I’ve worked my way through a big chunk of the Empire Ears lineup, having spent time with the Bravado, the Valkyrie, and the Legend X, all leading up to the Wraith. The Wraith is Empire Ears flagship model, replacing the very popular, but now discontinued Zeus. Packed with the latest technology, and backed by decades of expertise in the field, is the Wraith a true endgame experience?
The Build and Design
The majority of Empire Ears’ universal fit lineup ships in simple black ceramic shells, with minimal decoration other than a logo. The Valkyrie and Wraith are the exception to this, both featuring a striking pearloid face. The Wraith’s deep purple and black doesn’t quite pop like the Valkyrie, but it has a bit more of a classy, understated look to it.
The Wraith is a little bulky, but lightweight and still generally ergonomically shaped. The spouts are a little on the large side, and might make for a tight fit for your favorite eartips (I actually broke an eartip transferring it from the Wraith to the Legend X for this review), but the Wraith is generally comfortable and stays in place well through light movement. The Effect Audio “Cleopatra” cable that Empire Ears bundles with the Wraith is an absolutely top notch cable that usually retails on its own for $699.
Internally, the Wraith uses four electrostatic drivers and seven balanced armature per side. To my knowledge that is the highest number of electrostatic drivers that have ever been put inside an IEM. The balanced armature drivers are split into 2 Low, 3 Mid, 2 High, and 4 Super-High. The full array works together with a five-way crossover using Empire Ears synX technology. When you break down all of the different acronyms from the official specifications page – EIVEC, synX, A.R.C. – it's a lot of technology crammed into a little shell. So what does it all add up to?
Warm, detailed, dynamic, transparent – these are just a few of the words that come to mind as I listen to the Empire Ears Wraith. It’s a very well balanced IEM with just the slightest elevation in the bass to low mids, a small dip in the mids, and then a bit of a spike in the high-mids to treble, that rolls off quickly on the high end. While I wouldn’t count the bass as a selling point for the Wraith, it has a surprising presence and feeling considering that there’s no dynamic driver. The sound is wonderfully detailed but also breathtakingly musical.
The imaging and soundstage on the Wraith are both absolutely holographic. I should note here that I sometimes experience mild audio/visual synaesthesia, but I’ve never felt it triggered so clearly by headphones. I close my eyes, listening to the middle section of Haken’s “Puzzle Box,” which is primarily driven by electronic instruments. I can place myself in a massive hall, sounds flash from left to right and behind me. The guitars come back at full force, and I’m pulled down below. As the band creates a punishing djent-y groove, each hit is an explosion – like fireworks bursting all around me.
For something a little more low key, I tried Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes.” At the start, the acoustic guitar is clear and lifelike, and Smith’s voice feels vulnerable as you can hear each small tremble or warble in his voice. As the vocals fill out and harmonies come in they feel haunting, softly whispering from the left and right. It’s a testament to the Wraith’s design and versatility that it can exude the energy and precisely deliver the technicality of Haken’s progressive metal, only to turn around and capture the quiet emotional performance of a singer and his acoustic guitar.
On Miles Davis’s “Flamenco Sketches”, the simple bass and piano bounce from right to left with the trumpet in the middle. The trumpet is clear and articulate and smooth. The high notes come through with power, but without sharpness or harshness. When the piano takes the lead, each note rings clear, and you can practically feel the reverberation in the air. The bass is so natural and lifelike you’ll think you could reach out and touch it.
I’ve always held that Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” is the perfect example of an immaculately produced pop song, and the Wraith is an excellent tool for demonstrating that. As layers of simple synth lines are added up to something more complex, each layer remains perfectly placed and coherent. Miley’s vocals are forward and present, never sharp or harsh and never muddy or congested. On the chorus the slow attack of the bass slides up into powerful, physical thump (side note: I’ve had a really hard time finding another headphone that captures the nature of the attack there as well as the Wraith does). The dynamics of the Wraith capture the vocal dynamics, from the near whisper of the first verse, all the way to the belted out final chorus. Say what you will about the song, but an earphone as revealing and well-balanced as the Wraith uncovers a lot of emotion and depth in a song that might otherwise be remembered mostly as a punchline.
An important note on the Wraith is that it is incredibly sensitive. I found that the only two sources I tested that were completely noise free were the iBasso DX220 and the Astell&Kern SA700. The Chord Mojo had a fair amount of hiss until I plugged in an iFi IEMatch, and with the iBasso DX160 there were a lot of microphonics with the cable and jacks which were not present on the other sources.
Comparisons: 64 Audio Tia Fourté, Empire Ears Legend X
To provide a fair comparison, I ran several other flagship IEMs through the same paces, using some of the same songs as a comparison point, including Empire Ears other flagship, the Legend X.
The Legend X is the flagship of Empire Ears “X Series”: their line of hybrid IEMs which uses dynamic drivers as subwoofers. While the mids and highs are generally clear and well balanced, it has incredibly powerful bass, which remains surprisingly articulate even as it's boring a hole through your brain. On “Wrecking Ball” the vocals are less forward than the Wraith, and some of the interplay between layers is a little harder to pick out, but the bass will literally shake your brain. That’s not to say the Legend doesn’t expertly deliver the full spectrum with clear separation between the various layers of music, but in direct comparison to the Wraith, it trades some clarity and transparency for absolutely astounding bass. On “Flamenco Sketches,” the Legend X demonstrates its ability to sound clear and natural with acoustic instruments, as the upright bass is more prominent than with the Wraith, but remains clear and natural. The presentation of the trumpet is similar to the Wraith, but the piano feels further back.
The 64 Audio Tia Fourté is 64 Audio’s flagship IEM. The “Tia” comes from 64 Audio’s Tia system which includes a specially designed acoustic chamber specially designed balanced armature drivers. The Fourté also has a dynamic driver for the subwoofer, which helps flesh out the full spectrum. This design creates an absolutely enormous soundstage. It has a brighter signature than the Wraith or the Legend X, and of the three it also feels the most transparent. On “Wrecking Ball” there’s a slight edge to Miley’s vocals near the top, which is missing on the Wraith. While the bass feels powerful on the chorus, the Wraith more precisely delivers the delayed attack. On “Flamenco Sketches” the instruments felt the most natural on the Tia Fourté, with the piano benefiting the most from the additional brightness, but there was a bit of harshness in the higher range of the horns.
The Bottom Line
Many top of the line headphones and IEMs have very clear standout characteristics that you can latch onto: the bass, the soundstage, the detail, etc. The challenge with the Wraith is that it does so many things, so well, that it’s really hard to pin down. The biggest standouts for me were the detail, musicality, and versatility. Many headphones which excel at capturing every aspect of a complicated dynamic performance feel unnatural when you turn on a simple folk song. Others sound warm and musical for the folk song, but lack the detail and dynamics on more complex pieces. The Wraith does it all. It is perhaps, a jack of all trades and a master of many, and that’s why it is absolutely deserving of its price tag and position as a top of the line IEM.