Let me know of any flaws guys. You know I'm blind to some things, despite reading over and correcting this like 10 times.
MrSpeakers Ether C 1.1
Price as of Mar 2016: $1499.99 to $1649.99 (DUM Cable upgrade)
MrSpeakers brings in yet another closed planarmagnetic to the market in the Ether C. Few planarmagnetic competitors, like the Oppo PM-3 on the lower priced spectrum, and Audeze LCD-XC in the higher-priced spectrum, have managed to grasp the attention of audiophiles today the way MrSpeakers closed planars do. MrSpeakers Mad Dog variants have proven popular over the years in the value range, while the Alpha Dog and Alpha Prime, have remained competitive in the upper ranges. The Ether C takes it one step further into endgame territory, for those who want nothing but the best MrSpeakers has to offer in the closed planar market.
The Ether C is nothing short of absolutely majestic, in its black, stealthy, aggressive-yet-elegant design.
Headband: Starting with the headband is the NiTinol (Nickel Titanium alloy) 'wires', which feel all but weightless. It looks like two very thin pieces of metal, but are rigid, and extremely durable for their design. The Italian leather headband strap that rests on your head has a "breathable synthetic underside" (per MrSpeakers). I can attest to its unrivaled comfort. My sole gripe with the headband is that my larger than average sized-head is at its limit in clearance.
Cups: The sleek 'ultra-rigid carbon fiber cups' are fairly large and circular. The dark, carbon fiber has a high gloss finish, though it is fairly difficult to see fingerprints unless catching light at specific angles. The bottom side of the cups house the metal HiRose 7 series style connectors, which makes cable attachment a breeze. The vertical and horizontal swivel will allow for the cups to rest comfortably on virtually any head shape.
Ear pads: The angled, lambskin leather earpads are thick, plush, and very comfortable, with large, rectangular openings for most ears to fit into without issue. The pads are great at noise isolation, with very little audio seepage. The openings are also where the tuning pads are inserted to alter the sound of the Ether C to your preferences (different from the Ether C 1.1 upgrade foams, which are inserted by removing the ear pads and placing directly on top of the driver housing).
I'm sure people are tired of me saying that I prefer non-leather pads over any form of leather, but be that as it may, the lambskin leather pads MrSpeakers uses are amongst the most comfortable leather pads I have ever tested, if not THE most comfortable of all leather pads tested.
Cable: The unit reviewed came with the upgraded DUM cable with 1/4" plug. The cable is considerably lightweight despite how thick and robust it looks. It is also quite flexible, and covered by a very nice material. It terminates into a very hefty 1/4" (6.3mm) Neutrik plug. There is no 3.5mm adapter, so if you plan on attaching the Ether C to a device with a 3.5mm input, I suggest a nice 1/4" to 3.5mm cable adapter, like the type Grado and Sennheiser sell. None of those suspicious no-name barrel adapters that put stress on your 3.5mm inputs. Alternatively, you can just order the Ether C with a cable that terminates into a 3.5mm plug instead and use a 1/4" adapter which you'll likely have a stockpile of. There are also balanced cable options available.
I can't speak for the stock cable and how much better the DUM cable is or isn't. I'm personally not a believer of cable voodoo, but I'll say that I really like the choice of cable MrSpeakers used for this DUM cable upgrade. It looks great, feels great, sounds great. Not much more I can say about it. Very nice.
Final Build Impressions:
The Ether C is a considerable step up from the modded T50RP husks used for the Mad Dog and Alpha Dog. Both the Ether and Ether C have a brand new, 100% MrSpeakers design. What remains from the lower tiered headphones is the expectation of durability and comfort.
The Ether C comes with a few accessories:
Hard Case: The relatively small form factor hard case fits the Ether C comfortably, if a bit snug. It also has an area under the headband to store the cable (as well as the tuning kit pads and magicfiber cloth), and comes with a mesh flap with velcro to keep them in place. The inside of the case has a raised portion in the middle to keep these goodies separated from the Ether C's cups.
Tuning kit: Used to alter the sound signature balance of the Ether C for personal preferences. The kit includes 4 black pads, 2 white (softer) pads, installation instructions, and frequency response graphs for each tuning pad setup.
MagicFiber cleaning cloth: Pretty self explanatory. Use the cloth to make yours cups glossy and fingerprint free.
As mentioned earlier, the tuning kit is used to alter the sound signature balance of the Ether C for personal preferences. The kit includes 4 black pads, and 2 white (softer) pads, installation instructions, and frequency response graphs for each tuning pad setup.
The tuning pads go inside the ear opening of the ear pads, not under.
Tuning 1: No tuning pads installed. Default Ether C sound. Overall neutral balance.
Tuning 2: 1 black pad on each side. Slightly warmer. The 2nd most neutral setup for the Ether C. Effective mainly at reducing a bit of sibilance. A subtle change over no tuning pads.
Tuning 3: 2 black pads on each side. Warmer than tuning 2, and considerably warmer than no tuning pads (tuning 1). This one effectively removes most sibilance, and de-emphasizes the upper range considerably for a smoother, less fatiguing sound signature.
Tuning 4: 1 white pad on each side. The warmest Ether C solution, further delving into darkness than tuning 3. Upper range is reduced even further for a sibilance-free, smooth sound.
I personally recommend everyone getting used to the Ether C's inherent sound signature without any tuning pads installed. Once you are more than well acquainted with the Ether C's strength and weaknesses, should you start experimenting with the tuning kit to see if a specific tuning better suits your preferences. I say this, as there are benefits and tradeoffs to using the tuning kit. The Ether C is objectively at its best when no tuning pads are installed, though may not suit your subjective tastes until installing tuning pads.
The Ether C's comfort is within my expectations of a MrSpeakers headphone, which is nothing short of excellent.
Weight: At 390 grams, it is among the lightest planarmagnetics I have tested, though a light planar is still far from light in comparison to the better, featherweight dynamic headphones out there. In terms of planars, only the HiFiMAN HE-4 and Mad Dog 3.2 edged out the Ether C in weight as far as personal experience goes. The Alpha Dog was a hefty beast. My current in-home daily driver, the late (and personal fave) HiFiMAN HE-400 feels immediately heavier on the head and neck.
The Ether C's weight may not match that of the lightest dynamic headphones out there, but it falls in a generally acceptable range, especially so because of its fantastic weight distribution. It is no Audeze LCD-2, which felt as if I was balancing a figurative Abrahms tank on the head.
Headband: The Ether C's headband design is absolutely superb due to a very light design and always appreciated leather strap which normally wouldn't leave a hotspot in uneven pressure. Due to my large head (causing absolutely no clearance between my head, the strap, and the headband), the NiTinol headband digs into the leather headband strap. This is a fairly minute issue only worth mentioning for those who plan on using the Ether C for hours on end, and are self-aware of their large heads that tend to hit the max clearance on many headphones.
Under normal use, this is but a very minor discomfort that overall leaves the Ether C under 'Great' comfort, as opposed to 'Amazing'. Again, this is just something to note for those of us with big heads. Normal heads will likely find the Ether C to be absolutely stellar in comfort even during all day use.
Ear pads: The ear pads are the very popular, angled, lambskin leather pads MrSpeakers has sold for years now, and should come to no surprise on its stellar comfort due to its thickness, plushness, and generously open ear cavity. I personally would've preferred another material for the pads, but that's a personal gripe, not an issue with the Ether's pads themselves.
Clamp: The Ether C's clamp falls under 'moderate clamp' to my head, which is the range I prefer headphone clamp to be in. Too strong causes major discomfort, and too loose a clamp causes the endless repositioning and shuffling of headphones. The Ether C's clamp keeps the headphone secure with very minor shifting under normal use.
Overall Comfort Impressions: If I had some clearance between the top metal headband and the top of my head, I'd likely rate the Ether C's comfort as absolutely superb. I personally think all headphone designs should have ample headroom both figuratively and literally, to allow for all head sizes and shapes.
That being said, those with normal to smaller-sized heads will find the Ether C to be among the best in terms of planarmagnetic comfort, and generally excellent overall.
The Ether C is excellent in both passive noise isolation and leakage even at high volumes. It is an easy recommendation for all situations where you want to keep your sound in and external noise out. Short of blasting your eardrums with music while someone sleeps right next to the headphone, I don't think anyone will have a complaint on its noise control performance.
The sound...oh, the sound. The Ether C is what I'd simply describe as a "Top All-Rounder". Proficient at all, master of many. I can easily spoil everything by saying that as of March 2016, this is the best headphone I have ever heard, but I feel an explanation and going further in depth is deeply warranted.
The Ether C is the epitome of nearly everything I want in a headphone's sound. The Ether C may not have the best of everything all at once, but it is certainly capable of achieving great results in all general aspects of sound. With the tuning kit, you can dial in the sound even further if you prefer a more intimate, less technically proficient, yet more pleasing tonality if you desire.
I'll be mainly reviewing the Ether C's sound based off no tuning pads, though I'll talk about its warmest tuning pad setup, as I feel giving you the two extremes is more practical than the middle two tuning pad solutions which fall between being closer to the very neutral (no tuning pads) solution, or the warmest solution (white pad installed). You can extrapolate that the two middle pad solutions will fall somewhere between the neutral and warmest sound.
Let me dig into specifics.
The default Ether C 1.1's bass is as advertised: Linear, with an incredibly deep extension that reaches the lower octaves with ease. The Bass section reaches all the way down to the 20hz range with absolutely no perceivable unharmonic distortions. If you're coming from an open dynamic headphone, be prepared to hear a range in sound seemingly non-existent in many dynamic headphone's audio. You'll likely want to revisit your library of music just to engage with a layer in sound that you hadn't heard before.
Surprisingly, the Ether C is one of the first neutrally balanced headphones I have heard to present sub bass so well without it ever approaching 'emphasis'. I generally prefer a warm tilt, with a sub bass to midrange tilt, and yet the Ether C's controlled, balanced, mostly uncolored approach, highlights the sub bass to be ever so present as I'd expect from a warm tilted signature, despite the Ether C's mostly neutral tonality. Put on some bass heavy music, and watch how the deep, cavernous void of the Ether C's sub bass comes alive. It fills out the atmosphere and general ambience as well as most bass driven headphones I've heard, without the extra emphasis or boominess.
Mid bass notes are taut, fast, and incredibly well controlled, taking more of an in-line "I'm here to play with everyone else" approach instead of taking command, allowing the bass to decay quickly and progress into the midrange without any bleeding into vocals. It isn't the strongest mid bass punch I've heard, which actually plays to my preferences, as I'll take 20-50hz ambience and rumble every time over any emphasis at 60hz and above. Bassheads may need to take note of this, as bass rumble, and bass punch tend fall on opposing ends of that 50-60hz line. The Ether C is not a bass deficient headphone by any stretch, but it doesn't have the typical bass hump of bass driven, dynamic headphones, so don't expect Ultrasone-esque midbass.
The bass overall is sharp, well defined, and exceptionally clear. It is simply there when it needs to be, never overstepping its bounds, and never truly asleep.
Bass with tuning pads: Depending on the level of tuning pads installed, the bass can be moved forward in a subtle or more significant manner. The general properties of bass don't change, but due to the de-emphasis of the mid to upper spectrum of sound, bass volume can climb a considerable amount over other those ranges, and appear bigger, rounder, fuller, more fluid. The tradeoff being that the bass notes become slightly less defined.
To sum up the Ether C's bass, it really depends on how you'd like it to be. The bass can be expertly linear with surgical precision including an excellent reach down to the lowest levels. On the other end, adding some tuning pads can turn the bass into a bolder, fluid, and more organic tone with a slight hit to its definition. Either way, the Ether C's bass is sure to impress everyone in some form of another, based on whatever preference they may have and with some brief pad tuning.
The Ether C's midrange in stock form is what I can best describe as chameleon-esque; neutrally toned, well balanced, with neither emphasis nor overall recession. Depending on source, it can change to any of these traits, from warm to cold, forward or recessed, intimate or distant. It is as transparent as any headphone I've heard to date, if not more so. It is very clean and as defined as I'd expect of a headphone of this caliber. It is prone to exposing flaws like sibilance, tizziness, vocal and instrumental harshness. The midrange paints a pretty clear picture of sound with sharp audio cues.
As far as problem areas in the midrange, there are no major glaring issues, though on frequency tests, there is some shrillness at 5khz, which may be a small factor to the Ether C's ruthless detail retrieval.
Midrange with tuning pads: The turn towards a warm signature becomes evidently clear, with a full on warming of the midrange, and noticeable reduction of brutal qualities like sibilance and harshness at louder volumes. As you go further into the warmer tuning setups, sibilance all but dissipates, with a broad range smoothing of the entire upper midrange. The downside of the warmer tuning setups is the reduction of sharpness and upper midrange clarity. Micro details become less defined and the outline of objects become a little hazy in comparison to the slightly sharper definition of the Ether C with no tuning pads.
On the positive side subjectively, like the bass, the meat of the midrange yields the most benefits, as it slightly rounds out the midrange to enhance euphony, organics, body, and fluidity. Since upper mid to treble ranges are reduced and softened, the general midrange comes forward with vocals and instruments becoming sweeter and more naturally toned.
In the end, the Ether C's midrange is (by default), very balanced and uncolored, yielding control of its sonic properties to the source. There are very few rough edges up top, easiest to remedy with the addition of tuning pads, albeit with tradeoffs of some clarity and definition, for warmth and extra musicality. I can take the Ether's C either way, as both extremes (stock neutral, and full on warmth tuning) sound fantastically emotive, give or take a few things mentioned.
The Ether C's treble is best described as quite present and detailed, lending a big hand to the sense of air, soundstage space, and overall imaging properties of the Ether C.
The pair reviewed has a steep valley between the lower treble's 7khz to 8khz range, subduing some of the Ether C's less desirable ear piercing ranges. Above 8khz, the treble comes back alive with plenty of energy and shimmer without bordering on unnatural hotness and tizz. Those problems only arise with hot, bright recordings, easily fixed with going a step into the warm tuning pad solutions which will reduce sibilance or eliminate it altogether.
Like the midrange, the treble's balancing is reliant on source, and can be relatively neutral, bright, or slightly warm depending on quality of gear, and audio files. You can easily make the Ether C a highly detailed monster, ruthless on exposing flaws, or with warmer solutions (even without tuning pads), it can become softer, more forgiving, while remaining very detailed up top.
On the warmest tuning pad setup, the treble is subdued considerably, giving the Ether C an unmistakably dark tonal character, akin to something like the Audeze LCD2, Sennheiser HD650, or the original MrSpeakers planar, the Mad Dog. Rich and meaty, while remaining detailed, but considerably smoother, more forgiving, and easier to listen to for longer periods of time. Think of it less as a veil or smothering of upper frequencies, and more as a considerable volume reduction. Definition isn't as sharp, and the sense of air and space between notes are reduced, though soundstage size is still within the same perception of distance.
Due to the high variation the tuning pads bring, the Ether C's ability to cater to a wide audience isn't to be dismissed as a gimmick. The treble range is one of the biggest factors in audiophile preferences, giving the Ether C a clear advantage over the competition due to its versatilty to change the treble signature at will.
Imaging and Soundstage
This is where the Ether C's most potent magic lies. I can't say this enough: the Ether C's imaging is nothing short of pure, unadulterated, brilliance. Never, EVER have I heard a headphone portray sounds, objects, voices, instruments in a virtual space quite like the Ether C's presentation of sound. Needless to say, don't expect witchcraft, but more often than not, you can expect a deep, wide, and tall sense of positional layering only aided by the fantastically vast soundstage that can reach far outside the listening position under the best circumstances.
I have been tricked more times by the Ether C than by any other headphone into thinking my humble Pioneer soundbar was turned on as I listened to music, played games, or simply watched TV shows and movies. I've had to double check that certain noises weren't coming from outside my window.
Due to the Ether C's fantastic imaging, it goes a step above and beyond standard headphone audio limits, that will leave a long lasting impression. This is all coming from a closed-back headphone, mind you. The soundstage is black, quiet, and big, which allows the Ether C to paint a well defined image of whatever you're listening to, without any sonic obstruction.
Imaging and Soundstage with tuning pads: The warmer your tuning pad setup, the more limited the Ether's C's imaging and soundstage become. The reduction in treble due to the extra warmth/smoothing lead to the perception of a reduced soundstage, though it remains relatively unaffected in size. Less air, less definition of objects, and less open space between them has a congestion effect in comparison to no tuning pads installed. That being said, soundstage is still large and impressive, just not as immediately impressive.
If you have a high priority for soundstaging and imaging, I recommend you stick to no tuning pads, or the first warm pad setting. The second warmest, and the warmest setups have more intimate sonic traits which make the soundstage and imaging lose a bit of their initial magic, though still remain excellent for a closed headphone.
For us gamers, regardless of tuning pad setup, many of us rely on virtual surround DSPs for our imaging and soundstaging, which remain excellent regardless of tuning pads. It's just made better when using no tuning pads, at the expensive of that immersive warmth and fullness. Give and take. The Ether C gives you options. Pick your poison.
The Ether C's neutrality and immense detail clarity should come as no surprise at this point. Despite a drop off in the lower treble (with a rise back up), the Ether C's clarity is absolutely top notch. Subtle nuances from the lowest frequencies to the highest are picked up by the Ether C with relative ease. The sharp imaging, air, and sparkle all enhance clarity to endgame level. Deep, textured bass, linear midrange, and sharp, defined treble lead to a clarity driven headphone, without the additional harshness associated with many headphones belonging to that type of sound signature characteristic.
Adding tuning pads reduce clarity the warmer you go, in favor of musicality, less fatigue, and intimacy. Definition/sharpness becomes softer in general, so if you're into digging into the smallest details, I recommend sticking to no pads, or just the second most neutral tuning pad solution.
Tonality: I'm sure by now I've mentioned the signature of the Ether C various times. Linear, well balanced, and mostly neutral with deep extension both down low and up top. Tuning pads lead to a definitive change towards warm/dark, with the warmest setup leading to a big bold, fatigue-free sound.
Bass: Sub bass depth and extension is the name of Ether C's bass game. Expect plenty of ambience and atmosphere from the Ether C without the mid bass boominess. Mid bass is controlled and linear which doesn't bring attention to itself unless called for. Bass can become bigger and fuller, the warmer you go with the tuning pads. Despite the extra warmth, it still maintains a separation from the general midrange, and does not ever become obtrusive.
Midrange: Well balanced, neutral tone, malleable and dependent on recording. Takes on whatever character is needed of it. Adding tuning pads give the midrange a warm, more organic tonality, at the expense of some clarity and definition.
Treble: Neutral to detailed, only harsh if recording isn't top notch. Dark valley at 7-8khz, but bright upper range. Sharp, sparkly, and airy. Tuning pads have a huge impact on treble's tonality and emphasis. Definitive dark signature, with zero sibilance, soft, smooth high notes. Like the midrange, less definition and clarity the warmer your tuning pad setup. The treble has the biggest variation when using tuning pads.
Soundstage: Large, expansive, deep, and incredibly impressive. Warmer tuning pad setups lead to less virtual space, though still large and impressive under the right circumstances.
Fantastic clarity, details, air, soundstage, and imaging are all huge benefits to the serious gamer. Every blade of grass, whip crack, gun shot, footstep is picked up by the Ether C. For player vs player types, I suggest no tuning pads, or the second most neutral pad setup. On the immersion side, the depth of the bass fills out the battlefield ambience well, especially on warmer tuning setups. Speaking of tuning pads, while clarity and definition of objects and sounds are reduced a bit, it still remains very detailed, and a lot more enjoyable to play with if you're not gaming competitively. Sounds like the thunderous rumble of explosions, or heavy hum of a deep space frigate are beyond well represented.
As far as positional cues go, the Ether C paired with a virtual surround device like the Creative X7 is a match made in heaven. With no tuning pads, the already exceptional soundstage and magical imaging is enhanced by a very convincing sense of 360 degree space. No enemy will be creeping up behind you while you're wearing the Ether C. The big soundstage makes the sharply defined positional cues incredibly easy to locate.
As for virtual surround with tuning pads, the reduction of imaging quality and perception of soundstage isn't as drastic as when using the Ether C in a typical stereo situation. Positional cues are just as easy to locate in a 360 degree space, despite having less space to breathe in compared to having no tuning pads installed. Its fantastic immersion and great positional cues make casual gaming a highlight of my day.
It is among my absolute favorite headphones regardless of whether I'm looking for a very detailed killing machine, or if I want to sit back and enjoy the heavy action on screen. All bases are covered.
Everything. No, really. The Ether C works well with absolutely everything I can throw at it. You want to focus on micro details? Take off the tuning pads, and go with the cleanest, most detailed variation of the Ether C sound. You want something bigger, bolder, with more forward presence? Add in the warmest pads and jam away. You want something in between? Instead of the white foams, just add in one or both of the black tuning foams to get very close to non-foam detail and clarity, with extra body and fullness of the warmer white foam tuning.
There is nothing I can think of that the Ether C can't do. It's that simple.
Is the Ether C is for everyone? If price isn't considered, yes. I'd say the Ether C is absolutely for everyone.
You want detail monster? You have it. You want an intimate musical experience? You have it. You want a competitive gaming beast? You have it. You want a casual, fatigue free, enjoyable thrill ride? You have it. All while providing great noise isolation.
It may just be one headphone, but it may as well be three or four. It is able to do so many things, while making so many other headphones obsolete. This may as well be the only closed headphone you will ever need at home for all purposes, ever.
If you're looking to make the final step in your audio journey, and are looking for a top of the line, noise isolating headphone, stepping towards the Ether C makes all the sense in the world. I simply see no need to look further. It is that good. Don't pass up on the Ether C.
Likes, Dislikes, Unfiltered Final Thoughts
Deep, textured Bass
Well balanced, transparent midrange
Clear treble without over emphasis
Tuning kit for extra warmth, less sibilance/harshness
Sonic versatility (with or without tuning kit)
Needs a bit more clearance for big heads
Hints of sibilance without tuning kit
Tuning pad negatives (reduced hyper detail, reduced imaging and soundstage properties, congestion on the warmest tuning with warm recordings)
Unfiltered Final Thoughts:
The Ether C reminds me of a super Alpha Dog with options. I wasn't able to try the Alpha Prime, but the Alpha Dog left an everlasting positive impression, as the best, well balanced, closed headphone I had ever heard at that point. I'm gushing about the Ether C harder than I ever gushed about the Alpha Dog with reason. If you ever heard the Alpha Dog but wanted less of the harshness up top, with an even bigger sense of space, and considerably more refinement, the Ether C would be right up your alley.
The Ether C falls under 'unobtanium' for my finances, but if I was in the market for a closed headphone at this price range, I honestly wouldn't even consider anything else. The Ether C will leave a mark on me for as long as my memory holds out. It was love at first listen, no doubts, no hesitation. The Ether C speaks for itself. It is undeniably special, and I'm sure many of you will agree.