vocals still sitting nicely in the mix in spite of the recessed mids. The recessions in the lower mids take a little texture out of the bass and drums, but there’s a good amount of low end impact that doesn’t feel exaggerated, and the cymbals and percussion sound tight. The general timbre of the acoustic instruments is quite good for an IEM with such a dramatic tuning.

“Go” by M83 is a song with a little bit of everything. Spacey, ethereal vocal passages? Check. Disco grooves? Yep. Smooth saxophone lines? Definitely. Sick guitar solo? You know it. Deep bass drop? Of course. Bravado MKII keeps things light and airy for the spacey portions, brings it back down to earth when it’s time to get more grounded, and shakes the ground when the bass hits. The layering is exquisite, delivering different voices and instruments cleanly and clearly across the sonic canvas while also providing a good sense of cohesion.

Comparison: Campfire Audio Vega

Probably the most obvious comparison for Bravado MKII is the Campfire Audio Vega, a fellow sub-$1000 bass cannon that also has pretty solid technical capabilities. Looking at the spec sheet, you might imagine two incredibly different sounding IEMs. Bravado MKII is a 4-driver tri-bid with one dynamic driver, one balanced armature, and two (!!) electrostatics. Vega uses a single dynamic driver.

Empire Ears Bravado MKII Campfire Audio Vega

The aesthetic design choices are also a bit different. Bravado MKII is a rounded ceramic IEM with a faceplate featuring a glittering starfield with a subtle 3D effect. Vega features a more industrial shape and style, and is simply white. Without all those drivers, Vega is also significantly smaller. For all their technical and design differences, the end result is pretty similar: a bass heavy v-shaped tuning.

While a few years ago, I would have imagined that if you’ve heard one “bass heavy v-shaped tuning” you’ve heard them all, today I can appreciate the vast range available in that description. The biggest difference in overall tonality between the two IEMs is exactly how they emphasize the bass. Bravado MKII’s main emphasis is on the lowest regions of the bass, which creates a deep rumble, and dynamic response with genres like EDM. In contrast, Vega has more sweeping elevations across the lower registers, with a flatter extension into the subbass, more emphasis in the midbass, and a slower roll down into the mids.

The result is that Bravado MKII gives you incredible dynamics for juicy bass drops, and a thick low-end for modern rock, but doesn’t have strong articulation of notes in the midbass or a strong feeling of texture. Vega can’t reach the low depths of Bravado MKII, but it instead provides better articulation, and offers a more realistic, natural delivery.

In the upper registers, both have recessed mids, but Bravado MKII provides significantly more detail and treble presence. Where Vega isn’t quite an “L” shaped tuning, its treble is really balanced with the bass, and it’s further away from a true “V,” than Bravado MKII.

Between the two, I’d say the biggest dividing line is what sort of music you listen to. Vega has a more natural instrument timbre in general, so it could be prefered for music like soul, funk, or classic rock, with a greater focus on traditional instruments. Bravado MKII really shines with music with more modern production or that’s driven by electronic instruments. Bravado MKII is also the pick if you don’t want to miss out on treble for the sake of the bass.

The Bottom Line

Bravado MKII brings back everything we loved about the original, and adds a touch of refinement at the top. The addition of electrostatic drivers helps enhance the soundstage and imaging, and add a level of technical prowess to the Bravado’s brutal, powerful sound. Put it all together and the Bravado MKII provides an engaging bass heavy tuning, with a level of performance that makes it a standout in its price range.