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Empire Ears Bravado MK-II IEM Review



A Bodacious Update to an Entry-Level IEM

They say the sequel is seldom as good as the original. This may be true for movies, but when it comes to headphones, it's often a different story.

Case in point: The Bravado MK-II in-ear monitor from Empire Ears. Now, the original Bravado is darn good, and it's one of Empire Ears' best-selling IEMs. It's an all-purpose IEM with a balanced signature that performs well with a variety of music. At $599, it's Empire Ears' entry-level audiophile-focused (X series) IEM, but there's really nothing "entry level" about the way it sounds.

The Bravado MK-II retains everything good about the original while getting a big boost in resolution and separation, thanks to the addition of two premium electrostatic drivers.

With a slightly warm sound and much larger soundstage than the original, the overall effect is good, old-fashioned, unpretentious fun.

The biggest change is that the Bravado has gone from being a hybrid IEM (two driver types) to a tribrid IEM (three driver types). Whereas the original has one dynamic subwoofer and one balanced armature, the second generation has an upgraded Weapon IX dynamic subwoofer, two balanced armatures, and two premium electrostatic drivers.

I'm a big fan of Empire Ears IEMs. I definitely have my favorites, but I haven't listened to one that I don't like. The original Bravado was among my favorites, and the Bravado MK-II gives the original a run for its money.

"The Bravado MK-II embodies our relentless quest to push the limits of design and performance to a new extreme. With bolder styling, more technology and performance than ever before, the Bravado MK-II takes its class-obliterating heritage to unprecedented heights."

Empire Ears

Bravado MK-II

Tribrid design (three driver types) ...   Two electrostatic drivers added ... New proprietary Weapon IX+ subwoofer ... Fun, warm-side-of-neutral sound ...  Competes with higher-priced Empire Ears IEMs ...   Works well with most music ... Pair with a Black Dragon IEM cable for maximum detail and fullness of sound


Materials, Quality & Comfort

One visible difference between the Bravado MK-II and the original is that the ear pieces have gotten a little bigger to accommodate more drivers (more on that in the next section). That being said, there is no discernible weight difference -- at least not to me.

Bravado MK-II comes with Empire Ears' Alpha-IV bespoke 26AWG UP-OCC copper Litz cable -- the same as the original. It features a durable, overmolded .78 2-pin connector offered with either a 3.5mm right angle or 2.5mm balanced termination. It's a lightweight, pliable cable, though it doesn't have quite the level of "give" that I like.

The black shells on the Bravado MKII feature a metallic glitter faceplate called Deep Field. The original faceplate features a simple goes Empire Ears "EE" on a plain black background. The Bravado MK-II, however, showcases the Empire Ears gold wings logo on a glittery black background. It's a snazzy look. If you're interested in a custom pair of IEMs from Empire Ears, you've got loads of gorgeous design options to choose from; you can even opt for custom artwork.

A custom IEM requires that you get an impression of your ear canal from an audiologist. This guarantees that the IEMs will be a perfect fit for your unique ear canal. You'll pay a little more for customs, but they are tops in noise isolation and secure fit.

Of course, you'll have to wait longer than you will for off-the-shelf IEMs, but the wait may well be worth it. It really depends on your personal preference and how to intend to use the IEMs. For example, if you'll be using them for exercise, you'll likely want to go the custom route to ensure the ear pieces stay in place while you're running, jumping, or what have you.

On each shell of the Bravado MK-II you'll see three tiny vents; this is to allow excess energy buildup from the dynamic drivers (i.e., the Weapon IX+ subwoofers) to escape.

I found the fit of the Bravado MK-II to be on par with other Empire Ears IEMs I have tried. The nozzles are on the shorter size, which can make wearing them a challenge. With the proper ear tips (for me, the size medium Final Audio Type E ear tips), the nozzles fit comfortably in my ear canal with no issue. I listened to the Bravado MK-II for several hours at a time on multiple occasions with no discomfort.


Driver Technology

The original Bravado had two drivers: a W9 subwoofer and a balanced armature for the mids and highs. The MK-II features a tribrid design, meaning it has three different driver technologies. First, there is an upgraded W9+ subwoofer for the lows. This is the upgraded version of Empire Ear's proprietary dynamic driver that packs the punch of a true subwoofer. A balanced armature handles the mids, with two electrostatic drivers for the highs and ultra highs.

It's all controlled by a 4-way synX Crossover Network, designed to keep the three driver types working harmoniously. Empire describes synX as a supercharged crossover design that designates more individual audio bands per driver than any other crossover technology currently in existence. Each iteration of Empire Ears' snyX crossover system is designed to maximize performance from every single driver type.

The Bravado MK-II also features Empire's exclusive EIVEC (Empire Intelligent Variable Electrostatic Control) technology, which helps to unify the electrostatic drivers with the other driver types. Electrostatic drivers have an amazing frequency range and top-notch resolution, but they do not traditionally play well with other driver types, with a tendency to drown out their   dynamic and balanced armature counterparts. Empire's proprietary EIVEC technology essentially "tames" the electrostatic drivers, allowing them to shine to their greatest potential.

Additionally, the chassis and components of each earpiece are treated with Empire Ears' A.R.C. (anti-resonance compound) technology that eliminates unwanted resonance.

Bravado MK-II gets a big upgrade in frequency response over the original, from 8 Hz-40kHz to an extraordinarily wide frequency range of 5Hz-100kHz. This goes far beyond humans' auditory range of 20Hz-20kHz.

synX Crossover Network | Credit: Empire Ears


Comparison

Bravado

Drivers: 1x W9 subwoofer; 1x balanced armature for mids and highs

Impedance: 22Ohms @ 1kHz

Sensitivity: 98 dB SPL @ 1kHz

Frequency Response: 8 Hz-40kHz

Price: $599 universal/$799 custom

Bravado MKII

Drivers: 2x W9+ subwoofers; 1x balanced armature for the mids; 2x electrostatic drivers for highs and ultra-highs

Impedance: 4 Ohms @ 1kHz

Sensitivity: 99dB SPL @ 1kHz

Frequency Response: 5Hz-100kHz

Price: $799 universal/$999 custom

But it's what we don't hear that can make a difference, as we are still experiencing things like instrument separation, harmonics, and energy, outside of this range. What you hear is music reproduction with the finest detail.

The Bravado MK-II's low impedance of 4 Ohms @ 1 kHz (down from 22 Ohms on the original) makes it easy to drive, including from your phone. With a sensitivity rating of 99dB SPL @ 1kHz, 1mW, I wanted to pair the Bravado with a headphone amplifier/DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that would be good for high-sensitivity IEMs, which require a very low output impedance and a quiet power supply. A common issue with home-based gear is the power supply can interject hiss in the signal path of a high-sensitivity IEM. For my review, I chose the Roon-certified Element X by Matrix Audio music streamer/server/DAC/headphone amp. If you're looking for an all-in-one desktop solution that is also excellent with IEMs, I would strongly recommend the incredibly quiet Element X.


Sound Impressions

I have many good things to say about the Bravado MK-II. At $799, this IEM sounds every bit as good as higher-priced models in the Empire Ears lineup. And that's exactly how I felt about the original Bravado.

The original Bravado has a warm, full, slightly V-shaped sound. It's not as bassy or bombastic as the Legend X or the Valkyrie, but it's got some boldness to it and will show you a good time. I would classify the Bravado MK-II as having a warmish sound signature that hits a little more neutral overall than its predecessor. The bass goes deeper, the treble has more shine, and the midrange to me sounds a little less recessed than the original.

What struck me right away with the Bravado MK-II was the amount of instrument separation. The sound is very crisp, with nice texture on strings and great definition and distinction between guitars, percussion, piano, vocals, etc. I found myself honing in on individual sounds but not to the point of being in analytical mode.

Oh, and hello, Weapon IX+ subwoofer. I hear you in there! The Bravado MK-II definitely packs a punch, with bass that reaches deeper than its predecessor. I definitely picked up on and felt basslines more than I did with the first Bravado.

I spent a lot of my testing sessions on an album that I've practically had on a loop for weeks now -- The Shins' Oh, Inverted World. My favorite track features an extended outro of hypnotic percussion and rhythmic guitar. The drums were amazingly fast, quick, and punchy while the guitar strums were gorgeously textured and defined. The zips of xylophone here and there were lovely, with more sparkle than I got on the original Bravado.

Another track features a mix of aggressive percussion against an electronic keyboard backdrop -- or maybe it's the other way around, but it's a contrast in highs and lows nevertheless. They blended beautifully, with the vocals maintaining an appropriate presence in the mix.

Let's talk about soundstage for a moment. Traditional opinion suggests that you cannot experience the sense of space and imaging on an IEM that way you can on a headphone. Along those lines, what an IEM might lack in soundstage gets compensated when it comes to an immersive, "in-your-head" experience.

Personally, I have found soundstage on Empire Ears IEMs to be pretty remarkable -- to the point where I might forget I'm wearing an IEM if not for the vague sensation of those little ear pieces in my ears. In comparing the Bravado to the Bravado MKII, Empire cites an "enormously increased soundstage." Listening to Vangelis' majestic compositions on the 1492: Conquest of Paradise soundtrack, I was taken by the openness in the music, never feeling like constriction but instead feeling the music radiate around me.

Oh, and hello, Weapon IX+ subwoofer. I hear you in there! The Bravado MK-II definitely packs a punch, with bass that reaches deeper than its predecessor. I definitely picked up on and felt basslines more than I did with the first Bravado.

I'm not saying it's a loudspeaker-like soundstage, but it's really good for an IEM. And back to that low-end extension, I really got that with Vangelis: deep, rich bass that is still refined and defined and doesn't drown out other elements in the music. Meanwhile, the harps, higher-toned piano, and violins sounded lovely: neither rolled off nor piercing or overdone.

Pivoting to the Beatles, I called up Rubber Soul, an album that to my ears has always sounded a little bright (though not in an unpleasant way). A warm or lush headphone or IEM might temper that, but ultimately it's just the nature of the recording. On "I'm Looking Through You," I got nice definition, with the background claps packing some punch and the lead guitar sounding crisp. On this and other tracks, I appreciated the intimate vocals; they were nicely placed within the mix.

Likewise, Taylor Swift's surprisingly spare yet lush Evermore sounded amazing, with her voice playing nicely against the acoustic strings and subtle pops of hauntingly gorgeous sound. I also listened to some Joan Baez, whose gorgeous voice can sound shrill with too-bright headphones. The Bravado MK-II were thankfully very good for listening to Baez, complementing the depth of emotion in her vocals without over-presenting them.


Dragon Cable Recommendations

Let’s not forget cables, the icing on your audio cake! I chose to pair the Bravado Mark II with a Black Dragon IEM cable. Now, a Black Dragon headphone cable is not the same as a Black Dragon IEM cable. The headphone cable is a copper conductor-based cable, while the Black Dragon IEM has silver-plated copper conductors. So you get a bump in the bass from the copper and a boost in clarity and detail from the silver. It’s a really natural-sounding cable. Now, you could also go with a Bronze Dragon IEM cable. This is the equivalent to a Black Dragon headphone cable, which will give you a boost in fullness and musicality. If you’re super into details and more critical listening, you could opt for a Silver Dragon IEM cable, which will lend air and definition to your music. It really depends which qualities you are looking to enhance in your IEM.


The Verdict

Bravo to Empire Ears on the Bravado MK-II. This is a great-sounding IEM that belies its entry-level position in the Empire Ears X Series. Empire Ears has taken what was already a fabulous all-purpose IEM and brought it to the next level. Empire's declaration that Bravado works with multiple genres is no joke -- I enjoyed it with an array of rock, classical, folk, and jazz. It brought the energy when I wanted it but performed equally well with more mellow music. At $799 universal/$999 custom, you'll pay $200 more for the Bravado MK-II over the original. I think this is a modest price hike for a major upgrade, and still keeps the Bravado within an entry-level audiophile price range.


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Review Video


Specifications

4 proprietary drivers; hybrid design

1 next-generation W9+ subwoofer: sub-bass/bass

1 balanced armature: mids

2 premium electrostatic drivers: high/super-high

6-way synX Crossover Network

Universal or Custom

 

Impedance: 4 Ohms @ 1kHz

Frequency Response: 5 Hz - 100kHz

Sensitivity: 99dB @ 1kHz, 1mW

Bespoke Alpha IV UP-OCC Copper Litz Cable

A.R.C. Resonance Mitigation Technology

EIVEC - Empire Intelligent Variable Electrostatic Control Technology


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