For the headphone cognoscenti, MrSpeakers has released a set of on-ear models that utilise a new twist on familiar technology. Paul Rigby reviews the Ether
Surely…surely the company should be called MrHeadphones? If you visit the outfit’s American website, you will find four sets of headphones, not a speaker to be seen. One of those on view is or, rather, are the Ether headphones that takes planer driver technology and applies some quick drying evolution.
MrSpeakers has worked closely with headphone designer, Bruce Thigpen (this guy gets around, he’s the founder of Eminent-Technology and pioneer of numerous planar magnetic speaker technologies), to produce this attractive yet under-stated headphone design. These open-backed, on-ear headphones feature the V-Planar, which arrives with extra ‘knurling’ (yes, knurling). The new technology is supposed to combat non-linear planar motion and the undesirable sonic artefacts it causes. That ‘knurling’ bit is supposed to turn the struggling, straining flat planar driver into a more relaxed, accordion-shaped, zig-zag that prevents driver stretch but allows some ‘give’ at the same time.
The head-band is made from heat-treated NiTinol (Nickel-Titanium alloy). Not only is it light and, thus, comfortable to wear, it won’t squeeze your head until it pops.
MrSpeakers has also added a new, flat ear-pad to partly reduce the size of the headphone but also to ensure a more successful seal to the ear to reduce noise pollution. Covering the ear-pads is lamb’s leather.
I found testing the Ether a fascinating experience. To begin and to address a general point, it is obvious that this pair of headphones belong in the higher echelon of headphone design. Apart from the excellent build standard, when Queen’s Death On Two Legs (from A Night At The Opera) track got underway, there was obviously a mature presence at work here. All instruments were careful laid out across a wide soundstage. There was enough air and space to flick through the instrument roster in order to tick each one off, there was no sense of soundstage crowding so that each member of the band sounded at ease with the task in hand.
In terms of the sonic spectrum, upper mids had a fine sense of detail and what treble existed on this track was very good indeed in terms of expressing the tonality of the cymbals, for example, while the percussion was big, bold and meaty.
The Ethers did feature their own personality, though. Where the Sennheiser HD800s were strictly balanced in all areas, the Ether took another approach. The midrange was lifted a notch so, add the fact that these headphones are much easier to drive than the HD800s, you got a louder, slightly more ‘in your face’ presentation as the vocals, guitar and piano were examined in slightly more clinical fashion. Don’t assume by that comment that the Ether is at all strident or bright. That’s not so. To explain the sound in another way. Imagine taking both ends of the vertical sonic spectrum and stretching it a tad. What happens is that events tend to move up and down the sound ladder and previously hidden detail becomes more noticeable to the ear. Hence, the bass packed a larger wallop but, at the same time, received a light shined upon it to make it a touch analytical. The bass guitar became more of a fixture too whereas, with the HD800s, the bass was slightly subdued. In terms of the midrange, I can best describe this area as if you have moved your head physically closer to the band. Music became slightly more raucous, epic and grand. There were new details available while the soundstage was busier. In short, when playing rock on the Ether, you need to hang onto your seat.
Moving onto composer, conductor and arranger Gianni Ferrio and El Varon Rebuscante, the Ethers can sometimes sound a little untamed, as if they just won’t get back into their box. This can sometimes result in slightly uncontrollable upper mid peaks where a hint of bloom can be experienced during crescendos. The up side of that, though, is that the Ethers will also energetically dive into the mix, pulling out unexpected detail from hidden corners. That was the case here with a new secondary percussive instrument appearing as if by magic from nowhere. Not only that, the Ethers were tremendously incisive. For example, the HD800s portrayed the frequent but brief excepts from the bank of strings almost as a grammatical comma throughout the track. The Ether allowed these strings to have more of a role, extending this brief excerpt and revealing more detail, stretching out this piece of musical punctuation so that the ear could hear more of what was going on inside this moment.
Just in case you might think that the Ethers are muscle-bound phones, that’s not so. The delicacy was present too, especially during this piece of the wooden blocks percussion sequence which had a delicate tonality with fragile degrees of reverb spilling from them.
I was finally about to turn to jazz but switched to a variant. Edie Gorme and a slice of bossna nova on the album, Cuatro Vidas, with the backing band, El Trio Los Panchos. Gorme sang a soft ballad, Vereda Tropical, with a trio of voices, Spanish guitars and conga drums. The Ether tracked the acoustic guitars well, allowing the metallic nature of the strings and the space between each to be carefully examined but what really impressed me was Gorme’s voice itself which was both breathy and emotional in its delivery. Gorme had a real up close and personal time on this track, as if she was close mic-ed and we there up close with her. This sense of intimacy made the song come alive.
In terms of the design and the technology behind it, the Ethers will be easier to run in terms of impedance and you should find it easier to get great sounds with ‘lesser’ equipment than, say the HD800s which can be difficult to drive well and which tend to be rather fussy in how they are paired with ancillaries.
Onto personality, the MrSpeakers Ether is a design that is full of energy. Where the Sennheiser HD800s can be a little conservative and are most certainly balanced and level-headed, the Ethers are full of passion, movement and feeling. Like anyone whose existence is ruled by sensation, the sonic results from this pair of headphones can take a little getting used to. For some users, the Ether will be a ‘love at first listen’, other users may need time to understand the Ether sound output and some may be instantly turned off by them. Hence, a demo is certainly recommended.
Nevertheless, the Ethers are certainly a premier league design, no matter what your conclusions might be about the finer points of the sonic performance. Ultimately, for those who decided to adopt a pair, I can assure you, you will never experience a dull moment.
MRSPEAKERS ETHER HEADPHONES
Tel: 01494 956558
GOOD: general design and fit, spacious soundstage, bass punch, intimacy, detail
BAD: some users may dislike the raucous presentation