Back in the day, the first truly great loudspeaker I ever owned was the Quad ESL-57 electrostat, and ever since I’ve viewed the brand with respect and even reverence. Frankly, that loudspeaker was so far ahead of its time that it took decades for electronics and source components to catch up. Fast-forward to the present day, and Quad is trying to recapture the singular magic of the ESL-57, this time with its first-ever headphone, the planar-magnetic ERA-1 ($799).
The ERA-1 enters a marketplace crowded with moderately priced, high-quality, planar-magnetic headphones, which raises several questions. First, can the ERA-1 distinguish itself in a market populated with competitors such as Audeze, HiFiMan, MrSpeakers, and others? Second, can the ERA-1 build upon and enhance Quad’s reputation for sonic excellence? The answer to both questions is yes.
The ERA-1 is beautifully made with tasteful matte silver-grey earcup housings and matching slotted rear covers, both accented with black metal-mesh vent screens. The top strap of the headphone has a leather-clad pad, while the swiveling, ride-height-adjustable earcup yokes are finished in matte black. The bottoms of the earcups feature connection jacks for the detachable, high-quality, fabric-jacketed signal cables that come with the headphones. Other accessories include a zipper-closure, hard-shell carry case and a gold-plated 3.5mm-to-6.35mm adapter plug.
Completing the picture are two sets of earpads. One set is relatively shallow and features leather inner and outer rims with textile touch surfaces; the other set is considerably deeper, beveled from back to front, and features perforated leather covers on all surfaces. Our review sample came with the shallower pads installed, but brief experimentation quickly revealed that the thicker pads helped unlock much more of the headphone’s sonic potential.
Some industry colleagues have opined that the ERA-1 is, as one put it, “likely a generic Chinese planar-magnetic design with little to distinguish it apart from the ‘QUAD’ logos on the sides.” Well, that’s simply not the case. The ERA-1 is a very special performer, indeed. Straight out of the box, the headphone showed considerable potential, yet initially seemed somewhat opaque-sounding. However, after about 70 hours of run-in, the ERA-1s opened up beautifully, at which point several key sonic attributes stood out.
First, the headphone exhibited powerful yet also extremely articulate bass, with an excellent combination of impact and pitch definition. Listen to the deep snarl of the bass and the thwack of the kickdrum on “Prodigal Son” from Billy Idol’s album of the same name [Chrysalis] to hear what I mean. Some might feel the bass is elevated in level, but it is presented in such a tasteful, musically uplifting manner that I think many will embrace it over a strictly neutral sound.
Second, the ERA-1 has wonderfully well defined, nuanced, and revealing mids and highs, especially relative to the norms for its price. Many models in this class are either bright-sounding (to simulate “detail”), or else dark-sounding and slightly softly focused (to convey “richness”), but the ERA-1 instead hews toward a more satisfying and accurate middle path.
To appreciate how this plays out in musical terms, listen to the hauntingly beautiful “Nublado” from Será Una Noche’s eponymous album [MA Recordings]. “Nublado” is a mesmerizing Candombe (a tango-like Afro-Uruguayan dance) that features delicate, shimmering percussion and the solo voices of a guitar, cello, bandoneon, and wind instrument(s). In every case, the ERA-1 deftly captures the defining tonal colors and textures essential to each instrument’s sonic character, not to mention the reverberant acoustics of the recording venue.
Is the ERA-1 the headphone equivalent to Quad’s ESL-57 speaker? It certainly captures the ESL-57’s uncanny transparency, but in many respects I think the ERA-1 actually surpasses its illustrious predecessor. The ERA-1 offers better and deeper bass, equally subtle mids but with sharper transient attacks and broader dynamic capabilities, plus highs that consistently impress with their extension, clarity, and delicacy. In short, the ERA-1 now stands as one of the finest sub-$800 headphones that money can buy.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Open-back, circumaural, planar-magnetic headphone
Driver complement: One low-mass planar-magnetic driver with patented nonlinear vibration-suppression technology
Frequency response: 10Hz–40kHz
Impedance: 20 ohms nominal (non-reactive)
Total harmonic distortion: ≤0.2% (1kHz, 100dB)
1811 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue
Chicago, IL 60660