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Taron & Andrew Lissimore
Review written by Andrew Park (@Resolve)
For the past several years, Mrspeakers has been turning the traditional perception of planar magnetic headphones on its head. In the enthusiast community, many of us are used to the enormous offerings from cornerstone companies like Audeze and HiFiMAN, with the recognition that they often sound incredible, making it easier to ignore how huge or heavy they are. But size and weight have often been barriers to demographics whose concept of headphones doesn’t principally emphasize sound quality, and the notion of wearing something that weighs over 400g and looks like an 80’s air conditioner for the majority of the day just doesn’t seem appealing. Thankfully the industry has recognized this, and Mrspeakers is at the forefront of the issue, coming up with designs everyone else needs to pay attention to. The Ether 2 is their latest offering that aims to bring flagship sound quality to a more manageable package - especially for those of us who wear headphones for the whole day.
When I first became aware of the Ether 2, my immediate thought was that somehow MrSpeakers was reading my mind. They seem to have taken every criticism I’ve ever had of high end headphones, namely that they’re not usable for long sessions because of their weight, size, comfort, and overly bright tonality, and addressed specifically those issues. I get the feeling that the goal with this headphone was to provide flagship performance and sonic capabilities without paying the price in weight, size, and comfort. My evaluation of the Ether 2 is an attempt to answer whether or not they’ve pulled it off.
- Driver Type - Planar Magnetic
- Driver Size - 71x45mm
- Impedance - 16 ohms
- Weight - 290 grams
- Ear Pad Material - Synthetic Protein
- Price - $1,999
For the Ether 2, I went for my usual set of instrumental jazz with the likes of Michael Wollny and Ulf Wakenius, along with vocal performances from Holly Cole and Renee Olstead. I’ve also really been enjoying Julian Lage for instrumental guitar. For the sibilance tests I use Patricia Barber’s ‘Code Cool’, which is always a staple for identifying problem areas and then Alison Krauss’s ‘Paper Airplane’ for optimally recorded vocals. For rougher material I tried out some In Flames (the old stuff) and Amorphis, both of which I consider to be total crap, but perhaps a guilty pleasure and totally able to scratch the more aggressive itch, along with my preferred albums from Opeth and Steven Wilson.
Right away I’m reminded that MrSpeakers does design better than just about anyone else. It’s a surprisingly small headphone, considering it’s a full sized over-ear open-back design. The housing is well constructed and extremely material efficient, with a thinner structure than both the Ether 1 and Aeon Flow headphones. The Ether 2 also weighs only 290g, which is even lighter than the Aeon. This is both surprising and impressive considering the larger 71x45mm driver of the Ether 2. In order to achieve this, MrSpeakers developed a new driver for the Ether 2, improving upon the previous design.
The company boasts a 70% reduction in aluminum trace weight for the Ether 2’s driver, but perhaps more interesting is the stated design around their TrueFlow waveguide technology. This has been implemented in their other planar magnetic driver headphones, and similar techniques have been employed by competing Audeze Headphones with their ‘Fazor’ tech. Essentially this is perforated material that allows the planar driver to produce a cleaner and more curated signal. Normally this is something added to the planar driver (to varying success), but the Ether 2 has been designed around this concept in principle. In theory this should allow for better reproduction of “lower level” information. While it’s presently unclear to me how much of this approach contributes to tangible resolution benefits, at the very least the Ether 2 is considerably lighter and more nimble than its predecessor, and if it sounds at least as good then that’s a win in my book.
The Ether 2’s design does almost everything right, with one exception that unfortunately is a major deal-breaker for me. My biggest criticism of this headphone is that it exhibits the dreaded ‘planar crinkle’ like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I have to state this as my own experience, with the recognition that most of the people I’ve had try the Ether 2 haven’t had this issue. It took me some time to figure out why this is such an issue but I can conclude that it’s due to inconsistencies in the seal pressure for the pads on the side of my head. As I move my head even slightly from left to right, the seal pressure changes, causing the crinkle effect to occur. I haven’t had this issue with any other headphone, at least not to the same degree, and I’ve identified that this is because the ear cutouts on the Ether 2’s pads are a bit too small for my ears. This causes the bottom part of the pad to rest slightly on the bottom of my ear. There’s also a distinct possibility that this is caused by my beard getting in the way of a proper seal. The bottom line is that if you have larger than average ears or ear lobes (like I do), or have some kind of facial hair, check with MrSpeakers first to make sure you won’t have this problem.
Build & Comfort
Due to its lower weight, the Ether 2 is extremely comfortable. I personally own the Aeon Flow, and find that while it’s reasonably comfortable, there’s a bit of clamp force that takes some getting used to, and the headband doesn’t have elasticity for the suspension system. Both of these concerns have been improved on the Ether 2. Not only is the clamp force less noticeable (and indeed the headphone’s housing structure is thinner), but the headband has been improved by putting fairly sizable holes across the top making it more breathable and adding a bit of give as well. The build quality for the housing feels quite solid, and the headband top piece is the same Nitinol system used in the Aeon (which is both light and reliable). If I’m to nitpick, it’s that the headband again isn’t a fully elastic suspension system, which is my preference, and of course, time will tell how well that headband strap holds up. Overall this is an improvement on its predecessors for comfort and I rank this as one of the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn - certainly more comfortable than similar priced offerings from Focal, HiFiMAN, Audeze and ZMF, and that’s even taking into consideration the improvements to comfort these companies have been making in recent years as well.
I tend to view detail retrieval and resolution as somewhat dependent on the tonality, but not exhausted by it - and so in that sense it’s clear that improvements to the planar driver make the primary contribution here. While the Ether 2 doesn’t immediately force details upon you the way other more clinical and analytic headphones do (headphones with a brighter tonality), it does impressively well in the detail department. It’s a marked improvement over its predecessor, and over the Aeon Flow series as well. I rate it very similar to that of the Focal Clear, putting it in strong company, but it should be noted that it doesn’t match that of the ZMF Vérité, Focal Utopia, Stellia or Audeze LCD-4.
Speed & Dynamics
This has always been a strong point of planar magnetics and the Ether 2 is no exception. It’s tight and well controlled providing a very punchy and engaging sound as should be expected at this price point, however due to the tonality again, it doesn’t sound quite as nimble as some of the HiFiMAN planars around the same price or above. The Ether 2 doesn’t take a step back in this regard, but it doesn’t stand out to me as the primary reason I would reach for a Mrspeakers headphone (like it may have at a lower price bracket). Similarly, it doesn’t hit as hard as I’ve come to enjoy with some of the ZMF flagships, but it does also do better than the Aeon Flow (closed) in this regard.
Soundstage & Imaging
If anything, the standout qualities of the Ether 2 are the soundstage and imaging. This is a very spacious sound, with lots of room for instrument separation. The imaging is probably my favorite aspect, with exceptional structural definition. I do connect this quality to ultimate resolution and detail ability as well. So it’s not just that the images have positional accuracy, it’s that they are discernibly distinct from one another as well.
Unsurprisingly the Ether 2 does have the planar timbre, and in my opinion that’s a very enjoyable quality. I can only describe this as a ‘plucked’ quality to the tones, which is likely one of the reasons it sounds fast and tight as well. But of course, there will be those who simply prefer the way dynamic drivers sound and the Ether 2 won’t do anything to change the minds of those who don’t enjoy the planar timbre. For those who do, this is more of the same.
It should be noted that the initial unit I tested may have been defective. It sounded extremely dark - to the point where I can’t confidently attribute its tonality to typical planar unit to unit tonality variation. Mrspeakers kindly sent me a new unit which sounds much better to my taste, and it measures considerably better as well.
This is taken with a MiniDSP EARS rig that should not be considered objective or industry standard. It’s only useful for comparing with measurements from the same or similar rig. This is the HEQ compensated measurement calibrated at 300hz.
The main takeaway from the Ether 2’s tonality is that it’s very rich and ‘romantic’ sounding. The bass is extremely well extended, reaching all the way into the sub bass (this is what I love about good planars) and it looks like there’s a bit of midrange elevation from the graph above, but I have to stress that the HEQ compensation sometimes causes this and it doesn’t exactly sound like a mid forward headphone. It stays quite flat up until the treble, where things get a bit more relaxed due to a cut around 5khz. I think one of these dips in the treble is the likely culprit for why the Ether 2 has that tonal richness, but that’s also not necessarily a bad thing - it just has this kind of relaxed quality that I’ve come to expect from MrSpeakers open-back headphones. I should mention that this is where the initial unit I tested had a dramatic cut that didn’t come back up appropriately at the 6.5khz region the way the replacement unit thankfully does. As a result, this new unit doesn’t have the muffled or veiled sound that I was worried about. It’s interesting to note that the elevation here does show up as a bit of a peak, but in my opinion that just adds a bit of much needed energy to the treble that keeps the Ether 2 engaging and enjoyable without any oversharpening or added emphasis that ruins so many headphones for the treble sensitive. There’s also no treble roll-off, as it has enough air and sparkle up top that’ll be appreciated by those of us who can still hear above 14khz.
In many ways this is exactly the kind of tuning that’s ideal for long listening sessions because at no point is it ever fatiguing, and I can say with complete confidence that the Ether 2 passes the sibilance test (or lack there of) with flying colors. With that said, I am still left feeling that while a more relaxed tuning rather than an oversharpened presentation is the lesser of two evils, it’s still not necessarily optimal. Those who prefer this kind of tuning should look at the Ether 2 specifically for its relaxed presentation, however I would personally like a bit more energy in the 5khz region. Treble is the most difficult part of the headphone to get right, and after listening to what HiFiMAN have done with the Sundara and Ananda 1 and even the Focal Clear and Elegia, which are all less expensive headphones, I’m left wanting that same kind of careful tuning that doesn’t require the treble recession seen here. To put it another way, if the Ether 2 is like the Sennheiser HD650 with its more relaxed treble presentation, I still prefer the HD600 - bearing in mind that these are categorically different headphones that don’t share many other traits in common. It should also be mentioned that at the time of writing this, Mrspeakers have just released additional pads for the Ether 2 that do impact the treble quite a bit. I wasn’t able to evaluate those yet, however the fact that they are available in order to accommodate listeners who may not share the same tonality preferences as the product engineers should resonate strongly with enthusiasts. You don’t see this from most companies and this is a compelling reason to get into the more boutique brands like Mrspeakers.
The Ether 2 has better technical performance, a much bigger stage, a more linear response up until the treble, where it starts to share some of the same ‘romantic’ characteristics of the AFO. The Ether 2 is also lighter and more comfortable.
Focal Clear - These have similar detail capabilities, however the Ether 2 has a bigger soundstage. The Clear on the other hand has a brighter tonality in the treble, which is more to my preference but can cause a bit more fatigue as well. The Ether 2 is lighter and more comfortable than the Clear (amazingly).
I wanted to compare it with an Ananda but don’t have one handy at the moment. Interestingly, the Ether 2 is somehow smaller than both. The Sundara does treble more to my preference with a bit more energy throughout the upper frequencies, but at the same time never sounding sharp or sibilant. This is how I want my treble presentation to be, and both the Sundara and Ananda in my opinion underscore what’s possible with careful treble tuning. In every other category the Ether 2 wins - especially in the bass response.
The Vérité is a bit more expensive and I had originally wanted to do a long format comparison between the two, but I don’t think it’s really all that fair. When strictly considering sound, the Vérité wins in just about every category with better detail retrieval, better dynamic slam, similar staging and imaging and in general a bit more presence in the treble. But it should also be noted that the Ether 2 is more comfortable (lighter), more linear through the bass and midrange up until around 5khz, has a less ‘colored’ tuning with default pads, even though it’s also more subdued in the treble. So I can see good reasons why someone would choose either.
This is very close to being my perfect headphone, and on paper it is. In practice, however, the ‘planar crinkle’ is unfortunately a major deal-breaker for me specifically. Prospective buyers shouldn’t be too concerned about this, since not only have most other listeners not had any trouble with the seal pressure consistency, the addition of alternative pads with wider ear cutouts should alleviate that issue. If you have a beard, large ears, or anything that might cause pressure inconsistency on the side of your head, consider emailing Mrspeakers to ask about the different pad options. Apart from that, this is the direction I’d like to see headphones going in. For the most part, the Ether 2 doesn’t outperform its competition, instead it does just about everything as well in a smaller, lighter, and much more comfortable package. While I might nitpick the treble recession, I definitely prefer these errors of omission to the alternative tendency to oversharpen and fake detail. In that respect the Ether 2 is a shining example of what high end headphones can be. We should pay attention to what this design prioritizes and my hope is that it causes everyone else to follow suit.
You can check out my video review here.
- Andrew Park (@Resolve)