Musicians and singers that can’t monitor their sound properly will struggle to blend, hit the right notes, or produce the quality music they desire. This can also have a direct impact on the sound quality in the main mix.
(Learn more about in-ear monitoring for musicians and sound techs here.)
With all that’s on the line when using in-ear monitors (IEMs), it’s very important to research and select the right monitor for your needs. But with so many options to choose from, it can be a challenge to get down to the best option for you.
Custom or Universal IEMs?
Custom IEMs are great for the musician or singer that plans to use them regularly. But they also carry some extra expense. And they can’t be reused for anyone except the person they were custom built for.
Worship teams in particular can struggle with this issue.
If your church requires the use of in-ear monitors and supplies each musician and singer with a set to use, then custom fit monitors can be a costly proposition.
Fortunately there is a great universal fit option available for churches that still want to provide a quality monitoring experience.
Empire Ears, based in Norcross, Georgia USA, is an experienced manufacturer of high quality custom and universal in-ear monitors. And they definitely have some features that can’t be ignored.
The following is a full and unbiased review of my experience using Empire Ears EP-series Universal ESR in-ear monitors.
Before ordering a set of quality in-ear monitors, it is important to understand what you’re getting.
There can be a lot of hype and marketing mumbo-jumbo in the boutique headphones world, so a look at meaningful data is a good idea.
When it comes to IEMs, most quality products use multiple balanced armature drivers to deliver the full frequency spectrum. While two drivers can sound OK, I prefer listening to IEMs with at least three drivers.
Empire Ears Universal ESR monitors are designed with three balanced armature drivers using a 4-way synX crossover network placed in an acrylic shell.
Empire Ears solves this issue with their A.R.C. (anti-resonance compound) resonance mitigation technology. And based on my listening experience it works quite well.
Another important thing to consider is the quality of the cable and connectors used. This is often the weak link in an IEM solution.
We’ll get into more specifics about the durability and quality of the Empire Ears ESR model, but I’ll say right now, the cable and connectors supplied with these monitors has to be one of the most robust cables I’ve seen for a set of IEMs.
There is a lot more to cover with these monitors, so let’s dig in.
Empire Ears in-ear monitors are shipped in a small rectangular cardboard box and securely packaged in an elegant looking inner box with a magnetic clasp lid.
Opening the lid reveals a few different layers of information cards, pouches, and a cleaning cloth. This feels like a premium unboxing experience already.
What I saw next is what really impressed me though.
Under the layers of drawstring pouches and paperwork, I saw a stout looking case with the Empire Ears logo and ESR model number on the top.
Pulling the case out revealed that this was no cheap container. It had very secure clasps and appeared to be watertight. This thing looks like it could get run over by a truck and still keep my IEMs safe!
Opening the lid of this box within a box finally reveals the goods – a pristine set of Universal ESR in-ear monitors.
The black shells combined with the copper braided wires with modest silver and gold trim colors make for a remarkable presentation.
The entire unboxing process says “quality” through and through.
But it’s what’s inside that counts…
I’ve used several universal and custom in ear monitors before, but I haven’t tried a premium universal IEM that looked exactly like a custom molded model.
To be honest, I was initially concerned with how the large casing would fit in my ear and still be secure.
I’m a drummer and I tend to move around a lot, so a secure fit is really important.
Comfort is also extremely important. No one wants to be on stage for two hours with monitors that hurt the ears.
The first thing I did was read through the instructions and then review the ear tip sizes provided.
There are five sizes of Final Audio Type E ear tips provided: XL, L, M, S, XS.
After selecting the size of ear tips, they need to be placed over the stem of the IEM. They fit very tight, but don’t worry, they do press on and hold very well.
At first I selected the Medium tip size for one ear and the Small for the other ear. It became clear after just a couple minutes that the Small size was the one for me, so I quickly swapped out the medium ear tip.
While each monitor looks almost identical, there is a red model and serial number printed on the right monitor and a blue model and serial number printed on the left monitor. The cable connectors for each monitor are also stamped with an L and R for easy reference.
Inserting the monitor in the ear was pretty easy, but it is necessary to twist it a little bit to get a good seal and find the perfect spot where it naturally rests in the ear and ear canal.
Fitting Tip: Choose an ear tip size that might be smaller than you think you need so you get a deeper fit. Place the IEM connector so that it points up and forward towards your temple. You should be able to compare and hear the best sound quality with the right fit.
There isn’t any memory wire or other shape-holding device for the cables that rest over the ears, but after setting it in place for a while the cables did not move.
A small black anodized aluminum cinch is provided to allow the cables to be pulled tight behind the head. It slides easy and helps provide a very secure feeling fit.
After inserting both ESR monitors and cinching the cable, I did several head movements, walked around, and even did some exercises to try and dislodge the monitors and cables.
The monitors fit very secure and the cable was so light and flexible that I couldn’t even feel it. In fact, I had to reach back and check that it was still there.
That was great, but I was still a little concerned about how a universal set of monitors would feel after an hour or two of use. I’ve been down this road before.
The good news: Keeping these monitors in the ears for extended periods was absolutely no problem.
My ear canal did have to get used to the ear tip, but once they were used to that, my ears were cozy as could be – another pleasant surprise.
Noise isolation is another important component when selecting in-ear monitors.
One of the major benefits of going with IEMs is to protect hearing on a loud stage, not to mention the added benefit of increased focus on the individual monitor mix.
Custom IEMs are known for their ability to block out a lot of noise, but I was very curious how this set of Universal ESR monitors would do.
As a test, I placed one of the ESRs in one ear and one of my custom IEMs in the other ear.
(As a reference, I know that my custom IEMs are rated for -26 dB noise isolation.)
After exposure to several different types and levels of sound, it was really difficult to tell any major difference in isolation between the two monitor types.
To be fair, I don’t have any special test equipment that can measure the exact performance of this performance specification, but my real-world listening tests were convincing enough for me.
The Universal ESRs seem to perform exceptionally well at noise isolation, which makes this drummer and sound tech very happy. Healthy ears are important!
Notwithstanding the robust storage case and ample supply of storage pouches and cleaning cloths, there are several other features worth discussing about the Universal ESR in-ear monitor.
There is a very helpful and thorough instruction booklet provided, so be sure to check that out. I really appreciated the attention to detail and education provided in the instructions.
Adjacent sizes can be difficult to tell apart at a glance, but fortunately each size has an alternating color inside that differentiates it from the adjacent size. Nice.
A cleaning brush and pick is included in the hard case and it is effective for removing wax and dust from the ear tips.
Each monitor has three holes in the ear canal stem (one for each driver), so the pick and brush are useful for cleaning these as well.
The ESR Custom monitors can be ordered in different colors, but the Universal model only comes in black Onyx, which is what I received. They look great.
To be honest, the copper cable is what always catches my eye every time I look at these monitors. It just looks cool.
There is only one feature about these monitors that I didn’t like. That heavy-duty 3.5mm plug is awesome, but it is too big to plug into mobile devices that may have a case around them.
This is a very minor issue, but it is something I noticed when I decided to wear these for casual listening while doing chores outside or around the house. However, these really are professional monitors, so consumer-grade features should not be a priority.
Petty remarks aside, these Empire Ears ESRs are built with features to impress, and they do.
Durability & Quality
Simply based on the case and the cable, these monitors appear to be more robust than just about any other headphones or IEMs I’ve tried.
The connections are very secure and the strain relief is good.
The ear tips and ear stem on the IEM shell doesn’t feel fragile at all.
It is important to understand that the balanced armature drivers inside of any in-ear monitor are inherently fragile and should be protected from significant drops and impacts.
The ESR shell provides good protection, and the included hard carrying case is perfect for taking these IEMs on the road or anywhere else you need to go.
Perhaps the weakest link for the ESRs are the pins on the detachable cables at each earpiece. (This is a common issue inherent with most IEM designs, so it’s not really a big deal, just something to know about when handling them.)
Each cable terminates in a two-pin plug that inserts into the corresponding sockets on each monitor. It is important to be careful when handling the monitors or replacing cables to ensure that the pins don’t get bent.
The Empire Ears Universal ESR in-ear monitors are perfectly suited for use on stage and in the studio.
The ESR features one of the flattest performance charts in the Empire catalogue and it produces crystal clear sound that isn’t colored.
The frequency profile is full, natural, and very articulate.
Highs are bright and provide the perfect amount of sparkle in the upper registers without being harsh or shrill.
Mids are clear and muddiness is essentially non-existent in the ESR.
Lows are delivered with plenty of power, and there is no over-compensation or compression in low and sub-low spectrums.
The Universal ESR translates mixes very well, making them perfect for a variety of musicians and audio engineers.
Those seeking a stronger bass profile may prefer the enhanced low frequency response of the X-series Vantage or Nemesis models. [LINK]
Singers will appreciate the attention to detail and articulation with the ESR.
Note: A custom fit version of the ESR may be recommended for singers to reduce the occlusion (that “voice inside your head” sound) effect. Custom IEMs allow for the earpiece to fit just past the second bend in the ear canal, something that universal monitors can’t really do.
When first trying on the ESR and getting the right fit, it is important to pay attention to how well the earpiece sets in the ear canal.
A good seal at the proper depth will provide the best frequency response. You will definitely notice the difference when you get it right.
When it comes to full-spectrum sound quality, the Empire Ears ESR is one of the most accurate universal IEMs I’ve listened too.
I would be happy taking these to the studio or the stage any day of the week.
Empire Ears Universal ESR in-ear monitors are best described by pristine sound, extreme attention to detail, and robust build quality.
These universal fit IEMs are a great fit for musicians, singers, and worship teams that need high quality sound in a professionally built package that will provide years of regular use.
At the time of this review, the EP-series Universal ESR retails for about $899, making it a solid option that arguably provides better sound than many custom IEMs that are twice the price.
Empire Ears offers several IEM options for a variety of needs.
Universal ESR (3-driver) – great for most musicians and worship teams
Custom EVR or ESR (3-driver) – great for singers and audio engineers
Vantage (3-driver) or Nemesis (5-driver) – perfect for drummers and bass players
- Great noise isolation
- Secure & Comfortable fit
- Robust construction & durable design
- Excellent sound quality
- Clear articulation & even frequency response
- Attractive design & attention to detail
- Quality hard storage case
- Detailed instructions
- Lacking ear memory wire
Input sensitivity: 112 dB @ 1 kHz, 1mW
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 40 kHz
Noise Isolation: exceeds -20 dB of ambient noise
Impedance: 19.3 Ohms @ 1 kHz
Internal speaker configuration: 3 proprietary balanced armatures with a 4-way crossover.
Input connector: 1/8” (3.5mm) right angle headphone jack
More info at: https://empireears.com
Disclaimer: This is an honest and unbiased review based on my own opinions and assessment of the products mentioned here. Empire Ears provided me with a set of in-ear monitors at no charge for the purposes of this review.