“Well, how does it sound to you?” That was the question posed to me when I first heard the Empyrean at CanJam Singapore 2018. That was an incredibly difficult question to answer properly at the time.
Not just because it was a noisy environment but also the tuning to my ears was probably just about perfect with a distinct lack of obvious coloration, especially with the leather pads.
Sometimes a headphone has an obvious bias that it is easy to get to grips with what you are hearing. Headphones such as the D8000 with its gut-wrenching power or the Ether 2’s much warmer lower-mids signature
With the Empyrean the intonation or tuning focus initially seems quite subtle and it is only with a number of hours under your belt with your own setup do you really appreciate how masterful the tuning actually is.
You will have seen a number of measurements of the Empyrean that come quite close to the Harman Target response curve and our own seem to suggest that the Empyrean does indeed come rather close to what many consider is the ideal measurement. What does that mean?
Well, in short, they should sound like a well-balanced set of speakers in a regular listening room with a smidgen of bass emphasis for some low-end feedback and a relatively pronounced midrange for instrumental and vocal clarity. There is actually relatively little treble peaking in an effort to produce a very smooth and natural sound.
In a way, the Empyrean is just that save for a slightly flatter low-end response and less lower-mids undulation. In fact, it is almost perfectly linear and neutral in quantity right up to 1k. Most of the best planar designs will always strive for that type of response and some of them come very close indeed.
However, the Empyrean really does nail it for my money sounding effortlessly coherent and wonderfully balanced. It is the type of tuning that will lend itself well to almost any genre or musical recording without sounding mismatched.
Save for the most hardcore of bassheads or treble enthusiasts the Empyrean is one of the smoothest and most natural-sounding headphones out there in the market today.
Yet there is more to the Empyrean than that single sound. You have two sets of pads, leather, and Alcantara. Both pads will tweak the sound of the Empyrean in different directions with the leather pads being a little more of how I have just described the Empyrean to this point.
The Alcantara introduce a little more low-end warmth and presence, push back the mids a little further and interestingly, offer a touch more lower-treble percussion sparkle and presence.
Where do I sit in terms of preferences? I would say about 90% of the time I am reaching for the leather pads. They are a touch more intimate and neutral sounding to my ear and I do prefer a more vivid and engaging midrange and forward “big” sounding vocals and this pairing does it for me.
With the Alcantara pads, I feel I lose a little of that mid-magic I tend to look for. However, if you want a bit more warmth in your instrumental timbre and a touch more bass presence then the Alcantara is a better fit.
The Empyrean kicks out a very natural and engaging soundstage. It would call it more rounded and realistic than the ultra-wide HD800’s staging qualities or the D8000’s low-end prowess with more of a live concert feel and just the right level of instrumental separation and positioning as you would find in a good-sized chamber room.
I would not define the Empyrean as having an abundance of treble energy and sparkle. It is not the most forward in that regard so it is not as airy or vast sounding as something like the Susvara but at the same time, it is not so laid back to sound dark or lacking in air to breathe.
Staging on the Empyrean is also affected by the choice of pads. With the leather pads, you get a much more immediate and slightly more intimate level of vocal and instrumental positioning. You tend to get drawn in a little more to the mids as a result which I just love.
With the Alcantara pads, you get slightly more perceptible depth and a little more attention to the level of treble presence but mids move back as a consequence. Vocals and some instrumental positioning will have a little less focus in exchange for a grander sounding presentation.
Gloriously flat and linear from 20Hz to 1k, yet at the same time, not an anemic bass lacking in body or detail. The layering is exceptional with an almost perfect blend of low-end boom, mid-bass warmth, and just the right level of high-bass ‘crunch’. The clarity and detail in the Empyreans low-end response are palatable right down to 20Hz as a result.
However, and harking back to that difficult CanJam Singapore question, it is not an omnipresent low-end tuning. You will not always hear power until power is actually required. Once a track goes low enough the Empyrean responds beautifully.
A beautiful example of this response is John Legend’s “Everybody Knows” in conjunction with a punchy solid-state amp such as the Violectric V281. The track has what seems to be a very forward but very low-pitched bass guitar chord that kicks off the song and makes frequent appearances throughout.
With the Empyrean, you can’t miss it either in terms of definition and an incredibly enjoyable fundamental that adds a lot of depth and PRaT to an otherwise very mid-centric acoustic number.
The leather pads will offer the most faithful reproduction of an essentially neutral level of body but its also the snappiest for me. The Alcantara pads will up the mid-bass warmth a little more and perhaps release a little slower with what seems to be a slightly longer decay than the leather pads.
The star of the show for me. The mids on the Empyrean are the perfect choice for smooth but beautifully details vocals. Using the leather pads you get a more definite focus on the Empyrean’s midrange capability and a more forward vocal presence. The Alcantara pads drop it back a bit in favor or more bass and lower-treble presence which I am slightly less enamored with.
The FR has a pronounced 2-4k elevation but it results in a shouty or edgy performance The Empyrean’s slightly laid back treble presence prevents it from ever becoming too odd harmonic dominant or sharp sounding resulting in a full-bodied slightly euphonic timbre in both instrumental and voicing timbre.
For those that might be wondering if that slight treble dip results in an overly rounded even-harmonic characteristic or a slight percussion veil well I honestly do not find that to be the case with the Empyrean mids. At least not at all with the leather pads. The instrumental timbre is a touch on the richer full-bodied side but the positioning is never overly dominant leaving plenty of space and air for vocal detail to shine.
You will find a little more lower-treble elevation than upper treble sparkle on the Empyrean. The FR seems to drop, albeit very slowly and in quite a linear fashion towards 10k.
Both upper and lower treble really play a slight ‘second-fiddle’ in amplitude to the Empyrean’s upper mids elevation but not so much as to dull the percussion to the point where they lack air or any sort of presence.
The treble quantity is not as aggressive in that regard compared to the likes of Hifiman’s HE1000 V2 with its abundance of percussion bite and sparkle. Instead, you get detail, excellent body but overall a fairly relaxed sound. It makes for an incredibly forgiving and natural sounding performance and something ideally suited for very long non-fatiguing listening sessions.
The Empyrean is rated at a fairly moderate 31.6Ω and 101dB SPL. It does not need huge dollops of power to drive unlike other planar alternatives such as the HE-6, Susvara and will get louder quicker than recent releases such as the MrSpeakers Ether 2 and the Abyss Diana Phi.
Huge power amp conversions such as the 100W Chord TToby are not required and compared to the HE-6 the noise floor on these beasts are much higher with far less acceptable margins for pre-amp volume control.
If you have heard the Final D8000 you will find the Empyrean to play out similarly in terms of current and output wattage requirements. Both volume match quite evenly off well-powered DAPs such as the Lotoo PAW Gold Touch and heftier desktop setups such as the Xi Audio Formula S and the Schiit Mjolnir.
Having said all that the Empyrean, like any good planar, can scale and does sound more refined with quality desktop amps. A good amp synergy will depend in part on your preferences and the pads you will put on the Empyrean.
My personal preference is for the peppy but more intimate leather pads over the more relaxed Alcantara options. I like a forward midrange and strong vocal performance so the leather padded Empyrean, combined with a resolving amp tended to get my vote more often than not.
For example, the Auris HA-2SE tube amp sounds excellent with the Empyrean if you want a meaty midrange and quite often I would use this pairing for some relaxed vocal-orientated performances such as Madeleine Peyroux and Miss Li. There is something magical about the rich vocal timbre from this pairing that I just love at times.
However, when the music takes a change to something more beat orientated and I want a bit more energy and power then I find the HA-2SE pairing to be just a tiny bit flat on the lowest-end compared to solid-state alternatives, particularly when going balanced or using the Alcantara pads.
Now our award-winning Xi Audio Formula S is not balanced but it packs great power and one of the most refined amps I have heard to date. Switching to the Formula S brought a little bit more low-end punch and a tighter sub-bass from the Empyrean’s performance that I found much more satisfying for dance, modern pop, and hard rock genres.
If you need an even more musical low-end with plenty of grunt and body then the Violectric V281 in balanced mode is highly recommended. It is not quite as expansive and sweet-sounding as the Formula S but it does pair ever so well with the Empyrean leather pads and tracks that like to bounce around the low-end.
Artists such as Angie Stone and Drake who tend to push out some sub-woofer level backing tracks sound meaty, musical and suitably powerful with the balanced Empyrean/V281 pairing.
It is the same reasoning why I also loved the Gungnir/Mjolnir pairing with the Empyrean. It is not quite as refined as the V281 but there is no denying it is punchy, musical and just downright fun to listen to with the Empyrean.