In a crowded field of high-end contenders, the new MrSpeakers' Ether headphones are getting a lot of attention for two good reasons: it's a pleasure to wear, and the sound is revelatory!
Even compared with one of my reference headphones, the, Ether's sound felt liberated, with clearer highs -- it was more transparent overall. With an audiophile recording like Howard Levy's "The Old Country," the LCD-X brings sounds closer, but I hear more of the quieter details of the recording venue's acoustic space with the Ether. The LCD-X's bass plumbs deeper and sounds more powerful than the Ether's. Listening to the whooshing synthesizer sounds moving from right to left from "Minipops 67" on Aphex Twin's "Syro" album, Ether reveals more spatial depth in the sound, with the LCD-X the sound seems flatter, more two-dimensional. Ether sounds like a super-clear electrostatic headphone, while the LCD-X packs a bigger wallop, so it's more rock and roll, and the highs are more laid back. As to which is better, that's a matter of taste. For me, the LCD-X's sound is easy to like; Ether feels fresher and more exciting.
Ether showed up while I was still working on my Magnepan .7 speaker review. Just a coincidence I'm sure, but like the .7, Ether is a planar design. These two share some common sonic virtues, the key ones being see-through transparency, an "open" quality, flab-free bass, and crisp dynamics. Ether reveals texture and palpability in the sound of my recordings other headphones gloss over. Of course the downside to uber-transparency is you hear more of the crud in harsh-sounding recordings.
Ether feels light, and it's easily the most comfortable planar I've ever worn. Nevertheless, it weighs 13.1 ounces (370 grams) -- that's a little heavier than some conventional full-size high-end headphones. If you thought planars were too heavy, try on an Ether.
The Ether is also the first MrSpeakers headphone to feature planar drivers designed and made in the company's factory in San Diego, Calif. The flat, thin-film driver measures 2.75 x 1.75 inches (69 x 44mm), and it's mounted in a precision-machined aluminum baffle. Impedance is rated at 23 ohms, and the ear pads are covered in real lambskin leather. The Ether's Nitinol "memory metal" headband is said to reduce weight and improve comfort. Nitinol is a nickel-titanium alloy originally developed for aerospace applications. The Ether is an open-back, over-the-ear headphone.
I used a few headphone amps over the course of this review, namely my Schiit Lyr 2, Oppo HA-1, and the Vinnie Rossi LIO, and that last one was easily the best -- but also the most expensive. Still, as I switched between amps my appreciation for the Ether's glorious transparency and spacious staging went from awfully good to flat-out amazing. When I inserted the new Chord 2Qute digital converter into the system (review to come) all the things I liked about Ether's sound just got better, this headphone really lets you hear every change you make upstream in the system.
Ether can also be used with iPods, smart phones and other portable devices; I heard great sound from my iPod Classic, where Ether could certainly play loud enough for me. This headphone was much easier to drive than Audeze LCD and Hifiman HE series of planar magnetic headphones.
US and UK buyers can purchase Ether direct from MrSpeakers for $1,500 (converted, that's about £944); in Australia Ether sells for AU$2,199. A variety of user-replaceable headphone cable types are available, including cables with quarter-inch (6.3mm), eighth-inch (3.5mm), and four-pin XLR plugs. Ether is sold with a 15-day return policy worldwide, but there's a 10 percent restocking fee for returned headphones.