By Matt Poe
Fit Finish and Build Quality
I have not encountered many problems with regard to quality control with previous MrSpeaker’s products, but of course this is a ground up project which introduces a whole new realm of potential problems. While it is fairly early in the process, let me say this. The Ether is an incredibly well thought out design. The execution of the design in terms of fit, finish and materials are some of the very best I’ve seen. I spoke with Dan at length about the particulars of the build process. One thing I came away with from that conversation was just how important build quality was to his end product. He has scrutinized every last piece and screw and considered how each piece connects to the whole. I was impressed then as I am now that they are in my hands. I’ve only seen one other company in this arena truly impress this much right of the gate in the first time/ground up headphone game…Oppo. So to say that I’m impressed with the build quality of the Ether is an understatement.
In my opinion, most full sized headphones look somewhat goofy when worn. It often seems that the more expensive they are, the goofier they tend to look, at least in most cases. Personally, I find the ETHER to be a very attractive an understated looking headphone. The claret red against the black pads and headband looks nice. And the diminutive NiTinol band gives the headphone an overall smaller look than most others.The pads are a little different here than the typical Alpha Pad. First of all they are flat instead of angled. When I asked Dan about the choice of a flat pad he simply said, “flat pads sound better.” That explanation was good enough for me.
The pair that I have here came with the DUM cable. Honestly, it didn’t matter much to me what cable came stock with the ETHER because I knew that I’d get an aftermarket cable. That being said, I’ll go on record to say it would be a mistake to overlook the DUM cable. Dan has put a lot of effort into bringing out every ounce of performance with ETHER and the DUM cable plays more of a role into the overall performance of the headphone than I previously realized. After a few days with the ETHER I loved them but thought that they have a little less bass response than they did when I first auditioned at a local meet several months ago. I switched from the aftermarket cable to the DUM cable, and viola, problem solved. They DUM cable is a nice performer and well worth the cost if you want to get the very best performance from the Ether.
After hearing these headphones as a demo a few months earlier, I knew that they were special and I also knew that I wanted to own a pair. Going through my first few test tracks put a big Cheshire grin on my face. Damn, the ETHER was sounding wonderful…but a little different than what I’d heard in Nashville (at another headphone meet). It was not a huge change but an appreciable one nonetheless. And the more I listened the more I recognized and appreciated the change that I was hearing. Not being able to properly comprehend the improvement I was hearing, I decided to reach out to Dan and just ask. The easiest way to do that was to just pick up the phone and call him. What Dan explained is that he’d made a small discovery that produced better air and staging without adding any harshness or brightness to the treble. That was it! That’s just what I was hearing. It was impressive to listen to. What a difference such a subtle change made to the overall experience and enjoyment.
This headphone has given me the most emotional response that I’ve ever had to reproduced music with the exception of the Sennheiser he90/Orpheus. The musical engagement factor is off the charts good. At least five times during my first series of test tracks with the ETHER, my jaw would drop open, then I’d try to repress a big smile and then, finally, I’d chuckle with joy at how I felt listening to music with these. This particular ETHER has approximately 200 total hours on them. So, they are in fact completely burned in. They do have final production tuning according to Dan including a late recent change. More on the change later.
In a word, fantastic. I’m not a treble head by any means. I’ve owned the hd800 (more than once) and still say that it gives maybe the best classical experience out there period. BUT, given other genres of music and particularly less than expertly recorded music the hd800 can be very fatiguing and a sure trigger for my tinnitus. The first day with the ETHER resulted in the longest listening session that I’ve had in many months. When I woke this morning I had zero listening fatigue and no sign of tinnitus. YES!
The treble on the ETHER is impressively extended and offers a similar type of treble to the hd800, but just adds a splash of musicality. Strings and guitar are gorgeously rendered and held me captive song after song as I cued up the likes of Chloe Hanslip and listened to her elicit those incredible tones from that million dollar violin. The resonance of that instrument when I listened to her play La Campenella was intoxicating. Before I even realized it, I was listening to the last song on the album an hour later.
Guitar riffs and plucks are equally entertaining. I grew up listening to live acoustic guitar. Since I was three or four years old, I can remember listening to my dad and his friends strumming away on acoustic guitar on Friday and Saturday nights. I love the sound of acoustic guitar played live. Listening to Julian Lage: Worlds Fair on the ETHER took me back to my childhood. The detail and tone of guitar reproduced through the ETHER is exceptionally good. The added air and transparency from the Ether took the sound of guitar to the next level for me. It connected me to the music easily and left me utterly engrossed until the last note was played.
Next, I used Rodrigo Y Gabriela tracks from their first album for testing. Going back and forth between ETHER and hd650, I found the difference to be quite dramatic. The first two aspects that jump out at you are that the veil of the hd650 is lifted and that sound stage is considerably larger. Also the speed of the Ether handled the lightening quick dueling guitar licks with aplomb, effortlessly. The hd650 could not generate the same speed and passages and were often somewhat smeared together.
The ETHER is a very balanced and neutral headphone. But if I were pressed into nominating the most special aspect of the frequency response, it would have to be the mids. They are gloriously good. If you enjoy vocal centric music you are in for a special treat. Jazz vocals (some of my favorite recordings) such as the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Patricia Barber and Diana Krall with the ETHER took these favorites of mine that I’ve cued up many hundreds of times and took them to a new level of enjoyment.
Vocals here are natural and contain a wonderful resonant quality. Often it comes down to tone of the mids and specifically vocals that make or break a headphone for me. If a headphone can’t get tone of voices and instruments right in the mids, then it’s missed the mark. I’m happy to say that the ETHER hits the bulls eye in the mid section. These are some of the most enjoyable mids I’ve had the pleasure to listen to. I often like to use K.D. Lang to test the mid-range. I’ve heard her several times live and love the tonality of her wonderful effortless voice. In my opinion, her album Drag is a great example of one of her best efforts and is expertly recorded. Listening to this album through the ETHER made the hair on my arms stand up…several times. There are moments when you really can’t put into words how listening to music made you feel, not exactly. You become intoxicated and forget that the music is recorded. You feel that you’ve been transported to the place where you are there with the musician. We all long for these moments. Listening to the ETHER with some of my favorite Jazz vocal recordings gave me several of these moments. For me, the music lives in the mids and is where the magic happens. Thankfully there is plenty of magic to be found here with the ETHER.
All About That Bass
This is typically where hairs are split and enemies are made among us audiophile types. I’ll try to be as direct and forthcoming as possible here. First of all, this headphone has very nice bass. The sub bass response is linear to the recording with tightness and texture. The ETHER is not a bassy headphone or a basshead headphone. The signature here is more about neutrality. The bloom typically associated with bassy cans is just not there with the ETHER. That being said, the ETHER does very well with electronic music. The speed, tightness and precise imaging makes for a really fun experience when I cued up Daft Punk: Random Access Memories. I found that the new the HE-1000 by HiFiMAN will go deeper and hit with a more pleasing impact and the HE-6 features more visceral slam in the bass region, but the bass presented by the ETHER is coherent and in line with the rest of the signature.
I am admittedly somewhat of a recovering basshead. Back in the day I loved the Audio Technica ATH- M50 and later the Denon AH-D2000. But the days of “v” shaped signatures no longer appeal to me. These days my affection goes to headphones that offer a more neutral response with a dash of warmth and the ETHER fits this description quite well.
Imaging with ETHER is stellar and its large-ish sound stage make a nice presentation of the “area” where the music is represented on stage. It’s very easy to distinctly pickup where vocals and instruments are located within the field. The height, width and depth are generously represented, only to be slightly outdone by the hd800 specifically in the category of width.
The ETHER offers a modest level of isolation. More so than a typical open headphone. Also it doesn’t leak as much either. For example, it was difficult for me to hear my phone ringing just on the other side of the room when listening with the ETHER. I would have no trouble hearing this with any of the other open headphones that I’ve owned. I can see that some people may benefit was this modest isolation in a work setting or slightly noisy home environment.
The ETHER is an impressive effort by Dan and his team. To consider that this is their first offering built from the ground up increases my appreciation of the accomplishment even more. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t come down to my appreciation of a pair of headphones but rather how much they connect me to the music. I’m happy to report that the engagement factor is what makes me the happiest with the ETHER. The musicality of these headphones connects me to the music and keeps me listening and enjoying music for hours at a time, as much as any headphone that I’ve owned.
I found ETHER to work well with all genres of music and not just specific types. I listen to a lot of Jazz vocal recordings. Also newer folk, acoustic and live performances can often be found on my playlist. Less frequently classical and rock are too my liking. The ETHER handled all of these types of music equally well.
What don’t I like about the ETHER? Well, they are not cheap. But they are, in my opinion, a good value based on what is currently being offered on the market at similar performance levels. While mega buck amps and dacs will offer appreciable improvement, the ETHER will also deliver an impressive experience from mid-fi gear. The Schiit Audio Bifrost proved to be a good dac pairing, but the company’s Gungnir offered better dynamics and resolution. The Schiit Lyr 2 with NOS tubes was exceptionally well paired to the Ether bringing out the best in the mid-range and explosiveness in the bass region. I also used the Gustard H10 headphone amplifier to good effect, getting beautiful tonality and finesse across the frequency, while extending a little deeper but with less weight than the Lyr 2.
At the end of the day, the ETHER hits all the check boxes for me. A neutral headphone is a different experience than most of the headphones that I’ve owned. It also happens to be the most enjoyable headphone that I’ve ever owned. It takes some slight adjustment to get used to the ETHER and truly take in its presentation. The level of distortion is so incredibly low that it may cause you to re-evaluate what reproduced music can sound like. It did for me.
More info: https://mrspeakers.com/ether/