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MrSpeakers Aeon Flow headphones review: songs of ice and fire

The best headphones for under $1,000? It’s probably one of these two

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Two summers ago, I wrote to let you know about the exceptionally articulate MrSpeakers Ether Flow headphones. Little more than a one-man band based in San Diego, MrSpeakers gave us a delightful story to go with its superb products: it was the plucky upstart that went from modding existing headphones to creating its own with just a few good ideas and the passion to live and breathe headphones. The only problem with the $1,800 Ether Flows, however, was that you couldn’t afford a pair even if you stopped eating avocados for a decade.

The MrSpeakers Aeon Flow are the younger, cheaper, lighter siblings to the Ether Flow duo. Like the Ethers, the Aeons are built around custom planar magnetic drivers and offered in a choice of a carbon fiber closed-back design or a mesh-covered open-back option. The family affinity is also expressed in the use of the same nitinol headband and the same cable connectors across all four models. The differences? The Aeons cost $799 and have a refreshed, tapered design that more closely traces the contours of the listener’s ear. Oh, and they sound dramatically different — different from the Ether models as well as from each other.

Despite using the same internal technology, the Aeon Flow Open and Closed models have fundamentally divergent characters. The Closed are unforgivingly precise in their presentation, giving you the cold, hard facts of your music without ever threatening to flatter or sweeten it. They’re Scandinavian minimalism in the tundra. The more polite Open cans warm up the bass, soften the treble, and wink at you invitingly. They’re Southern hospitality in the Mediterranean.

In both variants, the Aeon Flows are easy to fall in love with and hard to put down. The next time I’m asked for my recommendation for the best headphones under $1,000, I’ll have the Aeon Flows on my shortest of short lists.

The first Aeon pair to land on my review desk was the Aeon Flow Closed, and I confess to not enjoying it at first. Its comfort was shockingly good, with its deep D-shaped cups, luxuriously soft pads, and strikingly simple and creak-free design. But I just couldn’t abide the sound.

The sound of the closed Aeons is stripped down and aggressive, with no niceties to ease the listener in. The usual bump in mid-bass and lower mids is entirely absent on these headphones, and that omission feels like a chasm in frequency response to anyone used to cans tuned for more relaxed pleasure listening (which, might I remind you, is the majority of humanity). So I put the closed Aeons on a shelf for a few weeks until MrSpeakers released the open Aeons.

The open Aeons fixed everything that seemed broken about their closed sibling. Their bass exaggeration, while subtle, is exactly where I expect it to be, and it gives a satisfying warmth to things that would sound almost metallic on the cooler closed Aeons. With only the slightest of haircuts on treble frequencies, the Aeon Flow Open sound basically perfect for the vast majority of pleasure listeners. They don’t fatigue with their presentation, and their sound feels faithful, organic, and realistic. The open Aeons also have a wider soundstage than the more intimate closed Aeons.

And yet, over the long term, it is definitely the closed Aeon Flows that I’ve fallen in love with.

It’s not because I’m a contrarian — well, it’s not just that. At their $799 price point, these Aeon Flow models are just about within reach for aspiring audiophiles to make them their one and only purchase. (This is never true. Audiophilia is an expensive rabbit hole, but let’s pretend for a moment). If I’m only buying one pair of headphones, I’d want it to be exceptional and singular. That is not what the Aeon Flow Open are. They are very good headphones that sound much like other very good headphones, the majority of them admittedly being more expensive. But still, the choice of good open-back headphones that cost as much or less than the Aeons is overwhelming: Audeze’s LCD2 Classic, AudioQuest’s NightHawk, Focal’s Elear, and Sennheiser’s HD 600 series are the first few to come to mind.

There is no other pair of headphones quite like the MrSpeakers Aeon Flow Closed.

The sound signature that I was initially put off by is now the number one reason I keep returning to them. The bass that seemed lacking at first is merely uncluttered and uncongested. The difference in bass presentation with the closed Aeons is like the difference in how your teeth feel before and after going to a dental hygienist. The latter feels unnatural because it’s not what you’re used to, but it’s cleaner. This clinical quality, which is often language used to politely criticize headphones without enough excitement to them, makes the closed Aeons an acquired taste. But give them a chance, and you’ll be rewarded.

The closed Aeons are an untamed beast that demands and rewards attention

One of the ways in which they stand out from most headphones in the sub-$1,000 range is their sub-bass extension: these cans go deep in a way that Sennheiser’s celebrated HD 600, HD 650, and HD 660 can only dream of. I’m hypersensitive to headphones that don’t give me enough bass, which is what makes most of Grado’s range and the latest HD 660s from Sennheiser profoundly unappealing to me, but the closed Aeons don’t commit that sin. They just refuse to lie about the quantity of bass in my music. And I adore them because they also refuse to compromise on the quality of that bass.

Without superfluous affectations, the closed Aeons have a sparse sound that leaves plenty of air around each instrument or vocal, exposing everything in a recording, and doing so with the utmost realism. A seemingly minor but representative example of this is how the crackling of vinyl (as recorded on digital versions of songs) sounds on these cans. It’s instantly recognizable for what it is. On the twice-as-expensive and open-back Ether Flows, the same can sometimes sound like distortion or garbling. It’s usually open-back headphones — which don’t have to account for unwanted sound reflections inside the ear cup — that deliver the quality of distortion-free, organic, and realistic sound that the Aeon Flow Closed produce.

No musical genre challenges or troubles the closed Aeons. They flow effortlessly between Kavinsky’s Outrun, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, Kenji Kawai’s 1995 Ghost in the Shell soundtrack, and into Kimbra’s Primal Heart. And that’s just the K section of my collection. Vocals are prominent, forward without ever growing strident, and they combine with the sub-bass prowess of these headphones for an intoxicating mix. Bjork’s “I dare you to take me on” invocation on “5 Years” is conveyed in its full rasping frustration, and it might as well be the headphones themselves that implore the listener to try and handle them. When Kendrick’s “tired of the Photoshop” and desiring an “ass with some stretch marks” on “Humble,” his voice is underlined by an extra deep bassline that gets absolutely lost on lesser headphones. And his words are basically the best summary for what the closed-back Aeons are capable of.

The open Aeons have a friendlier sound and the same outstanding comfort as the closed

Returning to the Aeon Flow Open, I still find them supremely enjoyable, and they provide a nice change of intensity from the untamed attention-seeking beast that is their closed sibling. The open Aeons are the ones you buy if you prefer music to be in the background of your activity rather than the focus of it. With their wider soundstage and gentler tuning, they’re also a better fit for any ASMR or binaural recording enthusiasts. Badly recorded music or people yelling on YouTube videos are also less harsh with this more tolerant pair from MrSpeakers. Less uptight and more relaxed, the open-back Aeon Flow is the headphone I’d hand to a family member who is keen to try out hi-fi headphones for the first time. As for myself, I still prefer being bludgeoned by the velvety-smooth hammer of the closed Aeon Flow.

Rival headphones in the Aeons’ price range are numerous, though strongest among them is Audeze’s identically priced LCD2 Classic. The LCD2Cs offer terrific dynamism and punchy, hard-hitting bass, and I’d describe them as an open version of the closed Aeon Flow with better soundstage but not quite the same sound signature. Audeze’s headphones are much heavier, however, and I could never wear them for a dozen hours at a time like I have with both Aeon pairs. AudioQuest’s open-back NightHawks are super comfy and have been cut in price to $399, which makes them attractive as a fun listen for bass lovers, but they can’t compete with the resolution and precision of either Aeon model. Audio-Technica’s R70x, which I recently reviewed, are another great option at $349, but they don’t have the sonic refinement or tactile luxury of the Aeons.

Neither pair of Aeon headphones has the necessary sound isolation to be recommended for use in a shared office environment, but for working at home, the open-back variant is easily the better pick. I can’t put on the closed Aeon Flow and do something else: its sound is too direct and forthright to fade from the foreground. Whichever Aeon you might like more — and the sound truly is the only difference; fit and comfort are identical — you’ll want to pair it with a powerful amplifier. No chance of getting these to meaningfully loud volumes with your phone’s audio dongle. I’ve been using the Woo Audio WA7 tube amp to great effect.

As far as accessories go, MrSpeakers provides each pair of Aeon Flows with a lovely hard carrying case. I’m a huge fan of its sharp looks and the protection it provides. The detachable DUM (Distinctly Un-Magical, in MrSpeakers parlance) cable has been improved from the stiff one I tested with the Ether Flows, and it produces no noise from rubbing against clothes or surfaces. It can do with further improvement, however, as the braided webbing on its exterior makes for unattractive bulges in the cord, and it’s also susceptible to fraying. You get a 3.5mm termination and a screw-on 6.35mm adapter.

MrSpeakers ships both Aeon Flow models with four sets of tuning filters, which are simply pieces of precut material — some foam, some felt, some even denser — that you insert inside each ear cup to alter the sound you get. The idea is that they’ll thicken up the bass for those who want more of it and rein in the treble response. I tried them all and didn’t think any one of them provided an improvement on either Aeon Flow pair. If you want bassier headphones, just buy bassier headphones.

Two well-thought-out and crafted pairs of headphones

Inserting these extra layers inside the Aeon Flows made both models sound veiled, for obvious reasons, but it also made the headphones less comfortable. Without any inserts, both Aeons wrap beautifully around my ear and leave literal air between the pad and the ear. When the inserts are in, my ear ends up touching them, and that contact detracts from the borderline perfection of the Aeon Flow’s comfort. Seriously, the only other headphone design that I’ve enjoyed wearing as much as this has been that of the AudioQuest NightHawk and NightOwl cans.

The mark of great headphones for me is when I feel fully satisfied with their sound, when I lose the otherwise constant curiosity to compare them to others. The Aeon Flow Closed are such headphones. I’m deeply familiar with the glories of MrSpeakers’ Ether Flows, Focal’s Utopia, Audeze’s MX4, and Sennheiser’s HD 800 S and, yes, those more expensive headphones are technically superior — wider in their soundstage, more intricate in their detailing of individual instruments, more refined and cohesive in their expression — but knowing that doesn’t take anything away from my enjoyment of the closed Aeons. The open Aeons carry over the same profoundly competent, distortion-free performance of the closed, but by competing along more conventional lines, they lose the character and uniqueness of the closed.

I would recommend the Aeon Flow Open to anyone looking for a good pair of genre-agnostic hi-fi headphones that lives up to its high price. It combines the light weight and ease of use of more basic headphones with some of the capabilities of vastly more expensive rivals. It’s the sane, comfortable choice.

The Aeon Flow Closed, on the other hand, is the pair of headphones I’d want for myself. Its unflinching realism, pedantic detail retrieval, and unusually awesome sub-bass performance have me a little bit addicted.

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge

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