…Continued from Part I of this review.
Before we get to how the ETHER sounds, let’s take a moment to review some of its other noteworthy features. What? You’ve waited this long, a few more minutes won’t kill ya.
Design & Build
There’s almost nothing revolutionary about the design of the ETHER, and that’s part of its genius. Instead of reinventing the wheel, the ETHER gathers together what works, and eschews what doesn’t.
It’s a time-tested and proven design. The headband consists of twin booms that are spanned by a comfort strap, and anchored to cantilevered yokes that are then hinged to the sides of the ear cups. In other words, it looks and functions exactly like a competent headphone design should, and is an elegant exercise in both simplicity and practicality.
Of course, I did say that there was almost nothing revolutionary about the ETHER’s design above. That’s because there is one feature of the ETHER that is rather novel, and that’s the use of twin NiTinol strands as its headband.
Most headphones of this design employ a harder material for their headbands – steel being the most commonly-used material due to its rigidity and tensile strength – so that the booms can serve as a semi-rigid superstructure for the entire headphone. That makes sense. After all, you don’t want the two ear cups to flop around loosely do you?
Actually, yes, that’s exactly what you want! You want your headphones to have a certain degree of floppyness to them. And that’s why MrSpeakers chose NiTinol. Without delving into some mind-numbingly boring details about austenitization and metallic crystalline structures, let’s simply that NiTinol is a really cool “memory” wire that will retain its shape even when stressed and deformed by your head.
NOTE: If you somehow manage to permanently bend the ETHER’s NiTinol headband, you’re using your headphones wrong.
What MrSpeakers realized is that, unless half of your head is missing for some reason (in which case you have worse problems in life than finding the right headphone), you don’t actually need the tensile strength that steel offers. All you need is a modicum of compression, so that the ETHER’s ear cups are gently held in position along all three axes. No more, no less. And as it turns out, two NiTinol wires, always trying to retain their shape, supported by a comfort strap, will get the job done nicely.
The result is a lighter headphone that doesn’t try to squeeze the brains out of your head, which is considerably more comfortable to wear.
I’ve been listening to the ETHER daily for about two months now, sometimes for the entire day, and not once did I ever take it off due to discomfort. As for long-term durability, the NiTinol strands are performing admirably so far. Unless I suddenly develop a 932°F fever, which is what it would take to deform the NiTinol strands, I’m pretty sure that they’re not going to “forget” their shape anytime soon.
As for the ETHER’s aesthetics, I have very little to complain about. I do however, have a couple of humble suggestions. First, I’d like to see the rivets anodized black to match the rest of the headphone. I think that having the ETHER be all-black (ear cup bezels aside) would give it a certain je ne sais quoi, or at least a more “finished” quality. You know what they say, once you go black, you never go lightly-polished raw-metal silver-finished rivets again.
Speaking of ear cup bezels, I wouldn’t mind having the ability to unscrew them and install different colored bezels. Vanity? Perhaps, though I do have good reasons for this request. Swappable bezels would allow me to put a blue bezel on the left ear cup… so that the bezel colors could serve as secondary side indicators… so that some of my friends can stop wearing the ETHER backwards when they audition it. I’m not naming names here, but y’all know who you are. Alternatively, carbon fiber bezels would decrease the weight further, resulting in an even lighter headphone. Okay fine, the carbon fiber bezel suggestion is pure vanity. But you have to admit, that would look pretty bad ass right? Can I get an amen here? Please leave your amens in the comments below if you agree with carbon fiber.
The ETHER is ridiculously comfortable due to its absurdly low weight and nearly non-existent clamping force. In fact, it’s just about the most comfortable circumaural headphone I’ve ever worn… with the possible exceptions of a Sennheiser HD 800 or a Denon AH-D7000.
At only 370 grams, the ETHER weighs in as one of the lightest top-of-the-line headphones I’ve ever used – and it’s definitely the lightest full-sized planar magnetic headphone I’ve ever used. Let’s take a moment to reflect on its weight (or lack thereof). 370 grams. What is that in practical terms?
The mean weight for a 40-year old white male is approximately 180 pounds, or 81,646.56 grams. The average human hand, for males, is about 0.61% of that man’s total weight. So in this example, a hand weighs about 498.04 grams. At 370 grams, the ETHER is only 3/4 of the weight of that hand. This means that if we got into an argument about whether the HD 650 is veiled or not, and I were to cut off your hand in anger, and throw it at you with the same amount of force that I throw an ETHER at you, your hand would (theoretically) hurt more. That’s how light the ETHER is!
But weight is only one part of the comfort equation. Clamping force is the other main factor. As I mentioned above, in extolling the virtues of NiTinol, the ETHER exerts very little clamping force upon one’s cranial mass. Just how little? Well, I don’t have the equipment here with which to measure and quantify the ETHER’s clamping force, so we’ll have to examine this anecdotally.
NOTE: Please feel free to substitute masculine pronouns and possessives as you see fit, and according to your preferences, in the example below.
Remember that one time when you scored a blind date with that impossibly hot girl? She was pretty hot right? Like way hot. Like you-can-still-remember-the-way-her-hair-smelled hot. Like way-too-hot-for-you hot, and everyone knew it, including her. So, at the end of that date, she says “I might love you one day, but I’ll never be in-love with you.” And then she gives you the worst hug ever… a nascent hug… a mere suggestion of what a hug might have been like… a hug that – in some cultures – is a declaration of war. That is the amount of clamping force that the ETHER exerts on your head.
By the way, I don’t mean to suggest that an ETHER will not love you. Far from it my friend. It will most certainly love you, for all the days of its life (or warranty period). The ETHER that I have here loves me very, very much. It love me long time. How do I know? Because it makes sweet noises during our intimate moments together… which now brings us to the ETHER’s sound quality.
- MacBook Pro (2.3 GHz Intel Core i7)
- Amarra 3.0.3
- Amarra for TIDAL 1.0.1060 (set at -2 Gain)
- Nordost Blue Heaven Power/USB cables
- Benchmark DAC1 USB
- Nordost Heimdall interconnects
- Cavalli Liquid Glass (with Sylvania 6SN7 GTB, Shugang Treasure “Black Bottle” CV181-Z, Electro-Harmonix 6SN7EH, RCA 6SN7 GTB, RCA 6GU7, Genalex E88CC, and Genalex ECC82 tubes)
- Cavalli Liquid Carbon (prototype)
- Astell&Kern AK380 (ProEQ setting)
- Audeze LCD-X w/stock and WyWires cables
Regardless of what gear was laid upstream, or what genre I was listening to, there were several terms that repeatedly and consistently showed up in my listening notes. In order of frequency, those five words are as follows:
So in a nutshell, the ETHER is very NEADA. That’s right, I just coined a new audiophile term, #NEADA. It means the same thing as #neuengartdetacc, which is a portmanteau that I’ve also just coined. Pay attention Harmony Hicks, there will be a test later. The nearest synonym to either term above would be the word “reference” – which is, coincidentally – what the ETHER has become for me.
As of late, I have come across an impression or two that paints the ETHER as being bass light. Honestly, only a basshead would say that. In reality, the ETHER can be both brutal and vicious with its bass response, if a recording mandates it.
For example, playing back Killer Mike’s “Untitled (feat. Scar)” is a good way to regulate your heartbeat with sub-bass. And “Bright”, by Echosmith, is anchored nicely at the bottom as the ETHER renders its bass line with both authority and gravitas. No, the ETHER’s bass is not shy or lacking, it’s simply controlled and correct.
The ETHER’s mid-range presentation tells a similarly linear tale. Beck’s “Heart Is A Drum” is kept in check effortlessly, and thus unable to drown me with a deluge of bass bleeding into the lower mids. Pentatonix’s Daft Punk Medley is presented cohesively with no discernible oddities throughout the entire mid-range. Even Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through The Night” – with its wincingly sharp synth passages, and its tendency for vocal sibilance – is easily tamed by the ETHER’s upper mids.
And finally, the ETHER’s highs are a wonderful blend of airyness and refinement, giving me all the openness I could want, while maintaining restraint so as to not run amok with chaotic brightness. Yes Beyerdynamic T1, I’m looking at you over there. John Barry’s “Main Title” from the “My Life” soundtrack is a perfect example of this. It’s almost as if the ETHER knows about Barry’s attachment to shrill strings, and his staccato sensibilities, and will have none of that silliness at all.
To reiterate, the ETHER is exceeding neutral and well-tempered in its frequency response. It’s a clear step above competing headphones that are unable to toe that line, each one clumsily stumbling from one side to another, desperately trying to maintain a sense of tonal balance between warmth and brightness. If you prize neutrality in a reference headphone, you’ll certainly want to affix your wandering and lustful gaze firmly upon the ETHER. It’s the closest thing to dead neutral that I’ve heard in quite some time.
And while I’ve waxed on and on about its neutral signature, it’s really the ETHER’s extraordinary dynamics – and superb sense of engagement – that truly set it apart from the competition.
Whereas most neutral headphones/IEMs tend to sound abnormally flat (i.e. dead), the ETHER seems to have overcome this with its speed and accuracy, resulting in insanely good attack, delay and release characteristics. Music sounds like music… textural, visceral and real.
Echosmith’s “Cool Kids” comes alive with lively percussion, impactful bass lines, and plaintive vocals that all come out at you from nowhere. It’s euphonically intoxicating and euphorically exhilarating at the same time.
Articulation & Detail
Sarah Jarosz’s “Ring Them Bells” is a humble cover of a Dylan tune that has managed to stay on my critical listening list for over two years now. It’s elegantly simplistic, musically rich, and acoustically pure. Not surprisingly, the ETHER deftly recreates each and every instrument vividly and viscerally.
With Piano Interrupted’s “Cross Hands (Hidden Orchestra Remix)” audible details are likewise clear, distinct and well-separated, even though some of the musical elements within are purely electronic and heavily processed.
I remain incredibly impressed with the ETHER’s speed and articulation with those two tracks. But if I’m to be truly cliche about hearing things that I haven’t heard before, it’s Cyndi Lauper’s “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” that seals the deal for me in terms of articulation and detail retrieval. Taking a good listen with the ETHER has revealed all sorts of things that I’ve never noticed before. Was that a Roland D-50 in the background all this time? Sure sounds like it.
And finally, I must point out that the ETHER’s overall accuracy leaves me with little or nothing to complain about. Piano pieces, like Valentina Lisitsa’s rendition of Philip Glass’s “Truman Sleeps,” are not betrayed by tonal inconsistencies. Staging is likewise spot on, as “Follow Your Bliss” by The B-52’s sounds exactly the way that it has on the very best gear rigs I’ve ever heard… like an afternoon soundcheck session in an empty bar… floodlit by a setting desert sun. The ETHER just sounds “right” and correct in its presentation.
MrSpeakers’s ETHER vs Audeze’s LCD-X (and Sennheiser’s HD 800)
I know that a great many of you are interested in how the ETHER stacks up against Audeze’s LCD-X. That’s certainly understandable.
The LCD-X is the most neutral Audeze headphone to date, and its $1,699 price tag puts it closer to the ETHER than any other Audeze in terms of cost, so this match-up is both logical and inevitable. And since the LCD-X has been my own reference headphone for over a year and a half now, I might know a thing or two here. So without further ado…
The ETHER is better. Okay, wait, that’s a gross oversimplification of course. Let’s delve into some details.
The LCD-X is undoubtedly warmer due to its non-trivial mid-bass emphasis. Compared to the ETHER, the LCD-X’s bass response is both more pronounced and slower. This makes the LCD-X sound noticeably boomier. This also results in some bass bleed into the LCD-X’s lower mids, which is something that the ETHER doesn’t have.
In addition, the ETHER’s highs are marginally but noticeably better extended, which results in a sense of air that the LCD-X can’t quite match, at least not consistently. So, in terms of frequency response, I would classify the Audeze LCD-X as neutral-warm, and the ETHER as simply neutral. Dead neutral.
And finally, the LCD-X is slightly less resolving, resulting in a smoother presentation and a greater sense of refinement. While I actually appreciate this in the LCD-X, I must also admit that I am a bit of a detailhead, and thus I prefer the extra bit of detail retrieval that the ETHER offers.
So there you have it. The ETHER is – for me – better. It’s simply more NEADA.
By the way, if you’re curious as to how the ETHER compares to the HD 800 in terms of sound signature, here’s a good way to visualize the difference. Imagine that the LCD-X is on one end of a spectrum, and the HD 800 is on the other end of that same spectrum. The ETHER would fall exactly in the middle between those two: the LCD-X is warmer, while the HD 800 is brighter. In fact, now that I think about it, that’s a good way to think about the ETHER. It’s a very happy medium between the LCD-X and HD 800.
I wish that the official name of the headphone wasn’t entirely capitalized (ETHER), which would have spared me many instances of having to hold down the shift key as I wrote this review.
I think that if you were to ask Dan Clark about me, he would probably say that I’ve been supportive, and encouraging, but ultimately hard-to-please. For example, while I have recommended MrSpeakers’s headphones to many people based on their stated preferences, I have yet to own one myself. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate his various Fostex-based models. I do. I just didn’t appreciate any of them enough to spend money on them.
But in writing this review, and in doing my very best to accurately describe the ETHER, I have unwittingly broken down all of my own barriers. For those of you in sales – or alternatively for anyone that has seen Glengarry Glen Ross – I have overcome my own objections, handled my own rebuttals, and closed myself. That’s why, just moments ago, I happily purchased this ETHER.
Why wouldn’t I buy it? MrSpeakers’s ETHER is a brilliant headphone that offers a truly unique combination of stellar sound quality and exceptional comfort… if you’re looking for a top-of-the-line reference headphone that: features a neutral and accurate sound signature; is capable of resolving the finest details with little difficulty; while it enthralls you with seductive and engaging dynamics – all wrapped up in an unbelievably comfortable listening experience – then you owe it to yourself to put the ETHER at the top of your audition list. It sounds like all kinds of awesomeness.
$1499 with stock cable
$1609-$1649 with Dum upgraded cable
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