It has been just under a year since MrSpeakers launched the ĆON Flow closed-back over-ear headphone ($799) – an outstanding all-around headphone and a superb bang-for-buck performer in a category where prices are steadily on the rise. It's hard to imagine wanting more, and ĆON closed back headphones easily took home a 2017 Blue Note Award from Enjoy the Music.com.
But MrSpeakers' owner Dan Clark is never one to be satisfied. The pattern is apparent through the years: the Mad Dogs evolved into the Alpha Dogs and then the Alpha Primes. The Ether evolved into the Ether-C and Ether Flow variants. Even though the ĆON has everything most people could ever want out of a headphone, it was on a collision course with inevitability. And the result is the ĆON Flow Open ($799).
The new ĆON Flow Open (or AFO, as it is often called on the headphone forums) is an interesting headphone to say the least. It's not drastically different from the closed version and doesn't really come across as significantly more spacious or airy, as one might expect. The key difference here is in the astonishing ease of the presentation – everything is just smoother, more liquid and natural, as it doesn't have to deal with as many cup reflections like the closed model. In fact, it does so little wrong; it's kinda hard to even talk about it!
That being said, it's not a perfect headphone, just really, really close (and almost impossible to beat for the price). Let's take a deeper dive into the sound.
The First Rule Of Tone: Do No Harm
The sub-bass reaches fairly deep here, but doesn't have quite as much power or extension down into the lowest register as its closed brother. Still, I found it quite pleasing for electronic music with it's smartly tuned level and ultra-clean delivery. I didn't really feel the need for more presence there, even after I started comparing with headphones where that area is purposely elevated. Certainly a specialist model like one of the Fostex / Denon / Klipsch biocellulose models will deliver considerably more power, but it still doesn't fell like something I could call a weakness for the AFO. The presentation is what I would call "fair and objective" – it just seems like it is where it is supposed to be. And as an all-rounder, I don't think any of those aforementioned models can touch the far more well-rounded ĆON Flow Open.
Midbass is a little but stronger here, compared to AFO's closed sibling. The quantity and quality of impact is excellent and the extra bit of warmth here adds a welcome dose of euphony to guitars and vocals without overly coloring the music. The midbass releases easily into the lower midrange without any blur or congestion, which keeps the headphone's perceived pace from slowing, despite its elevated presence.
The midrange is strong across the board, and the added warmth in the lower mids leaves the AFO feeling more mid-centric than it's closed counterpart. The central and upper part of the midrange is a little more relaxed and seems to have a bit better distortion profile than the closed version I reviewed. I found the closed version had an extra pinch of energy between 900Hz and 2,000Hz, but it seems to be more subdued here, resulting in a little bit less listening fatigue over long periods.
Vocals are smooth and natural, having a bit more body than sparkle. It's a sort of low-risk, easy-to-like approach that many will like, made easier by the advantages of having an open cup. It's the type of tuning that encourages you to really turn it up and soak it in.
The treble is also a little bit more subdued than the closed ĆON, continuing the downward sloping overall frequency response. Balance is good in terms of cohesion with the rest of the headphone, but again, note the treble and upper mid seem to veer a good bit below neutral, which may not be for everyone. Compared to the new Sennheiser HD660S ($499), the AFO's upper mid/low treble dip was pretty noticeable to my ears, sending the upper harmonics for horns and vocals a bit further back. I wouldn't call either approach right or wrong, per se, they are just a bit different. Expect a bit more energy and sparkle out of the Sennheisers versus the AFO's laid back approach.
95% Of The Performance For 50%
Of The Cost
Attack and decay are fairly tight, veering just a little on the romantic side without getting mushy. It definitely comes across to me as a headphone that was tuned with maximum enjoyment as the end goal, and like the tuning, the speed presentation of the headphone seems to be just a little laid back while remaining in the "safe zone" to appeal to the widest possible variety of listeners. It's just a little bit "wet" in its sound to convey weight, without going so far as to slow things down by blurring the pace of the music with super long decay.
Along with that wetness, I got the feeling that the microdynamics were slightly compressed – not to a fault, necessarily – but a stiffer attack and decay would have yielded a more accurate picture of small volume gradations. Macrodynamics were a bit stronger here with pretty good impact and slam, and when I compared with the new Sennheiser HD660S, it was clear that the AFO was the "fun" alternative between the two.
One area where I will nitpick a little bit is the soundscape. For starters, it's not very large, and sacrificing the isolation of the closed ĆON seems like an abnormally large price to pay without making any gains here. Furthermore, the depth is relatively shallow and the depth layering is vague relative to the $1500 to $2000 tier flagship models. Of course, that's what you're paying for when you step up to models like the ETHER Flow and ETHER-C FLOW.
Luckily, the imaging across the width and height is a bit better than the depth layering. While it won't offer the holographic presentation of an HD800, it's more than satisfactory and there is good separation between the individual instruments.
In terms of overall technicality, I think it's just sitting a little on the outside of where many of the $1500 to $2000 tier headphones are. But the AFO quickly gains ground on those headphones once you consider the fact that it delivers 95% of the technicality of those headphones and a masterful tuning at half the price.
The Unimpeachable Peripherals
Furthermore, the AFO comes with a nice synthetic leather case, a set of tuning pads and MrSpeakers' DUMMER cable, which is much nicer than many competitive stock cables (in comparison to those included with the Acoustic Research AR-H1 or the OPPO PM-3, for example). The DUMMER cable includes a 3.5mm termination with a 6.35mm screw-on adaptor, which I find to be the best option for a headphone that can serve as a home or transportable piece (or you can substitute a balanced XLR cable at checkout).
In spite of the slightly improved overall sound and ease of presentation, I'm still inclined to call the previously-reviewed closed-back ĆON the more impressive headphone and better overall value between the two. The two ĆONs are very close sonically and the fact that the closed version sounds so good (when so few other isolating headphones do) multiplies its value exponentially in my eyes.
Still, if someone came to me asking for the absolute best sounding headphone money could buy for $799 and isolation was not a concern, I would point them in the direction of the ĆON Flow Open without a moment's hesitation. It's simply the runaway winner at this price point.
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