Quad ERA-1 Planar Magnetic Headphones – A Classic in the Making
Few audio products are so unilaterally accepted as the quintessential audiophile ideal as the Quad Electrostatic speaker, so much so that at the last HiFi show (as opposed to Personal Audio show) I went to two manufacturers were demonstrating rebuilt and modified Quad ESL-57 speakers, a speaker first released in 1957 and superseded in 1981, and were I there in the capacity of a two-channel reviewer rather than a Personal Audio reviewer, I would have awarded one of them the best sound of the show. So back in January when the British audio company introduced their first ever headphone the Quad ERA-1 Planar Magnetic Headphones, I made sure to put myself on the list to review the product as soon as production models were available. And finally they have arrived; they were well worth the wait.
The Quad ERA-1:
Admittedly, given their unparalleled expertise in electrostatic speakers, I was surprised that they opted for an Orthodynamic design over electrostatic, but given the dearth of electrostatic amplifiers, as well as the additional expense, the choice was certainly justified.
To approximate the classic ESL sound, Quad specially developed their own proprietary planar magnetic driver, to quote Quad;
“The Quad ERA-1 incorporates an ultra-thin, electrically active diaphragm – thinner than a human hair yet extremely strong and highly elastic, weighing less than the volume of air it displaces. This is fused with a precisely arranged magnet system, designed to maximize [sic] sensitivity and consistency of the applied force over the driver area.
Patented nonlinear vibration suppression technology allows the driver’s effortlessly extended frequency response to be heard unsullied, ensuring supreme clarity. The metal cavity behind the driver is specially designed for optimal acoustic performance, and the drivers themselves are closely matched to ensure spacious, three-dimensional stereo imaging.”
Elegance has always been a byword for Quad and the ERA-1 is no exception, employing a very simple and compact design. The headphone cable is detachable and uses two standard 3.5mm TRS connectors so acquiring custom aftermarket cables should not be a problem. The amplifier end is equipped with a 3.5mm TRS which has an integrated screw on ¼” TRS adapter. For accessories, the ERA-1 includes a hardshell carrying case and a second set of earpads for a choice of sonic signatures (the set on the headphones are flat and the second set is angled).
The comfort level for a medium weight headphone is high. The headband is leather wrapped, the flat earpads have a latex synthetic leather outer, a flannel contact surface, and a perforated synthetic leather inner, while the angled earpads have a Genuine Sheep Skin perforated leather inner and outer with a leather contact surface. The earcup brackets both extend and pivot.
Fit and finish of the Quad ERA-1 is excellent and the material construction is in keeping with products in their price range, though it should be noted that the earcup brackets and trim appear to be made of plastic and may not hold up to excessive abuse.
For source hardware, I used my desktop rig the Questyle Audio CAS 192D Current Mode DAC and CMA800R Current Mode Headphone Amplifier, the Questyle Audio QP2R Current Mode DAP and my Samsung Galaxy J3 phone. Since the Quad ERA-1 came fitted with the flat earpads I began with those since there will be some of you who prefer that sound.
Since I intended to do a comparison of the two styles of earpads, I picked three tracks that pretty much cover the audio spectrum for this test: Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite” as performed by Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (DSD), “Polyester Bride” by Liz Phair (16/44.1 kHz), and Genesis’ “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” (16/44.1 kHz).
As you would expect, listening to the orchestral piece, the tonal balance was fairly neutral with a little warmth on the bottom end, and the soundstage was wide but a little flat, the dynamic range was excellent, and the impact and delineation of tympanis were good.
Moving on to Liz Phair, the bass guitar was definitely pronounced but tight so as not to overwhelm the rest of the music. Again the soundstage placed you directly in the center of the band, with Liz inside your head. The upper midrange seemed a bit emphasized making for a larger presence.
Because of the accentuated bass, I cued up “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” to see if this carried over to the subsonic. This is where the ESL voicing was really pronounced, gently rolling off the subsonic. Once again the soundstage was wide but one dimensional, it was a little weird having the guitars on either side of you with the keyboards dead center.
Switching over to the angled sheep skin earpads I expected there to be tradeoffs, but there were none. The performance with the angled earpads was categorically an improvement. The soundstage was suddenly three dimensional, open and airy, and the slight abrasiveness of the upper midrange was totally tamed.
Listening to the “Firebird” the placement of the instruments was stellar, the soundstage was fuller and richer. The tonality was spot on, evoking visions of the ESLs with a much higher musicality and refinement.
For “Polyester Bride” while the bass still stood out with that ever-present thump, I was now listening to a band rather than individual instruments laid out on either side of me. I could easily picture Liz sitting in front of me playing the acoustic guitar accompanied by a half dozen musicians on guitars, keyboards, and percussion.
While not the focused lifelike image of a pair of ESL-57s, Genesis was also enhanced by the three-dimensional treatment afforded by the sheepskin earpads. I found myself drawn into the music, willing to forget to evaluate and simply enjoy.
The Quad ERA-1 is a headphone you could comfortably take on the go and listen to through a DAP or smartphone, so it was imperative to break out the QP2R and take in a few tracks. I selected the Alter Natives a progressive/punk band of the eighties on the SST label (24/96 kHz vinyl rip) who provide an intense cacophony of bass guitar, electric guitar, percussion, flute and saxophone requiring a great deal of speed and dynamic range to reproduce legibly. “Over The Counter – Culture” really brought out the phase coherency and detail of the ERA-1. The QP2R and the Quads proved to be a synergistic combination, though I did need to switch to “high gain” to get full dynamic range, I suspect a balanced cable would have enhanced the performance even more.
Since I had neglected Jazz so far in my evaluations I brought up Dean Martin’s rendition of “Everybody Loves Somebody” (16/44.1 kHz) and was propelled to front seats at the Sands. The chorus was larger than life, the percussion and piano crisp, the strings rich and full, with the upright bass close to hand, and Dean’s voice robust and velvety center stage.
Which only left the phone untested, so I played “Wedding Rain” by Liz Story (16/44.1 kHz). Though I had to max out the volume, there was plenty of dynamics, and the sound was mid front orchestra at Disney Hall, with a stout and lusty yet delicate Steinway on the stage.
With exceptional speed, phase coherency, and realistic tonal balance the Quad ERA-1 definitely evokes the feel of Quad ESLs. Though not quite electrostatic performance, the ERA-1 is one of the top performers in the under $1000 price bracket. Combining walk around town cosmetics and comfort along with cell phone levels of efficiency, it is the perfect headphone for on the go as well as at home use. With the angled sheep skin earpads it is a pleasant and unfatiguing listen, with great musicality and that British clarity of the midrange along with the expansive soundstage that comes with a top performing planar headphone. The small bass hump is not boomy and adds a bit of a live vibe to the presentation and the subsonic roll off is in keeping with the British sound and headphones in general and below most people’s hearing anyway (subsonics are generally felt rather than heard, hence the term). A hearty two thumbs up for this one and a must hear for any Personal Audio enthusiast.
Gary Alan Barker is a writer who has been a member of the Audio Industry since 1978, having acted as technical writer for several high-end audio companies, and been an electronics hobbyist since 1960. He has also been a musician and writer since the mid 1960s.