Artisanal craftsmanship. You’ll have heard this phrase bandied about by every bozo with a half-baked idea and a crowdfunding account, but today I want to tell you about a true 21st century example of it. There’s a small company in sunny San Diego, California, that engineers and produces some of the world’s best headphones, designing every single component from the ground up, and refining and improving through the age-old method of trial and error. It works with genuine materials, it has genuine goals, and it’s powered by the genuine passion of genuine music enthusiasts. Its founder is Dan Clark, an engineer whose history in designing audio equipment lends the company its name, MrSpeakers.
The reason for my enthusiasm for MrSpeakers’ work is, well, the work itself. I’ve had this summer’s two new over-the-ear planar magnetic headphone models from the company — the open-back Ether Flow flagship and its closed-back sibling Ether C Flow — for a couple of months now, and I’ve grown emotionally attached to them. Both are priced at $1,800, which lands them firmly into audio luxury territory, but unlike most luxuries that add cost without improving functionality, the Ether Flows happen to deliver some of the best and most detailed sound in the world. And when you consider the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours that Clark’s small team has poured into the Ether Flows’ design, along with all the carbon fiber, leather, aluminum, and even nitinol that goes into the construction of each pair, that luxury price starts to seem reasonable. Not reasonable enough to be your next impulse purchase, but appropriate for the level of quality and service that you get in return for your money.
There is something fundamentally good and right about the way MrSpeakers operates. It’s a workshop of like-minded people surrounded by all the soldering irons, 3D printers, and CAD modeling software that an aspiring electrical engineer could wish for. I get the sense that working in that environment is a reward in and of itself, while the ability to produce something that delights others as well is the ultimate payoff. In a world where company CEOs struggle to explain the benefits of their own products, it’s refreshing to meet someone like Clark, who tells me he spends four hours after dinner every night tuning the sound of his headphones. I believe it.
MrSpeakers began life as a solo project by Clark, who earned himself a good reputation among audiophiles by modifying and improving Fostex headphones. If you’ve ever heard of Mad Dogs or Alpha Primes, they were the work that got Clark his starting capital to turn MrSpeakers into an independent, admittedly niche, business that now builds everything to a custom spec. The only off-the-shelf components in an Ether Flow headphone pair are a couple of screws on the inside. This is the artisanal aspect of which I speak: it’s not that Clark and company are sitting down and hand-stitching the leather ear pads themselves, but they do craft an entirely unique product with every generation, and they scrutinize it in a way that mass-market rivals can’t come close to.
When I hold the Ether Flows in my hands, I recall the way Vertu has every one of its super-expensive phones inscribed with the signature of the assembler responsible for it — to underline the close care and connection between product and producer — and I get the same sense of personal investment from the people at MrSpeakers. If you believe an inanimate object can embody and convey its makers’ passion and commitment, headphones are a great place to look for that, because most of the best ones are made by tiny boutiques much like MrSpeakers. The high-end audio community may be small, but it’s incredibly dedicated, and it sustains such excellent companies as Grado, Audeze, and Noble Audio.
But all of this small-business romanticism would be for nothing if the final product wasn’t good. Thankfully, MrSpeakers’ 2016 headphones are easily the company’s best and most accomplished products to date. Both use planar magnetic technology, but the "Flow" part of their name stems from the particular way that air — and thus sound waves — is channeled through them, borrowing some insights that the company gleaned from its exploration of the even more high-end electrostatic headphone technology. There’s a membrane, or diaphragm, inside the Ether Flows that is actuated using magnets to generate sound, though MrSpeakers puts an extra wrinkle on its design, literally. The Ether Flow diaphragm is pleated like an accordion, which allows it to expand and contract without changes in surface tension, which in turn helps to minimize distortion.
There's practically no ceiling to the Ether Flows' performance
The product of all this technical finesse and micro-scale tweaking is a set of headphones with practically no performance ceiling. Whether you’re using the open Ether Flows or closed Ether C Flows, the better your source of music, the better they will sound. That’s both a blessing and a curse, because it means if you’re not spending heavily on feeding these headphones the right source material, you won’t ever experience them at their best. Portable headphone amplifiers are mostly deficient for powering the Ether Flows, with only the Chord Mojo doing an adequate job of it. My perfect, and reasonably priced, sidekick for the MrSpeakers cans is the $699 Audeze Deckard DAC and amp — Audeze also makes planar magnetics and since the Deckard was designed to provide a baseline level of quality for Audeze headphones, it seems to be well suited to the MrSpeakers ones, too.
So once you lighten your wallet by $2,500 for the full system and you plug into your Apple Music and Spotify collections, what can you expect? This is a tough one to answer, because you can’t simply grade headphones on a price-to-performance curve. The Ether Flows provide extraordinary amounts of detail and resolution, so if that’s what you prioritize, they clearly outperform the Ether C Flows and the vast majority of other headphones out there. But listening to them is like looking at RAW images off your camera: every single grainy detail is apparent. I initially fell in love with this sharpness (which is easily apparent with both lossless FLAC files and 320kbps MP3s), however I grew weary of it after a while. If the recording is perfect, like my copy of Renaud Garcia-Fons’ Mediterranees, you can just sit back and relax, but most modern music isn’t purely acoustic and has a bunch of imperfections and little pieces of aural grit — and the Ether Flows expose every last one of them.
If you are like me and value a smoother and easier presentation, the Ether C Flows are the more enticing proposition. The closed version of these headphones is like a marginally softer lens: it loses just enough detail to wipe away the gritty edges of your music without taking away any of the enjoyment. Because of the basic physics of the closed-back design, you also get better bass response — with Clark claiming the C Flows can reach down into the single digits of Hz (the lower limit of human hearing is 20Hz) — and better attenuation of outside noise. I say attenuation rather than isolation, because honestly, even the closed-back cans leak sound in and out quite a lot. If you want some super high-end sound for drowning out colleagues in the office, the Ether Flows are unfortunately not fit for your purposes. I mean, you could use them, but if you’re going to be that obnoxious, you might as well install a set of speakers at your desk.
The comfort of both Ether Flow models is outstanding. These are large headphones that feel feather-light on your head. The leather headband sits so softly that it doesn’t even leave one of those classic "I’ve been wearing headphones for a couple of hours" imprints on your hair. In fact, all contacts with the user’s head are leather, and almost all the rest is metal: aluminum for the earcup frame, nitinol for the two overarching bands (chosen specifically for the alloy's shape memory, which means it’ll never get bent out of shape), and carbon fiber on the exterior of the closed-back C Flows. MrSpeakers also provides an excellent hard case with each pair of Ether Flows, which doubles as a headphone stand. Even the cables, dubbed DUM for Distinctly Un-Magical, are ingenious in the ease with which they can be disconnected and swapped out.
The company motto: "make great headphones and have fun doing it"
Anyhow, returning to the sound, I find that both pairs of Ether Flows have an average soundstage, with the C Flows being that extra bit more condensed and intimate. This is, once again, a matter of preference: if you want epic aural landscapes, go with Focal’s Elear or Utopia, or if you prefer a narrower and more immediate experience of your music, go the MrSpeakers route. I must say that while I loved the Sennheiser HD 800 S, it always felt like their sound was a little impersonal and distant — and the MrSpeakers Ether Flows basically maintain the same level of intricate detail while closing that distance and being more direct. This leads to more impact with every note and lends the music a greater sense of dynamism.
The true mark of the MrSpeakers Ether Flows’ quality was that I actually missed them while I was away in Germany to cover IFA and Photokina. Returning home, the primary creature comfort I was after was to tune back in to these headphones and hear my music in its most grand and emotive form. My preference is for the Ether C Flows, which I struggle to tear myself away from when I need to leave my desk. They are just so finely tuned, so expressive and yet so clean. I trust them with every musical genre, though they’re obviously the better pick for modern stuff like EDM and hip-hop. If you favor more instrumental, orchestral, or layered music, the open-back Ether Flows might suit you better. They are technically the more precise and articulate of the two pairs, but the Ether C Flows ultimately serve my desires best.
I think that emotional bond with a product is why people spend money on tech luxuries. Or it should be, anyhow. A $5,000 watch can be justified if every time you pick it up or wind its mechanism, you get a frisson of joy. It’s hard to have real-world artisans in our age of computer design and robotized manufacturing, but I think the audio industry still retains and allows a niche for such endeavors.