Kew, VIC 3101. In February I penned some initial listening impressions on Audeze’s EL-8 open-back headphones. Specifically how they compared to a selection of rival models. The sessions that informed that particular slice commentary was a break from the norm; they didn’t take place at my home in Sydney but 1000kms away at Addicted to Audio’s store in Melbourne.
That’s a long way to travel to audition headphones but Addicted to Audio, founded in 2010 by George Poutakidis, remains the number one destination for headphones, headphones amplifiers and DACs in Australia. While larger distributors spent much of 2011/12 waiting on D/A converter development from long-time traditionalists like Rega, Musical Fidelity and Rotel, Poutakidis inked distribution deals with up and comers like CEntrance, ALO Audio, Resonessence Labs and Astell&Kern (among many others). He also locked down a good number of the bigger players in the headphone field: Audeze, Grado and Westone (to name a few). Now more firmly inked in head-fi’s collective consciousness, each brand’s ascendancy has given Addicted to Audio
If that sounds like chest beating on behalf of Poutakidis, consider this: without Addicted to Audio’s presence at the Melbourne Audio and AV Show in 2014, the Headzones area – a smaller version of RMAF’s CanJam – would have all but evaporated.
The EL-8-focussed visit to A2A’s Kew-based store was a proof of concept: the lounge room might provide a more leisurely environment in which to pen listening notes but in the case of zeitgeist-riding headphones where review units are still to ship, time is of the essence, waits for no man, flexes like a whore* etc. The mountain must go to Mohammed.
On the plus side, in-store listening more closely mirrors the consumer audition process. One can pull down all manner of alternatives from the display wall before making a final call.
Newtown, NSW 2042. Expanding into Sydney last month, Poutakidis took ownership of The Hifi Trader in Newtown (as reported by DAR Australia), which also happens to be my local hi-fi store. Fifteen minutes walk up the road and I’m looking at a Rega RP-1 and Sonos through the window.
Addicted To Audio now at the helm brings with it greater local access to DAR-centric hardware. That means broader access to hit-and-run in-store auditions and (short-term) home a-loaners.
During their opening week at The Hi-fi Trader, a pre-production pair of MrSpeakers’ all-new Ether headphone had made its way from California to Newtown; I dropped in to for a first listen. Impressed with what I heard, I returned the following day for a second run. An AURALiC Taurus MKII provided the necessary go juice whilst a Resonessence Labs INVICTA Mirus handled the digital decoding and transport.
On the third day, I arrived prepared with an INVICTA-ready SD card of music. I took listening notes. Day four and I had those same Ether headphones at home, driven on my desktop by an AURALiC duo – Vega DAC and Taurus MKII headphone amplifier – with which I remain as impressed as I did on day one.
But wait – I’m getting ahead of myself…
San Diego, CA 92110. MrSpeakers – such a confusing name for a headphone company, don’t ya think? Founder Dan Clark was apparently a loudspeaker designer before he took to modifying Fostex’s T50rp headphones. He isn’t the only guy to take the Japanese manufacturer’s entry-level planar magnetics apart with the aim of elevating their performance but he’s definitely the most commercially successful.
His MadDog model (reviewed here) swaps out the earpads but holds tight to the original’s semi-open earcup whilst the Alpha Dog (reviewed here) supplants the latter with a 3D-printed closed cup. The Alpha Prime improves further on the Alpha Dog’s inner-spaciousness and headstaging, more rarified qualities in the closed-back world. Two reasons why Clark’s Alpha Prime remains one of my favourite closed-back phones.
Pivotal to Prime’s audible talents are modifications to its driver, the specifics of which Clark keeps a closely guarded secret – intellectual property and all that – but with a patent now filed, Clark has opened up a little about his work with co-developer Bruce Thigpen on something he calls V-Planar technology: contours are applied to planar magnetic driver’s previously flat surface. Picture a concertina with no permissible in-out movement. The resulting increase in surface area is reportedly capable of moving more air and faster which also, according to Clark, brings with it “measurably lower distortion”.
The V-Planar tech allows the driver to behave more like a piston than trampoline. These two animations lifted from the MrSpeakers’ website stand in for show and tell:
For the listener, Clark and Thigpen’s advances promise greater linearity, speed and dynamics.
The Alpha Prime’s V-Planar driver contouring technique has since been transplanted to the Ether. This new headphone is no Fostex mod, it’s the result of two years’ development work that started on the ground floor with an all-new
oval rectangular driver that measures 7cm x 4.5cm.
For those keeping score at home, OPPO’s PM-1 driver measures 8.5cm x 6.9cm. However, the Chinese company’s premium model simply can’t touch the Ether’s midrange lucidity and treble articulation and were returned to their box on the first day of in-store listening, leaving only the Fazor-d Audeze LCD-3 in the fight.
The Ether’s super-light NiTinol ‘memory headband’ addresses one of planar magnetic headphones’ most common complaints: weight. They’re generally heavy (and not in the Haight-Ashbury kinda way).
Time to look up from your phone. A pair of Ether weighs in at 370g – a long way down from the LCD-3’s neck-bending 600g. It’ll come as no surprise that the MrSpeakers’ ace their Audeze rival on comfort and longer session agreeability. Clamping pressure is just the right amount of firm and on the head they feel none too dissimilar to the 350g Beyerdynamic T1.
Listening at home, the Ether’s vibe prioritises clean separation and spaciousness over acoustic mass and heft. They sound closer to the T1 than the Audeze.
That’s not to the say the Ether are low-end pussies – they aren’t. Bass articulation is strong here, particularly with the tones and textures that elevate ‘sound’ to ‘notes’. The Ether descend lower than their German rivals and there’s more soundstage width too. Where the Ether really step out is with their dynamic munitions. Biff, bang, pow!
If you thought the Alpha Prime were internally capacious then the Ether’ll knock you off your perch! Doctor Who fans will know what I mean when I say they come on like an aural Tardis.
With a 23-Ohm nominal impedance and 96db sensitivity the Ether play effortlessly in Astell&Kern and Pono territory. The T1? At 600 Ohms, they have two hopes: Bob and no. Portable player bonhomie is one thing but being aware of those around you when listening to open-backs is another matter entirely. House-bound users can get up and running with the Ether’s core talents with dongle DACs like the Resonessence Labs Herus or the AudioQuest Dragonfly – again, one-upping the T1. Herus-bound, the Ether’s deep bass enunciation really shone through on Biosphere’s Microgravity but an inkling that tubes would add midrange flesh was validated by the Schiit Audio Vali hybrid’s interception of the Herus’ un-attenuated signals.
Back to The Hi-fi Trader. As well as the ‘phones themselves, this store was also in possession of Clark’s deluxe headphone wire set to ship with the first eighty Ether pre-orders. Christened DUM (Distinctly Unmagical Cable), the tongue in cheek humour is provided gratis. Johnny-come-latelies will need to pony up US$249-299 (termination dependent) when the DUM goes on sale as a separate item. Those already in possession of after-market Alpha cables won’t need to drop a cent – the terminations found at the base of each Ether earcup is as per the Alpha Dog/Prime.
With all manner of headphones available but time on a short leash, I opted for the Audeze LCD-3 (US$1945) as the context provider. Like the Ether, they’re American-made, planar magnetic and open back. Moreover, Audeze are possibly the most venerated headphone company of recent times.
The Fazor-revised LCD-3 arrive with 110 Ohms nominal impedance and see around 4.5W from the AURALiC Taurius MKII in XLR balanced mode. The Ether’s 23 Ohms take receipt of approximately 1.2W from the XLR-terminated DUM but there’s no obvious disparity between the two in volume turn.
The first tune to bounce from the Resonessence Labs INVICTA Mirus’ SDcard slot and into the Taurus for the A/B session was Monolake’s brooding “Icarus”. The Ether showed themselves to be more incisive with the finer details especially in the uppermost frequencies that dart from blackness and recede just as quickly. Sound plainly faster than the Audeze, the Ether lend more excitement to the clicks and hisses that Robert Henke likes to weave into his electronic soundscapes. The left and right panning of percussive ticks was more overt with the Ether’s S U P E R S P A C I O U S N E S S. The Audeze doesn’t necessarily play it narrower, more that its horizontal soundstage extremties are more subdued.
A chunkier midbass from Audeze gives the LCD-3 comparatively more weight and warmth but it’s the thicker, more congealed midrange that lends the sparse acoustic guitar / vocal of Momus’ The Poison Boyfriend a more intimate feel. The album’s mastering, so typical of CDs issued in the eighties, does nothing but embolden the album’s thin and spindly production aesthetic – the LCD-3 step in to add body and cosiness to Nick Currie’s mise en scènes.
In stark contrast, the Ether render Currie’s guitar-string plucks as more long-fingered. Here again the Ether is emphatically airier.
There’s an irony here: the LCD-3 sound closer to the ‘dark chocolate’, treble-hooded vibe of the Alpha Dog/Prime whereas the Ether ups the citrus zing. Think cool, refreshing gin and tonic. Running with this alcohol analogy, the LCD-3 pour – and taste – like Guinness. On Lou Reed’s “There Is No Time” [HDTracks 24bit/96kHz], the Audeze cite cymbal sobriety but play it thicker with Reed’s talk-sing.
As the guitar rock intensifies, the Ether’s Duracell-bunny micro-dynamic energy could potentially prove the more tiring of the two in the long-term. Listener resilience will largely fall to one’s willingness to be exposed to every last minute detail.
That said, taking time to pair MrSpeakers’ Ether with the right amplifier could mitigate listener fatigue almost entirely. Switching from AURALiC Taurus MKII to Headamp GS-X MK2 + external PSU proved to be just the ticket for reining in the last few percent of Ether ebullience, showing (again) that one might be better served by a warmer amplifier – hello tubes? Know also that the Headamp redressed some of the LCD-3’s previous comparative shortfall with width and air.
For those wondering if this pre-production model will sound identical the final retail product, it will. Addicted To Audio say the only changes to come down the pike between now and their June release will be to Ether’s earcup’s swivel limit.
I’ve purposefully withheld the price until now: US$1499 – $1539 (depending on cable termination choice). The Ether is a whole lot of high-end headphone goodness for the money: deep-sea illumination, righteous dynamics, immersive, airy. Most crucially of all for planar magnetic headphones, they’re light. A new benchmark in the sub-$2K category? I should coco.
DAR-KO awarded with ease.
Further information: MrSpeakers
*It’s a Bowie lyric.