Tonally the Ether C is the most satisfying closed planar headphone I have ever tried to date. It is the most “open” closed planar headphone that I have heard and ahead of the Prime in terms of soundstage and imaging. I spoke highly of the Prime’s dynamics and imaging but the Ether C is superior. It is not just a progression of the Prime tonal qualities but a whole reimagining and as I mentioned it is my belief this was what Dan wanted to achieve previously with the old T50RP drivers but sadly could not due to the driver’s limitations.
This is a very neutral presentation by the way, perhaps some in the coloration camp might argue that it is too neutral or ‘bright’ and lacking in “slam” but tonally I find it to be very accurate and coherent. That’s the big word I keep going back to when thinking about the Ether C’s tonality, “coherence” and how together sounding the Ether C is. The Prime’s main calling card was what I called listener engagement with that vivid and dynamic presentation, enhanced soundstage and excellent energy. The Ether C retains a lot of that but it ups the resolution significantly, producing a very natural almost dominant mid-range, a pitch perfect vocal presence and an even deeper and more holographic soundstage.
What makes the Ether C tonally so right on for me is the balance. Right across the spectrum the Ether C is tight, clean, fast and with excellent instrumental spacing and timbre. It’s the Michael Chang of headphones! I can honestly feel it can run down most things and retrieve it. I won’t deny those looking for low end grunt and coming from say an early revision of the LCD series might be left a bit wanting, or that it beats the HD800 in just pure soundstage vastness. It doesn’t have that glorious endless bass detail of the HE1000 either. The Ether C is a musical headphone but in the right way, more of an all-round enjoyable accuracy than a series of colored “instant impact” peaks.
The stock bass performance on the Ether C is perhaps a point of contention but ultimately it depends on what camp you align yourself to and there are some changes with the tuning kit to be had. This is a tight, detailed and very well controlled bass presentation but it also a neutral flat bass signature bereft of any mid-bass slam or heightened sub-bass response. Planar fans who gravitate to the LCD-2 in particular may start gnawing at the bones of the Ether C as it can across as a bit lean in comparison. However, those in the neutrality camp might praise its greater level of accuracy and speedier turn that transitions seamlessly into the mid-range.
If, for example, we go back to the Prime review, I mentioned that compared to the Dogs we had a full sounding but essentially flatter bass response that stayed relatively coherent but had less slam than the Dogs. The Ether C is even flatter and more neutral than the Prime and no matter what amp I threw out of it things didn’t change a whole lot. Amps like the Studio 6, NuPrime’s DAC-10, Hifiman’s EF6 and the Schiit Mjolnir produce a largely similar response. Overall the stock bass response of the Ether C is about 2-3db lower than the Prime so if you want more grunt you may have to look at the tuning kit and the v1.1 foams to achieve that.
The Ether C does respond to a bit of EQ though on a more judicious level than the Prime (review here) which seems to be able to suck up a bit more sub-bass boost from 55 Hz to 110 Hz using Foobar. The best I could get before things started sounding unbalanced and distorted was around 20-25% which is about 10% less than the Primes could absorb before sounding really uneven. With this little EQ dabble EDM monitoring levels, particularly with old school Trance’s high BPM rate became more than acceptable. The Ether C’s clarity and extension combined with that tiny EQ tweak makes Van Buuren’s 2010 trance instrumental Orbion positively sing. That being said, outside of EDM and other bass dominant genres, I had no need to resort to ‘cheap parlour tricks’ to enhance the Ether C bass performance. My preference overall was to keep the Ether C tight and flat where I felt it was more coherent sounding on a wider range of genres.
The mid-range on the Ether C is very good for a closed headphone and perhaps the highlight of the overall performance. Not a hint of congestion to be had anywhere with top notch instrumental separation and a very natural and accurate timbre. Dan qualified the difference between the Ether C and Open version a mid-range with a bit more energy than the slightly softer open back version. Yet the Ether C does not have an overly forward sounding mid-section as a result; just a touch more focus on the attack for me.
Vocals in particular benefit from this Ether C’s tuning. The sound is more resolving than the Prime could manage and a bit more vivid than the Ether open back. The texture and the detail in vocal performance is incredibly life like. If there was sibilance it is in the recording pure and simple. The more character in the vocal the more engaging it becomes. Nothing about the Ether C sounds honky, nasal or forced.
I actually found myself trying a lot of old tracks I had not tried in ages to listen to how the Ether C reproduced the character of each type of vocal. From the etched chain smoking male vocals of Jonathan “Spike” Gray to the husky solo performance of Diana Krall and the visceral force of James Hetfield everything felt very 100% real. I have not listened to Johnny Cash since 1996; with the Ether C I just did 3 hours of the Cash ‘Bob Rock era’ recordings and enjoyed every aspect of Cash’s vocals in a way I had not done so in years.
Much like the bass performance the stock treble response of the Ether C could be a topical point of debate and again it really depends on how your matching and driving it as well your own preferences. I did not find the treble to suffer from being tizzy, sharp or sibilant. Control is excellent in that respect but there are a few peaks in there that some will pick up. Running it out of a tube amp I felt it had a nice treble sparkle that really lifted the presentation as a whole however moving to a more tonally neutral SS setup treble performance sounded a bit thinner and harsher.
Note that is very much a contextual description rather than a fixed label because it does vary slightly not only with the v1.1 pads but also with the setup source in question. Yup you can EQ those peaks a little to suit your preferences also. A simple 1-2db drop in the 5-7k region did the trick for me using the Hifiman EF6 connected to the very neutral ESS driven NuPrime DAC-10 but hooked straight out of the ALO Audio CDM required far less if any EQ. The CDM as a DAC connected to the Studio 6 sounded almost perfect for my ears with the Ether C. A smoother yet detailed lower treble and not a hint of EQ required unless you are going for broke on the bass response.
The Tuning Pads (V1.0/1.1)
This is MrSpeakers and no headphone from them would be complete without something tagging along to tweak it and the Ether C is no exception. The v1 Ether C comes with a set of felt pads this time as opposed to the Alpha Dogs tuning dots. The pads come in 2 x white and 4 x black and are designed to tune the tonal profile and performance of the Ether C in various directions with the goal of providing you with a number of audio response choices. If you have 4-5 choices there is a greater likelihood that one of them will hit the mark for your own preferences. Inserting the felts is insanely easy you simply stick them in the ear pad rectangular well making sure the entire hole is covered and that’s it. MrSpeakers has also included a tonal profile of each felt combination to help you decide if this is the right combination for you before putting them on. Combinations include:
1 x black
2 x black
1 x white
1 White Pad
With each combination there was a slight change in the bass and mid tonal profile but the major effect of the pads really hit home with the mid-range and treble performance. Each subsequent pad combination does drop the treble presence slightly, including the peaking areas as well as give a minor lift in bass presence. The 1 white pad combination also seems to dull out the lower treble more significantly than the other pad combinations and there is a slight loss of articulation but it’s also the smoothest sounding for more sensitive ears. I found this combination suitable for very neutral SS amps and synth heavy or percussion dominant tracks.
1 and 2 Black Pads
With the black pads I found myself veering more to tube amps such as the Studio 6 and CDM as well as the Mojo and the delightful Bakoon HPA-01M in voltage mode. Treble sparkle and articulation was a little more present and the bass performance was not as elevated but still more responsive than the stock sound. Throw in a little low (2db) end EQ on the sub bass performance with 2 black felts kicked much harder for EDM. One black felt came closest to the stock sound with a tiny bit of smoothing out at the upper treble region and a flatter bass response. Again a little EQ helps on the sub-bass but not as useful as the 2 black felt combination for EDM so this one felt more at home with rock and pop.
The V1.1 Foams
These arrived a few weeks back and for me they are a difference maker and unlikely to be coming out of my Ether C anytime soon. That neutral sound of the stock Ether C thickens up slightly, the treble peaks smooth out a little bit more and also there are some nice lateral combinations you can have with the existing felt pads. The foam plus the white felt pads might find a more than a few SS amp converts who do not mind a slight loss in detail. My personal favorite was the v1.1 with the 2 x black felt pads which seem to bring a nice sense of fullness in the bass without distortion, injected the upper registers with a bit more sparkle and produced an enhanced black background that made everything sound even more coherent.