Pinnacle Sound and Design | Astell&Kern x Empire Ears Novus Review

Pinnacle Sound and Design | Astell&Kern x Empire Ears Novus Review

Astell&Kern exists at the nexus of HiFi audio and high-end luxury tastes. Their digital audio players are known for exquisite sound and incredible designs, and the brand is also known for their high-end IEM collaborations with some of the best designers in the business. With a $4999 price tag, the Astell&Kern x Empire Ears Novus pushes up into the ever-growing top end of summit-fi IEMs. Does teaming up with Empire Ears for their second collaboration allow both brands to exceed our expectations both in sound quality and physical design?

Build and Design

In terms of materials and build quality, Novus is among the best IEMs ever made. The angular three-dimensional angles of the IEM shell are unique and evoke abstract modern sculptures. The aluminum structure is sturdy and scratch resistant, and the 24K gold in the trim elevates the sense of luxury in the design. If you’d like to display Novus as a work of art, this is all wonderful, but you need to put them in your ears – meaning that the fit and comfort are at least as important as the artistry.

Astell&Kern x Empire Ears Novus Review in the Box

As a 13 driver quadbrid IEM, with carefully constructed internal acoustics Novus has no choice but to be very large. While Novus has some excellent ergonomic design to help mitigate the size, the shell is simply going to be too large for many people. The use of bone conduction drivers also means that without a deep, snug fit, you won’t actually get the full experience of the IEMs. Another factor is the aforementioned unique angular design. While it looks great, the angles can create pressure points in your ears that limit your total listening time. I started feeling some discomfort after about 2 hours of listening, so Novus may not be suitable for all day use or extended listening sessions for some people.

The package is very similar to what you get with Empire Ears current flagship, Raven, and what was included with Astell&Kern and Empire Ears previous collaboration, Odyssey. The oversize box contains a metal Pandora case, protective pouch, cleaning cloth and tool, eartips, 3.5mm adapter, warranty and product information, and the cable. The cable is a Effect Audio designed gold, silver, and copper hybrid with a black cloth wrap terminated in 4.4mm. In terms of look and feel, it’s very much like a heftier version of the cable bundled with the original Empire Ears Raven. Looks, fit, and package aside, the most important question here is, “How does it sound?”


Sonicly, Novus is the current pinnacle of the continued evolution of Empire Ears that started with Odin. It builds on the bigger, more powerful, dynamic, extended bass that Raven brought, while improving the sense of refinement and control. Along with that, the imaging is expanded, giving listeners a wider stage, combined with an even more immersive, holographic presentation. 

Astell&Kern x Empire Ears Novus Review

Novus pulls elements of the bass performance from classic Empire Ears IEMs like Legend X and Legend Evo, but cleans them up to deliver a powerful, dynamic feeling the extends into the regions that are felt rather than heard, while maintaining a sense of clarity and articulation  that lets you fully understand the texture of the sound that’s currently pounding your eardrums into oblivion.

As powerful as it is, the bass stays out of the way of the midrange, letting instruments like pianos and guitars breathe and offering a clear, intimate vocal delivery. For all of its insane technical characteristics, Novus maintains a natural timbre and lifelike character to its midrange.

The treble is crisp and resolving, offering air and spaciousness at the very top, with a lightning fast attack  and clean decay. The speed and attack is nicely balanced and avoids feeling harsh or sharp. Brass and horns cut through the mix without sounding piercing to your ears, and cymbals hit hard and fast without leaving your ears ringing.

Astell&Kern x Empire Ears Novus Review

Novus is highly efficient, with the impedance listed at 2 ohms. This means that you won’t have any trouble driving it from virtually any source, but you may run into background noise or interference with some sources. I didn’t run into as much of the “waterfall” sound as you might get from a Campfire Andromeda, but I did experience some popping and crackling with DAPs like the iBasso DX180, and with some cheaper dongle DACs. Adding in a 3.5mm adapter to use with something like an Apple Dongle, seemed to increase your risk of background noise.

An interesting aspect of Novus’s sound is that it’s highly revealing with “ruining” older or poorly recorded tracks. It’s the combination of technical prowess with a well balanced sound signature that lets you hear the scratchiness or poor balance of a bad recording without making it sound harsh or painful to the ear.

Older jazz recordings can be tough to replicate well on IEMs as the timbre and blending of elements are key to giving the listener a lifelike sound, and sometimes the same characteristics that make an IEM feel “fast” and “technical” leave classic jazz sounding incoherent and harsh. That isn’t the case with Novus and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme, Pt. 2.” The bass improvisation that opens the song hits with a natural timbre and incredible clarity. As the band comes in, you’ll notice excellent imaging with the placement and spacing of the instruments, along with a real sense of the band existing in the space together. The trumpet stands out, cutting through the mix with a smooth controlled emphasis, rather than feeling peaky or sharp. Novus also captures the complex cymbal work. tight snare rolls, and other subtleties of the drums that can be lost with some headphones. Overall, Novus does a great job of revealing detail in each instrument without losing the cohesion of the music.

Astell&Kern x Empire Ears Novus Review

“Borderline” by Tame Impala has become one of my favorite bass test tracks, as it mixes a variety of acoustic and synthesized elements with unique characteristics across the low-end of the frequency spectrum. From the start Novus gives you a deeply resonant impact from the kick and a tactile feeling of attack from the bass synth. That impact and attack is accompanied by nice articulation and loads of texture. There are layers and layers of elements on top of them as well that give you a sense of Novus’s layering and define a large three-dimensional space.

Most of the albums by The Police are tough for headphones and IEMs. The sparse nature of the band’s instrumentation, combined with the unique qualities of Sting’s voice and Andy Summers guitar playing often cause headphones and IEMs to struggle in presenting a cohesive whole. With “Walking on the Moon,” Novus captures subtle details like the bit of guitar feedback, the texture of the kick drum, and the snappy snare offering more of that revealing character that shows the imperfections of the recording without making it sound bad. The somewhat disparate pieces work well, with Sting’s voice feeling distant, but still cutting through the mix – almost in a completely contradictory fashion. Again, Novus brings the balance of detail, separation, and definition, without sacrificing cohesion and musicality.

Comparison: Empire Ears Raven, 64 Audio Volür

For comparison with Novus, the Empire Ears Raven is one obvious contender – essentially asking the question “How is Novus different from Raven?” – and for our other challengers we grabbed the 64 Audio Volür and FiR Audio Xenon6. Xenon6 offers a similar balance of insane bass and strong technical performance, and while Volür comes at half the price of Novus, some aspects of its performance challenge much more expensive models.

In terms of the build and design, Novus is the most impressive looking and feeling, though Volur and Xenon6 have a solid, classic look and feel. For fit and comfort though, Novus finds itself in last place. Raven is a similar size, but the materials and texture make it an easier fit, while Volür and Xenon6 are significantly smaller and easier to get a good fit with.

Astell&Kern x Empire Ears Novus Review

In terms of sound, Volur has a similar tonal balance to Novus, with the main differences being that Volür puts a little more tuning emphasis into the subbass and adds a touch more sizzle up top. But Volür feels just a little bit less than Novus, across the board. There isn’t the same sense of clear definition between bass elements, the soundstage isn’t as wide, and the sense of separation and holographic imaging isn’t as vivid or detailed.

Raven and Novus are very close, but Raven can feel slightly brighter at times, also offering a little less mid bass, and with an overall feeling that Novus is just a little more refined. Novus just feels like it takes every aspect of Raven – from the width of the stage, to the detail in each instrument, to the vividness of the holographic presentation – and turns it up one more notch.

Xenon6 stands out the most from Novus, trading some of the refinement and control, for power and dynamics. If you’re looking for the harder hitting bass with the sort of detail and imaging you’d expect from a top of the line IEM, Xenon6 delivers. While the soundstage might exceed the width and depth of Novus, the imaging lacks the separation and some of the more intricate detail presentation that Novus offers.

Novus’s size and comfort may be an issue for some listeners. Along with that, you may like a different tuning profile like Xenon6’s more emphasized bass, or Volür’s more U shaped deep emphasis and treble sizzle. But purely in terms of sound, Novus clearly stands out at the top of the pile.

Final Thoughts

Novus elevates sound and performance to some of the highest we’ve ever seen in an IEM, and combines it with a world class build. Even putting the materials and design aside, if the goal of HiFi is to give listeners the feeling of a live performance with the refinement of a studio recording, Novus is one of the best demonstrations of HiFi available in an IEM.