MrSpeakers ÆON

MrSpeakers ÆON

My first impressions of MrSpeakers’ headphones were very positive. I was at Canjam London in 2016 and spent a long time at the joint Cavalli + MrSpeakers + Kimber Kable booth, primarily listening to the Ether C Flow with the Cavalli Liquid Tungsten. I really liked what I heard, despite some shortcomings, like the bass extension not being very deep – and I looked forward to reviewing them someday. Although the opportunity has not come by yet, I have listened to them quite a bit in my local store (Audio Sanctuary in New Malden, London).

When they first obtained a demo unit, I was a bit confused – it sounded quite different than what I remembered. It was quite resolving and detail-laden, but lacked accurate tonality to the point where I felt some instruments sounded incredibly artificial. I was disappointed, in myself for my old impressions and in the headphone itself. I do chalk up some of the old magic to the Liquid Tungsten, an incredible amplifier that I hope to try again someday, but from various other setups the Ether C Flow just sounded like it was vehemently trying to be a technically impressive listen rather than one I would call natural.

Enter the AEON, a $800 planar magnetic headphone by MrSpeakers that uses, from what I can gather, trickle down technology from the Ether/Ether C Flow. I first heard one at the Headroom show at Metropolis Studios in London, back in February of 2017, and found it an agreeable listen pretty much immediately. It was plugged into a Schiit Yggdrasil and a Schiit Jotunheim, and it sounded punchy and “fun” without losing some interesting detail retrieval that I heard in its elder brothers. Pre-production version or not, I knew that I needed more time to evaluate it.

After some weeks of contemplation, I got in on the pre-order ($100 off, so $700) and looked forward to the AEON arriving at my doorstep. Sadly, it took much longer than expected due to some unforeseen delays with packaging – but I finally obtained it a few weeks ago.

I primarily wanted to know if this was a MrSpeakers headphone that I could get behind.

Build Quality, Comfort & Features

If nothing else, the MrSpeakers Ether Electrostatic should clue you in to Dan Clark’s philosophy when it comes to build quality and comfort as it is almost feather-light (at least the one at Headroom). While the AEON, which uses magnets, can’t quite be so light – it sets itself firmly apart from my other headphones currently by how weightless it seems – a mere 340g without the cable. This is also because the build quality utilises so much plastic, instead of metal or wood, and carbon fibre. The nitinol headband is both unique (to my knowledge) to MrSpeakers and very springy – and tough as nails to boot. Despite being so light and reliant on its build materials for being so, it does not exude a feeling of being “cheap” or an afterthought. I daresay this looks the part of a premium product that is very deserving of its price tag, if not more so. I don’t foresee any problems with breakage.

Comfort is insanely good. Once again, it seems Dan Clark seems to personally hold a vendetta against both weighty headphones (Audeze I’m looking at you) and headphones with poor weight distribution (Audeze I’m looking at you 2x, unless it’s with the LCD-4 carbon fibre strap). The clamp is comfortable and the earpads are large and ear-shaped, providing ample room for my larger-than-average ears. The leather strap that rests on your head makes it so this is a disappearing act of a headphone, unless you are in a hot and humid climate – the earpads can get a tad warm, but I only sensed this in London’s recent heatwave and not since. The leather earpads are very soft, plush and comfortable and devoid of any stiffness that might have fatigued either the back of your ear or your cheeks. The headband adjustment conforms to your head size rather effortlessly, with no incremental adjustments that you need to keep track of. Just pull it over your ears and find your natural fit.

Aesthetically, the AEON is a subtle midnight blue colour that looks quite handsome. However, in certain brighter or even yellowish lighting (kind of like at certain Canjam events), I’ll admit that it takes on a strange look that intrudes on the sheen of the blue and makes it…muddy? This hasn’t happened to me in a home setting, but you can see it in direct sunlight. A reason for this is definitely the glossy finish. Never mind matte, this thing reflects quite easily from every inch of its earcup design – and you will see the fingerprints in the right light. Yes, this is a fingerprint magnet – and MrSpeakers have acknowledged this by including a microfibre cloth in the packaging. Also in the packaging are two foam pad inserts that you can slip into the earpads to increase the upper-bass a bit – but more on that later.

The MrSpeakers proprietary (to my knowledge anyway, haven’t seen these in use anywhere else) connectors are back and are this time attached to a cable that they call the DUMMER cable – the younger brother of the Ether included DUM cables. The DUMMER cable terminates in a 3.5mm jack, but has a screw-on ¼ adapter attached by default. As far as cables go, it is solid and lacking in anything that would draw complaints. I did go ahead and source a balanced cable however, well in advance of obtaining my AEON, from a third-party in the UK.

Besides the box, the AEON comes with a hardshell carrying case that might just be one of the most welcome changes – to me anyway. Yes, the Ethers came with one too – but this one is black! Why is this most standard of colour choices a welcome change? Well, because the reddish-brown that the Ether carrying cases were just didn’t cut it for me.

Finally, you get a certificate of authenticity from MrSpeakers.

Sound

I’ll admit that I was cautious this time around when it came to evaluating the sound of the Aeon. After seeing just how my final impressions of the Ether C Flow did not line up with my initial ones, I took care to try this with a variety of sources. The sound is pretty consistent, so I’m good to go.

The AEON is a very punchy headphone and has no qualms about transient response. There is no lingering, sluggish or affectionate, in this headphone and it will keep up with whatever genre you throw at it. This is a prime reason that it sounds like a really good all-rounder for its price, and if you consider that along with its comfort and isolation – it might just be the perfect office headphone.

Let’s briefly touch on the foam inserts. Yes, I feel that they are quite needed. Dan Clark openly mocks those who rely heavily on measurements to draw their impressions, and I must admit that I do share this mentality to a level. Before becoming more active in the community late last year, I never looked at frequency response charts at all and would just speak to what I hear – and I still do that mostly.

That being said, when I saw a retail-model AEON being measured with a large dip in the lower-mids/upper-bass, I was worried. It wasn’t enough to make me regret putting down money so I could evaluate the AEON without any time constraints that come with a review unit, but it did make me gulp slightly as someone who knows what sound signature they prefer. Damn it, I was actually rooting for the AEON because I felt that I needed something of its form factor to complement my other headphones – full-sized goliaths that they are.

What I saw, and what was measured, seems to be an AEON without the foam inserts in – and let me just explicitly state that after some time listening to them in this manner that I will not be returning. Without the foam inserts, the low-end of the AEON sounds anaemic and thin – which isn’t a good look in my opinion. Acoustic guitars sound overly sparkly and don’t retain any of the timbre that comes from a good tonewood – and the bass is largely missing. Needless to say, this entire review will continue with impressions that include having them in – and I feel that this is justified as they are both included and not a third-party mod.

The sonic presentation of the AEON is very much that of a closed headphone. The soundstage is quite intimate, but the imaging is stellar and you never get the sense that you’ve “run out” of space for your instrument tracks in songs. The very forward presentation, along with its impressive detail retrieval, means that I ended up noticing stuff in songs that were not as prominent before in other headphones that I’ve heard from the same price range up to where the Ether Flows are. This includes the Sennheiser HD800, which I would argue has superior detail retrieval but it is wrapped in a presentation that is almost too wide for its own good – if you really want your micro-detail within easily noticeable reach.

The bass of the AEON sets it apart from the Ether C Flow, in a good way, for one simple reason to my ears – texture. One of my biggest complaints with the Ether C Flow is that, along with the extension not going so far, there is a “rounded” effect around the bass notes that makes bass guitars sound too soft in attack and presentation. You’ll hear the notes, sure, but they’re just “there” in terms of feeling and lack the actual information/string rattle/texture that I find quite important personally. Not only does the AEON extend further than the Ether C Flow, but it does so in a manner that retains a good amount of texture around the lower frequencies – which coupled with its fast transient response means that this will consume double-kick drum patterns and fast picked/strummed bass licks quite effortlessly. Would I say that it’s ultra-realistic in this regard compared to TOTL cans like the Utopia? No, but for $800 I have not heard better – and that includes the Audeze LCD-2 2016 revision, which is more laid back but tonally superior.

While the bass is fast, it does lack a bit of slam compared to my dynamic-driver headphones – but this is probably more to do with the technology and Dan’s tuning philosophy rather than it being an outright “mistake” or knock against the AEON. Bassheads, look elsewhere.

Even with the foam pads inserted, the lower-midrange is averse to any characterizations of “warmth” that someone might use to describe it. Yes, it does feel more present in this region than the Ether C Flow, but it is still not nearly the level of emphasis that you will hear in headphones by Audeze of ZMF. There is still a small dip that makes male vocals a little distant and electric guitar distortion lack some of the chugging sound that is so prevalent in palm-muting techniques found in metal music. This is, of course, amplified without the pads – but still isn’t quite at the level of something like the SoundMagic HP150, a much cheaper headphone that is absolutely gutted in this frequency. I admit that I could use some more presence here, but I refuse to EQ it in or try to – I’ll leave that to others.

As stated earlier, the intimate soundstage means that I can enjoy the AEON’s capability to resolve detail quite nicely in a more noticeable fashion. The headphone’s midrange has the ability to separate tracks really well, with vocal harmonies ringing out very clearly in a manner not intruded by conventional complaints of narrow headphone soundstage. Not only that, but the texture of the presentation is also impressive. I don’t get the sense that something is being left behind in the mix, nor do I hear any smoothing going on. This means that electric guitar patterns, even if they don’t sound as true to life as standing in front of a cranked amplifier, will not fail you in how clearly they showcase each and every note. Ever heard a metal song with several noodling simultaneous guitar melodies on top of a frantic rhythm track? This headphone laughs at that – the drums, the bass and each guitar track are on equal footing.

The upper-midrange is not dipped, as is the case with the Focal Elear – which I would argue has superior tonality with electric guitars and distortion but lacks the AEON’s ability to present everything as effortlessly. Actually, there is a really good amount of texture and air around stringed instruments here - violins and the like do not sound smoothed out or compromised. Female vocals also sound like they retain a lot of body, more so than male vocals on this headphone. Other instruments in this region that I thought sounded quite stellar included saxophones and trumpets – a great big band/jazz headphone perhaps?

Going past the upper-midrange gave me my second taste of what sounds like it may be a dip to me – in the presence region. Once your ears accustom themselves to the AEON, I don’t feel that this will be too noticeable to anyone but the most discerning of treble purists – and I admit that I only came across it after switching to the Focal Utopia after a few hours of evaluating the AEON. Suddenly, I felt that the music breathed more. I think this is intentional however, and not just a side effect of a closed headphone versus an open one, as the ZMF Eikon has more presence to my ears. That being said, it may be because of this that the AEON is a more forgiving headphone than the Eikon and certainly the Utopia. I can listen to pop trash on this and not feel put off by over-processed vocals or phoned-in mastering techniques. This actually furthers my belief of the AEON being an all-rounder and a good office headphone as you don’t really want to be switching between headphones in a cubicle, dependent on genre – do you?

 After this, there is definitely a bit of sharpness to the treble. It is not like the Beyerdynamic T1 or stock Sennheiser HD800 in this regard, but there is a distinct feeling that you may encounter some glare depending on the source material. It is not overpowering however, even to a slightly treble-sensitive person such as myself – and I will happily take it if it means that the rest of the AEON can sound how it does – with cymbals and their patterns sounding both precise and quick. Many a time will I put on a song and immediately think “huh, that cymbal pattern is definitely holding its own relative to everything else” – especially in frantic recordings. Here is a region that headphones like the ZMF Atticus and Audeze LCD-2 do not do quite as well – with cymbals being buried in their presentation compared to the AEON. The snap of snare drums is also quite prominent in the mix, but I would argue that it lacks a bit of the impact that a headphone such as the Focal Elear or Focal Utopia can muster.

If I had to sum the treble up, I would say that it is a somewhat comfortable bookend to how the rest of the headphone sounds. Yes, it’s a bit dipped in lower frequencies/the presence region, but once you have the AEON on for a while – you won’t notice that as much and will definitely enjoy just how delicate the balance is between it and the rest of the headphone.

Amping

Despite being 13 ohms, the AEON has an efficiency of 95dB/mW and definitely needs ample amping. While it may not be as power hungry as, say, an Audeze LCD-4 200 ohm – you do want to properly amp this if you want the full extent of the bass response without any distortion. My portable Venture Electronics RunAbout Plus amplifier, which can power a Utopia with no qualms if need be, can’t manage the AEON quite so well. My Schiit Lyr 2, Venture Electronics RunAbout 2 Balanced and Audio-GD NFB-28 devour it however and give me the sound as intended.

Comparisons

Despite my personal belief that the AEON is a proud performer at its price range, I do feel the need to compare it to other headphones around this region. Ultimately, while I feel that many of these headphones outdo the MrSpeakers’ headphone in one or two regards, they might not be able to retain as much balance as the AEON – making it the all-rounder winner if you like the sound signature. I’ve selected headphones here that I would consider to be other all-rounders, and it should also be noted that the AEON is at least $200 cheaper than these headphones.

I will also only talk about sound and not build quality/comfort concerns.

Audeze LCD-2 (2016 Revision)

I can’t think of two vastly different sound signature gaps in the audio world than MrSpeakers and Audeze. The former tends to rely heavily on technical prowess and detail retrieval at the cost of natural tonality, while the latter emphasizes just that along with a laid back and pleasantly warm sound.

While the LCD-2 may sound far smoother in its midrange, it lacks some texture compared to the AEON. Where the presentation of vocals might sound so gorgeous on the LCD-2 with all the weight and body required, the AEON will counter with the exposing of vocal layering in a more intricate manner.

The AEON is also far faster in transients than the LCD-2, which goes for a more laid back approach. The climb to the treble is also an area where the AEON might dip some but then come back with force, while the LCD-2 seems more even in its ascent before being comfortably rounded off in a very Audeze manner. The soundstage width on both is similar, despite one being closed and the other being open.

ZMF Atticus

The Atticus is a punchy headphone with a lot of weight in its low end. It, like the LCD-2, emphasizes a natural tonality – but might have some difficulty with certain genres of music where the bass might overwhelm the midrange a bit. This is alleviated substantially through the use of a fat-trimming amplifier like the Schiit Lyr 2 – but it is definitely a knock against it compared to the AEON, which can sound like itself from most setups.

The sheer force of the bass slam in the Atticus is breathtaking, and the AEON can’t counter it in that regard at all. It is far faster though, and even though the Atticus is more dynamic and punchy than the LCD-2 – it can’t match the AEON’s planar-driven speed and transients. Kick drums may hit harder on the Atticus, but on the AEON they are surgical strikes and are felt no matter what’s going on in the rest of the track – something a bit more consistent than the Atticus I must admit.

The AEON does, however, lack the lower mid bloom that makes the Atticus such a warm headphone with body. Acoustic guitars sound quite a bit more lifelike on the Atticus than on the AEON, which is sharper but (because of the lower-midrange dip) does not have the weight behind each strum. The midrange, in general, on the Atticus is very liquid and smooth – but it lacks the texture that the AEON or elder brother Eikon provide. The Atticus also has a slightly wider soundstage than the AEON.

The AEON also retains more air and upper treble than the Atticus, which like the LCD-2 is more towards the “comfortably rolled off” side of things.

Focal Elear

If I had to choose either the AEON or the Elear as an all-rounder, it would actually just come down to setting and personal preference. If I needed to be mindful of others around me, I would choose the AEON for it has far superior isolation. It is also easier to wear for extended periods due to its design and it being substantially lighter than the Elear. If isolation wasn’t a concern, and I was chained to my desk with an uncompromised audio chain – then I would take the Elear. What the Elear does can’t be reproduced by the AEON, simply put. This needs a little explaining however.

The AEON is fast, but the Elear is similarly fast. What it comes down to is the surgical presentation of the AEON versus the impactful presentation of the Elear. The AEON might be able to replicate each kick drum and snare hit with precision, but the Elear doesn’t lag too far behind and brings with it a bombastic signature that makes everything sound larger than life. It’s really interesting, and a fulfilling moment in this hobby, where you can hear the clearly audible difference between a snare drum just being hit and it holding on for dear life from the same audio track – just because of two different headphones.

The AEON does seem to be the cleaner sounding headphone overall however, with the Elear having a shouty midrange. The AEON is also more even throughout the frequency chart, while the Elear has a pronounced upper-midrange dip that can render female vocals rather distant. The Elear has more mid-bass and lower midrange presence however, making electric guitar distortion sound incredibly lifelike (also due to the shouty midrange no doubt) and not smoothed over. The separation between tracks is superior on the AEON however.

When it comes to soundstage, the Elear’s somewhat narrow presentation actually edges out the AEON’s in width.

Genre Pairing

As I’ve used the term “all-rounder” so much in this review, I don’t feel like I need to add much here. Yes, this headphone will keep up with pretty much any genre you throw at it. Will it ever be the best at that genre? No, it simply won’t be – but the fact that it can just be so consistently good with so many is a big plus point.

Acoustic guitar music is probably one of the weaker genres, however. While the Ether C Flow, to my ears, relegated acoustic guitars into plastic bodies rather than tonewood – the AEON does manage to fare far better. It is still lacking in the body necessary for accurate presentation, but I don’t think that really matters to Dan to be honest. From what I’ve heard of the MrSpeakers line-up, they really do seem to emphasise technical prowess over musicality. Yes, the AEON is a more fun listen to most than a stock Sennheiser HD800, but it is not eschewing its detail retrieval ability to sound more natural. Unlike on the Ether C Flow, I’m fine with this on the AEON because it does correct the bass texture issue that I had with the elder planar and has a more even frequency throughout.

Conclusion

I’d say the AEON is a triumph for several reasons:

·         It is an $800 headphone in a hobby that seems to push upwards in price every year.

·         It takes some of the trickle-down technical prowess of the Ether Flows and merges them with a punchier and more consumer-focused tuning successfully.

·         It is an all-rounder that won’t win any battles in distinct categories but will soldier on admirably.

·         It is remarkably light and comfortable.

·         It isolates very well, which along with its comfort makes for a prime office headphone.

·         It’s definitely one of the most unique-looking headphones on the market.

That being said, I have glossed over the price a lot in this review – basically saying that they sound really good for the price. I need to ground myself a bit here, because $800 is a lot of money no matter how you look at it and it is totally acceptable for someone to expect a headphone that is stellar in some regard at this price range – rather than a headphone that does many things well instead. If you are able, do sample this and others – but I stand behind my earlier statement that you probably won’t find anything more far-reaching in its genre pairing ability at $800.

To my ears, this is better than the Ether C Flow. I have not heard the original Ether C, so to me this is MrSpeakers’ best closed can of fully proprietary design. Whatever issues that I may have with the lower midrange, the presence dip or the treble glare do not overcome the sheer amount of good that I hear in this headphone.

It is so clean in presentation, it’s very fast and punchy and it reveals detail in a manner that actually outperforms similarly priced headphones. It’s light, it’s comfortable and it has a unique design - and thus I find it having a place amongst my four main headphones quite easily.

London Can Jam 2017

London Can Jam 2017

Schiit Gungnir Multibit

Schiit Gungnir Multibit