Empire Ears’ follow up to the highly acclaimed Odin is finally here in Raven. While the names Odin and Raven might not evoke an immediate connection, Ravens are deeply connected to the mythology of Odin. Odin kept two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who traveled the Earth each day, observing the world of men. The Ravens return each night to report what they saw to Odin. Huginn and Muninn would perch on Odin’s shoulders, to whisper the news of the world into Odin’s ears. With Raven in your ears, what will it whisper to you?
Build and Design
While Empire Ears is known for gorgeous custom designs and kaleidoscope-esque faceplates like the ones found on Odin and Valkyrie, Raven opts for a total black-out in the standard edition – though a lucky few will get the gold faceplate of the limited edition launch version. Rather than an intricate colored pattern just beneath the surface, Raven’s faceplate is perfectly flat and glossy with slightly raised details etched on it: the Empire Ears logo on the left ear, and the Raven symbol on the right. Raven is a very large IEM. Clearly a lot of effort was put into the ergonomics to help it fit much better than you would expect at its size, but it’s going to feel a bit bulky at best, and may be a little too large for smaller ears.
Empire Ears pulled out of the stops for Raven’s packaging (check out our unboxing on YouTube). The wide box – emblazoned with the Raven Logo – opens to three sections with a small accessory box on the left, the case on the right, and Raven in the center. For accessories, you get a set of Final E-Series tips, a cleaning cloth, cleaning tool, and the aforementioned case. Raven comes with an Empire Ears exclusive version of the PWaudio R7 OCC Dual Gauge cable, with an all black finish that looks great with Raven. As far as Empire Ears flagship cables go, I’d place it in between the Odin’s Stormbreaker (which was solid, but I preferred to swap it out) and Legend EVO’s nearly perfect PWaudio Genesis cable.
As far as the tech under the hood, Raven is a twelve driver quad-brid, featuring one bone conduction, two dynamic, five balanced armature, and four electrostatic drivers. Empire Ears develops their own drivers and internal tech, which helps separate them from IEMs featuring the same Knowles BA and Sonion EST drivers you find in products from dozens of other brands. This all sounds very impressive, but does it add up to more than just a very large, highly advanced IEM tech demo?
When it was released, Odin was a revelation. It provided mind-blowing technical performance and represented a clear step forward for the audiophile IEM industry. While we were waiting for a follow-up, Empire Ears collaborated with Astell&Kern on the release of the limited edition Odyssey, which took Odin’s basics and added EE’s Weapon X bone conduction driver and shifted Odin’s balanced tuning towards a warmer, more bass heavy one. Many imagined that Raven would basically be a full production run of Odyssey in a different shell, but while Raven integrates some aspects of Odyssey, it follows closer to Odin’s footsteps, with a focus on improving the resolution and imaging, along with moving towards a stronger balance between natural and technical.
Raven definitely takes advantage of the bone conduction driver to offer a bass that hits hard and extends deep, but doesn’t compromise the rest of the sound. With two dynamics drivers and a bone conduction, you might be expecting insane levels of bass, and when the song calls for insane levels of bass, Raven delivers. However, when tracks call for more subdued, natural bass, Raven delivers there as well. While bass-heads won’t be fully satisfied (and the “I don’t want to hear about slam or impact!” crowd might have a couple nits to pick), it was exceedingly rare for me to find a track where I felt the bass was too much or too little.
The treble is vivid, fast, and expressive. Raven extends its wings on extraordinary air that gives a sense of spacious open skies. The definition is excellent, cleanly separating instruments without making them feel etched or unnatural. While vivid treble can often equal fatiguing treble, Raven is probably the first IEM I’ve heard that can both perform at this level, and maintain a non-fatiguing presentation. What usually gets me with highly technical IEMs isn’t the critical listening portion of my evaluation, but the “queue up a couple albums or a longer playlist, relax, and listen” portion. In several hours of relaxed, but relatively high volume listening, Raven never once took me out of the zone with tones that were too sharp or harsh.
I’m saving the midrange for last, because the midrange was the real make it or break it point for Raven. With strong bass, the midrange can feel too warm or become overshadowed. Strong treble can make headphones sound thin, or leave the timbre metallic or plasticky. Raven’s mids don’t allow any of that. The transition from bass to mids is clean, providing a natural connection to the detail in bass instruments, avoiding any bloat or bleed, and giving the listener a strong sense of clarity. The midrange as a whole offers good body and weight to notes, along with natural timbre. The vocals are balanced with care. Raven provides excellent vocal dynamics – intimate, epic, whispered, shouted – it all sounds natural with everything in its place.
While we didn’t have every high-end IEM in the world available for comparison to make an authoritative statement on the subject, when you’re listening to Raven, it’s hard to imagine an IEM presenting a more expansive, three dimensional soundstage, or more crystal clear, holographic imaging. Even if you, like this reviewer, listen to a selection of excellent IEMs – with multi-kilobuck price tags – on a regular basis, Raven has the sort of absolute, top of the line imaging presentation that makes you sit up straight to listen.
Some IEMs can get you with a *trick* of accenting the breath in vocals, the picking of a guitar, or the bowing of a violin to add the perception of resolution, but usually there's an element of "pick one." Maybe male vocals sound great, but female vocals suffer. Maybe instruments sound great, but vocals catch some sibilance. With Raven, this is no trick. Pick a genre, pick a song, pick an instrument, Raven delivers each element with clarity, accuracy and – just as important – life and energy.
For listening, the Astell&Kern SP3000 was my main source, but we did quite a bit of listening on the A&K Acro CA1000T, iBasso DX320 with Amp14, and the iBasso DX320 Max, as well as a little bit on the A&K SR35 and iBasso DX170. It’s honestly hard to go wrong here. SP3000 was the best match – both in terms of feeding Raven all the detail and imaging information it could ask for and in tonality – but CA1000T and DX320 w/ Amp14 were close behind. DX320 Max had just a little edge in the treble that could shift it from “never felt it was too bright” to “once or twice it was a little too bright” and DX170 had a similar impact. SR35 was tonally very close to SP3000, but didn’t offer the same level of imaging performance or micro-dynamics and detail.
Comparison: Empire Ears Odin, Noble Viking Ragnar
There were two IEMs I felt it was absolutely necessary to compare Raven to, and interestingly enough, the comparison leaves us with a strong Norse vibe: Raven (presumably this is Odin’s Raven and not Edgar Allen Poe’s), Odin, and Noble Viking Ragnar. I also saved the listening observation for this section, as I felt the most effective way to compare these three was to highlight specific details from listening to familiar tracks with each.
In general Raven, Odin, and Viking Ragnar all aim for a balance between technical performance and a natural, versatile tuning. Each has a slightly different emphasis, with some differences being more subtle than others. Raven’s bone conduction driver gives it an edge in bass extension and in the general texture and balance of the bass. Viking Ragnar delivers a bit more body in the midrange than the other, and also differentiates itself in the balance of upper mids and treble. Odin is the OG here, with Ragnar and Raven both taking elements from Odin and tweaking them – but also possibly losing a little bit of what Odin had in the process.
“Doin’ It Right” by Daft Punk is one of the best tests of bass range that I’ve ever heard. It presents four fundamental bass tones that cover most of the mid-to-sub bass range. You can clearly hear the emphasis and balance in the bass just from determining which tones are louder or quieter. With Odin, the lower and sub-bass notes feel surprisingly strong, while the highest of the four tones loses just a little bit of volume, demonstrating Odin’s faster downslope into midbass. With Viking Ragnar, all four hit with about the same intensity. Raven is similar, but gives just a little extra oomph to the lowest note. Through the rest of the song, Viking Ragnar has a little bit more snap and sizzle, but it can become fatiguing, while Odin and Raven have a balanced presentation that’s very similar.
I love “Here Comes the Sun” as a test of natural imaging and vocal presentation as well as a test of how well a headphone can present a coherent image. In terms of soundstage, while Odin is no slouch, Raven and Ragnar both present larger, more three-dimensional spaces. All three have a highly natural timbre, and provide a transcendent, “in the room feeling” with a track like this. Ragnar has a stronger feeling of weight in the image compared to Odin, with Raven again matching Ragnar. Where Raven pulls ahead is in presenting stronger vocal dynamics, and giving you a more cohesive feeling with extended elements like backing vocals.
One of the first tracks I listened to Odin that completely blew me away was “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana. Grunge rock is not a genre I typically associate with recordings that have tons of imaging information, but Odin pulled intense vocal texture and a holographic experience of this track. How could it get any better than this? Ragnar adds thicker guitars, and where Odin is too vivid, Ragnar adds a touch more realism to the presentation, but loses some of the insane vivid feeling of Odin. Raven somehow manages both. It captures the almost over the top intensity of Odin, but also offers more weight and thickness and a touch more realism.
While all three have excellent performance across genres, Raven’s slight shift to the bass gives it the edge in most modern pop and rock unit, but Viking Ragnar maintains a small edge with classical. On a densely layered orchestral track like Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” Viking Ragnar’s highs – which can feel piercing with synthesizers or electric guitars – offers dazzling clarity and separation in its presentation of instruments like the flute or violin in the upper registers of the orchestra. Odin and Raven as very close behind in the treble details, and Raven specifically excels on the other end of adding some extra weight and body to music, but I could imagine classical listeners preferring Ragnar’s extra shimmer.
It’s clear that Raven is an evolution of Odin, offering essentially everything that Odin did while expanding the soundstage and adding a stronger sense of body and a more natural, lifelike sound. Compared to Viking Ragnar, Raven captures its greater weight and body, but opts for a little more bass, while Ragnar opts for more treble.
There's a unique aspect to listening to music with IEMs that other types of listening don't provide. While the best speaker experiences will inevitably alert your neighbors to your musical tastes, and even the best closed back headphones have quite a bit of noise leakage, IEMs really put you in your own little world, where nothing gets out or in. Raven embodies this core feature of IEMs, and at the right volume, the whole world around you completely disappears, letting you do nothing but listen for hours. The music is clear and detailed, but more importantly, engaging and immersive as Raven whispers rhythms, melodies, and harmonies into your ears.