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Interview: Dan Clark, Mr Speakers

Interview: Dan Clark, Mr Speakers

Hi-Fi+: How did you become interested in headphone (and earphone) design in the first place? What attracted you to this product category?

DC: About 5 years ago, I was sharing a home office with my wife.  At the time I used a high-end open-back headphone.  I was advised that if I wanted to stay married I needed a headphone that wouldn’t allow her to hear it when I played the Talking Heads. 

I started looking at closed back headphones, and I wasn’t terribly enamoured bywhat I heard.  Fortunately, I came across a Head-Fi thread on “orthodynamic” headphones, which led to my discovery of the Fostex T50RP mod thread.  I decided to try my hand at modifications and it was “love at first mod.”  
 

Hi-Fi+: As you work to create new top-tier headphone products, what are the top design objectives you try to bear in mind?

DC: Our first priority is to deliver excellent sound quality for the price.  Whether we’re working on entry-level or high-end products, we try to deliver exceptional sound quality at each price point.  This becomes more difficult as price increases, but it’s still our main goal.

Our next priority is comfort.  If a headphone clamps too hard or weighs too much it detracts from the listening enjoyment.  I have headphones on 6+ hours a day, and if a design is uncomfortable for long listening, it goes back to the drawing board.

When we introduced our 3D printed Alpha line of headphones, we added the criteria of a pleasing finish.  Modifying Fostex headphones imposed design limits since the headphone’s basic design is out of our control.  Nonetheless we worked really, really hard to get a striking finish on the 3D-Printed cups we designed for our Alpha line. The result is a beautiful show car quality finish.  In fact the finish is so gorgeous that they’re currently on display in a 3D printing exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, Florida.

The finish-work carried over to ETHER, but since we’ve designed the whole headphone we could work on integrating form and function so ETHER would look and feel great. This can be seen in every facet of the design from our ultra-light yet comfortable Nitinol memory-metal headband to our custom ultra-soft sheepskin earpads.

 

Hi-Fi+: What technologies and product configurations best enable you to meet your design objectives?
 

DC: MrSpeakers got its start producing closed-back headphones.  Closed headphones are very hard to make, at least if you don’t want it to sound like you have cups on your ears.   To get the best sound we had to learn a lot about how to control time-domain performance to eliminate ringing, vibration, and other effects that cups exacerbate. 

Our first major technical innovation was the use of 3D printers to create our Alpha Dog and Alpha Prime headphones, which have a “double wall with internal matrix” design that provide exceptional isolation while minimizing cup vibration and weight.

Our next innovation was “V-Planar” technology, which is derived from the old idea of knurling (creasing) the driver to reduce panel oscillations and nonlinearities.  V-Planar is a much more aggressive version of this that increases driver compliance and reduces distortion.  The result is extended frequency response and greater clarity, without the edginess that some “fast” drivers can exhibit.

Hi-Fi+: Do you favour particular types of drive units for use in your designs and, if so, why?

DC: Planar drivers are what we know and love.  I just prefer their sound to dynamics, which to my ear tend to be more “hi fi” than natural sounding.

Hi-Fi+: How would you describe the ideal voicing ‘target curve’ for a headphone?

DC: This is the million-dollar question, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as an ideal curve. 

For starters, many factors influence a target curve.  For example, a target curve might sound different as a function of listening level, or whether a phone is closed, open or IEM. 

If you listen at lower levels (below 80dB) your ear typically won’t perceive as much bass or treble as it does midrange, so a “V-curve” headphone may sound more linear than a “flat” headphone. But as volume increases, a “flat” headphone will sound more linear while the phone with a V-Curve will have too much bass and treble. 

Frequency response and volume are only one of many factors to consider, including; time domain performance, interactions with the head and ear, distortion, phase, and more.  In my opinion, getting too wrapped up in defining a “unicorn” frequency curve may detract from paying attention to whether or not a headphone actually sounds musical.

Hi-Fi+: What do you consider your top one or two product design achievements thus far? What makes those products special from your point of view?

DC: The first is easy: 3D printing our cups.  This really pushed our sound quality to the next level by reducing the effect of the cups on the overall sound. I’m also really pleased with how we were able to make these parts look.  Getting 3D printed parts to look beautiful and high-end was about an order of magnitude harder than we expected.

The second was our V-Planar work.  Alpha Prime showed some of what the technology could do, but it’s more apparent with ETHER, which is a very natural and detailed sounding headphone. 

Lastly was the introduction of a Nitinol memory metal headband to reduce weight and increase the comfort of our headphones.  It’s pretty cool stuff, very flexible, and very hard to deform so it makes getting a great, comfortable fit really easy.

 


Hi-Fi+: When you listen for personal enjoyment, what types of music do you enjoy?

DC: My musical tastes are all over the map, but right now I mostly listen to jazz, electronica/EDM, and classical.

I’ve never been a big fan of most pop music, and with so much of today’s music being run through dynamic range compression (not to be confused with data compression, which is it’s own problem) I find it’s just not pleasant or engaging. 

I can’t say enough for the smaller labels that really put passion into making recordings.  There’s real magic when you can clearly hear the texture and energy a musician puts into each note because that’s often where so much of the emotion is conveyed.  When a recording’s dynamics are compressed, the emotion is compressed along with it. 

Labels like Chesky, M•A, Reference Recording, Proprius, Water Lilly and many other labels really do some amazing work producing beautiful recordings of excellent music.

Hi-Fi+: What do you think the high-performance headphone marketplace will be like five years from now?

DC: I have no idea.  In many ways, we’re in the golden age of headphones.  There are a number of companies doing really great work, and a lot of companies trying to enter the space, so either we’ll see a consolidation, or an increase in diversity and choices.

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If you enjoyed this interview and would like to see more like it, plus a wealth of additional headphone-related material, download your FREE copy of the Hi-Fi+ Guide to Headphones, Earphones & Related Electronics by clicking here.

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