What speaker brand comes to mind first when I say, electrostatic speakers? For us Europeans, it’s most probably Quad and for Yankees, it is most probably Martin Logan.
I still remember searching for a nice floor-stander that works with rock music and Quad ESL will always pop into that list.
Since the headphone market has grown exponentially in the past years, Quad decided to have a small slice of that huge pie.
The weird thing is that Quad decided to go with a planar-magnetic design and not with an electrostatic one. I’m however very glad they chose this (rightful and dangerous) path. I don’t like to fiddle with additional electronics just to listen to a pair on headphones, I’m sure Quad had the same thought.
1. Technology inside ERA-1
Quoting Quad: “To create the ERA-1 – the company’s first-ever headphones – Quad developed a planar magnetic driver delivering fast, open and transparent performance. The resulting sonic realism and fidelity to the source are fully in keeping with the brand’s heritage, displaying qualities akin to the famous ESLs.”
The Quad ERA-1 is an all-in planar-magnetic/ortho-dynamic (say it as you please) design that incorporates an ultra-thin, electrically active diaphragm – thinner than a human hair yet extremely strong and highly elastic, weighing less than the volume of air it displaces. This is fused with a precisely arranged magnet system, designed to maximize the sensitivity and consistency of the applied force over the driver area.
2. Build quality and appearance
Design-wise I do find ERA-1 quite un-original and plain-looking, nothing too fancy in my opinion. Put them close to 100 USD headphones and they will most likely look the same.
At 450 grams they are somewhat in the middle-weight class, but due to nice weight distribution, I can wear them for hours. They are definitely much more comfortable to wear than Audeze’s but not as comfortable as Sennheiser offerings for example.
I find their yokes very weird, I have a larger head than usual and I am still at default zero position, for my wife, for example, the ERA-1 are too big to wear and they will not stay put. Normal heads will have a hard time finding a nice sturdy fit. I thought Chernobyl was far away from the UK, guess I was wrong. Do Quad guys have larger heads than usual? Audiophile God knows…
In terms of build quality that is a different story, the construction seems mostly metal, the headband is leather made, there are only a few plastic pieces, here and there. Two pairs of pads are found in the package that looks premium to me. There is a velour pair and a leather pair, conically there is a clear difference between those – patience my friends, in due time.
The cable is detachable, quality is quite nice, without microphonics whatsoever, it is quite sturdy and flexible.
I just don’t like that in only one month of using the textile material at the 3.5mm termination that goes into the headphones is peeling already. I already ordered an extra cable…not a good sign.
There is also a very nice carry/protective case - made of hard plastic, it will 100% protect accidental drops, I know, happened already.
What more can I say? Not a big fan of the looks, but love the craftsmanship.
3. Pressing the play button
Sincerely, I was not prepared for this kind of sound, especially at 800 USD
How should I put it…my former planar-magnetic headphone that I purchased and used for quite some time was a pair of 4000 USD Audeze LCD-4 and all in all I do believe Quad ERA-1 can stand shoulder to shoulder to LCD-4 on almost every technical aspect.
I almost forgot how fun headphone listening experience can be. ERA-1 has something that really not a lot of headphones can offer. You just want to listen to them as much as possible with a stupid smile on your face.
Funny thing is that every time I listen to some other headphones, desktop, portable or in-ears, I always want to compare them to Quad ERA-1, as slowly but surely ERA-1 became my benchmark headphones for listening pleasure or for comparisons.
Let me start from the start of what I think really shines on Quad ERA-1 and what sucks.
Before moving into the frequency response ERA-1 has very high levels of transparency and depth. It is a night and day difference between them and a pair of Sennheiser HD660S or Audeze LCD-2 (original) that I have besides me.
I just feel like sounds are coming towards me in a much faster and clearer way until they reach me I am not losing definition, texture, outline, or energy of said notes.
There is also a huge void between all musical notes, I can listen to individual notes even in very crowded passages, try doing that with a pair of HD660S or LCD-2, I wish you good luck.
Soundstage size is not huge but much bigger than sub-1000 USD open-back headphones I listened in the past. Even rock and metal tunes have a much wider & open stage compared to regular open-back headphones. Think of a smaller stage than Sennheiser HD800 but a much more defined, clear and sharp.
What excels with ERA-1 is actually a combination of multiple factors that as a whole make them truly special: Crazy speed & impact, tremendous slam, good transparency and depth, great tonal balance without noticeable flaws and very easy to drive especially for an ortho-dynamic headphone.
I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t want to listen to metal music with this one, but boy! I just couldn’t. Up until now, I think these ones are the best metal and rock headphones, it is like a much easier to drive Audeze LCD-4 with the same slam, speed, and impact.
Playing Tarot by Aether Realm was like I am listening to a different, much better-mastered version of this album. Everything just clicks into place:
Toe tappin’? Check!
Stupid smile? You bet!
Fun factor just goes through the roof for every track I play on them. There is rarely a headphone or a speaker I am reviewing that I forgot I need to write some words down. I just lean back and enjoy every minute of it.
Bass notes are reaching sub-bass levels even with most demanding music and have awesome sustain.
The good thing is not that ERA-1 has a cool sub and mid-bass levels, but how clean and pure bass notes can be. I hate deep but dirty bass, slow and boomy subwoofers. ERA-1 has deep bass, with slightly boosted mid-bass but the whole bass thing is clean, on electronica tracks multiple layers and sub-layers of bass notes can be heard, even Audeze LCD-2 doesn’t have such a clean and precise bass response and to think that for a long time LCD-2 was a bass lover’s dream open-back headphones.
On the lowest registers, ERA-1 has very low levels of distortion and can sustain them for a very long time.
Bass notes besides going deep and sounding clean, have a much-needed slam that I craved for a very long time. Put it this way, with the right headphone amplifier ERA-1 has top-level slam and impact, possibly the best slam I’ve heard on headphones… If the bass is your thing, please try once the ERA-1 from a desktop rig, you will not be disappointed.
There were times when I felt that bass notes would just grab me and pound my body into walls like its nothing, crazy pleasant masochistic experience.
To be completely clear, this is not a bass-head headphone! It is just slightly elevated for a linear experience, but it is so involving, so present, so please, I can’t have enough of it and I am not a bass-head, mind you.
Midrange is what I am calling the typical planar-midrange, or among the best midrange, you can have in a headphone kingdom for short.
Midrange performance is much closer to Audezes than to HifiMans or Sennheiser midrange.
It is more on the natural side of things with the right amount of presence and texture.
Ever since I parted my ways with Audeze LCD-4 I craved for that soul-ripping midrange performance, I always felt Audeze headphones have among the best midrange, that with the right music just grabs your attention and puts you into nirvana.
ERA-1 is very much like that, sans the excessive creaminess and forwardness, Audeze headphones are having.
The midrange is not in your face, much more spread around the listener but with the same seductive character, the best planar-magnetic headphones are having.
When it comes to midrange density, ERA-1 has more than enough meat to the bone, not as heavy-weight as Audeze’s. Acoustic music will always have a natural flow and the texture of said musical instrument can be felt. Violins and guitars will not sound plasticky or fake, but always believable and natural.
If you expect me to say the treble is where ERA-1 sucks, I will (again) disappoint you.
That is because ERA-1 have among the clearest, purest and unaltered treble response, without being overdone or subdued.
When I just received them, they were just a tad hot in the treble area and the slam was not as crazy good as it was after about 50 hours of burn-in.
In general, with planar-magnetic headphones, I observed much smaller changes after burn-in compared to dynamic headphones. However, ERA-1 is slightly different, they will sound at their best after a few hours of playtime, after about 50 hours the difference became much smaller.
Treble hotness is luckily completely gone but the treble cleanness remained.
Now, in my opinion, the treble area is very different compared to other planar-magnetic headphones I tried in the past as it is much clearer, very extended to the subsonic levels without being harsh and sibilant.
For the record, ERA-1 is not as hot as Sennheiser HD800 or Beyerdynamic T1 and is not having the nasty 6-8 kHz peak that made me sell the other two.
Due to lightning-fast transient response cymbals and double drums sounded clear and outlined, with just the right amount of zing and vibration. The transition from the upper midrange to lower treble is done in a smooth fashion with just a small drop in the upper midrange.
ERA-1 is not tiring in the long run and can be listened to long hours. I can’t call ERA-1 smooth sounding, it is more an abomination as it sounds aggressive and smooth at the same time, quite unique, really.
4. Power requirements
Quad states that ERA-1 has a sensitivity of 94 dB per one mW of power, it also has a nominal impedance of just 20 Ω, for a planar-magnetic headphone this is very unusual.
All my former planars needed gobs of power and most of the time you would end up being very limited by portable solutions. ERA-1 is very different in this regard.
Even an ordinary portable digital audio player (DAP for short) can drive them, of course for good speed and control a more powerful one will be needed, especially the ones that provide a balanced connection that will sound best with ERA-1.
Even my tiny FiiO M6 worked better than I anticipated with them. I think Audeze, HifiMan and JPS Labs should learn a trick or two from Quad, I wish all planars would be this easy to drive. Most of my former planar-magnetics didn’t work that well with hybrid or all-tube headphone amps. ERA-1 is (again!) different as the xDuoo TA-10 worked really well with them and didn’t turn them into the garbage. However, if transient response and slam is your thing, I do recommend a 100% solid-state all-discrete headphone amp for the best results.
I have a loaner Audeze LCD-2 (original ones) that I compared to Quads, so here we go:
Audeze LCD-2 OG (1000 USD) vs Quad ERA-1 (800 USD)
In terms of aesthetics and build quality Audezes win big time. Wood + metal + leather, mini XLR headphone jacks, sturdiest carry case, you just cannot go wrong with them.
Now, in terms of sound quality, LCD-2 has the same depth and maybe soundstage. However, LCD-2 sounds much dirtier and transparency is thrown out of the window. I am listening to good or badly mastered music doesn’t matter much, as it will always sound meaty, heavy-weight, slow and a bit dirty.
LCD-2 has worse sub-bass layers, an elevated midrange performance, and subdued treble response. LCD-2 is great on the midrange, good on bass and weak on everything else. LCD-2 can also be overly smooth sometimes.
What really kills it for me is that LCD-2 has a weak transient response and to awaken them you will need a big ‘n heavy balanced headphone amp, preferable solid state.
Quads ERA-1 is much faster and is much more stable in terms of frequency response as I am hearing a few additional sub-bass layers and much more information up top. ERA-1 has a better slam and transient response and is much closer to a reference sound. The fun factor is again where ERA-1 excels and cannot be beaten.
Since my TV is not mine anymore and Cartoon Network, Boomerang, and Minimax are the main channels, I needed a headphone that I can use in front of my PC to watch few shows and movies, enter my Sennheiser HD660S, so here we go:
Sennheiser HD660S (500 USD) vs Quad ERA-1 (800 USD)
In terms of build quality HD660S are nice but not ERA-1 nice, HD660S is made out of plastic with just a metal band and grille. However, the HD6xx series proven to be very resistant and stood the test of time. My 12-year-old HD600 that I gave to a friend is still going strong and don’t want to die, HD660S should be the same. ERA-1 have better materials, my only gripe is the cable, more exactly the textile surface that peels already.
In terms of sound performance, HD660S sound tinier with worse soundstage and depth, it is very up-front by comparison, really. HD660s has a nice midrange, a good mid-bass, and a treble response. However, ERA-1 is doing all that at a higher level, there is just more of everything. ERA-1 have just overall more information, are sounding more open, deeper and more natural. HD660S are not bad by any means, ERA-1 is just overall a better headphone.
Sheepskin earpads vs Velour earpads
I prefer the leather earpads by a large margin. With them I am getting much better driver control, especially in the bass area, sub-bass also is improving considerable and the treble hotness goes away. Also, pinpoint imaging is improving resulting in better depth.
Velour ones are making the treble hotter and the overall sound signature becomes not as focused and speedy, smoother in a way. Some might prefer the velour ones.
Ok fellas, all good and dandy but what actually sucks with ERA-1? It sucks, that I want to buy a second pair…on a more serious note, in terms of best of the best ERA-1 are not detail monsters and will not deliver Sennheiser HD800 like details, maybe it is for the best to stay this way? I don’t know.
ERA-1 has great transparency, sound very clean without being grainy or muddy, it is just on the micro-dynamic level there is some information that is missing with this one. Seriously, sound-wise, this is my only gripe with them.
Is the ERA-1 the most linear and true to the recording headphone? Hell no.
Is the ERA-1 the most articulate, impactful, joyful and fun to listen to headphones? HELL YES!
I liked almost everything about them, disliked only the boring design and the cable, everything else rocked my world and up to this day, this is my most recommended headphone for a fun and pleasant experience. Listening to music should be really only this way.
For a first attempt Quad seriously impressed me and I am looking forward to their future headphone designs.
Quad ERA-1 killed it for me in terms of slam, frequency response, cleanness and fun factor! I for one believe ERA-1 is the best sub-1000 USD headphones out there and can stand easily shoulder to shoulder to multi-thousand dollar headphones.
- High comfort levels, solid build quality
- Impressive tonal balance, very rich and full sounding
- Widespread and deep sounding
- Airy presentation with an awesome pin-point imaging
- The most FUN headphone I have listened in a very long time
- Ideal frequency response (for me)
- Tremendous slam and transient response
- Boring design
- Cable textile material peels off fast
- Not the most detailed headphone