Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2

Hardware Review

Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2
Monday, August 24, 2020
closed-back headphone
Richard Barclay

Spending time with MrSpeakers’ debut open-back headphone in 2015 convinced me that high-end earspeakers could rival the listening experience that had previously been the preserve of full-range loudspeakers in a well-appointed room. The extended frequency response, speed, detail retrieval, expansive soundstage and on-head comfort of the original Ether made it the most immersive headphone I’d encountered at that time. I later discovered Dan Clark had founded MrSpeakers in 2012 to create headphones that provided a full sensory experience instead of simply delivering high quality audio. Convinced that every aspect of a headphone is key to the pleasure of listening, Dan took a holistic approach by designing each mechanism from the ground up to ensure there were no areas of deficiency to spoil the perception of being completely absorbed in the music.

High fidelity for all
Dan also pledged to trickle down the technology used in MrSpeakers’ flagship products into more affordable offerings, empowering music lovers with just as much passion for high fidelity sound but more modest resources. He fulfilled this promise in 2017 with the release of Aeon, each revision of which has featured technology introduced in the corresponding Ether. Whenever Dan develops new tech that elevates the performance of his products it is implemented without delay and the improvements are made backwards-compatible with previous models wherever possible at minimal cost; a commendable approach that ensures existing customers aren’t left behind. The new Ether 2 (£2,200) and Aeon 2 (£900), however, differ so much from previous incarnations that there is no practical way to upgrade older models to current spec. 

No more MrSpeakers
Aeon 2’s launch towards the end of 2019 also coincided with the rebranding of MrSpeakers to Dan Clark Audio, a more fitting name for an innovative headphone maker. MrSpeakers’ existing fan base needn’t be worried by the change, it’s business as usual with every DCA headphone continuing to be designed, built and tested in San Diego, California. I was delighted when DCA’s UK distributor, Electromod, offered me an Aeon 2 sample for review. When given the choice between the open– and closed-back versions, I instinctively requested the former due to my strong preference for open designs. However, after learning of the effort that was put into mitigating the ‘cuppy’ listening experience sealed cans often provide, I broke with tradition and asked for the closed model instead.

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Fundamentally redesigned
Aeon 2 Closed (A2C) features a new driver based on Ether 2. While it uses the same V-Planar technology of its predecessors – where the diaphragm is ‘knurled’ to permit larger excursions whilst maintaining linear motion over more of its surface to deliver superior dynamics with lower distortion – the driver has been flipped 180 degrees so that the motor assembly is no longer positioned between the diaphragm and the ear. Significant changes have also been made to the damping materials to tweak the frequency response and also reduce the amount of energy stored in the rear cup to render a larger soundstage. According to Dan Clark, the former has been done to move the listener back a few rows from the stage as it were, and the latter to enhance far-field depth by improving low level detail retrieval.

Aeon 2 uses the same ear-shaped cups and protein leather-clad, generously deep memory foam pads of its predecessor, it’s designed to conform to the jawline and provide a secure seal whilst remaining unobtrusive. Now crimson instead of midnight blue and sporting a lighter carbon fibre backplate, the cups’ unique shape allows the wearer more adjustment than a conventional circular design to better suit their anatomy and listening environment. Listeners who enjoy relaxing against a headrest or pillow, for example, can rotate the cup forward at the top of the ear to create more space behind it without affecting alignment at the bottom. It also retains the very effective, strong but flexible Nitinol frame that exerts a ‘Goldilocks’ amount of clamping force, as well as the uber-comfortable leather/suede headband that remains the best in my experience at distributing weight uniformly across the scalp to prevent pressure spots. Weighing a mere 327g, even after hours of listening the headphones still feel like they float on your head. The cups being sealed does mean your ears start to get a little steamy after a while, but no more than you’d expect.

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Travel-friendly
Dan Clark stated he was determined to make Aeon 2 truly portable without making even the slightest compromise on performance or comfort. Ruling out any changes to the size of the ear cups or to the headband, this was instead achieved with an ingenious gimbal mechanism that allows the headband to collapse down around the ear cups in one smooth gliding motion. Doing so reduces the overall size of the headphone by almost half compared to its predecessor, allowing it to be stored in a much smaller case despite the size of the various parts remaining unchanged. The svelte new Aeon 2 case easily fits in a compact travel bag. Isolation from external noise is excellent and there is also very little sound leakage from the ear capsules into the surrounding environment – even at vociferous replay levels – making the headphone ideal for use in social settings where noise pollution needs to be minimised.

Cable talk
All DCA headphones sport Hirose 4-pin sockets at the base of the ear cups, a robust connector that locks into place easily and securely. A2C comes with either a 3.5mm/6.3mm-terminated or 4XLR-terminated, 2-metres long, DUMMER cable as standard (FYI – the ‘DUM’ part stands for Distinctly Un-Magical). Customers also have the option to upgrade to DCA’s premium silver-plated OFHC VIVO cable that now ships as standard with the flagship Ether 2 and promises a larger soundstage, smoother tone and improved ergonomics. VIVO can be specified with 2.5mm and 4.4mm plugs as well as the more common 3.5mm/6.3mm and 4XLR, and prices range from £200 to £350 depending on length required (1.1m, 2.0m and 3.0m are available). DCA’s UK distributor kindly lent me the 2m 4XLR version costing £300 so I could compare it to the stock cable. VIVO fleshes out Aeon 2’s timbre nicely and adds a bit more warmth and depth to the sound. The lighter– and slightly brighter-sounding DUMMER cable is still excellent though, so if funds are limited I’d be inclined to prioritise the purchase of a source that’s up to the job of driving this headphone to its full potential.

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Amping
A2C’s efficiency is specced as 92dB/mW, comparable to other planar magnetics but significantly lower than your typical dynamic driver headphone. Planars also have inherently low and flat impedances, A2C’s is just 13Ω. Relatively high voltage sensitivity means it does go loud on amplifiers with modest output voltages and the resistive load means its frequency response is unaffected by amplifier output impedance. A2C does however require a generous flow of current for optimum performance – especially in the bass – so is best driven by an amp with low output impedance and a robust current supply. 

Pairing Aeon 2 with a USB-powered DAC/amp such as an AudioQuest Dragonfly – whose output power is measured in the tens of milliwatts – produces a rather flat image with compressed dynamics and an ill-defined bottom end. If you intend to use this headphone with a portable player, I suspect something like an iFi micro DSD – which has a very powerful battery – would do it much better justice. Unfortunately I didn’t have an iFi unit to hand, but a battery-powered Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse Class A SET tube amp, running in high-gain mode, turned out to have surprisingly good synergy. Despite not having hugely higher power output than the Dragonfly, the Eclipse unshackled A2C and gave it the confidence to express its outstanding musicality. 

Full-range 
When suitably driven, Aeon 2 delivers a truly full-range sound with remarkable definition and extension through both frequency extremes. In fact, I often had to remind myself that this headphone costs just £900 as, to my ears, it performs on a much higher level. The flavour, refinement and roominess of the presentation is highly dependent on the amp this headphone is partnered with as it’s incredibly reflective of what’s upstream. 

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A2C is most lively and energetic when driven by fast and clean solid-state amplification. The muscular Schiit Jotunheim delivers a particularly dynamic sound with tremendous grip and incision. The low end is both chiselled and visceral, mids are smooth and clear, and highs are vibrant if a little crispy. The Woo Audio WA8 Eclipse, by contrast, provides a very lush and atmospheric presentation with fat bass, a wholesome midrange and a softer treble with no hint of brightness whatsoever. Notes hang in space beautifully as if time has slowed down. The tubey heft the WA8 adds to A2C’s already weighty bottom-end may be too much of a good thing for listeners who prefer a more neutral balance; bass-heads on the other hand will be seduced by this combination. Bridging the gap between Jotunheim and the WA8 is the Schiit Mjolnir 2, a tube-hybrid I’m currently running with vintage 1960s Siemens PCC88 preamp tubes, these add a little magic to the midrange without departing too much from linearity. Mjolnir offers a more relaxed, spacious and refined listen with Aeon 2 than Jotunheim. It is noticeably better at resolving low-level details like reverb tails and other spatial cues and really showcases this headphone’s remarkably low noise floor and ability to place instruments in their own space. Its timbre and speed are however definitely closer to its solid-state Schiit sibling than to the Woo and it also preserves more air up top. Mjolnir displays the most polite bass response of all three amps but it’s still very texturally satisfying with A2C.

While the closed Aeon 2 can’t match the expansive image that top open-back designs provide, it is almost certainly the most open-sounding closed-back phone I’ve auditioned. Chasing the Dragon’s binaural recording of Espana is a firm favourite in my testing the limits of headphone soundstaging and the performance space A2C recreates here is surprisingly vast, seeming to extend well beyond the boundaries of the ear capsules and into the room. With A2C’s superb low frequency extension, it is also the most palpable and convincingly scaled reproduction of this recital I’ve experienced short of listening to it through my behemoth Tannoy loudspeakers. 

Deep and powerful bass isn’t especially difficult to achieve in a closed-back headphone, delivering it with clean transients is another story. Aeon 2’s knurled planar diaphragm already permits large excursions with low distortion, but the improvements to the damping materials in the rear cup have also been highly effective at controlling the transition between the bass and midrange. There is no bleed through this critical region that would otherwise compromise the speed and clarity of the music. Telefon Tel Aviv’s Fahrenheit Fair Enoughshows that this headphone has no problem keeping the low and high frequency elements of the staccato electronic percussion in sync with one another. 

I am in fact impressed by how seamless all of A2C’s transitions are. Even some top drawer headphones exhibit a bit of unevenness that can mask detail elsewhere. Aeon 2 is surprisingly well-behaved in this respect, the frequency response is smooth and very natural. That’s not to say it’s ‘ruler flat’ – it isn’t – but it is perhaps the most sonically pleasing and realistic deviation from flat I’ve listened to. Articulation and resolution are consistently excellent across the board and contribute to an image that is both cohesive and richly detailed. Lower bass is pleasantly elevated – similar to what you’d experience from a full-range loudspeaker system in a well-treated listening room – and extends to below 20Hz without rolling off. Research is increasingly showing that headphones require stronger bass than previously thought to mimic the natural in-room response of loudspeakers and, after spending considerable time with Aeon 2, I’m inclined to agree. There is reassuring weight to the sound that's missing from the open-back cans I’ve auditioned, providing a stronger foundation and bigger sense of scale and drama with all genres of music. The midband is rich and has a near perfect mix of body and clarity for all instruments including the all-important human voice. The treble is extended and ever so slightly lifted and imparts precision, sparkle and air that makes classical and jazz as equally pleasurable to listen to as electronica and dance. 

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Tuning filters
Three pairs of filters are included with every Aeon 2 to provide progressive degrees of high frequency absorption. These insertable, ear-shaped discs simply push into the ear cups and are removed the same way in a matter of seconds, a simple and neat way for the listener to tune the headphone warmer if desired. Using the filters with a variety of music, all help to dim the slight brightness A2C can exhibit with some solid state amplification. The effect of the thinnest filter is pretty marginal, while the strongest filter darkens the image too much for my liking but will appeal to those who prefer a thicker sound. The medium filter is probably the sweet spot for listening sessions that spill into the wee small hours. I hope Dan continues to supply these useful accessories with future products; empowering listeners with an easy means of tweaking the sound of their headphones to taste is a laudable endeavour and gives DCA yet another USP over competitors.

During my testing I found that A2C’s tonality and image precision is also affected by the position of the ear cups. Placing the headphone higher up on my head tilted the balance noticeably warmer by softening the treble and strengthening bass by establishing a better seal around the ear, but also made imaging a bit more diffuse. These effects will almost certainly vary between listeners so it’s definitely worth experimenting with.

Verdict
If you told me a year ago I’d be effusing over a closed-back headphone I’d have probably invited you to pull the other one! The Aeon 2 Closed from Dan Clark Audio is a genuine revelation and proves that the traditional compromises between fidelity and practicality are no longer set in stone. I can think of headphones that perhaps outshine the A2C in specific areas, but none that present a satisfyingly immersive and full-range listening experience with as many genres, and none that provide such ergonomic form factor and on-head comfort – certainly not at this price. If you’re looking for a stunningly good all-rounder for sensible money, the closed Aeon 2 ticks more boxes than any other headphone I’ve auditioned – I really can’t fault it. 

 

Specifications: 

Type: Closed-back planar magnetic headphone
Efficiency: 92dB/mW
Impedance: 13Ω
Weight: 327g (without cable)
Cable: Detachable dual-entry Hirose with 3.5mm/6.3mm or 4XLR plug (upgrade to VIVO at extra cost)
Accessories included: Travel case and tuning filters 

Price: 
£900
Manufacturer Details: 

Dan Clark Audio
www.danclarkaudio.com

Distributor Details: 

Electromod Ltd
T +44 (0) 1494 956558
www.electromod.co.uk