by Dan Browdy
MrSpeakers has been on a bit of a roll lately. From humble beginnings modifying the headphones made by other companies, Dan Clark has grown MrSpeakers into a pillar of the industry. With the recent release of the Flow updates to the popular ETHER and ETHER C, MrSpeakers has improved two of the best headphones in their respective markets. However, as happy as people are with the ETHERs, many long-time supporters of MrSpeakers have been waiting for them to return to their roots and introduce a model in a more affordable price bracket than the $1799 flagships. Now we have the new MrSpeakers ÆON. Priced at $799, this closed-back can appears to be just what fans have been waiting for. After spending some time with it, I’m certain it will bring in a whole load of new Mr. Speakers fanatics as well.
In many respects, the ÆON is a scaled down version of the flagship ETHER C Flow. It contains much of the same technology such as V-Planar divers, NiTinol memory metal headbands and TrueFlow wave guides. But unlike its sibling, the ÆON is smaller, lighter and focused on keeping costs (and thus the price) low. It’s clear that considerable thought was put into reducing the final cost without sacrificing quality in the sound or build.
While it doesn’t match the premium quality of the ETHER C Flow, the ÆON does feel extremely well-built. The backing is made from real carbon fiber, even if it’s not beautifully contoured like C. The headband strap will be a single piece of quality leather rather than the dual-material stitched affair on the C (and the pictured review unit). The entire headphone assembly is aluminum except for the painted plastic cover and carbon fiber backing. The unit is solid enough that I wouldn’t worry about dropping it or throwing it in a backpack without a case. Which is fortunate because in order to keep costs low, it probably won’t come with one (though that’s yet to be determined). While the plastic might get dinged, I don’t think there’s any danger of damaging the unit. In fact, I’d be more worried about the aluminum parts scratching the other things in my bag.
None of these are changes that really make much of a difference at the end of the day, but they add up to cost savings and those savings show up in the final price of the unit. This philosophy is present in the design of the new single-sided yoke. It has a clever design with no moving parts; all of the adjustments to the fit happen in the movement of the NiTinol headband and the pivot where the yoke attaches to the cups. Each of the two yokes is crafted from a single piece of aluminum, making them extremely sturdy and light. Finding the proper fit is a painless affair with this new setup, another achievement in cutting costs without sacrificing much of anything.
The cups have a unique, off-kilter teardrop shape that I find surprisingly appealing. I recall reading a study published by a dating site that found that the people rated most attractive all have some sort of aesthetic flaw; it causes some people to find them oddly attractive while others simply don’t get it (think Cindy Crawford’s mole). I feel that the shape of the ÆON is going to be similarly polarizing. Aesthetics aside, the shape has other benefits as well: it contributes to the lighter weight, it’s surprisingly ergonomic in the hands, and it’s unusually well balanced when laid down on a flat surface. It even sits around the neck without discomfort, despite not folding flat.
When I first laid eyes on the ÆON and saw that curious shape, I immediately wondered how much room there would be for my ears. In the past I’ve found some irregularities with the fit with headphones like the Oppo PM-3 and Audeze Sine, both comfortable only when worn “just so.” I was pleased to discover that the ÆON does not suffer from the same issue. In fact, it’s more spacious than the ETHER C Flow! The walls of the pads are deep, relatively thin and – while adequately plush – don’t compress much. This leaves more than enough room for my ears to barely touch the sides (depending on how I wear it) without touching the driver at all. While it’s no HD800, it feels positively cavernous compared to the ETHER C Flow. The pads themselves are replaceable if needed, but they would be destroyed in the replacement process, so don’t expect to be pad-rolling with these.
Besides the roomy ear cups, the ÆON also has a clamping force that feels perfect. It’s tight enough that it doesn’t move when I’m bopping my head to the music, yet it’s loose enough that it doesn’t cause discomfort like I sometimes feel with the HD650. At 335g, this is a light headphone too. When you combine the light weight, Goldilocks clamp, spacious cups and plush pads, you end up with one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn. As a closed headphone with protein leather pads, it will heat up over time, but that’s about the only fault I can find in the comfort.
I need to mention that the ergonomics of the ÆON are something special. The amount of effort that went into the design slowly reveals itself the more I use the headphone. All the parts come together to be oddly satisfying: the weight and balance; the sturdy feel of the cups combined with the flexibility of the NiTinol bands; the way the pads don’t crush each other but seem to mate perfectly; the little divot on the top of the yoke where my finger sits perfectly when holding the cups; the way the cups perfectly fit the curvature of my hands. Holding the headphone is so satisfying that I find myself enjoying any opportunity to do so. I realize it sounds odd to say, but I think it’s unique. It gives me the fizz, as James May might say.
The cable that comes with the ÆON is a new version of the classic DUM cable, dubbed DUMMER. It uses slightly thinner strands of wire, making it both lighter and more supple than its big brother. It’s terminated in a sturdy metal 1/8” jack with a screw-on 1/4” adapter included. The headphone side uses the same Hirose connectors as the ETHER line of headphones, so the cables are all interchangeable. The connectors on the cups are recessed slightly, which should add stability if you plan on using these on the go. The connection is solid and there are no cable microphonics to speak of.
All of this thoughtful design and clever cost-cutting would be for naught if the end product didn’t sound good. Fortunately, it does. MrSpeakers made four different models of closed headphones before they ever made their first open one. They know how to do closed well and the ÆON shows it. In a nutshell, the overall sound is much in line with the ETHER Flow line. All of Dan’s headphones have been approaching a tuning ideal that he calls “natural” and which I call “balanced”. It doesn’t feel particularly bright or dark, but it’s not flat and boring either. It has generous bass levels without sounding like a bass-head-only can, it has peak-free treble without sounding veiled and the mids are smoothly rendered without being particularly forward or recessed.
I think the bass is going to be the most talked about attribute of this headphone, both for what it does well and what it does not. The bass delivery is planar at its best. When called for, it delivers large quantities of clean, dynamic bass. The impact is palpable — tight and punchy with barely a hint of closed-headphone resonance or dynamic-driver bloom. This gives both fantastic detail in the bass and a visceral experience for a headphone. When the recording doesn’t call for that level of bass, the ÆON can feel positively bass light, a comment that has also been attached to the original ETHER C. The big difference here is that the ÆON has more bass quantity across the board and it has a flat response, so it’s suitable to many more genres. Because of the flat response, it doesn’t boost the bass artificially; it can sound light or not, and that’s totally dependent on the mastering of a given track. I think that the contrast between the impact of the bassy tracks and the lack of impact on brighter tracks can alter its presentation in a significant way. Overall, I’m extremely pleased with the bass and don’t find this quirk to be particularly bothersome. I actually prefer the tighter, cleaner delivery of the bass on this headphone to its big brother, the ETHER C Flow. The C Flow has more quantity throughout the frequency range, but it also feels bigger and more resonant. This comes down to personal preference, of course. The sub-bass on “Black Milk” by Massive Attack or the drums on “Soul Love” by David Bowie (MQA version on Tidal) are great examples of the rumbly or punchy bass this thing can put out. “Tom Sawyer” by Rush is a track where you might wonder where all that bass went (nowhere, it’s just not in the recording). One of the nice benefits of the flat, tight bass response is that it doesn’t bleed into the other frequencies at all. The mids are smooth and nicely balanced with the rest of the frequencies. Great vocals performances seem to really shine here. Sarah Jarosz’s voice on “Ring Them Bells” is buttery smooth while the rest of the instruments are still cleanly defined and dynamic. The same track on the ETHER C Flow can sound a little strident when she hits the more forceful notes, but it’s not the case on the ÆON.
With the high frequencies, Dan has pulled off the trick of avoiding peakiness and major dips at the same time. Treble is nicely extended while never feeling harsh or veiled. There does seem to be a notch in the treble up around 9k – 11k that isn’t particularly intrusive. It reminds me of a similar response I heard on the Focal Elear, where it’s hardly noticeable unless the cymbals fall right into that range, and then they get pushed way back in the mix. On the ÆON, it’s in a higher frequency range and it’s a thinner band, so it’s less intrusive to my ears. Overall the treble is smooth and inoffensive, making for a fatigue-free listening experience.
As this is a closed headphone, one might expect the soundstage to be a bit constricted. On the other hand, as it’s a MrSpeakers headphone, one might expect it to be surprisingly vast for a closed can. The truth lies somewhere in between. While it certainly surpassed the stage of the many other entrants in the market, it doesn’t match that of the ETHER C Flow. I’d call it larger than average for a closed headphone. Imaging and placement is solid, no complaints there. Detail resolution is surprisingly competent for the price, but it’s not on par with the ETHER C Flow. This is probably a limitation of the smaller driver in the ÆON and, in my mind, it’s probably the main reason to move up to the flagship model.
Prospective owners will want to take heed of their amplification output, keeping in mind that ÆON might take a little more juice to fully let loose. Dan has tuned the unit to sound its best around 85db, which is fairly loud for my personal tastes but not dangerous for extended listening periods. I have found that it does indeed respond well to some extra power on the amplification end. Sensitivity and scaling on the ÆON is approaching portable headphone territory. Certainly it gets much louder directly from my Nexus 5X phone than the ETHER C Flow but the result might not fall exactly in line with every consumers listening level preferences. I did feel like a little more from an amplifier section would add a lot to the sound, but I’d have no compunctions using it right from my phone in a pinch. To get it to sound its best – with that clean punchy bass – you will want to scale up your amping.
The ÆON is light, small, easy to drive, sturdy and comes with an 1/8” connector on the new thinner cable. It seems clear that this was intended to be useful as a portable. While some may think of portable headphones as a compromise between sound quality and utility, this headphone is not. It scales well with desktop gear and I’d argue that portability is a side benefit and not the main event. Its versatility is further testament to the engineering chops of the team at MrSpeakers. Two headphones that show this well are the Oppo PM-3 and the MrSpeakers ETHER C Flow. The PM-3 is a great portable, closed planar but it doesn’t scale as well with good desktop gear. At the other end, the ETHER C Flow is more resolving than the ÆON with a bigger soundstage and overall it’s a better sounding headphone, but it’s only marginally portable. It’s bulky, difficult to drive properly, and expensive enough that I’d think twice before allowing it to leave the house. The ÆON hits the sweet spot between portability, scalability and price.
In my review a few short months ago, I called the ETHER C Flow the best closed headphone on the market. While that hasn’t changed, when considered as a complete package, I would rather own the ÆON than the ETHER C Flow. Certainly, the Flow is uncompromising when it comes to sound and build quality, but that comes at a $1000 premium and it lacks the versatility of the ÆON. The ÆON has a fatigue-free sound with smooth mids and slamming bass. It can be used on the go or at a desk. The ergonomics are oddly satisfying and its distinctive visual appeal works for me. It’s not the last word in sound quality, but it has no glaring flaws and it sounds superb when everything clicks (e.g. “Wondering Where The Lions Are” by Bruce Cockburn).
Once again, MrSpeakers has created something new that is arguably better than anything else he’s created before. The ÆON takes everything MrSpeakers has learned over the years and combines them with clever design choices and well-thought-out compromises to achieve sound and build quality at an unheard-of price. I see no reason not to recommend this headphone wholeheartedly.
TIDAL Playlist of songs mentioned in the review:
More information: http://mrspeakers.com