MrSpeakers Alpha Prime: The Alpha Evolves

Warren Chi (a friend and partner at Audio360.org) often says that Dan Clark’s MrSpeakers is the Cinderella Story in personal audio. Clark quickly built a reputation in the Head-Fi community through modifying Fostex T50RP’s and improving their performance to another level. Eventually, he struck a deal with Fostex and as his modifications matured, so did the sonic signature of the Fostex T50RP’s. Thus, MrSpeakers was born!

In the early days, when you bought one of Dan’s modified Fostex T50RP cans, you received the newly dubbed: “MrSpeakers Mad Dog”. Two years ago, I met Dan at the Head-Fi Meet in Los Angeles and couldn’t help but notice that Jude Mansilla was buying a pair of Mad Dogs. Having such high respect for Jude (founder of Head-Fi.org), and needing a closed-back planar magnetic headphone (the Audeze LCD-XC did not officially exist), I decided to buy a pair of Mad Dogs on the spot. The Mad Dogs gave me something I desperately needed: Planar sound without bothering my wife! And I loved the Mad Dog, especially listening to electronic music and hip-hop.

Next thing you know, Dan was no longer merely modifying Fostex cans, he moved on and began designing and building his own 3-D printed ear-cups. He also made some changes to the driver, created his own baffle, and this became the Alpha Dog, which was introduced last year to great success. I enjoyed the Alpha Dog so much that I gave it a Writers Choice Award at Positive Feedback Online. It was lightweight, dynamic, and downright fun to listen to. However, there was something about the Alpha Dog that left me thirsting for more. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was because of that feeling that I often said things like: “These headphones are nothing short of stunning for $600 bucks.” Simply, I felt it necessary to mention their price when speaking of their performance.

With the brand new Alpha Prime, I face no such quandary. I’ve been listening to these headphones for a couple of weeks now, and they are addictive. I’ve been having a blast with them, and when it all comes down to it, isn’t that what music reproduction is all about? Music is the universal language that we all share, no matter what part of the world we come from. With the right sound system, I find it difficult to pull myself away and end up forgoing sleep for sonic bliss. When a pair of headphones captures and reproduces my music in a way that connects me to the memories associated with that music, or moves me in a way that I have to hear something again and again, I know it’s a sound worth keeping. After living with the Alpha Prime, I can easily say that I will be keeping them in my life.

Alpha.Lambert

Clark is presenting the Alpha Prime as an entirely new headphone altogether, sonically speaking. For the Prime, Dan re-engineered the drivers. Therefore, he could do what he wanted in order to achieve the exact sound he was after. It’s important to understand that the Alpha Prime looks exactly like the Alpha Dog, but when it comes to sonics, it’s a different beast altogether. The Prime, in my opinion, more closely represents Dan Clark himself. Dan loves music and his musical tastes span most genres. And it is Dan’s love of music that bleeds into the Alpha Dog, and because of this, we all benefit.

The Prime is more revealing than the Alpha Dog, but it also happens to be far less critical and less linear. The Prime is also more accurate of a headphone, but it does not playback music in an “audiophile” fashion. What I’m trying to say is that the sound is never overtly polite. In comparison, the Alpha Dog sounds a bit more withdrawn to me. The Prime is vastly more dynamic, more alive and it’s got bite (bite is not a bad thing in this context). The bite grabs at you and takes you on a musical ride. The Alpha Prime is a headphone that I have a hard time taking off because I enjoy it so much. I could never feel that way about a pair of headphones that present a “polite” presentation of my music. I want the details, the air, and the grit. I want to feel it, you know, feel the music in a way that forces me to hit repeat over and over again. I want to get lost in the listening experience. The Alpha Prime is a fantastic conduit to the listening experience I crave.

Thom-Yorke-Tomorrows-Modern-BoxesThe Prime arrived at the perfect time, considering some of the great new music I’ve been listening to. I was already having a ball with Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, which I reviewed recently at Positive Feedback Online and I was anxious to see how the Prime would handle the liquid sounding record. The sound on Boxes is so seductive for me that, with the right kit, I end up listening to it over and over again (and I still haven’t gotten sick of it yet). Well, from the first few seconds of the introductory track “A Brain in a Bottle”, I knew I had something special in the Alpha Prime. The spacey, wildly panning bass synth had a sumptuous texture that flowed with a ripple effect. The drums had body and weight. The hits were as tight as I’ve heard, and Yorke’s vocals soared – free of muddiness or any thickening of his strange pitch. I’ve heard many headphones muck up this quality of his vocals. Having seen and heard him live, it bothers me whenever I hear a system cloud or even slightly smear his voice. No such worry with the Alpha Prime! Yorke’s voice punched through just as it should. I must have hit repeat at least ten times on this track alone. And the Prime handles the rest of the album with the same precision and power. The sound was mesmerizing. Just as I like it.

Another new record that’s got a hold of me lately is the new Shabbaz Palaces album Lese Majesty. For fans of Digable Planets, this is Butterfly’s new band. Well, this is their second record (I reviewed their fantastic debut album, Black Up, for PFO). One of the things I love most about this record is the way they managed to blend the sounds of electronic music and hip-hop. The style of electronic music is the more flowing kind, like Liquid Stranger or even the type of music you’d find on Cyber Octave. Like on “Forerunner Foray”, there are these hovering, sparkling synths and stabs, along with a bassline that not only bangs but also pounds like a wave. There’s also a wonderful textures at play here, but they are buried in the low end. If the headphones can’t get down there cleanly, you’ll miss it.

The Prime provided me with the entire picture, from bottom to top. There are also cosmic and ethereal vocals that flow like water. The transient response of the Prime really shines here. There’s a wonderful continuousness to the sound, and the Prime captured it beautifully. When it comes to low-end, I haven’t heard bass like the echoing slam of “…down 155th in the MCM Snorkel” since the early 90’s! The bass shakes my Mini Cooper and the Prime was impressively coasting on these heavy sounds.

Alpha.Prime.Nordost

I knew that I had to throw some acid test tracks at the Prime, but I didn’t want to stick to the usual fare. So I decided to pick some tracks that I know extremely well, and listen to often, but for whatever reason, I don’t tend to include them in gear reviews. Perhaps it was the enticing sound of the Prime that inspired me to seek out new tracks for my listening tests. And that’s a compliment in itself! I wanted to explore my entire music collection instead of sticking to the usual suspects. If a component or headphone has me digging deep into my music library, than I know it’s something special. And the Prime makes me want to hear what all my music could sound like through these headphones.

Capturing female vocals are important to me, because as much as I love experimental and electronic music, I have a sweet spot for classic singer/songwriter stuff. So, for my primary female vocal test I went with Fiona Apple, as I find her voice has amazing prowess and nuance. First up was “Extraordinary Machine”, off the album of the same name. Here we get a taste of Apple’s playfulness, with her voice riding the bass plucks and chimes. There’s a wonderful spaciousness in this record (as captured by Jon Brion). The Prime captured Apple’s vocals and the surrounding musical accompaniments perfectly. I wanted more! So I played Extraordinary Machine in its entirety. I was glued to the music the whole time and I was even brought back to the days when I first hear the record. I was writing for a small paper up here in Sonoma County called, The Bohemian, and this album review was my very first assignment. There was only one problem: I was only allowed 500 words! I got to tell you, squeezing the genius of this album into a capsule review was not easy. Nonetheless, now that I was listening with the Alpha Prime, I felt like the album was given its proper due. Apple’s voice always broke through, and the instrumentals always had air to breathe. The sound of the Alpha Prime was extraordinary.

Alpha.LiquidGoldAnother female vocal test came by way of India Aries’ Acoustic Soul. I love this record. It’s soulful, dynamic, and smooth as silk. Like Sade, but with more soul (I know, these be fighting words, but it’s just how I feel about it). “Wonderful” (Stevie Wonder Dedication) sounded so rich and colorful, as it should, since this is Aries’ dedication to Stevie Wonder, one of her biggest influences. The sound allowed me true musical engagement. So, given its track record up to that point, I decided to throw a curveball at the Prime (a curveball for me anyway, considering my listening habits) and see how it would do when it came to Miles Davis’ “Black Satin” off his On The Corner album. Admittedly, I don’t listen to jazz very often, but when I do, I dedicate myself to it wholly. I think On The Corner is one of the most underrated, shamefully-never-mentioned-in-hi-fi recordings. The percussion is kinetic and spacious and the interaction of the claps and other musical bits is infectious. This is not an easy track for a headphone, or at least it hasn’t been in my experience. Reproducing the sense of three-dimensional space, black sonic backdrop, and the energy coming off the instrumentation is a difficult thing to nail, whether through a loudspeaker or headphone. Yet the Prime had me slappin’ the desk and bobbin’ my head to the magical rhythm of the mind of Miles Davis without any sense of limitation. I was in sonic heaven.

With the Alpha Prime, I no longer feel obligated to say, “this is a stunning headphone for the money.” The Alpha Prime is simply a stunning headphone! It can play just about anything and relay the sound with excitement and precision. The Prime lets loose yet never lets go of the music. The Prime drew me in and kept me itching for more tunes to throw at it. I spent many a sunrise session with the Alpha Prime and I suspect many more are in store. The fact that it’s lightweight made it easy to listen to for hours on end. It almost sounded as if the music was so powerful it was going to shake the Prime off my head! But rest assured, the cans stayed in place, quite securely, no matter how much bottom end or nasty basslines I threw its way. The Alpha Prime is what a great headphone should be: Addictive, revealing, dynamic, and downright fun.

 

MrSpeakers Alpha Prime

$999.99

 

The Alpha Prime is $999.99. It includes one cable 6ft. 1/4″, 3.5mm single-ended cables or 4-pin XLR, 2.5mm, RSA/ALO balanced cables.

Alpha Prime comes with:

 

  • One cable
  • Metal stand
  • Cleaning cloth
  • Two year warranty

 

 

Associated Equipment:
MacBook Pro Retina/Amarra Symphony
VPI Traveler turntable w/ Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge
Unison Research Simply Phono tube phonostage
McIntosh D100 DAC (Balanced and single-ended)
Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold balanced headphone amplifier
ALO Studio Six tube headphone amplifier
Lambert Play It By Ear Hybrid headphone amplifier
Double Helix Molecule Elite balanced cables (w/ 4-pin XLR adapter)
Nordost Heimdall 2 cables (4-pin XLR and adapters)
email
  • Django

    killer write up. If these cans get me emotional involved, I’m all about it. I will check them out ASAP. hope to hear them at CanJam. Clark has been only improving his designs as far as I can tell. good to have a guy like him creating for the community. thanks mercer for the heads up on these cans!

    • Thanks for the kind words DJANGO!! I agree:’Dan has been working very hard on the science and execution of planar cans, and his engineering has only gotten sharper! I not only hope you get to hear them at CanJam, but maybe we’ll meet there too

  • STEVEN

    I feel dumber for having read that.

  • Punit

    How does this compare to the XC ?

    • Hey PUNIT!

      Great question. I’m just back from RMAF, so forgive me in advance if my thoughts are a bit scattered!
      I always focus all my energy on the product I’m evaluating when I’m being critical in a review – so I don’t usually compare products in reviews because they’re often different in both design philosophy and execution. So sorry you didn’t get that answer in the review itself. I think the products I write about should be judged on their own merit at the time – but I’m glad to draw comparisons later (which I often do – to see where the components stand in my audio arsenal).

      The Alpha Prime is a great musical conduit, as stated in my essay above. It’s sonically engaging, musically exciting, and downright FUN. It’s also reference-level (which, to me, means I could use it in the studio when I’m mixing or tracking).

      The Audeze LCD-XC, IMO, handles the frequency extremes better, and in a more transparent way – that is: the low-end and the highest highs are better articulated and therefore the overall musical picture is more window-like. This is where the soul of the music comes in. With the LCD-XC, when I’m deep in a listening session, everything else melts away, and it’s just me and the music. I can achieve this with the Alpha Prime, but its far more immediate with the LCD-XC. I’d say that, if the price of the LCD-XC is too far from someones budget, the Alpha Prime is a KILLER buy – and they should be very happy with it.

      For me, the Audeze LCD-XC still represents the very edge of the closed-back planar magnetic audio arts. The Alpha Prime gets closer than I thought it would – but the XC still grabs my attention like no other closed ortho.

      I hope this answers your question – and if you have anything else to ask on this topic please feel free!

      • Punit

        Thanks Mike. Great Answer.

  • Ismael

    I still have my Mad Dogs, but what i love about Mr. Speaker is that can upgrade my cans little by little. Dont know any other company that can upgrade existing cans to a higher up model.

    • GREAT point ISMAEL!

      I think Dan Clark is brilliant in this way: Providing an upgrade path to all his current MrSpeakers devotees! You never feel like: damn, I just bought these cans and now there’s something better I gotta invest in all over again. Because things in personal audio are advancing so fast – I think others should follow this model of doing business in the high end headphone game. Dan knows how to keep his devotees happy! And I’m one of them.

  • Doug Reid

    Great review! I heard these at CanJam and had decided to buy a pair
    next year, but I think I’ll starve and get them sooner! I already have Mad Dogs and Alpha Dogs…

    • Thanks for the kind words DOUG REID!
      I felt the same way when I started my evaluation – I thought, OK, maybe I can wait to get these. But as I listened further – I realized I couldn’t do it 🙂

      The Prime is Dan Clarks opus thus far – and I have a feeling we’re in for some pretty incredible stuff down the road!!

  • macdevign

    hi,
    this is very good review.

    Like to ask if you can compare certain attributes (eg soundstage, imaging, layer, depth) with other headphones (like audeze headphone, sennheiser, hifiman etc) that you try before. This will provide a sense on how it perform relatively against other headphones of let say, hifiman he560 (or similar price headphone). This will helpful to those who own certain good headphones but still considering if alpha dog prime is worth the purchase.

  • Marc

    First and foremost, great review Mike!!

    I’ve read your impressions on the Audeze LCD-XC/iFi Micro iDSD pairing and I’m wondering what your thoughts are if you’ve happened to pair the Alpha Prime with the iDSD. How’s the synergy? To what end of the spectrum does the tonality lean on?

    Thanks in advance!!

    • Hey MARC & MACDEVIGN!

      I’m CRAZY right now with work, but will respond SOON!
      This weekend,
      and thank you for reading in the meantime,
      and for the kind words!!

      Answers coming…
      🙂

      • Marc

        Can’t wait but take your time!! I don’t think I’d have the funds for something like the Prime too soon.

  • Hey Guys!
    SO sorry for the delay in responding. Gotta keep working – keep the lights on!

    MACDEVIGN:

    During my listening sessions lately, I’ve done lots of switching between the Alpha Prime, Audeze LCD-XC and my Sennheiser HD800s (sorry – don’t have a pair of HiFiMAN HE-560s here at home). I’ve found that, with regard to soundstaging, the HD800s still have an obvious advantage over both the Prime and XC because they’re open, and have some of the greatest back-to-front, side-to-side soundstaging I’ve experienced in headphones! Some prefer the Stax 009s – and their soundstaging is also gloriously wide and deep, but the 800s have more gestalt, more soul, to my ears. But, again, we have to remember that no matter how transparent a closed-back ortho-dynamic headphone can get – an open-back design will always have that advantage. That just comes down to physics! Though I must tell you – both the XC and Prime manage to throw a soundstage far wider and deeper than I expected for closed-back designs!

    However, when it comes to overall musical performance, that is, the headphones ability to draw my attention and KEEP my attention over hours of listening time, the Audeze LCD-XC still reigns supreme for me. They’re still, IMO, the closed-back planar magnetic headphones which all others should be judged against. During my time with the LCD-XCs I can honestly say there have been many occasions when I forget I’m actually listening to a closed headphone! That has also happened with the Alpha Prime, just not as frequently.

    We have to remember the price difference however! So, the Audeze LCD-XC should be (if you look at the corresponding price) a better all-around headphone. The Alpha Prime gets closer to the LCD-XC than I ever thought it would. And, at $999.99 – that’s saying alot! The Prime, if I didn’t already own an LCD-XC, would suit me just fine as a top reference! I still enjoy it greatly, and plan on figuring out what I need to do in order to convince my wife that I need to buy it! That should say more than ANY flowery prose about it – the fact that I want to keep it in my personal audio arsenal! It’s excitable and fresh-sounding. What I mean by that is: My music sounds fresh and new through the Prime. When I’m listening to music through the Prime, I always enjoy myself! I highly recommend it, especially if the LCD-XC is beyond your budget. So sorry I don’t have a pair of HE560s to talk about! And I hope this helps to clarify a bit – if you have further questions please feel free to post them here and I’ll get back to you.

    MARC:

    Hey there! I don’t have the iFi Micro iDSD currently but I’m expecting one soon! I have listened to it w/ both the Alpha Prime and the Audeze LCD-XC however – and I love its synergy with the both!! The Alpha Prime/iDSD combo was luscious: Colorful (NOT colored) and amazing micro and macro-dynamic detail retrieval. The music was clean and engrossing – I bet that combo over time would prove to be KILLER.

    I’ve been a big fan of iFi products for awhile now, and their iCAN headphone amp has been a back-up for me for a couple years. I recently tried the iCAN w/ the Prime and the combo was fantastically engaging and dynamic. Plus: The dimensionality of the system was superbly reproduced. I was glued to that combo – So I imagine the Micro iDSD would only be better w/ the Prime! As soon as I get one I’ll report back.
    Hope that gives you a lil’ glance of my thoughts on the subject. If you have any other questions please feel free to drop them here.

    Yours in Sound,

    Michael Mercer

    • Marc

      Thanks Mike!!

  • macdevign

    Michael,
    thank for the comparison. Great to see that alpha prime is another great headphone.

    Recently I tried the Grado GS1000e and I thought that it is marked improvement over the previous version when I drove it with iphone. The midrange vocal is very organic and stunningly realistic. It is not often I encounter such awesome analogue sound from a headphone. The sound is very vinyl-like.

    I think the new grado lines really deserve a great review and I looking forward to your review of Grado GS1000e and Grado Ps1000e in the future if you have time for that :}}

  • MACDEVIGN:

    So glad you recommended that I try out those Grados! I will reach out to them ASAP! I love Grados – been using em for years! My 325is are one of my most trusty pair of cans…

    Thanks again!
    Michael

  • Phil

    No-one has mentioned my preferred closed back king… fostex th900….compared to the the xc it had a wider soundstage and all the fun factor….could it be perfectly placed between the prime and the xc? 😉

  • Hey Phil!

    I got to hear the Fostex TH900s at Canjam at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this year for an extended audition. I’d heard em before, but boy, was I floored by their musical performance, sonic integrity, and, as you call it – their downright “fun factor”!

    I happen to prefer the LCD-XC personally, but we ALL hear and interpret differently. I will say this – I’m on a mission to get a pair of Fostex TH900s ASAP!

    If you prefer the 900s to the LCD-XC – then YES, I would consider the Alpha Prime placed between the XC and 900s…

    These cans are a pure pleasure to kick-back and crank the tunes…

    I’m still havin’ a BLAST w/ the Prime!

  • pedalhead (Mark)

    Michael, fantastic review…many thanks. I realise I’m late to the party here but I’ve just ordered some Alpha Primes and your review helped enormously with my being able to visualise (audiorise?) what to expect from them. Probably helps that I’m also a Thom Yorke and Fiona Apple fan! I do tend to appreciate reviews that are heavy on the music references…that’s what it’s all about after all. Cheers. Mark.

  • Thanks for the kind words Mark!

    I’m in the process of writing a follow-up piece on the Primes! My pair has since been upgraded to full-production (Dan was still messing with the final design when I got mine). I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed!

    Please lemme know how it goes!

    Cheers,

    Michael Mercer

    • Steve160k

      Hi Mike – have listened to the TH900 & really liked these, supremely comfortable and good sound stage, but mids slightly lacking. Also liked the HD700/800, but need a closed back headphone. I will be buying from with out trying, due to logistics, so are the Alpha Prime a good choice for female vocalists between the headphones i have mentioned ?

    • Steve160k

      Hi Mike – have listened to the TH900 & really liked these, supremely comfortable and good sound stage, but mids slightly lacking. Also liked the HD700/800, but need a closed back headphone. I will be buying from overseas without trying, due to logistics, so are the Alpha Prime a good choice for female vocalists between the headphones i have mentioned ?

  • Hey Steve160k!!

    SO sorry for the delay…

    Will respond ASAP!!

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  • Eric

    Can you compare the alpha prime to the new audeze el8 closed? I was set on the alpha prime (lcd xc too far out of budget), but the new el8 looks duo good…

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  • genesis667 .

    I recently traded up from the AD to the AP and I absolutely love listening to them..My music ranges from country to rock to R&B…They excel with everything I throw at them…Right now I am listening to Luther Vandross and Beyonce The closer I get to you…Simply amazing! I have heard that song on everything from OPPO to HIFIMAN and the AP is the one that really does it justice..