From bottom to top, the Aether has a warm, natural and tightly-woven atmosphere, but one also endowed with great sparkle, energy and immense air. The Aether isn’t the type to bore you with neutrality, nor will it put you to sleep with a slow, dull or heavy-handed presentation; it’s loud, bombastic, a wee-bit loose and a crap-ton of fun. This is an IEM that prioritises musicality before technicality. It busies itself ensuring everything on stage sounds correct, fun and vibrant, before attending to matters of resolution and separation, even if it’s certainly no slouch when it comes to the latter. The Aether prides itself in its tone, where it meticulously fuses smoothness and shine; body and bite; easygoingness and edge. It’s a tone that strikes a sweet spot between life-like and clear, and it is an achievement worth much praise.
The Aether’s soundstage is decently wide for a flagship, but its defining quality is certainly its depth. It creates an even, cube-like image around the head, and performs admirably in terms of layering along the z-axis. However, this depth comes at a price: The Aether’s midrange – by virtue of its distance from the listener’s head – sounds very laid-back; sometimes borderline-recessed. Depending on the recording, vocalists may sound like they’re singing from behind the band, and a rhapsodic guitar solo can end up sounding shy and held back (especially at lower listening levels). It’s definitely a tuning choice, and altering this would compromise the far-field-monitor-system approach Emil is trying to achieve, but it won’t be universally appreciated.
Speaking of the approach to the Aether’s tuning – as written on the package – it is essentially a far-field monitor system in IEM form. Now, it certainly won’t sound like a set of speakers in a room, but it presents music as such a set-up would. Aside from its midrange presentation, the Aether’s tightly-woven atmosphere comes from what sounds like a built-in cross-feed. Although individual elements in a recording can be traced back to their point-of-origin with ease due to the Aether’s clean stage, the recording as a whole always sounds woven together with an always-engaging sense of cohesion and collaboration. Instruments on the left have echoes and harmonics that extend to the right of the stage, and vice versa. It’s a presentation that won’t necessarily benefit those seeking to analyse and compartmentalise, but it’s the proverbial candy store if you’re looking to get lost in the music and let the band dance around your head.
The Aether’s low-end is arguably its stand-out quality; not necessarily for its technical performance, but rather for its presence, musicality and dynamic ability. In terms of quantity, the Aether’s bass is north-of-neutral, but still within “natural” territory. Tonally, it’s also rather dark – and slightly loose – which allows great contrast against its middle-to-higher registers, and ensures the low-end is always present and heard without excessive boost; no matter the artist, mix, or genre. Although insufficient air down low causes this darkness to intrude on bass resolution and speed – which I find “average” against other flagships – it’s certainly sufficient for the sound it’s going for.
Mainly characterised by bumps on both the middle-and-upper regions of the bass, this is a tuning that emphasises bass line melodies and kick drums, and adds great heft to the lower registers of any instrument (whether it be the lower harmonics of a cello, decaying tom-toms, the left-most keys of a piano, etc.). It’s also the source of the Aether’s lightly rich atmosphere; midrange notes are ever-so-slightly warmed up and liquified, treble notes are sweetened, and the overall ambience becomes all the more pleasing. This, however, is at the cost of sub-bass texture and separation. Due to okay bottom-end extension, and the emphasis on mid-bass bloom and upper-bass melody, the Aether’s sub-bass lacks rumble and clarity; listening to the Aether’s lower registers is always fun and giddying, but rarely ever coordinated, resolute or visceral.
The Aether’s bass is also unique in that it separates through dynamic presentation, rather than contrasts in tone or texture. While, in well-mixed material, most would differentiate the kick drum and the bass guitar by their respective frequencies (one is usually brighter in tone than the other), the Aether forgoes this and instead presents one as punchier than the other. In order to preserve the Aether’s bass tone, quantity and body, Emil has crafted a low-end that allows the listener to separate instruments in the lower registers based on how far forward they come into the foreground of the stage. It’s an odd presentation that I’ve only recently noticed and it won’t be the apple to an engineer’s eye (or ear). But, it was a compromise made to highlight the low-end’s addictive musicality, and it’s a choice I probably would’ve made too.
The Aether’s midrange is a very difficult game of compromise: A balancing act between body and clarity; smoothness and shimmer; naturalness and cleanliness; engagement and authenticity. And, while the Aether does not walk the walk perfectly, it does stick the landing, delivering a midrange that focuses on articulation and attack, whilst maintaining a natural, smooth and sufficiently-bodied tone throughout; a very, very admirable effort.
The Aether’s inherent emphasis on vocal articulation and clarity comes from its leaner lower-midrange. Compared to similarly neutral-warm IEMs like the Warbler Prelude or the Custom Art Harmony 8.2, the Aether’s lower-middle registers carry a lighter and less substantial presentation. As a result, the Aether’s stage is impressively clean – with merely minute traces of warm air between individual instruments – relying on its “cross-feed” to unify elements of the recording into a single consolidated image. However, that’s not to say the Aether sounds dry or thin; in fact, the Aether’s note structure is one of its strongest assets. Drawing forth warmth from its loose and atmospheric bass, the Aether constructs notes that are natural and bodied – such that it gives instruments tangibility and weight – but never thick or dense enough to introduce congestion, slowness or clout. The Aether is quite snappy in its midrange presentation as a result; a stark contrast – in a good way – to its rather fat bottom.
Coming back to the Aether’s “shy” midrange placement, its tilt towards the upper mids tends to rob vocals of power and strength. Because of this lack in dynamic energy, when listening to artists like Adele, there aren’t chills when she belts the climactic chorus, nor are there shivers when Diana Krall begins a verse with a raspy whisper. There’s often a lack of immersion, drama and theatricality in ballads, and smoky, intimate, jazz-club settings can end up becoming nonchalant and un-engaging soundscapes. To combat this, however, the Aether endows midrange notes with decent size. Lead instruments take up about half of the central image, equipped with great height and harmonics/reverb that spread outwards along the stage. This smearing effect is what fuels its “cross-feed.” Although it impedes the Aether’s midrange resolution from reaching top-class status, it admirably compensates for the Aether’s timidness and gives it a strong sense of liquidity, cohesion and gobs of musicality.
The upper midrange is where the Aether finally whips out its signature weapon: a metric wallop of pure, crystalline air. The Aether employs a healthy upper-mid peak to bring clarity and light to the entire presentation; essentially cutting through all the fat with a brilliant sense of cleanliness, liveliness, and energy. Cymbals crash with confidence and shimmer with grace, snare hits bang without the slightest hint of distortion or grain, pianos and strings gleam with texture, and electric guitars sound as crisp as freshly-fried potato chips. It’s an unbridled and unabashed rush of enthusiasm and immediacy, but it would only mean pain if it weren’t paired with superbly impressive headroom. The Aether’s upper midrange – though vibrant and packed with crunch – never breaks nor cracks; it neither distorts nor harshens. Notes are released with an openness and finesse that mates natural tone with punch, texture and clarity, yet constantly remaining smooth, rounded, and meaty along the way. This is the bite to the Aether’s bark; the definitive, supplementary component to the entire ensemble and undoubtedly the Aether’s MVP.
The Aether’s treble is ultimately what defines its entire presentation and tone. While its upper midrange beams with liveliness and vibrancy, the Aether’s top-end dares not be anything but laid-back and smooth. It’s a treble that’s warm, natural and easy-going, shying away from the mainstream where “sizzle-y and sharp” are the norm. Crafted with sweetness, body and tone in mind, the Aether’s upper registers hardly ever steal the spotlight. Instead, they conclude, complement and complete.
Beyond the Aether’s energy and pizzazz, the treble region enriches its strong fundamental notes with elegant harmonic detail, adding crucial decay to transients that its low-end and upper-midrange generously provide. Once instruments appear, they don’t vanish without a trace. Instead, they linger; effectively using the air around them to float, far before fading away. As a result, the Aether’s soundscape is never truly black; dead space is constantly occupied by overtones, notes become intertwined and intermingled between one and the next, and the overall listening experience bathes in euphony, musicality and warmth. Admirable linear extension is also a key player here, providing an airy and coherent stage to balance against the Aether’s innate liquidity. It layers and resolves capably too, discouraging any sense of messiness or gloom to produce – once again – a clear, natural and tightly-woven atmosphere.
But, of course, no good deed comes without compromise. The Aether’s treble is very forgiving, sometimes to an unfortunate fault. Although it’s capable of making any piece of music (and any source) sound superbly enjoyable and rich, it’s not discerning enough to truly take advantage of masterful recordings and make them sound breathtaking. The Aether’s top-end lacks transparency and incisiveness due to its decidedly musical-first presentation. But, whether or not that’s a negative ultimately depends on your preferences and perspective. If you have a desperate obsession for perfect technical performance and you prefer your top-ends strict, then you won’t necessarily love what the Aether has to offer. On the other hand, if your playlist is home to a variety of genres and production quality ranging from Chesky Records to your neighbour’s bedroom mixes, then the Aether is where your money should be. It’s the epitome of the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none,” and it’ll often be a give and take. However, regardless of whatever artist, genre or mix you listen to, you can always count on the Aether to sound beautiful, and versatility is something no one should ever take for granted.