Cool and Confident: Mr. Speakers Ether Planar Magnetic Headphones
For a long time Mr. Speakers' Dan Clark, Founder and CEO, has worked his way up the ladder from enthusiast, to modifier, to manufacturer of heavily modified Fostex T50RP headphones. With the Ether (starting at $1499), Dan has completed the transition to a headphone completely designed and manufactured from scratch...and sounding better than anything he's previously produced. Congrats Dan!
The Ether is a full-sized, circumaural open acoustic, planar magnetic headphone. The look is superb, to my eyes, the outer exterior ring around the grill is a lovely, deep, fine metal-flake red. The rest of the build is a manly black.
Construction quality and materials are top-notch. Ear pads are soft suple leather; a heavier grade of leather is used for the headband strap. Earpads are replaceablethey use the common edge flange mounting, and are perfectly circular and four inches in outside diameter. The headband tensioning arcs are NiTinolalso called "memory metal", a nickel-titanium blend having some unique properties, which include being 10-30 times more elastic than most metals. Other than the headband adjustment sliders, all remaining headband hardware is metal. The swivel arem, Dan tells me, are hogged out of billet aluminum
Comfort is very good with the Ether. Their light weight (370 grams) and plush leather ear pads and conforming headband strap do a very good job of providing a comfortable fit. The only problem I had was that the size adjustment sliders are a tad too loose, and the act of putting the headphones on my head will usually move one of the sliders making me readjust the headband every time I don the headphones.
The headphones sent to me had the DUM (Distinctly Un-Magical it says on their website) cables terminated in both 4-pin XLR and 1/4" plugs. I found these cables a bit too inflexible for my liking. Dan Clark tells me these cables are being replaced with a more pliable cable. The E-Valucon connectors (SN-8-4(P)) used to connect the cable to the earpieces is one of the nicest headphone connectors I've seen. DIYers can purchase them directly from Mr. Speakers here.
Accessorization is minimal but adequate for a high-end, home-use headphone. The Ether comes with a cable chosen at purchase by the buyer from a fairly broad range of optionsXLR, 1/4", 3.5mm, 2.5mm balanced and RSA/ALO termination. Also included is a rather bulbous looking brown, molded, hard, clam-shell case with zipper closure. It may be rather large and funky looking, but it's nicely protective and functional.
V-Planar Diaphragm Technology
I must say that I've seen a number of headphones in the last year that have evidenced innovative thinking on the part of manufacturers, which, in the end, really didn't pan out sonically. I'm happy to say that Mr. Speakers V-Planar knurled diaphragm does seem to work fairly well.
To the right you see a representation of a normal diaphragm membrane driven between two magnets. These thin diaphragms do have a degree of elasticity, but you can imagine that the tension within the diaphragm gets greater as it excursions to its extremes. Too much tension on the diaphragm will limit large excursions and therefore distort the acoustic signal it produces. Too little tension and the diaphragm will flop around more likely to produce modal break-up. This makes achieving proper diaphragm tension critical with normal flat diaphragms, and as a by-product oft times produces unit-to-unit variations in performance.
Observing work done by Bruce Thigpin to optimize diaphragm performance in Eminent-Technology planar magnetic speakers, Clark developed a headphone diaphragm with a knurled surface. This shape reduces the change in tension in the diaphragm as it makes large excursions, which improves a couple areas of performance. It allows more of the surface of the diaphragm to move as a flat piston, which in turn keeps the wavefront flatter as it approaches the eararguably a more natural sonic presentation. It reduces the difference in diaphragm tension between the middle resting position and the extremes of excursion, which in turn will reduce distortion of reproduction at high volumespossibly improving dynamic range performance. Lastly, because of the knurling, diaphragm tensioning becomes less critical. It's still damned important, no doubt, but unit-to-unit variations might indeed be reduced with a knurled diaphragm. Mr. Speakers did work with Bruce Thigpin in the development of this diaphragm, who is also listed as a co-inventor on Mr. Speakers patent application for this realization.
Whether or not this technology delivers on the sonic promises of the design is difficult to say with certaintyI would not characterize the Ether as having break-through sonic performance in its class, but I also consider them as solidly competitive in the >$1000 price category. I can tell you that the measured distortion of the Ether is as low as the best planar magnetic headphones I've measured; and is almost completely free of impedance variations over the audio spectrum. Most planar magnetic cans that evidence distortion spikes usually have corresponding spikes/features in the impedance plot.
Well...let's get on with characterizing their sound on the next page.