Odd though it may seem, the California-based firm MrSpeakers doesn’t make loudspeakers; instead, it makes world-class headphones at sensible prices. The company name derives from the fact that company founder Dan Clark was, at an earlier point in his career, a talented loudspeaker designer-for-hire who was contracted to create the excellent but sadly short-lived family of Platinum loudspeakers. More recently, Dan launched MrSpeakers as a headphone company whose initial products were progressively more intensely modified variants on the Fostex T50RP planar magnetic headphone. These models carried colourful names such as the Mad Dog, Mad Dog Pro, Alpha Dog, and Alpha Prime, and they collectively won the firm and its founder considerable respect within the high-end headphone community.
But excellent though MrSpeaker’s Fostex-derived headphones were and are, Clark had a vision for driving his company forward by building a set of top-tier headphones entirely of his own design and manufacture. The result is pair of superb planar magnetic models: the open-back ETHER, which launched first, quickly followed by the closed-back ETHER C. Now common wisdom has it that closed-back planar magnetic headphones will never be able to achieve the open, transparent, and free-flowing ‘feel’ of their open-back brethren, but Clark—well aware of these perceptions—was determined that his ETHER C would offer sound quality fully competitive with that of his well-regarded ETHER model. The result, in my assessment, is the finest closed-back headphone that I have heard to date.
The ETHER C features machined, black-anodised aluminium driver baffles, pivots, and gimbals, with a distinctive NiTinol ‘memory metal’ headband frame from which is suspended an adjustable Italian leather ‘microsuede’ headband strap. Within the baffles are suspended sets of MrSpeakers-designed 2.75 x 1.75-inch single-ended planar magnetic drivers fitted with the firm’s proprietary V-Planar driver diaphragms (which we will discuss later on). For the sake of a good and comfortable fit, bevelled lamb-leather-clad ear pads are provided. Completing the picture are sets of rigid but lightweight, precision-made carbon fibre ear cup enclosures, which give the ETHER C’s an elegant, upscale, and decidedly high-tech look.
Interestingly, although the ETHER C is a closed-back design, it is not a fully sealed design; instead, the aluminium ear cup baffles provide tiny, oblong vent holes on top to help relieve backpressure from the planar magnetic driver. Ordinarily, these vent holes are barely visible, since they are partially blocked from view by the ear cup suspension frames. Each ear cup baffle is also fitted with a distinctive four-pin signal cable connection fitting and our review samples came with a set of the firm’s optional premium signal cables equipped with four-pin metal plugs with quick disconnect locking rings.
Before we move on, an additional word about MrSpeakers’ patented V-Planar diaphragm technology is in order. The diaphragms used in most planar magnetic headphones are flat planar membranes, tensioned at the edges, covered with conductive traces, and positioned in close proximity to their companion magnet arrays. Musical signals passing through the traces interact with the surrounding magnetic field, causing the diaphragm to move back and forth, producing sound. One problem, however, is that the movements of traditional planar magnetic diaphragms are not uniform over their entire surface area. Instead, there is more driver excursion toward the centre of the diaphragm and less toward the edges, which is not ideal.
Seeking a solution, Dan Clark collaborated with designer Bruce Thigpen of Eminent-Technology fame to invent a patented, pleated (or ‘knurled’) diaphragm material said to address “nonlinear driver motion by more deeply creasing the diaphragm to increase compliance.” MrSpeakers says that V-Planar technology enables the diaphragm “to behave as a more idealised planar surface and also improves its acceleration,” adding that, “with more of the driver surface in linear motion, V-Planar can not only push more air at low frequencies, but with greater acceleration also delivers better dynamics, high-end frequency response, and measurably lower distortion.” We suspect V-Planar technology might well be the ‘special sauce’ responsible for giving MrSpeakers’ ETHER C headphones their remarkably quick, agile, and exceptionally detailed sound.
Another factor contributing to the ETHER C’s sound, however, is appropriate use of critical damping techniques. Perhaps because of his loudspeaker design heritage, Dan Clark thinks critical damping in headphones is of paramount importance and a factor he believes many otherwise good designs overlook. In baffles of the ETHER and ETHER C headphones there is, directly in front of the drive units, a small, recessed rectangular tray that is designed to hold rectangular foam sheets of damping material. In the original (v1.0) ETHER-series designs, these sheets were made of a white foam material.
Now, in the v1.1 ETHER models, the inner white foam sheets (the ones closest to the wearer’s ears) are replaced with sheets of a new grey foam material whose consistency, damping, and filtration characteristics are different to the original material. Clark says these foam dampeners act as acoustic multi-pole filters and that the effect of introducing the new material (in conjunction with the old) is to add a broader set of filter parameters, thus giving the ETHER C an even more open, balanced, and lucid midrange and upper midrange sound. Having performed the v1.0-to-v1.1 upgrade on our review set of ETHER C’s, I can confirm that the upgrade is effective and entirely beneficial, making an excellent headphone even better.
How does the ETHER C sound? Let me start by saying that it is strongly clarity and detail orientated and that it is the sort of headphone created by and for listeners who well and truly love sonic neutrality (honestly, if you like your headphones with a dollop or two of euphonic colourations, then the ETHER C is probably not for you). Neutrality seekers, though, will be drawn by the ETHER C’s ‘what-you-hear-is-what-the-record-has-to-offer’ honesty and sonic impartiality. One other key benefit to bear in mind is that, because the ETHER C is a closed-back design, it also offers an inherently lower noise-floor than open-back models do.
Through the ETHER C, great recordings sound great, good recordings sound good, and not-so-good recordings sound, well, a bit flawed. The only complaint I could see some listeners bringing forward, then, might be that the ETHER C has a very slightly less warm and also somewhat brighter-sounding demeanour than the open-back ETHER does, although in terms of bottom octave bass the ETHER C is the stronger performer of the two. Moreover, the ETHER C is exceptionally detailed and revealing and has an extraordinary ability to retrieve multiple layers of low-level sonic information—even when other larger-scale dynamic events may be unfolding.
For example, on the track ‘Avratz’ from Infected Mushroom’s Converting Vegetarians [Arabesque Distribution, CD], it is common to hear deep, powerful, plunging low-frequency synth passages accompanied by delicate high percussion instruments playing softly in the background. The ETHER C deftly lets you hear and feel the potent, sharply defined modulations of the bass synth, while at the same time rendering the finely filigreed textures and timbres of triangles, small cymbals, and the like. Through the ETHER C, then, powerful instruments do not swamp or overwhelm more delicate ones; they simply accompany one another, just as they would do in real life.
These same characteristics serve acoustic music beautifully, too. Just listen to the ‘Quia fecit’ movement of Kim André Arnesen’s Magnificat [2L, 24/96] as performed by soprano Lise Granden Berg, the Nidarosdomens jentekor, a pipe organ, and string orchestra, noting the uncanny sense of a large, resonant acoustic space that the ETHER C’s create. Note, too, how the ETHER C’s effortlessly juxtapose the very low-frequency pedal note of the organ against the sweet, soaring voices of the girl’s choir and the more robust and richly textured sound of the soprano soloist’s voice. The ETHER C’s ability to disentangle and delineate intertwined musical lines serves it well, while creating a large and quite believable soundstage upon which the music can unfold.
This ability to play loudly and softly at the same time—always with exemplary resolution, dynamics, delicacy, and finesse—is what sets the ETHER C apart, making it an extremely desirable headphone indeed. ETHER C is not just a great closed-back headphone; it’s a great headphone, period. Stated simply, ETHER C gives you all the music all the time, successfully harvesting all (or very nearly all) of the valuable musical information your recordings have to offer.
MrSpeakers ETHER C v1.1 closed-back planar magnetic headphone with premium cable option
Type: Closed-back planar magnetic headphones
Drivers: Single-ended 2.75 x 1.75-inch planar magnetic drivers using patented V-Planar diaphragm surface technology. Drivers are matched to within ± 1.5 dB from 30 Hz – 5kHz. Critical damping provided via v1.1 foam driver dampers.
Frequency response: Yes (manufacturer’s term, not ours)
Impedance: 23 Ohms.
Distortion: Not specified.
Accessories: Moulded thermoplastic travel case, MrSpeakers premium “DUM” signal cables with terminations the buyer’s choice of a 4-pin XLR connector (for use with balanced amplifiers) or a ¼-inch TRS headphone plug (for use with single-ended amplifiers).
Price: £1,350/$2.025 with premium cables
MrSpeakers Headphone Products
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