By Dan Browdy
Preferences in personal audio are a funny thing. I think we all acknowledge how subjective this hobby is, but do we ever think about how malleable our opinions are? I know that if you told me a week ago that I would fall in love with a slightly warm, closed-back headphone, I would have thought you were pulling my leg. Boy was I surprised! Last weekend, at The Schiit Show, MrSpeakers announced their newest headphone, dubbed the ETHER C. This is the closed-back version of their flagship ETHER planar-magnetic headphone. Which one you prefer may surprise you.
MrSpeakers, founded by Dan Clark, started off humbly enough selling a modified version of the Fostex T50rp called the Mad Dog. Further models followed, steadily evolving to where the cups were custom 3D-printed and even the driver itself was modded. When Dan could go no further with the T50rp, he embarked upon a journey to design his own headphone from the ground up. His codename for this headphone in development was the Dreadnought. Like all his other headphones, it had the familiar closed back. After some time in development, Dan felt like he needed to take a step away from it as he wasn’t making the progress he wanted. Instead he tried working on an open-backed version for fun. This ended up working well and eventually became the ETHER. When he went back to the Dreadnaught, he made fast progress and it eventually became the new ETHER C. This new unit uses many of the same parts as the ETHER, including the same V-Planar driver, but with closed cups. Carbon-fiber (the source of the C in the name) was used in the cups to keep down the weight. Weighing in at 13.9 oz or 394 g, the ETHER C is very light for a planar, open or closed. This makes it only 0.6 oz (14 g) more than its open counterpart, a negligible difference. By now, many people have experienced the incredible comfort of the ETHER, thanks to its light weight, soft pads and clever headband design. The ETHER C shares all these attributes and is essentially indistinguishable as far as comfort goes. It fits snugly despite the malleable NiTinol headband that lets it move easily and adapt to your head’s shape and size.
The new closed cups are not quite round on the outside and this irregular shape adds an interesting bit of style. The unique shape combined with an eye-catching carbon fiber weave gives the headphones a look that’s evocative of an exotic sports car. As a motorsports enthusiast, I find the look to be striking and handsome. The open ETHER with its pearlescent red highlights is also reminiscent of a sports car but in a different way. This complementary nature of the two ETHER headphones goes beyond just the look and feel of the headphones. For while they both use the same driver and they share the same major sonic characteristics, they have mildly different flavors. I always like to use the analogy of chocolate vs vanilla ice-cream: everyone loves ice cream, but some people simply prefer chocolate over vanilla.
The ETHER comes across as a very neutral, transparent headphone. It’s extremely resolving of micro-details and doesn’t impart much of a sound signature to the music. It steps out of the way and lets the upstream gear dictate the overall sound. This transparency and neutrality is something that some people yearn for, while others prefer their headphones to impart more of its own brightness or warmth to the chain. It’s also open-backed, so it has a nice big, airy soundstage. The ETHER C on the other hand has a less neutral sound. As it’s a closed headphone, the bass comes across with more authority, yet it doesn’t bleed into the midrange. In fact, the ETHER C is at least as resolving of micro-details as the ETHER. While it is slightly colored, it still manages to be very revealing of upstream gear. It has a more “fun” sound signature without sacrificing the overall detail and natural tone of the ETHER. This fun sound is something that many people prefer to the more reference or neutral sound of the ETHER. Of course, closed headphones are also known to have different soundstaging than their open-backed brethren. Closed cans offer the benefits of increased bass and isolation at the expense of soundstage and “air”. I’ve always associated the soundstage of an open headphone with its “air”, those ambient cues coming in from outside that really sell the illusion of the sound coming from beyond the headphones on your ears. The ETHER C doesn’t have that sense of air at all; it actually has very good passive noise isolation. However the soundstage is surprisingly large for a closed headphone. It was an eerie sensation for me to hear such a large soundstage and not have that sense of air that you get with an open can. If you were to listen to both of these headphones in a completely silent room, you’d have none of the audible cues that tell your brain the headphone is open or closed. I wonder if, in such an environment, the ETHER C soundstage might even be bigger than that of the ETHER. Dan Clark claims that it actually is.
While there are some very obvious differences between the two headphones, it’s easy to tell they’re relatives. I find them very complementary with different flavors for different preferences (i.e. chocolate or vanilla but both ice cream). The ETHER is more neutral, transparent and airy. The ETHER C is a bit more bassy and very isolating. Both resolve micro-detail at a level that’s hard to match and have a very neutral sound signature overall. The ETHER C, like it’s open sibling, tends to reveal the character of the upstream gear without imparting much of its own personality. Sure, the bass is boosted a little — but changing upstream gear still has a very noticeable effect on the sound. On a more analytical setup, the ETHER C felt like it was presenting an exploded 3D diagram of the music. Every instrument and note was neatly delineated and precisely presented for your inspection. On a more musical setup it presented a fluid sound, the precise notes flowing together like water droplets merging into a stream. This chameleon-like behavior of the both ETHER headphones is one of their defining features. The ETHER C manages to pull it off while still having a touch of fun in its sound signature, which is part of the wonder of this can. I do find the ETHER C to be a wonderful headphone. Normally, I prefer open headphones with a big, airy soundstage and a somewhat sparkly sound signature. The ETHER C has practically none of those characteristics yet I found myself moving to the music almost constantly when wearing them. At one point, I was trying to write an email and I was forced to stop and simply dance to a song. That’s not something I get with every headphone.
I spoke with Dan Clark over dinner after the Schiit Show and he said something that stuck with me. He talked about how he’s changed how he listens to music in the last few years. He feels that the focus on the individual pieces of gear and all the minutiae of what they do (and don’t do) “perfectly” can be misleading. At the end of the day, what matters is how well you connect to the music. When you find yourself having an emotional reaction to the music, you know the system works as a whole. This philosophy is clearly present in the ETHER family of headphones. The ETHER struck a chord with many people, while others criticised it for being almost too neutral. For those folks, the ETHER C is here. Our preferences are malleable; you may not end up taking home the one you think you prefer.
Fortunately, they’re both priced the same at $1,499.99 ($1,599.99 with the upgraded DUM cable), so you can make your decision purely on preference. MrSpeakers is now accepting preorders for the ETHER C and expects to start shipping on October 15.
More Info: [http://www.mrspeakers.com]