I love it when people get their "sheeple" on, especially in a niche group. One person says something isn't comfortable, and ten hours later there's a thread somewhere reaching out to this headphone company, addressing the clamping force issue on that user's set of cans. Users justifiably request better padding in the headband. The headphone company responds by providing a more comfortable ear-pad solution! Essentially - a better product directly suited to the community that the company's reaching out to, because many of the features were requested by a wide range of audio geek-out Wizards! BANG! MONEY! If ANY of this seemingly utopian situation could happen on a more regular basis at the highest levels of performance in high-end personal audio today - the power of the many could out-shine the few in a flash of time.
There's such incredible music playback strides being made right now in high performance personal audio that I wholly believe Harry Pearson and J. Gordon Holt would be proud. Arnie Nudell - founder of Infinity, and designer of the huge 4-way Genesis 1 Louspeaker System (Harry Pearson's Reference for years when I worked there) - paid me one of the greatest compliments I've ever received in my audio career. I was STUNNED...
He said (after poking me in my shoulder, as I was walkin' by the Audeze booth): "you're the only one who understands Audeze well enough to write about the magic of the music through these things". Now, I met Arnie when I was like 17 years-old, and I hadn't seen him in at least a decade, but I LOVED his review of Audezes LCD-X in The Absolute Sound. So hearing that was really heavy. Plus: He recognized me, and I hadn't seen him in years. He lost a bunch of weight too (you look amazing my friend):
So that was a special kinda' honor. Arnie told me all that during T.H.E Headphonium at T.H.E. Show in Newport (we're takin' what was promised us next year BTW, the Grand Ballroom). And I felt like I shoulda just left my own headphone show... leave on the high-note like George Costanza. But what does ALL this have to do with MrSpeakers's ETHER? Well, as I said in Part I, Dan made his name modifying Fostex T-50RP headphones:
To be honest: I never liked Fostex T50RPs. We've all got our own tastes and biases, and that model's sound never grabbed me. But, whatever Dan did with them, he not only made them tolerable - his modified versions are a blast to listen to! So, I figured, if he could squeeze that much musicality out of those things - I thought damn, I bet he could design and build a killer pair of headphones if he was freed from that particular models physical and sonic shackles.
Well, lemme shed my headphone snob cap for just a sec a say: These are so much fuckin' fun to listen to music through, I didn't wanna stop to write this damned article. Do I love MrSpeakers's ETHER planar headphones? I can say this with a clean conscious: I've loved Clark's work the moment I heard his original MrSpeakers mods. And at the same time, I always craved a headphone from the ground-up from Dan. Lemme get some bias out the muthafuckin' way right now, but Dan Clark has become a friend of mine. Oops, please pardon my language. DAMN! Yet another controversial blip for the mental midgets to clammer around and poke holes at. Hope you guys have FUN with that shit. Me? I'm about transparency: Whether it be my high end personal audio system or life itself.
So there it is: I know Dan Clark - He came into my life the same day I bought a pair of his first closed-back planars: The Mad Dog. Listening to 'em right now actually (the later model: The Mad Dog Pro) - writing about them made me wanna hear em. So I grabbed my WyWires Red Series Cable, and I'm rockin' my grandfathers vintage McIntosh MAC1900 - (as headphone amp: System details below). Damn I love the bass on the Mad Dog Pro too. The crazy thing is that I can't stand the bass on the Fostex T50RP! Remember, that's the headphone that Dan originally modified & sold, later bringing his strong reputation to the name MrSpeakers! But I believe that's a sign of his genius. Dan knew enough about headphone technology (or not, I've never asked) or at the very least he had (and has) a terrific ear for engaging music and dynamic sound. He turned a headphone I didn't even like into a pair of cans that I love! That speaks more about Dans talent than I ever could.
The crazy truth is: There hasn't been a MrSpeakers headphone that I didn't like. However, ETHER represents the next-level in planar headphones. From it's lightweight and comfy feel - and yeah, I said "lightweight". I don't care how well you design headphones to fit on the head: It's simple math - if the cans are heavy they're freakin' heavy. It's like the people talked to me about the "dry heat" when I took a road-trip to Arizona with my buddy Stevie. Who gives a shit when it's 120 degrees. Fuckin' hot is fuckin' hot. Eventually the so-called "superior ergonomics of the heavier cans catches ya sore after an all-night listening sesh. NOT ETHER! I've rocked em for days on many writing binges already - and that says something. Also it's magnificent dynamic range, fluidity, texture, staging and the feeling of air - the presence of being init'. I get drawn into the point where sometimes, if I were to put a visual to it - listening to ETHER on the right rig (that is, a rig that feeds it healthy power) is almost like being in an auditory planetarium. They stage, on my head, the way MBL, IMHO, aspire to stage. There's one HUGE difference: MBL sounds, to me, like terrific hi-fi. But ETHER sounds like music.
And again, they're so light I've forgotten I was wearing them a few times! I don't know about you - but when it comes to high-performance, sonically-discriminating headphones, or maybe I should just fuckin' say the ol' standard - because it applies:
They're just too damn big and bulky.
Though I will ALWAYS treasure every pair of Audeze LCD-Series I own (and I ain't given' them up - so stop callin' some of ya) - especially the LCD-2 w/ Fazor - this is simply the next evolution. It happens. Hey, peeps may disagree. Lots LOVE the Abyss. At 6 grand? Amazing BASS, and not much else to me, but hey, if it gets you off pull the trigger. Joe and his son at JPS Labs work their asses off. For me, cuttin' away all the PC BULLSHIT: When I'm seeking my own Ultimate Music Moment I grab my MrSpeakers ETHER. However it's also been nice sharing music again (that's for another column - but terrific amps like my ALO Studio Six can drive up to four hard-to-drive cans at once no problem). I've also come to an interesting conundrum with ETHER: I've been railing against the usage of the terms like "neutrality and accuracy" for years now! There are also people I look up to like Steve Guttenberg who think along the same lines. How the hell do you really know how "accurate" a particular drum or guitar/bass sounds in a recording? Where you there? Once the sound of an instrument enters a microphone its forever changed. Sorry for that aural vignette. But there's a reason behind this studio blather: MrSpeakers has built, the only headphone (planar or others I've heard) that, when I played the digital safety masters of my own tracks, it took me back to that lil' studio with my production partner Josh Seamless (together we were Seamless Satori). We wrote, mixed, mastered and produced these tracks, so I know their construction inside and out. Using the following reference system together with ETHER: I'd say I got as close to experiencing the original studio sessions as I ever have through anything personal-audio-related before:
Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold headphone amplifier
McIntosh D100 DAC
Nordost Heimdall 2 power & Double Helix Cables interconnects and headphone cables
To say Dan Clark and Team's freshman indy effort with the ETHER is a smashing success, sonically, is an understatement. MrSpeakers not only reached farther with the ETHER than I expected. I think they may have set a new standard that should make ALL other smart planar manufacturers shake their heads and go: WTF? Well, honestly, just the weight alone makes this a wholly new experience when it comes to wearing planar headphones. The ergonomics are spectacular, they're comfortable. Jesus, I've fallen asleep at least ten to twenty times wearing these while workin' through a writing binge. There's no clamping force BS to deal with. They're a sincere pleasure to wear AND they sound terrific. Imagine that! A novel concept I know. C'mon guys - at $1,500 and up (at the very least) the things should be able to sit on my head for hours at least. Don't agree? It's all good. MrSpeakers apparently does: I just rocked ETHERs through a 2-day writing frenzy recently, and ended up with NO back or neck-pain. There should be some kinda' award just for that, especially when it comes to planars...
But there isn't - though everything about MrSpeakers ETHER contributes to its feeling of newness. The fact that it's planar-magnetic and feels lighter than most dynamic-driver headphones makes it sonically addictive and seductive. The decision to go with the comfort-strap-style headband was brilliant. Though the damn thing's light enough already, once I got the strap dialed-in perfectly, it was almost (comparatively, especially if you're an LCD-Series devotee like me) like wearing no cans at all! That coupled with it's dynamic playback make this headphone a must-own for any serious headphile!
Now, for those unfamiliar with the formula here: I took a page from my Head-Fi playbook with my gear reviews some time ago. Usually, over at Head-Fi.org, the term "Impressions" implies a report based on limited time with a headphone. It's not called a review as the user hasn't had enough time to formulate a fully-educated opinion. Here I'm stealing the term to describe a list of music and my impressions of the sound through the headphones as I listen. Some are called "Live Sessions" - where I write about my playback experience in real-time while listening to the music. "Standard Sessions" means I listened to the song, took detailed notes, and put them together to form a description of my experiences. As for the musical magic of ETHER, here are my music impressions
Reference System for Impressions Below:
MrSpeakers ETHER (do I really have to??)
Double Helix Cables XTreme, plus Comp4 XLR interconnects on back of Cavalli LAu
McIntosh D100 DAC
All Nordost Heimdall 2 cable loom excluding DHC
Nordost Quantum Power (QB8, Qv2, multiple qK1 plug-ins)
Amarra For TIDAL + Amarra Symphony as digital sources
VPI Traveler w/ Gingko Cloud 9T Base & Sonicweld DampClamp
via Ortofon 2MBlue cartridge
Radiohead - "Everything's In It's Right Place - Kid A
Still my #1 sonic acid test. If I could encapsulate why, perhaps the song wouldn't feel so magical to me. Maybe it's the liquidity of the cascading sounds encompassing Yorke's vocals, twisted, gated vocal samples, winding synths, and this drivy beat that's simply infectious. Maybe all that has something to do with it; why I have such a deep love for this track. It also be the fact that I can tell if a music system's off within a few seconds, at most, using this cut. ETHER handled it masterfully, and that's no easy task. The flow was magnificently seamless and liquid-like. The whole frequency spectrum was reproduced with clarity, authority, with a surprisingly surreal feeling of endlessness too. Things trailed off naturally of course, and this is tough to describe: But it was more like the deliverance of the sound left a momentary stamp of energy, that then dissipated. I know, it's gotta sound like hippie-bullshit - but I'm treading in new waters so please bear with me here... Overall a spectacular looking glass into ETHERs potential to, and please pardon my French: Get the fuck outta' it's own way and let the music SHINE.
Donny Hathaway - "A Song for You" - Donny Hathaway
YES, another quintessential sonic stand-by here at Sonic Satori. Hey, what the hell can I say? My late mentor and brilliant producer/arranger Arif Mardin co-Produced it and did the arrangements - so naturally it draws me in. But, if this song doesn't getcha' right in the damn gut you maybe dead, or, at the very least, a matrixed-the-Fuck-Out-Prozac-ZOMBIE! The feeling of intimacy that's captured here is stunning. This is Hathaway at his seemingly most-vulnerable place. The anguish, torment, yet bittersweet timbre of his voice is mesmerizing when acutely reproduced. Luckily, the gang at MrSpeakers brought their A-Game with ETHER. Not only was I caught in the never-ending loop of repeat-repeat-repeat, because this song is so utterly gorgeous, these headphones put me in the room with Hathaway. I closed my eyes, and through this rig it was like some of the greatest high end two-channel systems I've ever heard. Amd by that, I mean: It came so close to sounding like nothing: There was just Donny, the musicians, the hall, and my ears. What a spectacular treat on this Sunday morning! DAMN that was impressive.
Eminem - "Love the Way You Lie" (feat. Rihanna) - Recovery
I'm grateful to my friend G for introducing me to this track. I was surprised that I didn't know about it - being a big Eminem fan. My feelings about Rihanna personally aside (and I have NO right to judge - which is why I'm choosing to shut the fuck up) this is a powerful track with a message that's not only universal, but happens to be extremely personal to me right now. We can deny these feelings when we have our "reviewer caps on" - or, I can choose to trust my readers enough not to patronize them. As said in a previous article: My 18-year relationship has crumbled to dust. I'm forty-years old. It just sucks . No need for superfluos adjectives. Now, I can't relate to all of it of course, but much of it brings goose-bumps followed by fuckin' tears. Now if a system can move me like that, because, in my experience, when music washes over me with power behind it, as opposed to a tiny earbud or Jambox, there's just another level of meditative-like being that I can sink into. This song not only empowered me through ETHER, it brought the sadness and darkness too - and that's fuckin' life man. I've also heard other headphone systems mush their vocals and lose the sensational staging here - plenty of room between the pounding of the kick and the guitars, with their vocals well-articulated. This was another case of "oh shit, I just listened to that track like 30 times - maybe I should move on..." That's a testament to ETHERs ability to convey emotion and space. That was incredible.
Alicia Keys - "As I Am (Intro)" + "No One" - As I am
Frankly, I'm surprised more crate-diggin'/pocket-protector audiophiles haven't globbed onto this record. The bass SLAMS, Keys vocals are on-point as always, but especially sharp and focused here early in her career. There's also a rawness to her emotional delivery here, before the hugeness of stardom over-took her for a lil' bit (and again, NO judgin': Clive Davis built an institution around this woman). The HUGE kick of the intro track SLAMS, settin' me up in this kinda' sway in my seat. Perfect for modern-day r&b. Admittedly I skip to "No One" because I woulda' sequenced this record that way. So sue me. The kicks line up - maintaining this rhythm that's so soulful and wavy, it's the kinda r&b track that makes me pump my fist in the air - whether at her live show or at my desk. Especially right now, as somebody very near and dear to my heart is in trouble right now, and I can't help them. That feeling of helplessness can overwhelm you if you're not careful - and I would've fought entire battalions for this person. Listening to this music through this system and the ETHERs is healing. It's taking that restless anxiety in my gut, and helping me project it outward, without dropping into the negative. I'd say that's a big fuckin' part of the goal of any high performance high-fidelity system. Wouldn't you?
Linkin Park - "Hands Held High" - Minutes to Midnight
Here's another brilliant track that I gotta send some gratitude out for: Teddie - NICE choice son! Ha: When I was managing a Pacific Sunwear shop for awhile (don't ask, don't know how I got or kept the job as long as I did) my team - yes, I was the Assistant Manager my very-first year in fashion - whatevs: I would give them lil' music quizzes for fun to shake things up sometimes. One particular challenge brought forth some terrific anthems for the generation just after mine (?? - I'm a proud Gen-Xer). I asked the team to pick just one song that encapsulates their generation: I said it could their collective angst, anger, fear, love, anything - whatever thread, no matter how insignificant, show me somethin'. One of the workers said "you can't do that, not just one song". I quickly retorted: "Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana biiaatch". That kid that said that? Came back with this song, and I've been BUMPIN' it when I need to be reminded to keep "fighting the good fight" as Harry (Pearson) used to tell me. It's political, it's youthful, it's fuckin' angry, but it's also wickedly smart. Obviously anthemic (DUH) - it's like a hip-hop track over a rock sonic back-drop. The energy is high, thanks to smartly arranged string crescendos, broken beats, and other peaks and valleys while the singer holds his tone steady throughout the whole song. Iraq is a central theme here, and the way he paints images through vocal thrift is vividly expressed. This track gets me everytime. However, admittedly, the recording is not great (just cuz you got Pro Tools don't mean you gotta crush the dynamic excitement outta' a track fellas - just sayin') it's delivery is always different. But the purity of his voice is intact on a resolute system. ETHER has that in SPADES. This listening experience was actually a bit overwhelming for me, dealin' with a sorta' shakey emotional state (have no fear, my hearing may even be sharper during this time - though I'd trade it in for boring anyday believe me) - but that only cements my earlier comments about ETHERS ability to seemingly extract, attack, and hold back!
Maybe I should just DROP this review at that. Are you lookin' for more than that right now? Well - please be sure to draw a map cuz I'm happy as a pig in shit - and let ALL the language hates COME HITHER! OOPS, BIG letters! I'm breaking the rules, so fuckin' sue me. It's the 21st Century Jack - there are NO MORE RULES TO THIS SHIT. And ETHER represents that very attitude wrapped in a slick package, that's a pleasure to don all day crakin' the hell outta' your favoritye tunes. Can you ask for more from a pair of headphones? Well, we're gonna find out actually - as we tackle the next installment of our ETHER's just that F____in' Great series! But, for now - and here's the straight DOPE: If you're lookin' for a pair of planar cans that look cool, fit great, sound fuckin' fantastic, and are light enough to keep on while you make out with your girl/boyfriend - simultaneously NOT disturbing micro and macro-dynamic detail retrieval? Look nowhere else. ETHER is it.