When MrSpeakers announced the Ether 2 (U.S. MSRP $1,999) in late-2018, early impressions placed them in some enviable company. The Ether 2, it went, was a new top-of-the-line set of cans that lived up to its flagship billing, allowing the Ether 2 stand alongside its venerable Sennheiser and Focal brethren.
I was, to say the least, skeptical. Headphones too often exist in a flavor-of-the-month cycle, with initial fulsome praise followed by inevitable debunking criticism. Rare is the new flagship that actually live up to the hype when the dust settles.
In all honestly, I was also a bit skeptical of the Ether 2 based on my limited time with one of MrSpeakers’ previous offerings: the open-back Aeon Flow. While, in both price and promise, the Aeon plays in a different league than the Ether 2, it was praised by reviewers I trust, including InnerFidelity’s recently-retired Tyll Hertsens. However, while the Aeon’s build and style are superb, I found its sound to be underwhelming, with an uncomfortable cup shape, narrow soundstage, and somewhat flabby low end.
The Ether 2, as I discovered, is a different story.
The only things the Ether 2 shares with the Aeon are its stylish appearance and solid build, and even in those areas the Ether 2 is a step up. Like the Aeon, the Ether 2 employs MrSpeakers’ unique combination of a metal half-gimbal and a NiTinol and leather combination headband. However, the Ether 2 drops the Aeon’s blue teardrop-shaped plastic cups in favor of matte black round aluminum cups. Gone, too, is the Aeon’s nifty honeycomb baffle, which is replaced by an equally eye-catching carbon fiber spiderweb baffle on the Ether 2. Taken together, the Ether 2’s geometry and black-on-black color scheme looks timeless yet futuristic. More importantly, the Ether 2 feels incredibly solid, befitting its price point.
Despite the Ether 2’s metal gimbal and ear cups, it’s also incredibly light, weighting in at a mere 290 grams. That begins to explain the Ether 2’s comfort, which is furthered its leather strap’s excellent weight distribution and NiTinol headband’s allowance for precise size adjustments. The animal lover in me appreciates the synthetic leather used for the Ether 2’s earpads, which are surprisingly soft and forgiving. Clamping force is moderate on my average-sized head (size 7 1/8, for those of you scoring at home). Simply put, the Ether 2 is perhaps the most comfortable headphone I’ve ever worn. The Ether 2’s only potential issue, comfort-wise, is that its ear holes are slightly on the small side, which might pose a problem for ear-endowed users. However, the smaller holes likely contribute to the Ether 2’s well-damped sound, and MrSpeakers has addressed the size issue by making larger openings on their alternate Ether 2 pads.
In terms of accessories, the Ether 2 comes with a new VIVO cable, which is both better built and less microphonic than the Aeon’s DUM cable and is available in a variety of terminations. The Ether 2 also includes a nice molded hard-shell case.
The Ether 2’s comfort and accessories wouldn’t matter, however, if it didn’t deliver on sound. But after spending some quality time with the Ether 2, I feel comfortable saying that it deserves its place alongside the Focal Clear and the HD800S, my two favorite open-back audiophile cans.
To my ears, the Ether 2’s frequency response sounds remarkably balanced with a slightly recessed treble, giving it a tasteful warm tilt, and measurements with my MiniDSP EARS largely confirm this sonic observation:
* My EARS unit has been calibrated with a slightly modified version of Marv from SBAF’s compensation curve, where a flat frequency response is represented by a flat line.
Measurements on fancier rigs largely comport with my EARS’ estimation of the Ether 2’s response, while also revealing the Ether 2’s low distortion and relatively fast decay across the audio spectrum.
Compared to the Clear (green) and HD800S (purple), the Ether 2 (red) arguably comes closest to neutrality through the midrange, before tilting downward around 3k Hz:
Of the three, the HD800S is the brightest sounding, with the Clear falling in the middle, and the Ether 2 coming across as the mellowest. Crucially, the Ether 2 shares the tonal accuracy of both the Clear and the HD800S, with the Ether 2’s relatively less strident and more rounded presentation providing a more relaxed listening experience without sacrificing much, if any, detail in the process.
The Ether 2 achieves its sound with the latest incarnation of MrSpeakers’ TrueFlow planar driver. At 71mm by 45mm, it’s sizeable, but according to MrSpeakers it also 60 percent lighter than the original Ether’s diaphragm.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about planar headphones. Planar cans’ bass can generally dig deeper and stay cleaner than comparable dynamic cans. However, planar treble can also tend to sound grainy to my ears, especially as planar drivers have become thinner.
The Ether 2, however, mostly avoids treble grain while delivering the deep, clear bass that makes worthy planar headphones great.
The Ether 2 is easy to drive, with a 16 ohm impedance. That said, I found that moving from the Cavalli Tube Hybrid amp to the Schiit Ragnarok brought both improved slam and increased clarity, suggesting that the Ether 2 respond positively to excess power.
While none of the three headphones discussed here can deliver the visceral impact of large dynamic drivers, the Ether 2 undoubtedly packs the most bass punch, while offering a low end that’s cleaner than the HD800S’s somewhat fuzzy lows, if perhaps a touch behind the Clear’s remarkably articulate bass.
On the clean and dynamic hi-resolution remaster of Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson, streaming on Qobuz, the Ether 2 delivers Herbie Flowers’s legendary bass intro to “Jump Into the Fire” with authority. It does so without obscuring the Flowers’s amp cabinet’s rattle or Klaus Voorman’s jagged rhythm guitar, even if the Ether 2 can’t quit match the Clear’s or HD800S’s radical transparency.
The midrange is where the Ether 2 really separates from the pack, offering a liquidity and realism that neither the Clear nor the HD800S can match. On “At Least That’s What You Said” from the hi-resolution version of Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, Jeff Tweedy’s vocals have a natural, in-the-room quality on the Ether 2.
At the top end of the frequency spectrum, the Ether 2 is almost wholly free of the grainy treble than mars many otherwise solid planar cans. Billy Livsey funky, delightfully ‘80s keyboards on “What’s Love Got to Do With It” from the JVC XRCD edition of Tina Turner’s Private Dancer come across as smooth and articulate on the Ether 2, even if they lack the air and bite afforded by the Clear or HD800S.
In terms of soundstage, the Ether 2 unsurprisingly trails the extremely wide HD800S by a sizable margin. It’s much closer to the Clear’s stage, while still falling somewhat behind the Clear’s width. However, while the Ether 2’s soundstage is relatively narrow for a pair of open-back cans, the Ether 2’s imaging is excellent, with distinct placement of voices and instruments from left to right. The Ether 2 also offers a sightly more up-front presentation than the Clear or HD800s, both of which reveal a somewhat deeper soundstage than the Ether 2 but lack some of the Ether 2’s seductive immediacy.
With the Ether 2, MrSpeakers have produced a supremely comfortable, stylish, high-end headphone for those who find the HD800S or Clear to be too bright and want a mellower set of cans that are still able to deliver the detail and clarity necessary to receive the audiophile tag. Well done.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.