The evolution of MrSpeakers has been one of the more compelling company stories in our community of the past several years. Dan Clark of MrSpeakers started with his extensively modified T50rp model called the Mad Dog, working tirelessly to get it into the community. No matter where in the world I’d go for a meet or event—Head-Fi Meets all over the U.S., the Tokyo Headphone Festival, etc.—there was Dan, smiling, showing off the Mad Dog. I’ve met people in the industry who work as hard as Dan, but none harder.
When Dan felt he’d reached the limitations of the T50rp’s enclosure, he decided to 3D-print his own enclosure; and the resulting MrSpeakers Alpha Dog became the world’s first 3D-printed production headphone. At the time, the Alpha Dog was, in my opinion, one of the best closed-back headphones available.
When Dan felt he’d reached the T50rp driver’s limits, he decided to modify the diaphragm by knurling it, which he called V-Planar technology--and the MrSpeakers Alpha Prime was born. When he felt he’d reached the limitations of the Alpha enclosure, as well as the extent to which he could modify the T50rp’s driver (often experimenting to the point of diaphragm failure), Dan decided to develop an all-new headphone, including an independently designed all-new planar magnetic driver—and thus was born the MrSpeakers ETHER, which, as of this moment, is MrSpeakers' flagship headphone.
At $1500, the ETHER was MrSpeakers’ first open-back headphone. It is, in my opinion (at the time of this writing), one of the finest headphones available for those looking for a more neutral monitor sound, with fantastic resolution--and very low distortion, as evidenced by MrSpeakers’ measurements, as well our own measurements using the new audio measurement system here at Head-Fi HQ (which we’ll be talking more about very soon).
Over the last year or so, though, my tastes have been shifting a bit. Whereas I had been seeking more neutral headphones for the previous several years, I have found myself lately seeking a sound that’s somewhat richer than perceived flatness--a dose more bass and midrange presence than would be considered neutral by most. (I actually know when and why my tastes started shifting, and I’ll talk about that in a separate post and/or a Head-Fi TV video.) As much as I enjoy the allure of the ETHER’s neutral monitor charms, the richer sounding (but twice-as-expensive) HiFiMAN HE-1000 has been winning more of my ear time with its fantastically impactful presence. Still, whether I’m in the mood for the flatter tonal balance of the ETHER, or the richer sounding HE-1000, their open-backed designs limit where I can use them. Library? Nope. Coffee house? Quieter nights with my wife reading next to me? Nope, and nope again.
For the last couple of years, one of my main reference high-end closed-back headphones has been the Audeze LCD-XC, which I own and very much enjoy the sound of. Unfortunately, the LCD-XC is also one of the heaviest current-production headphones, weighing around 650 grams. I haven’t determined exactly what my headphone weight threshold is for long-term comfort, but I now know it’s somewhere shy of 650 grams.
Today, though, MrSpeakers is going to announce what will definitely be another of my closed-back reference headphones, and it’s called the MrSpeakers ETHER C. (“C” is for closed.) As its name suggests, the ETHER C uses the same planar magnetic driver its open-backed ETHER sibling uses. The ETHER C also uses the same headband and yoke bits and pieces as the ETHER. When it comes to Summit-Fi-class headphones, I’ve generally preferred open-back headphones to closed-back ones. Even in the cases where there are open-back/closed-back sibling sets, I’ve preferred the open ones—like the EL-8 Open-Back over the EL-8 Closed-Back, or the LCD-X over the LCD-XC. The ETHER C, however, bucks that trend, edging out its open-back sibling with me.
Again, the ETHER C shares mechanical parts with its open-back peer, save for the cups. So, like the ETHER, it’s light in weight, tipping the scales at only 394 grams (versus the open ETHER’s 375 grams). Nominal impedance (as with the ETHER) is 23Ω, and the new ETHER C is a little less sensitive than its open-back sibling. Yes, I can drive it with my iPhone 6 Plus. No, I won’t be doing that. In its first few days here, I’ve used the ETHER C with the Ayre QB9 DSD DAC feeding a Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon amp, and also with a Chord Electronics Hugo TT serving as both DAC and amp. I’m looking forward to pairing it up next with the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC feeding the Simaudio MOON Neo 430HA amp, which has been impressive with so many headphones. This headphone deserves a fantastic amp.
Though the latest pre-production voicing of the ETHER C just arrived a few days ago, I can’t stop listening to it, especially as I’ve been spending a lot of time in very close proximity to an Audio Precision audio analyzer, which emits a constant, soft whirring sound from its cooling fan—soft enough for the ETHER C to attenuate effectively, loud enough to get through most of my open-backs. In addition to the benefit of its closed-back isolation, the ETHER C is, for my tastes, again, the better sounding of the two ETHER headphones. Compared to the open-back ETHER’s brand of neutral, the ETHER C is like…neutral plus. There are moments the ETHER C reminds me more of the HE-1000 than its own open-back counterpart, with its comparatively richer bass tone and a bit more flesh in the midrange.
I’ve done quite a bit of back-and-forth between the two ETHER models, and I love that the ETHER C doesn’t sacrifice midband articulation, even though it adds a bit more meat—a bit more mass—to the ETHER signature. On Noah And The Whale’s “The First Days Of Spring,” the mallet-struck drums throughout the song sound mixed-in extra-heavy to me; and I love how the ETHER C renders those doughy-soft leading-edge drum notes in such a way that they completely encircle lead singer Charlie Fink without impinging one single bit on the extra-crisp aritculation of his vocals. (Through the ETHER C, this plays out similarly on Hozier’s “Like Real People Do,” although the mallets—though prominent—aren’t as mixed-in as proudly as on the Noah And The Whale track.)
As I said earlier, the ETHER C’s sonorousness sometimes reminds me at moments of the HE-1000. To more directly compare the two, I cued up the track that I use most often to wow people with the flagship HiFiMAN: the Firebird finale (Eiji Oue, Reference Recordings). As I said in my impressions of the HE-1000, I don't think I've ever heard such power and physicality from any headphone prior to it—the HE-1000 sounds the closest to putting me in the charged acoustic of the performance space as I've ever experienced from a headphone. How did the ETHER C do with the Firebird finale in comparison? It conveyed much of the sonic power, but not the level of physical “you’re head’s actually in there” sensations that the HE-1000 can. Still, for half the price of the HE-1000, it’s good enough to be a peer, a player in the same halls—it’s just not first-chair in a direct HE-1000 comparo, but would be against all but an elite few, in my opinion.
One place the ETHER C does do a great job of keeping stride with the HE-1000 is in its smooth, detailed mids and highs. Like the HE-1000 does, the ETHER C allows heaps of detail through, without imparting artificial, overly sharpened edges to the sonic picture. Compared to its open sibling, the ETHER C’s treble sounds just as extended (which is to say extended), but a touch smoother in a way I consider an advantage.
In terms of imaging: Whereas the ETHER (open-back) does a wonderful job of floating sonic image objects into an airy, open soundscape, the ETHER C trades some of the airiness for more image solidity, more corporeality. It’s still pretty open-sounding for a closed headphone, but that light, spacious air of the ETHER is something I’ve found I can only expect from good open-back headphones, and the ETHER C doesn’t upend that. While I wouldn’t turn down a hint more of the ETHER’s air in the ETHER C, it is, as is, a worthy net tradeoff for all the things you get in return.
The ETHER C will be priced at $1499.99 with a standard cable, and $1599.99 with the DUM (upgrade) cable, and is expected to ship within two months. It will be available with black carbon fiber cups, which are gorgeous (although I may be biased in this opinion, because I’m rather obsessed with carbon fiber). Those of you lucky enough to be attending the SchiitShow in Marina del Rey, California will be among the very first to audition the ETHER C, and I very much look forward to your impressions.
MrSpeakers’ ETHER C is one of the most well-balanced, articulate high-end closed-back headphones I’ve heard to date, and is, in my opinion, the best headphone yet from Dan Clark, one of the hardest working men in the headphone industry. We will most certainly be adding the ETHER C to the library of headphones at Head-Fi HQ, as one of our top closed-back Summit-Fi reference headphones.
NOTE: What I reviewed here was a pre-production version of this headphone, and may have been different than the final production version.