Disruption in Headphone World!

Far be it for me to fuel the hype train...but this particular one appears to be an inter-city express on seamless rails screaming into our future at 350km/hr. I'm hopping aboard...even though I don't know exactly where we'll end up. Who cares when the tunes are this good. Roll on!

I'm talking about three headphones that are just appearing in our world: the Mr. Speakers Ether Flow ($1799), and the Focal Elear ($999) and Utopia ($3999).

The Elear and Utopia are simply extraordinary. The sense of dynamism, tonal balance, and smooth clarity of both are, to put it mildly, disorientingly disruptive to my sense of where headphones are at today and in what way and by how much these are better. Similarly, the Ether Flow does not compute to my ears as a planar magnetic headphone—the super-clean transient response is shockingly good. The treble range is rendered with extraordinarily smooth speed. I think it's in the back-room now giving noogies to the HD 800.

I've got lots more listening to do before I review them—when the bar gets raised this much this fast it takes a little while to to orient yourself for the jump. I will say this: The question is not whether or not these cans are making the "Wall of Fame" open headphone category, it's how many, if any, of the headphones there now will survive the shift.

So, put your wallets away, don't buy any other +$1000 headphones right now. These cans are just becoming available and it's going to be tricky to pick one up quick. (Also, I'm always a little leery of the first few production runs.) But! If you're in the +$1000 headphone market, search out the chance to audition these and listen to them yourself. You're in for quite a treat. And because these cans are so good, you should have a careful listen for yourself to see which flavor most suites your fancy.

The main reason for this post is that I've gotten the chance to measure all three headphones and I didn't want to wait for the reviews or the next Update for all to see. A couple things to note: The Flow is a pre-production unit and should not be considered as the final measurements. Note how excellent the transient response is on the Flow, also note that the seal is a little odd on my measurement head and I purposely allowed one of the raw plots to go through without fidgeting for the seal. Also, I think the THD plot might be bad....not sure.

Measurement Sheets:
Mr. Speakers Flow Pre-Production
Focal Elear
Focal Utopia

These headphones will change the game. I'm confident at this point that the Focal Elear is the best sub-$1000 headphone on the planet. And I'm pretty sure the Flow and Utopia will knock most of the other +$1000 headphones off the wall.

It's a new day, folks. Gonna be good fun watching everyone else play catch-up. Enjoy!

COMMENTS
TMoney's picture

Heard all three of these on Saturday and was very impressed. Glad to hear that I'm not crazy for liking them!

MattTCG's picture

I haven't heard the new Focal stuff, but spent several days with the Ether Flow. The performance is just stunning.

grizzlybeast's picture

The flow looks punchy...Hope I am reading that 30hz square wave right. Man... I am sad for my wallet if I am.

OldRoadToad's picture

Nice. Its said that the most important thing to note when listening to someone you trust (or for that matter don't trust) is to play close attention to that which is not said.

Having met the man and known him for several years I can say I trust Tyll. What he writes (not types) is just as worthy as that which he leaves out.

Think about this.

The Toad

TMoney's picture

You are referring to... what exactly?

tony's picture

If anyone else made these comments I'd of figured him to be a hired PR guy. My little buddy in Livonia says superlative things about nearly everything.
You're making one hell-of-a prediction.

Tony in Michigan

barun432's picture

It's exciting that speaker manufacturers are stepping into the game and TOTL electrostats are entering the market at sub $2000 levels. These are indications that other speaker manufacturers might step in depending upon what this does to the market and established headphone makers will step up their game to compete.

Am all for the luxury market, but pricing trends tend to encourage manufacturers to put out something sub-par packaged as premium or the "Ultimate" like the AK 240, knowing there are folks who will pay that money without questioning anything and will come back for more when they release the next "Ultimate" at an even higher price in a relatively short time gap.

Another good example for headphones will be the Ultasone Edition 10. It was astronomically priced at the time when HD800 was the most expensive popular headphone out along with the Stax 007. But that was not able to even hold its ground because they didn't sound like their price tag even though they were made like a luxury product.

I tend to believe Tyll as he has proven time and again that he is Mr.Consistent when it comes to describing sound as accurately as possible, but when he says Elear is better than any sub $1000 headphone in the planet, I tend to state myself, "Tyll, you ought to hear the Final Pandora Hope VI before making such statements", as he has only measured them but never published a review even though they are one the most unique hybrid headphones in terms of sound and technology.

Anyway, Utopia priced at $3999 is directly looking at HiFiMaN HE1000, Audeze LCD 4, JPS Labs Abyss, Stax 009/007 but is it even worth the premium price of $2300 payable over the HD 800S. One can buy the 800S along with a nifty desktop DAC/AMP combo if they spend as much to get just a pair of Utopia.

I get the indication that these new headphones are stored in a warehouse somewhere getting ready to be shipped and the manufacturers are just spending their marketing budget in order to earn back their total project cost, which I'm all for if they deliver worthy products.

Hope these products prove their respective price points, until then, I'll just wait for the review.

Cheche's picture

Interesting times, indeed - can hardly wait to see the reviews.
I wonder if you can zoom in (.5ms range) the step response for 300Hz for these cans and not only.

Puffy's picture

Can I get a holla for open cans with decent bass response!? The measurements for both of those Focal cans look magnificent on the low end. Maybe a little uneven on the treble end on the Elear though. That's presumably the reason for the +$3000 on the price tag though.

As a bass head I'm a little unimpressed with the Flow I must say. Anything to assuage my concerns below 50Hz that isn't immediately clear from the measurements? Looks like it handles the high end marvelously though.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
The Flows seal a little weird on my test head. This was an unofficial measurement of a pre-production can. I didn't work too hard on the seal because I wanted to see what it acted like in a non-ideal situation. Measurements of the production unit will be better. Just know that the Flow might need to be carefully positioned to get the best bass out of them.
Long time listener's picture

It's nice to hear there are some great new headphones. But for a site that places so much stock in measurements (which I appreciate greatly, by the way), I'm just not really seeing what's going on here. A $40 IEM like the Philips TX1 looks like it beats both the Elear and Utopia in across-the-board low distortion and in clean, solid transient response--and the effect of these measurements can be heard, too. Why are IEMs, which Tyll once touted as offering the best sound quality for your money, so ignored here?

I no longer listen to the Philips TX1, but that's because I now have fantastic IEMs like the JVC HA-FX850 and HA-FX1100. My sound world has already been pleasantly disrupted by these, for $300 and $400 respectively, making me pretty sure I'll never spend $3,500 for any Focal headphone. But I hope you all enjoy 'em.

John Grandberg's picture

IEMs are just a whole different animal. As you said, there are things they can do which are very difficult to match. But there are other things which full-size cans do that IEMs can't - specifically a more speaker-like sound that isn't so "in your head" if that makes sense. So it's hard to compare.

I personally love IEMs, specifically custom IEMs which remove the comfort barrier I have with universals (where I'm always very aware of their presence). But I can see why some people just can't get into them. IEMs are almost as different from regular cans as speakers are, and each has their own strengths/weaknesses.

Long time listener's picture

I agree with about everything you say, except one. For me, good IEMs just simply are not any more "in my head" or less speaker-like than other types of headphone. Their lower distortion levels and their top-to-bottom integration (in the case of single-driver dynamics) means they reproduce the acoustic and ambient cues of the original recording better (when there is an actual acoustic environment to reproduce, rather than studio effects). Listening to Jordi Savall conducting Handel's Water Music through my Fiio X7 and JVC HA-FX1100s put me right in the hall with them. Sorry, that's what I hear. Larger headphones substitute their own acoustic effects for the acoustic of the original recording.

I recently, for reasons unknown, decided to dip once again into larger headphones by buying a Wall-of-Fame headphone, the Audio Technica ATH-MSR7. God it was awful. Nice upper treble but weak bass and harsh, strident upper mids. My JVC IEMs are just fabulous by comparison. So its back to IEMs for me.

Cats_Paw's picture

Anything past 1000 dollars is ignored for me automatically. Anything close to 1000 has to be about perfect.
I dont think I like what I am seeing in the measurements either, not at those prices.
The LCD-2 seems to have better control than all 3 of those. (and that pre-prod Ether... wtf?).

I especially pay attention to how flat the distortion line is. For me the flatter it is, the better the driver performance when it transmissions from one sound to another.

If the LCD-2 wasent that heavy it would be the ideal HP for me.

AudioMan612's picture

$1000 in the world of audio really is not that much. For speakers, it's nothing. For headphones, it's mid-priced. That said, is it past the point of diminishing returns? Of course. Diminishing returns tend to kick in very early in the audio world. That said, you are looking at products above $1000 wrong. There be a bigger difference between a good $500 and a good $1000 headphone than with a good $1000 headphone and a good $1500 headphone. That should not be news to anyone. You pay that last $500 if you have it because you want that last bit of difference.

As far as measurements go, as Tyll said, measurements are not everything. There have been MANY cases of gear measuring well but sounding badly, or vice versa. That's just something you have to deal with when you're developing a product. You can find plenty of cases of this if you research it.

As far as the LCD-2 goes, I find it a bit mushy. It's not a bad headphone, but I hardly consider it endgame. I have a pair of LCD-X's which I find much better (and would actually take over the LCD-3F).

Cats_Paw's picture

I think everybody looks at products at any price the way they want (dont think there is a right or wrong way to look at it, it comes down to individual opinion).

I know that measurements are not the be all end all, but the main problem with doing hearing "by ear" is that you would HAVE to listen to all the sounds in all the songs to know if at some point you wont get something off (each song is different and it does NOT cover the entire spectrum of the FR).

So yes, your ear is clearly an important factor to take in consideration, but you should also remember that it can fool you quite easy (eg. is the hp i am using now very detailed or is it only more detailed than the previous HP? Or is the song I am listening now more detailed? You'll go MAD if you try to take in consideration all the variables)

Point is, measurements wont change in the unit. Your hearing, both subjective and objective (hearing loss over ageing) will. Id rather stay with the data that is reliable to everyone and every time.

I do have the LCD-2 now, and while I get what you mean about mushy, I do not hear that in every song (I never hear it in gaming), so Ill have to learn more about it before I know what that happens.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Measurements aren't the whole story.
Magoo's picture

Does this you you would consider a Break in period for Speakers, Headphones and cables...OMG-

You can't measure it right?

BTFYaroslav's picture

Have you tried to switch the pads between the Elear and Utopia? I wondner how much of a difference they make for the sound. Maybe the Elear with the leather pads is going to be closer to the Utopia.

Headphone4life's picture

I love how we're at the point were a $1000 headphone is "mid-priced" now. 10 or 15 years ago $1000 was a top of the line and in that short time since we have $3000 and $4000 being top of the line, its really crazy to me.

You don't have to spend thousands of dollars for a great headphone. The $700 Sony Z7 that I loved was the most I've spent and my favorite hp now is my Nighthawk that I got for $490 new. I think my Nighthawk is quite a bit better than the once $1000 HD700 that I have and I like more than the HD800 that I listened to for a few hours.

I'm sure the new $4000 Focal sounds amazing but I doubt its $3400 better than the Nighthawk and that's why you will never see me spend that on a headphone, unless I start making a lot more money, then all bets are off.

Athos's picture

It's funny how the frequency response of the Elear looks like the HE-500:
http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/FocalElear.pdf
http://www.innerfidelity.com/images/HiFiMANHE500.pdf

Tyll, does it sound similar?

TheFox's picture

...is pretty much irrelevant to most people.
And who's to say there can't be improvements that will trickle down into the e.g. sub-$500 range that is so "disruptive" it beats what we now have at twice the price?

Carl-Gustav Ohlsson's picture

Tyll,

I have read about new models of two Audio Technica headphones, ATH-A2000Z and ATH-W1000Z "Maestro"(new version of ATH-W1000X "Grandioso"), both of closed design and with 53 mm drivers.

One can read that ATH-A2000Z has bobbin wound voice coils, magnets made from Permendur, a rigid and lightweight magnesium baffle for each driver and a system called Double Air Damping System (DADS), this system intended to tune and control the bass response.

About the ATH-W1000Z "Maestro"one can, as far as I understand, read pretty much the same about features, but I can't specify more than 53 mm drivers and the Double Air Damping System (DADS).

I wonder how these headphones and the mentioned features work out. I must admit that I don't have any knowledge of the mentioned features. Does the bas go deeper than before? Can they give a better bass-response and still have a clear middle and treble?

Carl-Gustav Ohlsson's picture

If I intend to buy a headphone för 1000$ or more, I would probably have some expectations about getting a headphone that can reproduce the sound of the recording correctly.

My main concern is however that whatever expensive headphones there are to buy, so they do have one thing i common:
namely they can´t produce a bass that on one hand has a good degree of resolution and control and on the other hand has both these qualities and the quality of depth.

This is something that seems to be valid for all the full-size headphones on the Wall of Fame. It doesn´t matter if they are sealed or open, the problem is still there.

If this had been a problem with an expensive loud speaker, few would have said that it´s a good loud speaker. And few would have bought that loudspeaker.

However, I guess that the problem with headphones will remain as long as there are not any functional way to have at least dual drivers in headphones that are not in-ear monitors.

I think this is a serious argument not to buy such expensive headphones.

What I wanted to accomplish with my contribution "Audio Technica - good innovations?" was only to point out two (sealed) headphones that seem to have in some way managed to have a deeper base without disturbing the middle frequency and still have a very resolution and control as well as an open airy character, despite being sealed. What is now said could be said also about the new Technics headphone T 700. At least when one look at reviews about them. However, these reviews don´t have any measurements so one can never know.

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