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Dan Clark Audio ÆON 2 Closed closed-back planar magnetic headphones

Dan Clark Audio ÆON 2 Closed closed-back planar magnetic headphones

A few months ago, the firm formerly known as ‘MrSpeakers’ adopted a new moniker: Dan Clark Audio. All the good stuff we loved about the former brand stayed the same, but in my humble opinion the company name is greatly improved. Besides, who could make sense of a company named MrSpeakers but that didn’t make loudspeakers but instead built world-class headphones? Muy confusing, no? Fortunately, the MrSpeakers name has passed away; long live Dan Clark Audio.

Coinciding with the announcement of its new name, Dan Clark Audio also announced a major redesign of its ÆON Flow headphones, both open and closed-back versions, which are now recast as the ÆON 2 Open and ÆON 2 Closed. Several weeks back Andy Regan, President of Dan Clark Audio, gave me a call to give a preview of the firm’s then upcoming name change and to offer me access to one of the very first review samples of the ÆON 2 Closed, which I eagerly accepted. Like its predecessor, the ÆON 2 Closed is a beautifully constructed, closed-back, planar magnetic headphone that is easy to drive and sensibly priced at $899 US or £900. What this capsule description can’t tell you, however, is how very different to its forebears the ÆON 2 Closed truly is, which is why it’s the subject of the review.

To provide a necessary bit of context, let’s take a brief look at the history of Dan Clark Audio. In its earliest days the firm offered highly modified versions of the popular Fostex T50RP headphones. These were well received, but many—including Dan Clark himself—felt that the way forward was for the company to manufacture high performance headphones entirely of its own design.

Accordingly, the firm’s first 100% Dan Clark designed and built planar magnetic headphones were its ETHER models (priced between $1,599 and $1,999 US), which launched in the UK just in time to be shown at the first CanJam London event in 2015. Ever since, the ETHER product family has gone through a number of successful and continuing evolutionary iterations. 

The original open-back ETHER (sporting bright metallic red ear cup frames) and closed-back ETHER C (featuring carbon-fibre ear cup enclosures) models introduced the firm’s signature V-Planar ‘knurled’ diaphragm technology, which enable linear excursion across the entire diaphragm surface—not just at the centre. Both models were praised for their tonal neutrality and striking transparency—especially the ETHER C, which came as something of a sonic revelation relative to competing closed-back headphones of the time.

 

Next came the open-back ETHER Flow (now with metallic blue ear cup frames) and the closed-back ETHER C Flow (still featuring carbon-fibre ear cups), which introduced the firm’s TrueFlow motor optimisation technology. TrueFlow uses small waveguide-like fittings said to eliminate “turbulence-inducing right angles in a (planar magnetic) driver’s motor structure for greatly reduced distortion, extended frequency response and improved dynamics.” The sonic upshot was that the ETHER Flow models preserved the neutrality and transparency of the original ETHERs, but offered a slightly warmer, more mellifluous and more organic sound overall.

Later, the ETHER Flow models evolved further to become the ETHER Flow 1.1 and the ETHER C Flow 1.1, through the introduction of a new voicing tuning system said to “improve detail retrieval and dynamics.” The ‘1.1’ tuning system is also offered as a backward-compatible upgrade for earlier Flow models. 

This brings us to the present day, where the firm has created an all-new ETHER 2. ETHER 2 featuring a delicate, spider-web-like, moulded metal and carbon-fibre ear cup frame (much like the frame of the firm’s superb VOCE electrostatic headphone). ETHER 2 uses an all-new planar magnetic driver designed from the ground up around the TrueFlow architecture and that incorporates a diaphragm fully 70% lighter than previous ETHER diaphragms. ETHER 2 is hands-down the best ETHER model yet.

Why so much background on Dan Clark Audio’s ETHER models? The answer is that the evolution of the ETHER models created a template that the firm’s mid-priced yet very high performance ÆON-series headphones have followed. Dan Clark has always been aware of the need for high value personal audio products and it is not lost on him that not all listeners can afford headphones in the ETHER price range. The ÆON models tackle this problem head on using creatively cost-reduced designs that are heavily influenced by technologies drawn from the ETHER models, yet that sell for around half the price (ÆON models range from $799 to $899 US).

Like the ETHER-series headphones, the ÆON models are planar magnetic headphones offered in both open and closed-back versions. Two key differences are that the ÆON driver offers about 2/3rds the surface area of the ETHER driver and that the headphone uses moulded ABS ear cups that are ear-shaped (not round like the ETHER ear cups). Like the ETHER models, the ÆON headphones used V-Planar diaphragms from the outset and evolved to include TrueFlow motor technologies leading to the release of ÆON Flow Open and ÆON Flow Closed models. This year marks the release of the new ÆON 2 Closed.

At first glance the ÆON 2 Closed looks deceptively similar to the ÆON Flow Closed, though it comes dressed in a new maroon colour, but the fact is that it incorporates a large number of improvements. The most important changes are arguably the new ÆON 2 planar magnetic drivers whose design is based upon that of the ETHER 2 drivers. In practice this means the ÆON 2 drivers are ‘flipped around’ vis-à-vis earlier ÆON drivers, so that the magnet arrays and TrueFlow element are now on the back or ear cup side of the headphone and are no longer in the pathway between the drivers’ diaphragms and the ears. Similarly, the ÆON 2 drivers get, says Dan Clark Audio, “streamlined flow elements” featuring “higher precision machined flow structures” in place of the injection moulded flow elements previously used. The ÆON 2 drivers are also said to feature “superior driver damping for improved resolution, dynamics and a smoother frequency response.” Finally, the voicing of the ÆON 2 Closed is said to be to offer “a warmer, fuller tone” than before.

Another subtle but very meaningful change is that the ÆON 2s feature redesigned ear cup mounting yokes that, for the first in the history of the ÆON range, allow the ÆON 2s to be a fully folding or collapsible design. Three upshots of this change are that the ÆON 2 becomes significantly more compact for travellers, meaning that it can and does come with a much smaller form-fitting protective hard-shell case, and also meaning, says the designer, that the overall “clamping, fit, feel and structural integrity of the entire headphone” are improved.

For my listening tests, I used the ÆON 2 Closed with my reference iFi Audio Pro iDSD headphone amp/DAC/streamer in conjunction with an AURALiC ARIES wireless bridge and a server drive loaded with CD quality or better PCM, DXD and DSD music files. Power conditioning was handled by an iFi Audio PowerStation fitted with dual iFi AC iPurifier devices. I also had on hand a set of Dan Clark ÆON Flow Closed headphones for comparison. Because the ÆON 2 Closed seemed so similar to the ÆON Flow Closed, I anticipated that sonic improvements, if any, would be incremental, but I soon discovered the ÆON 2 Closed took much more major steps forward.

 

The first and most enduring impression I had of the ÆON 2 Closed was that it sounded strikingly similar to Dan Clark’s far more costly open-back ETHER 2. By this I mean that ÆON 2 Closed found that elusive sweet spot between organic musicality on the one hand and desirable accuracy and neutral tonal balance on the other. I also found that, relative to the earlier ÆON models, the new ÆON 2 Closed offered a marked increase in resolution, focus, nuance and dynamic expression. 

To appreciate what I mean by this, try listening to the familiar Thelonious Monk composition ‘Round Midnight’as recorded by Jim Gailloreto’s Jazz String Quintet on the album American Complex [Origin Classical, 16/44.1]. The Jazz String Quintet is configured much like a traditional string quartet (cello, viola and two violins), but with the addition of Gailloreto on saxophones and other wind instruments. What caught my ear first was the way the ÆON 2 Closed captured vibrantly, but also delineated clearly, the individual voices of the four stringed instruments and especially of Gailloreto’s horn. In particular, the ÆON 2 Closed offered up intense qualities of tonal purity and colour, plus a sensitive rendering of the distinctive dynamics of the horn, all in the context of a broad, expansive soundstage that vividly conveyed a sonic quality of ‘liquidity’ (reminding listeners that air is, after all, a fluid medium). 

More good examples of what the ÆON 2 Closed can do can be heard on the track ‘Don’t Feel Your Touch’ from Bruce Cockburn’s Big Circumstance [True North Records, 16/44.1]. The song is an intimate reflection on the passing of loved ones from our lives, and is carried forward by Cockburn’s at time plaintive and almost anguished vocals, his beautiful and crystal clear guitar work, and a gently swaying rhythmic motif crafted through a lilting bass line and delicate percussion. Through many transducers this track can sometimes have an exaggeratedly ‘analytical’ quality characterised by jangly sharp edges on the guitar and percussion and a somewhat cold tone overall. The ÆON 2 Closed, however, found and beautifully reproduced the underlying soulfulness inherent in the track while giving just the right amount of weight to Cockburn’s emotionally charged vocals. In particular, the Dan Clark headphones perfectly captured the subdued yet searing intensity of the lines, “I just said goodnight to the closest thing I have to home/Oh, and the night grows sharp and hollow/As a junkie’s craving vein/And I don’t feel your touch, again.” 

Yet another track that shows off the ÆON 2 Closed’s impressive soundstaging capabilities is ‘Stank’ from Jamey Haddad, Lenny White and Mark Sherman’s remarkable percussion-centric album Explorations in Space and Time [Chesky, 24/96]. ‘Stank’ showcases a trio of master percussionists playing a wide array of high, mid and low-pitched percussion instruments in the resonant interior of a church, through the vehicle of a track that is the epitome of funkiness (in the good sense of funkiness, that is). Through the ÆON 2 Closed headphones the listener is treated to an enormous soundstage that gives a near front-row perspective on an vibrant percussion ensemble spread out across the chancel of a church. Not only are the voices of the instruments rendered with plenty of clarity and rich tonal colours, but the placement and positioning of the instruments within the chancel is clearly spelled out, too. Better still, the ÆON 2 Closed lets listeners hear and enjoy the interactions between the instruments and the resonant acoustics of the recording venue. In short, it’s an imaging and soundstaging tour de force.

 

I consider the ÆON 2 Closed a true sonic overachiever, but with that said let me also acknowledge that while its sound is highly reminiscent of the ETHER 2 it is not fully the equal of its bigger brother, nor should we expect it to be for the price. If you compare the ETHER 2 and ÆON 2 Closed in rapid succession you find the more costly headphone does offer even higher levels of resolution, sharper focus and even more expansive soundstaging.

However, the ÆON 2 Closed is an extremely well balanced performer that in almost every way channels the best sonic aspects of the ETHER 2, albeit at slightly lower levels of performance in an absolute sense. Even so, the ÆON 2 Closed does so many things, so well, for such a sensible price that it seems impossible not to fall in love with the things. For now, the ÆON 2 Closed stands as a new benchmark for mid-priced high-end headphones. 

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Type: Closed-back planar magnetic headphones

Driver complement: Single full-range planar magnetic drivers with proprietary V-Planar and TrueFlow technologies

Impedance: 13 Ohms

Sensitivity: 92dB/mW

Frequency Response: Yes! (Dan Clark Audio’s position is this: “We don’t publish a spec because too many vendors shamelessly exaggerate the response of their headphones to win the ‘spec wars,’ making any comparison of specs irrelevant.”)

Weight: 340g

Accessories: Moulded carry case, 2m dual-entry cable with 3.5mm and 6.35mm terminations, a series of felt-like textile voicing inserts that can be used to adjust headphone voicing characteristics, if desired. For this review we evaluated the headphone with no voicing inserts installed

Price: £900, or $899 US

Manufacturer information: Dan Clark Audio

URL: danclarkaudio.com

UK distributor: Electromod Ltd.

Tel: +44 (0) 1494 956558

URL: electromod.co.uk

Tags: FEATURED

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