Vision Ears Erlkönig – The Fairy King

If I could have only one IEM and put all my eggs in one basket, I‘d be hard pressed to find a more stunning flagship than the Erlkönig and would probably save up to get what could very well be considered a real endgame universal IEM. Build quality is nothing short of perfect and fit and isolation are as good as it gets for a universal. The Erlkönig is technically flawless with fantastic resolution, a pitch black background which provides fantastic note contrast and class leading soundstage but more importantly every of its technical abilities is at the service of a very musical and smooth tuning that you can tweak to your preference. What more could you wish for?

Pros

  • Strong technical foundations, top tier bass, mids and highs… while highly engaging : clearly a statement product!
  • Top notch resolution and fantastic detail retrieval
  • Fantastic soundstage
  • Background as black as it can be, makes for amazing note contrast
  • Build quality is outstanding, as well as great fit and isolation for a universal shell
  • Distinctive and coherent signatures, catering to wide preferences (not a gadget)
  • Smart magnetic faceplate allowing easy access to robust and well thought out signature switch

Cons

  • Price, this fall into « price no object » items… but you do get what you pay for!

Price : 4200€
Product page : https://vision-ears.de/erlkoenig_en

Fit, Build & Isolation

The Erlkönig is a statement product from VE and as such is everything that you can expect : the finish is spotless and a feat of engineering. The silver shell is heavy but fairly compact for a 13 driver… in no way does it compromise the superb fit and comfort and it definitely is a factor for the superb isolation. The isolation certainly contribute to the sense of phasing out of the world when listening to the Erlkönig.

Introduction

Vision Ears is a company that has a very special place in my heart, as it’s also the company that built my very first custom IEM – the legendary VE8. The VE house sound is known for both its very strong technical foundations and their highly engaging nature, and the VE8 certainly delivers. It’s one of the few IEMs that simply are uncontested, entering a very closed number of IEMs that earn the respect of people with various preferences in terms of signatures. This is a testament both to VE flawless engineering but also the craft and knowledge of music that went into its tuning.

The big question in my mind was : how do you top yourself after this? Where do you go, as a company, after building what many consider as a endgame IEM altogether? This is a good problem to have but nevertheless one that is not so easy to solve and many in different industries have failed at repeating such a success.

I can’t say for sure how the guys decided to build the Erlkönig but it sure does make sense to move to a different plane field and go for a universal form factor, a first for a brand known for building custom only. To make matters a tad more interesting they chose Silver as the material for the shell which I am pretty sure is quite a challenging concept from sourcing, to engineering and manufacturing. A statement for a price no object product.

Illustration of Goethe’s Erlkönig

The name itself is pretty interesting. ERLKöNIG. I did a little research and found references to Goethe’s somewhat grim poem, set to music by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert. Wikipedia’s page suggest « Goethe’s poem took on a life of its own, inspiring the Romantic concept of the Erlking . Erlking is a name used in German Romanticism for the figure of a spirit or king of the fairies.»

Vision Ears boldly asserts that « the ERLKöNIG has been developed so that you can experience music like never before». We’ve all read this or a variant of it before and usually this comes with a disappointment at the end… is that another fairy tale or is the Erlkönig really the King of the Fairies?

Let’s see!

Sound

It doesn’t take long to hear that the Erlkönig does not usurp his royal status, for it very well might be King of all universal IEM indeed or at least one of its kings. I often say first impressions are quite interesting and while spending more time with an IEM sure helps getting an in depth understanding, first impressions are usually painting the big picture. In the case of the Erlkönig I sure had very high expectations so it’s much harder to impress, but I was!

The first thing that struck me was the sense of realism deriving from the combination of a pitch black background and a stunning resolution, immediately drawing me into the music and only the music. The second thing that came to mind upon the very first minutes was the overall coherence and seamless presentation like the 13 drivers were all in unison. Then how big the soundstage was : a grand presentation for sure and I went on to check some orchestral music to check and oh my… it was amazing. Despite the resolution and detail retrieval ability I didn’t want to analyze what I was hearing but quickly was drawn into the flow of the tracks and albums, loosing track of time. A sign of an engaging IEM. As I started taking notes for the review – this took me a week to get there – I began to analyze a bit more (because yes, I have to give it back!)

Interestingly the breathtaking resolution isn’t forced on you with any sense of artificial boost in the upper section. The Erlkönig is very natural sounding and no part of the frequency range is getting more attention (although you can tweak this especially with the signature 1 and 2). This is remarkable, and a testament to Vision Ears tuning craftsmanship. The Erlkönig clearly belongs to the VE family, you can certainly here a kinship to the VE8 there, but the Erlkönig is more balanced in my opinion. Both are highly engaging and this was a question mark for me about the Erlkönig which is clearly lifted : VE managed to build another very addictive IEM there.

Now, let’s dive a bit deeper!

Listening notes
I spent an intense 60hours with the Erlkönig, listening to Cayin N6ii (A01 and T01 motherboard) and with both the stock cable and the Elysium cable (my personal favorite combination in fact). I spent more than half that time with signature 4, probably a close to a quarter with signature 3 and the rest with signature 2 and 1 and some time A/B the signatures.

This review is a bit more complex than usual as the Erlkönig features no less than 4 signatures with the switch system and it wouldn’t make sense to just review one of them as it’s clearly part of the product design and a major features as well. For the rest of the review in the spirit of simplifying, I’ll refer to the Erlkönig for a specific signature as “Erlkönig4”, “Erlkönig2” and so on…

Signatures
4- Baseline, to me a more mid centric signature with bass like 3 and less highs
3- Baseline +2db above 4kHz compared to 4, I would say reference
2- Baseline +3db at 100Hz compared to 3, playful bass
1- Baseline +3db at 100Hz compared to 2, full on basshead

Bass

Signature 4

This signature is the baseline, which overall has the less bass of all signature along with signature 3. This being said I didn’t find the Erlkönig4 bass light at all. The bass extends low and quantity is above what many reference IEM feature. It’s already a playful but clean and agile bass, providing good rythm. I enjoyed Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals “Steal my Kisses” like never before and M.A.N “Slow it down” was a great sub bass experience along with a superb portraying of the vocals of Marina Anne Nolles. A very engaging and mature bass presentation.

Signature 3

This signature features +2db above 4kHz compare to 4, but the exact same bass level. I didn’t notice any changes to the bass compared to 4 but the more forward upper mids and treble does change the overall perception and with Erlkönig3 I felt the bass was snappier but somewhat less presen.

Signature 2

This signatures features +3db at 100Hz compared to 3 and 4 and it’s instantly apparent. The bass takes a more prominent space in the signature, the bass line was much more present than 3 and 4. This is a much more playful bass with more slam and sub presence. The bass guitar is one star of the show as well as percussions. Soundstage looses some air but gets a bit taller.

For comparison purposes the Erlkönig manages to reach Solaris or IER-Z1R sub bass presence and is the first IEM since the Solaris to provide this tremendous subwoofer like sense of power. A great option to have the 2 switch. I am almost wondering how signature 1 can sound at this point since bassheads wouldn’t be too sad with 2!

Signature 1

This signature takes things one notch up and features a whopping +3db at 100Hz compared to 2. It’s very obvious that this setting is meant for bassheads, so if you fall into that category rejoice! The bass is no overpowering the signature with massive presence, and I get flashback of my two years with Campfire Vega… only the Erlkönig has softer attack so the Erlkönig1 is less tiring than the Vega but do expect some ear fatigue on this setting.

Mids

Signature 4

The Erlkönig4 could be seen as the most mid centric signature having no high boost and the flatter bass response. It’s certainly the way I hear it and I confess, it’s my favorite setting of all 4. On this setting the mids feature an exquisite balance in the signature : the transition from bass to mids is seamless as well as mids to highs.

The Erlkönig4 mids feature full and articulate mids, and I do feel timbre is the most accurate of all 4 settings. Vocals are just a tad forward but not so much that it would compromise the depth which is excellent. The Erlkönig resolution and black background provides great nuances in the artist vocal performance and from this standpoint it can be a very emotional IEM contributing to its engaging nature.

Lower mids have enough presence to grant male vocals sufficient power but not too much either to make the Erlkönig too warm. Instruments are portrayed beautifully with exquisite detail delivered in a very smooth manner. Upper mids share the same fine balance, the Erlkönig4 is very articulate but never harsh. The mids overall are smooth and detailed. You can clearly pick up nuances in interpretation but at the same time I don’t see the Erlkönig as an unforgiving IEM revealing the flaws in a way that make records unlistenable.

Signature 3

This signature features +2db above 4kHz compared to signature 4 and the upper frequencies focus certainly shows but is not overdone. The mids remain smooth and full but the upper mids and treble focus adds further excitement to the Erlkönig mids compared to 3 and it’s particularly interesting when listening to Jazz.

Things almost go to the edge of what I consider my personal limit in upper mids but never cross the limit. Think Trumpets going to the upper edge : this adds a satisfying excitement but can test your personal limit.

If I had to sum it up, Erlkönig3 is the utmost of what the Erlkönig can provide if you want maximum excitement up top. It will certainly appeal to most of those who like reference signature.

Signature 2

This signatures features +3db at 100Hz compared to 4, with the same mids and highs so most of what I wrote for signature 4 does apply here. Depending on the genres though, the changes will be more or less apparent. On less bass heavy genres, the bass line will have more presence, for example on Jazz the double bass will be more forward and fill more space but the signature is quite close to Erlkönig3. This is an interesting more relaxed setting. On more bass heavy genre, the attention will be taken away from the mids to the bass, highlighting percussions over lead instruments even if those are clearly still very articulate. There is a tad less air and the bass boost does infuse warmth to the signature.

Signature 1

This signatures features +3db at 100Hz compared to 2, as described in the bass section this shifts the signature to full on basshead territory. This does affect the signature radically especially bass rich genres where the mids are set back into the mix : the bass simply takes most of the attention. I think it’s the more polarizing switch position, and also the one that is a bit too far away from the baseline.

Treble

Signature 4

This signature does feature less highs than signature 3, but I found this is very relative as the Erlkönig4 has very good treble extension and presence already. Vision Ears certainly has retained the great tuning qualities of the VE8 in the upper treble section and it’s simply the best BA treble I have ever heard. The Erlkönig builds upon this with more lower treble energy which makes it a more vibrant IEM than the VE8. Piano notes are spot on with clear edges to the notes and sublime highs. You don’t loose much compared to Erlkönig3, despite less presence it is sufficient to give you the full refinement of the upper treble and a smoother lower treble experience that is both exciting and delicate. A very rich and nuanced presentation enhanced again by the blackest of background. Something to behold!

Signature 3

This signature features +2db above 4kHz compared to signature 4 and it’s immediately apparent (but not overdone). This build upon Erlkönig4 refinement and adds welcome excitement and bite to instruments, it’s not as smooth as Erlkönig4 but remains safe no hints of sibilance or harshness. It certainly does provide extra air yet and definitely more bite, but signature 4 could provide enough of that with less fatigue. Great to have both in one IEM

Signature 2

This signatures features +3db at 100Hz compared to 4, with the same mids and highs so most of what I wrote for signature 4 does apply here. The bass boost does affect the mids more than the treble in fact, the highs are just as good as signature 4 to me.

Signature 1

This signatures features +3db at 100Hz compared to 2, and the overall +6db compared to signatures 3 and 4 means the bass are now overpowering the signature in my opinion it takes the attention away from the mids but treble as well, especially on bass heavy genres. There are some scenarios though where records are bass light due to poor mixing / mastering where I see signature 1 being handy.

Verdict

It’s not easy to review a price no object IEM like the Erlkönig, as price definitely can skew our expectations and obviously most of us (me included) can’t justify spending this much money on a single item. I had huge expectations for the Erlkönig and in fact I expected to be somewhat disappointed. I own and have owned quite a few TOTLs over the year, and the only IEM I spent 3k on (the LCD-i4) was disappointing for the price. So much so that the past few purchase I have done are fantastic value for money TOTLs.

The law of diminishing returns certainly does apply, but not as much as I expected in the case of the Erlkönig. The King of the VE range certainly delivers, and compared to other TOTLs it might be marginal in several areas but all combined together makes up for a unique package that many people will wish – for the sake of their wallet – to unhear!

If I could have only one IEM and put all my eggs in one basket, I‘d be hard pressed to find a more stunning flagship than the Erlkönig and would probably save up to get what could very well be considered a real endgame universal IEM. Build quality is nothing short of perfect and fit and isolation are as good as it gets for a universal. The Erlkönig is technically flawless with fantastic resolution, a pitch black background which provides fantastic note contrast and class leading soundstage but more importantly every of its technical abilities is at the service of a very musical and smooth tuning that you can tweak to your preference. What more could you wish for?

Hats off to Vision Ears!

This review was originally published on head-fi.org :
https://www.head-fi.org/showcase/review/22907/

Vision Ears Erlkönig review on head-fi.org frontpage (20/11/2019)

Special thanks
Thanks to Johannes at Vision Ears for allowing me to demo the Erlkönig and to Simon (@lafeuill) for helping me set this up. The unit must be returned at the end of the 2 weeks demo. As usual, this review is my honest opinion. No incentive was given for a favorable review.

Packaging and accessories

I can’t really comment on the packaging since I only got the carry case, IEM and cable but I have no doubt this is top notch packaging.

Specifications

  • 13 drivers, 5 way crossover
  • Sensitivity: 105dB
  • Impedance : 16ohm
  • Frequency range : 15-45kHz

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