The first difference I usually notice when I go from an open-headphone design to a closed one is that the size of the stage shrinks and recedes to the point where there is no sound extending beyond the confines of my cranium. In this regard, I noticed very little difference between the Ether C and the open-backed Ether. Both headphones displayed excellent image specificity and both created a large three-dimensional soundstage that seemed to extend outside the physical limits of the headphones (and my head). While the Stax SR-L700 coupled to the Stax tube-based SRM-007tII created an even larger soundstage than the Ether C connected to the Mytek Brooklyn, the Ethers were just as three-dimensional and placed instruments just as precisely in space as the SR-L700.
Another area where closed-enclosure headphones usually suffer in comparison to open ones is in their sense of “openness” and air. Again I found the two Ethers virtually identical in these regards. On an MQA-encoded recording of Beethoven’s “Emperor” piano concerto, both headphones had the same amount of air and spaciousness and both allowed me to hear the sound bloom from the piano’s location in the middle of the stage to the outer edges of the proscenium. On my own recording of Chris Thile practicing Bach, the Ether C had the same amount of space and ambient detail as the Ether.
Bass extension from the Ether C was also very similar to the open-enclosure Ether. Neither headphone is as “bass-centric” as some ’phones, such as the AudioQuest NightHawk. The Sennheiser HD 700 has a bigger, more pronounced midbass, but it doesn’t have as much control or definition as the Ether C. On some pop recordings I did wish for a bit more low-bass slam, but given a choice between the Ether C’s tight definition and a bigger, sloppier, bada-boom low end, I prefer the Ether C.
The midrange is, as we all know, where most of the music resides. And the midrange is where the Ether C excels. Vocals, whether male or female, were rendered with spot-on harmonic balance. Unlike some headphones, such as the Sennheiser HD 700, which give female vocalists a bit too much treble emphasis, the Ether C lets mezzo-sopranos stay mezzo, not elevating their timbre to coloratura. On the other end of the spectrum, male vocalists didn’t have any additional chestiness added to their tone. The Ether C’s midrange tonal accuracy is so good that I would have no hesitations using them as on-location recording monitors.
As I’ve gotten older my sensitivity in the upper treble has become limited to 14kHz. So commenting on treble extension is something I realize needs a qualifier. But one test I’ve found very useful when testing a headphone’s upper-frequency response is a sinewave sweep in mono from 15kHz to 500Hz via the Audiotest app on my Mac. This test reveals several things. First, if there’s any imbalance between the right and left channel at high frequencies the signal will move off the central position it should occupy towards the side with higher output. Some headphones, especially less expensive models with less stringent driver matching, can exhibit multiple pulls from one side to the other as frequencies change. This test also lets you know if the frequency response has any noticeable bumps or dips in level at certain points. Much as I enjoy my pair of Sennheiser HD 700 headphones, they exhibit several very noticeable peaks in their upper midrange and lower treble that diverge from flat when I run this test. Also my particular pair of HD 700s pulls to the left between 11kHz and 7kHz. Conversely, the Ether C had no pulling from side to side or obvious peaks as the sinewave worked down from 15kHz to 500Hz.
As I discovered when I reviewed the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, many headphones add some amount of additional upper-midrange energy to increase perceived detail. While certainly brighter than the NightHawks, the Ether C occupied a well-considered middle ground between top-end darkness and excessive detail. During the review period I did a lot of A/B listening tests between MQA and non-MQA files. Through the Ether I could easily hear how the MQA version of the sample file of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert had less intermodulation distortion on the leading edges of piano transients than the 96/24 version. I could also hear further into the background in the MQA version. These differences are rather subtle, but the Ether C made them relatively easy to hear.
Because of their price, the Ether C has a lot of competition, but most models are open, rather than closed, enclosure designs. The Audeze LCD-2 Bamboo ($995 street), which I’ve used as a reference for a while, has a slightly smoother upper midrange and equally precise imaging characteristics. The LCD-2 also produces a slightly larger soundstage and more low bass. But when it comes to comfort the Ether C easily bests the LCD-2 due to its lighter weight and lower side-pressure.
Although discontinued several years ago, the AudioTechnica ATH W-3000ANV ($1299) has been my go-to closed headphone due to its comfort, high level of isolation, and overall fidelity. Compared to the Ether C, the AudioTechnica ATH W-3000ANV has a noticeably warmer midbass and more piquant upper midrange. The AudioTechnica ATH W-3000ANV also has a smaller soundstage, but equally precise imaging capabilities. Comfort-wise I’d give the Ether Cs the edge, but not by much.
When I travel I need three pairs of earphones—one in-ear monitor for on the airplane, one open enclosure for the waiting area (so I don’t miss out when they change gates on me), and one closed-enclosure headphone because sometimes you need more isolation than an open pair but not the 30dB isolation of in-ears. And while I have multiple options for reference-level in-ears and open-enclosure full-sized headphones for travel, when it comes to closed-enclosure, full-sized, over-ear headphones that are reference-level the options have been more limited. The MrSpeakers Ether C fills that last category nicely. It combines great sound, exceptional comfort, wide-ranging portable-player compatibility, and good isolation with A+ build-quality and an elegant physical design. What’s not to like?
Specs & Pricing
Type: Closed-back planar-magnetic
Impedance: 23 ohms
Driver: 2.75" x 1.75" MrSpeakers-designed single-ended planar-magnetic (with V-Planar surface processing); matched +/-1.5dB between 30Hz and 5kHz
Weight: 390g (13.8oz)
Price: $1499–$1699, depending on cable choice
3366 Kurtz Street
San Diego, CA 92110