If I have one goal at AXPONA, it’s to map the extremities of the law of diminishing returns as it applies to the world of hifi. When I started this journey a year ago, spending a few hundred on a nice pair of open-backed dynamics forever changed the relationship I enjoyed with my music. Can I experience the same thing again? If I have double the means, can I buy high end headphones that are as much again a revelation as my mid-range ones were over my white earbuds?
If I had a secondary goal, it was to ask Dan “MrSpeakers” Clark if he, like me, grew up with a deep and abiding love for C-SPAN (Ah, parliamentary procedure humor! Never gets old). As it should happen, I could find the answer to both questions in the same place.
Getting the basics out of the way, these suckers are light. Very light. Dan confided he’s had listening sessions where he’s forgotten he’s wearing headphones at all and I believe it. The Ethers are very stylish, with an attractive honeycomb grill and a bright-red bezel providing distinctive accents.
The build quality feels solid enough, but I would not say these are rough-and-tumble cans. They possess the delicate air of a precision instrument, not the chock-a-block solidity of industrial consumer electronics. Ethers feel bespoke, and should probably be treated as such.
As to the sound, it embodies just the revelation I was looking for. As a newcomer to hifi, for example, I’ve often questioned the difference between solid-state and tube amps. Through the Ether, the changes in character between Schiit Audio‘s tight, clean Ragnarok and Woo Audio‘s warm and melodious WA5 are readily apparent.
Listening to familiar music, they let me dig into the details, sometimes discovering what I have to assume are production errors in the mix. Tracks that punch in rough or punch out late. Hum introduced by intermittent backing tracks that don’t have their silence stripped. After noticing one or two incidents like these, I have to ask myself, “Am I hearing this now like no one’s heard it before?” It’s an intoxicating thought.
The clear Ether moment for me, though, comes listening to Bowie’s “Width of a Circle” fronted by the Woo. I’ve been listening to this song for a good 20 years. I’ve always loved it. I’ve always known it was a good. I just never knew before how good. I never knew it was patiently keeping to itself levels of depth and intricacy I’d yet to share in. Letting it wash over me, I’m not ashamed to say I tear up a little.
So: revelatory? Check. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact the Ether is affordable — or, at least in line with my expectations. For roughly double the price of a pair of HD 700s I get easily double the performance. In an industry sometimes iconified by logarithmic scales, this is an encouraging discovery. On the road to the law of diminishing returns, hifi still has some open highway stretching out before it.
- MrSpeaker Ether: $1,499
- Schiit Ragnarok: $1,699
- Woo Audio WA5: $3,500