Dan Clark’s mission in founding MrSpeakers was to make innovative headphones that offer genuine audiophile-grade performance and premium build quality at a variety of price points, all representing the very best value for money. Taking the approach of continual innovation when the performance limits of existing technology are reached, the Californian firm’s current line of planar magnetic headphones comprises the debut Mad Dog, Alpha Dog (the world’s first 3D-printed production ‘phone), and most recently the all-new Ether (open-back) and Ether-C (closed-back). As an open-back headphone enthusiast, I was thrilled at the prospect of reviewing what is – at a starting price of £1,150 – not only the maker’s flagship ‘phone, but also its launch into the open-back market.
Ether is marketed as “an open-back planar magnetic headphone that delivers exceptional sound quality and effortless comfort that can be enjoyed for hours on end”. The maker’s goals were to create their best sounding, most comfortable, and most attractive headphone to date. What sets Ether apart is its proprietary planar magnetic driver that with help from planar speaker pioneer Bruce Thigpen (Eminent Technology) has undergone “V-Planar surface processing”; a form of knurling to create zig-zag folds similar to those in an accordion. This allows the driver to move linearly as a flat plane instead of an arced surface, it is also said to improve its excursion compliance and acceleration, thus reportedly delivering improved dynamics, extended frequency response and lower distortion. The left and right drivers are hand-matched to +/-1.5dB, and production quality is apparently such that rejections account for a tiny 5%. Ether certainly impresses on paper with a frequency response of 16Hz to 20kHz (+/-3dB). In addition to being 96dB/mW efficient, Ether has been configured as a portable device-friendly 22 Ohm load and is easy to drive with amplifiers that like to deliver current into low impedances. Indeed my iPod is able to drive Ether to high SPLs without discomfort.
Ether weighs just 370g, which is comparatively light for a planar, and has a weight distribution that makes it incredibly comfortable to wear. It is the first ear-speaker to feature a headband cradle made from NiTinol, an ultra light and flexible “memory metal” that provides a secure fit with minimal clamping. The NiTinol frame supports the ear-cups but does not actually rest on the head. The headband is made from supple Italian leather with microsuede lining and distributes weight evenly across the skull, thus avoiding the pressure points familiar to any headphone user. The flat ear-pads are fashioned from ultra soft lambs-leather which, in addition to having an uber plush look and feel, provide an excellent seal and remain comfortably cool during extended listening sessions. Ether is dressed in black, but its open-back honeycomb grilles are circumscribed by elegantly accented scarlet ear-cups. As well as a standard velvet storage pouch, a bespoke hard storage case made from high-grade synthetic leather is also supplied.
Electrical connection is made via detachable dual-entry 4-pin sockets at the ear-cup bases. The Ether ships with a standard high quality 6ft cable with choice of 1/4” jack or 4-pin XLR termination (a 10ft length of this cable is available as an option). Ether can also be purchased with a premium cable made from 24awg OFHC, again with choice of 1/4” jack 4-pin XLR termination (£1,250 – 6ft, £1,350 10ft). The importance of cable construction in headphones is fiercely contested, but the higher current demands of Ether compared to higher impedance headphones makes it easier to understand why an uprated cable might be beneficial in this instance. According to Dan Clark, Ether benefits from break-in and measurably improves especially during the first 50 hours of use. As MrSpeakers’ production process burns-in Ether for at least half of this time before it ships, listeners don’t have to wait too long to hear these ‘phones on song.
No fewer than six descriptors are required to encapsulate Ether’s sophisticated personality; neutrality, transparency, resolution, speed, separation and spaciousness. Out-of-head is an oft-used phrase when favourably describing a headphone’s ability to render a soundstage with perceivable dimensionality. Plugging Ether in for the first time is more akin to an out-of-body experience, such is the scale of width and depth of soundstage it creates. Instruments float individually in their own distinct planes, distanced like the planets in our solar system, each shimmering with a unique palette of hues in what seems like a galaxy of inky blackness. The space and quietness between notes is just as beguiling as the delivery of the notes themselves. Listening to Ether is indeed quite an ethereal experience. This otherworldly vibe is helped on a practical level by Ether being so comfortable to wear that it is easy to forget you have a sonic contraption on your head. Even extended listening sessions remain free of the slowly building sense of claustrophobia experienced with many other headphones. A welcome lack of microphonics, the occlusive creaks and rustles that afflict all headphones to varying degrees, also contributes to this sense of tranquility.
Ether is evidently voiced with tonal neutrality as a priority. It is exceptionally linear with no discernible peaks or dips in the frequency response; a purist’s dream you could say. Its uncoloured tonal palette does not however make it bland to listen to, quite the opposite in fact. No one aspect grabs the limelight. Instead, the entire soundscape is exceptionally well lit in a way that allows all elements to shine with natural clarity. Low frequencies are resolved cleanly with excellent speed and extension. The bass is nuanced and has distinguishable tones and textures that are often disguised as a homogenous ‘thump’ in many other headphones. Mids display slightly more of a light and airy presence rather than a hefty and palpable one, which helps to maintain Ether ’s majestic openness. The human voice, piano, and strings are all suspended sufficiently above the bass registers to avoid instances of smearing. High frequencies are nothing short of scintillating. They are rendered grit-free with surgical precision and are exceptionally detailed, but do not aggress with gratuitous splashiness or etching. The effect of their smooth extension is akin to a well-implemented super-tweeter in a loudspeaker system, in which the treble takes on an airy atmospheric quality that also improves the articulation of the low and middle frequencies. As a result, Ether ’s transient response and micro-dynamics are superb.
I was highly impressed by how good Ether sounded through all of the devices I tested. It is however a headphone that scales exceptionally well, and it rewards with increased performance, most notably resolution and soundstaging, each time you improve the quality of your upstream equipment. Likewise, Ether transparently reflects the particular sonic flavour of your gear, however it is not a finicky performer. Each system I paired it with revealed different characteristics, none of which were necessarily undesirable. Through portable Apple devices Ether rewards with an unexpectedly rich and immersive listening experience. I have honestly never heard my lowly iPod sound so good with AAC files! My main stereo setup unsurprisingly revealed a smoother and more refined tonal palette with an expanded soundstage. The biggest differences were however exhibited when Ether was paired with Schiit Audio’s latest Mjolnir 2 balanced hybrid tube headphone amp and Gungnir balanced multi-bit DAC. This combo offered the most open, transparent and resolving presentation. Instrument textures were fleshed out and spatial cues revealed to greater extent than any audio system I have auditioned thus far. MrSpeakers’ Dan Clark speaks highly of the synergy between Ether and this particular Schiit Audio pairing, and with very good reason it seems.
Further audible improvements were noted each time a single-ended linkage in the system was replaced with a balanced one. This is perhaps not that surprising, since equipment with an inherently balanced design usually sounds best in this mode of operation. Switching Gungnir’s outputs and Mjolnir 2’s inputs from single-ended to XLR unlocked even more clarity, spaciousness and dynamism in Ether . Similarly, switching Mjolnir 2‘s headphone output from single-ended to XLR yielded an almost equally sizable improvement. So if your system is optimised to run balanced, MrSpeakers’ XLR cable should reveal its full potential.
MrSpeakers’ use of proprietary V-planar technology in what is remarkably its debut open-back design sets new boundaries for high-end headphone innovation. By successfully integrating sophisticated style, uncompromised comfort and premium performance into an alluring package, Ether undoubtedly raises the bar for its competitors. Its impressive scalability also makes Ether a shrewd investment. While it easily meets the criteria of a tonally neutral reference quality headphone on even the most modest of systems, it will reveal even more of its serene clarity and spaciousness throughout your upgrade journey. This is a prospect I’m sure many will find hard to resist.
MrSpeakers headphone cable/s: Premium 6ft 1/4” jack / premium 6ft 4-pin XLR.
Portable system/s: iPod Touch / MacBook Air (onboard headphone amp and DAC).
Stationary system/s: Yamaha A-S2000 integrated amplifier and Schiit Audio Bifrost Uber DAC / Schiit Audio Mjolnir 2 balanced hybrid tube headphone amp and Gungnir multi-bit balanced DAC.