The ETHER 2 is surely one of the most tonally transparent headphones I’d heard to date. In a world where products are typically stereotyped into either the warm, bloom-y Audeze camp, or the clean, crisp Sennheiser camp, MrSpeakers’ latest flagship straddles the line brilliantly between timbral accuracy and technical performance – though to my ears, it favours the former by a hair. A light warmth is imbued in its signature, granting it its realism and organicity. But at the same time, it possesses a neutrally-positioned upper-midrange and an excellently-controlled bass region. The resultant response is an understated, uncoloured and life-like rendition of music; rare in an era where wow factor reigns supreme.
But, that’s not to say the ETHER 2 isn’t a technical performer either. The ETHER 2 establishes its soundscape within an impressively stable, black background. Instruments come and go with precision and layering that could withstand an ensemble with ease. On my production Bila Hati Kita Lemah – which I recorded, mixed and mastered – the lead melody towards the end is shared by an electric guitar and pianos; weaving back-and-forth ala call-and-answer. Throughout my arsenal of in-ears and headphones, the hand-offs between the instruments were made most clear to me by the ETHER 2. I could tell with confidence when the guitar was retreating, or when the pianos were simmering towards the surface.
In soundstage expansion – much like imaging precision – the chain is a key factor; track included. This’ll be discussed in the Synergy section, but I’ve found the ETHER 2 consistently delivers in the aspects I described above: Image stability, stage cleanliness and layering. A key contributor to this is speed. In both transience and decay, the ETHER 2 exhibits great snappiness – allowing it to maintain a rhythmic drive despite its laid-back top-end. Notes appear as if out of thin air and disappear into the blackness below. With select tracks however, energy around 8kHz or so may linger a touch longer and introduce some fuzz onto the soundscape. But it’s a situational occurrence that occurs less often than not.
But, to achieve its realism and technical prowess, the ETHER 2 does make slight compromises. Unlike the first generation ETHER’s – the open ones, especially – the ETHER 2 lacks the vibrancy that granted them their charming musicality. While the ETHER 2’s subtle nuance and life-like neutrality speaks to my personal inclinations, they may not be preferred by audiophiles whose emotional fulfilment when listening to music comes from dynamism, contrast or bombastic-ness. The ETHER 2 is decidedly a laid-back sounding headphone. This isn’t because it’s muted or dull-sounding in any way – everything is simply balanced against each other; quality over quantity. There aren’t any egregious lifts along the mid-bass or upper-treble to incite contrast. So, whether or not that matches your preferences will determine your mileage.
Nowhere is the ETHER 2 philosophy more realised than in the bass – truly, technically astounding. While industry norms dictate a rise around 100-200Hz to maximise presence, gusto and musicality, ETHER 2 takes the road less travelled – relying on high extension and low distortion; resulting in a bass as guttural and satisfying as it is transparent, balanced and controlled. Excellent coherence runs through the entire region, so the bass pumps like a singular, unified piston. And, that balance rings true on a larger scale as well. The bass exists on an equal plane with the midrange and treble to my ears, granting it an evenness deserved of the term reference plus a visceral quality sure to please audiophiles alike.
In tone, the bass exudes naturalness as well. Although it blooms sparsely, the bass possesses a lightly warm tinge. This comes from the ETHER 2’s relaxed top-end and it works excellently with live instruments. Upright basses resonate with a hearty, woody, life-like timbre. Kick drums on all genres display great balance between the thwack of the beater and the thump of the skin. But again, neither are inhibited by the warmth they carry. Bass notes are constantly well-defined against the background, and identifiable in the busiest of mixes. Consequently, this low-end won’t suit those who prefer quantity over quality. Frequencies 200Hz and below may come across too linear for diehard bassheads. Nevertheless, the ETHER 2’s low-end truly deserves acclaim, by virtue of marvellous technical performance, physicality and timbre.
The midrange is where ETHER 2 departs most from its predecessors. As mentioned previously, the ETHER 2 doesn’t have the same vibrance or liveliness, because of a dip spanning 3-4kHz. Consequently, it assumes a more reference profile – a midrange that isn’t plucky and musical at all times, but adapts accordingly to the music. Lady Gaga’s intro on Cheek to Cheek may sound a touch compressed, while Jennifer Hudson belts with divine force on And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going. Additionally, a bias towards the 1-2kHz region favours chestier instruments over others. Male baritones are livelier dynamically than female balladeers, violas carry more weight in a string quartet, and so on. But, this beautifully complements the piano for example, where the weight of the key stroke and the ring of the note are expertly balanced.
Subjectivity aside, the 3-4kHz dip serves dividends in technical performance, realism and balance. Contrary to popular belief, a neutrally-placed upper-midrange – with relatively unemphasised projection or force – is how vocals should sound in a performance venue or hall. This is because the large majority of sound you hear is reflected, rather than direct; less in-your-face and concentrated than you might expect. The ETHER 2’s presentation therefore sounds more life-like and natural. And, it has technical benefits too. Because the lead melody isn’t overtly saturated or emphasised, the ETHER 2 is capable of pulling your attention towards the peripheral details – whether it be background instruments, minute, complementary noises, etc. This is again ideal in the studio where utmost balance, layering and transparency is necessary. Succinctly, the ETHER 2 excels in high-definition, undramatised realism; entirely up to you to love or hate.
I expect the ETHER 2’s treble to be its most divisive attribute, and the irony is: It’s my absolute favourite bit! Shying away from trend, the ETHER 2 cleverly eschews instant gratification for a more understated, naturally-hued top-end. Online, I’ve seen this called dark, warm and laid-back, among others. But to my sensibilities, it definitively strikes neutral with a razor’s edge. The ETHER 2 possesses one of the most transparent treble tones I’ve heard, along with an authoritative, crisp and refined timbre that strikes me as eerily life-like. Drawing energy from 8-and-10kHz peaks, cymbals and hi-hats possess excellent attack; decaying with zero awkwardness, incoherence or lingering harmonics – interrupted only by pure blackness in-between. This to me is indicative of a reference-grade top-end in tone, texture and transparency.
Technically, the ETHER 2’s top-end continues to impress. Extension is marvellous and so is speed. The two construct the headphone’s vast, stable and spherical soundscape. But ultimately, the treble’s transparency allows the track to define the image’s dimensions. There’s zero tomfoolery present to exaggerate stage expansion or detail pronunciation; a dream-come-true for professionals. Aside from the obligatory pockets of energy around the lower- and upper-treble, the top-end as a whole is stringently linear. Flashy is a term I’d never associate with the ETHER 2 and it’s truest here. Again, if you’re coming from transducers like Sennheiser’s HD800, Focal’s Utopia or MrSpeakers’ very own AEON Flow, you’ll probably miss some razzle dazzle. But, the ETHER 2 delivers something neither three can: An unabridged, unadulterated and yet-still-musical rendition of the truth. It’s a tuning with my utmost respect, but your mileage may (and will) vary.
The ETHER 2 offers a no-frills, uncoloured, balanced signature. It’s certainly most at home in a recording studio, but if you’re an audiophile yearning for a flagship with the following traits, the ETHER 2 may find its way to your home too:
A well-balanced, reference signature: The ETHER 2 boasts an immensely level-headed signature, where every frequency range is balanced against each other. It’s neither warm nor bright; neither thick nor lean. This is ideal if you want the headphones to virtually disappear and give you an honest representation of the music or gear you’re listening to.
An unsaturated midrange: One of the ETHER 2’s hallmark traits is its laid-back upper-midrange – a facet reminiscent of mastering in-ears like JHAudio’s Layla. Aside from technical benefits, it also offers a more life-like, spacious presentation, where vocal projection is relatively restrained – taking into account acoustical phenomena you’d hear in real life.
Visceral, yet well controlled, distortion-free bass: The ETHER 2’s stand-out quality is its low-end. Despite how seamlessly it blends in with the rest of the frequency response – perhaps, by virtue of that as well – the ETHER 2’s bass is one of the most technically-capable and tonally-transparent I’ve heard. It won’t please diehard bassheads by sheer impact, but if you’re an audiophile with an appreciation for bass in cleanliness, texture and control, ETHER 2 will absolutely deliver.
By the same token, the ETHER 2’s strict neutrality may limit its appeal towards certain groups of audiophiles – especially those who’re looking for excitement via contrast, or euphony via warmth. Here are traits the ETHER 2 does not possess:
Pristine, crystalline clarity and air: The ETHER 2 has a linear upper-treble with zero peaks for crispness or clarity. While it greatly benefits coherence, refinement and timbre, it does render the headphone relatively laid-back in sparkle and air. If you’re more inclined towards the HD800S or MrSpeakers’ very own Aeon Flow, the ETHER 2 may be too calm for you.
Pillow-y, euphonic warmth: The ETHER 2 does not satisfy the other end of the spectrum either. Aside from the density it draws from the centre-midrange, the headphone remains largely neutral in bloom and warmth. As its upper-treble is, the ETHER 2’s mid-bass is linear as well. So, if you prefer Audeze-esque signatures, the ETHER 2 may not be for you.
An exaggeratedly operatic sense of scale: The ETHER 2’s penchant for transparency extends to its spatial presentation as well. It adapts in terms of stage expansion, note size and imaging precision according to the chain, as well as the track. So, if you prefer the HD800S’s almost exaggerated sense of space and scale, the ETHER 2 won’t necessarily deliver that.