Dan Clark Audio Expanse Review

Posted on 20th January, 2023

Dan Clark Audio Expanse Review

Jay Garrett samples this super-smart new pair of premium-priced, open-back headphones…

Dan Clark Audio

Expanse Open-Backed Headphones

£4,100

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

Dan Clark Audio has followed its flagship closed-back Stealth headphones with an open-backed version called the Expanse. However, we are told that this is much more than the result of simply swapping closed cups for open ones. Will these changes affect the characteristics which my colleague David Price said offered “a level of insight into the recording that's very rare from any headphone”? Moreover, he added that the Stealth possessed “an enjoyably fast, snappy and propulsive nature that connects you to the rhythm in pretty much any type of music you care to play.” The stakes are high, then…

At first glance, the Expanse certainly looks like the Stealth's twin. Indeed, both share many innovative features, such as Dan Clark Audio's Acoustic Metamaterial Tuning System (AMTS) and that unique foldable form factor thanks to the company's trick gimbal.

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

However, beyond the red stitching on the leather strap of the Stealth being changed for a lovely blue hue, there is more to explore. Naturally, not requiring cups, the Expanse cuts a more lithe profile and also, there will be audible differences given that it's an open-backed design. DCA says that it took the opportunity to tweak the fourth-gen 76mm V-Planar driver to suit its new situation. It also changed the filtering and waveguide terminations inside the AMTS, which primarily acts on the higher frequencies above 5kHz; you can actually see it through the mesh of the earpads.

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

Build quality is excellent, and the lightweight nickel-titanium (Nitinol) self-adjusting suspension system, protein leather and vegan suede mix earpads make for a wonderfully comfortable experience. I love the concave aluminium cup grill formed of intricate patterns influenced by DCA's interest in generative design, taking cues from nature and mathematical function. We're told that the grill design alone took around six months to perfect, leaving the wearer in no doubt that they are dealing with uniquely-styled high-end cans.

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

Tipping the scales at 415g, the Expanse is not the lightest out there; however, the ovoid cup shape combined with the harmony between vertical and lateral pressure makes this a very well-balanced headphone that sits nicely on the listener's head. I prefer more robust clamping from headphones; however, as these are designed for at-home listening, they get away with the soft snuggle offered rather than the cranial bear hug I usually look for. Additionally, the hybrid velour finish on the ear pads means that you can enjoy marathon listening sessions without the risk of sweaty lobes. Finally, the clever gimbal affords a creative means of articulation, letting the headphones be easily tucked away in a low-profile carry case.

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

Like the Stealth, the Expanse has fairly low sensitivity and requires a decent amount of grunt from a quality headphone amplifier. So, for the purposes of this review, I turned to my always-reliable MOON 430 HA, which I hooked up via the supplied 4-pin XLR cable.

THE LISTENING

My first impression was that, for an open-backed headphone, the Expanse isolates you from the outside world – and it from you – incredibly well. Not up to closed-back standards, admittedly, but certainly less leaky than the likes of my Oppo PM-1 or Sendy Audio Peacock. So, at normal listening levels, I could share the room with my partner without getting that tell-tale eyebrow raise that translates to “does it need to be that loud?”

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

The Expanse sounds both impressively revealing and emotionally engaging at the same time. It rewards the listener with incredible resolution and natural-sounding harmonic content and timbre – and can also produce grin-inducing amounts of slam when required. That said, don't be expecting a wholly neutral listening experience. While it presents an enjoyably balanced acoustic which works with all music genres, there is some warmth in the lower frequencies. This results in a more fleshed-out, solid bass, providing a punchier and more energetic low end but with no compromises forced upon the midband. This is a neat trick, and down to some clever tuning from DCA.

Playing Esperanza Spalding's Little Fly via Qobuz revealed a rich and expressive tone with that natural 'thrum' that only an upright bass can give. It is perhaps no surprise that Dan Clark himself is a bassist when the instrument sounds so real and vital through this pair of headphones. While natural-sounding acoustic bass is perfect for jazz, the grit of Peaches by The Stranglers also demonstrated this product's love of getting dirty. Bass still had plenty of presence and dynamism, but I was also drawn to the energy and drive of the presentation. The snap of the snare and impact of the kick drum, even in this lo-fi recording, was firmly planted.

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

Both high frequency and upper midband performance were on the right side of analytical for my ears, revealing loads of detail without getting shouty and brash. This pleasing nature was most apparent on guitar-led tracks such as Stevie Ray Vaughan's Tin Pan Alley, where there was no mistaking his Stratocaster's tone. Similarly, Alex Lifeson's Gibson on Tom Sawyer jumped out with its own distinct tonality.

Vocals were presented with nuance and expression. I particularly enjoyed the sense of intimacy as Geoff Tate showed his softer side during Queensryche's Silent Lucidity. On Suspended in Gaffa by Kate Bush, the layers of this track were beautifully rendered, with the different sets of vocals placed around the sonic canvas. Each instrument in the mix had its own special place within the recorded acoustic.

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

Soundstaging is vast and imaging accurate; there's plenty of width and depth as with any good open-backed design, but I was surprised by the height that the Expanse conjured up. It lent fine perspective to larger works, especially orchestral pieces such as Stravinsky's Firebird suite. In particular, Dance Infernale de Tous les Sujets de Kastchei gave me goosebumps. The music's dynamics were very well conveyed, giving a great appreciation of the physicality of the instruments. Indeed the Expanse brought me much closer to the original recording than the impressive, more expensive T+A Solitaire P. This could be partly due to its more robust bass response, which adds a little warmth without affecting the recording's overall texture.

Also noted during the Stravinsky piece was the lightning-fast transient speed, surely facilitated by this headphone's featherweight drivers. However, this was not solely to the advantage of classical orchestras, as Kraftwerk's Boing Boom Tschak snappily played through. The vast amount of detail retrieved was more than the Empyrean – something that quickly became a benchmark of mine. Indeed, I revelled in the musical insight of this headphone design, allied to the track's immaculate recording and mastering. In fact, I was enjoying the experience so much that I let the music continue into Techno Pop; this is a favourite of mine, and its early synths sounded alive with harmonics instead of soulless and artificial.

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

Last but not least, the general space was a joy to behold. Playing Japanese Roots by TakéDaké highlighted the gaps between the notes and the sense of air around the individual instruments. This track also immerses the listener rather than simply presenting the audio to the left and right sides. Instead, I found myself sinking deeper into the acoustic environment being laid out around me.

That aforementioned bottom-end bump really added weight to percussion and helped with a realistic rendition of the woodwind instruments. However, purists looking for a more neutral and forensic insight into their selected programme material might do well trying out the T+A Solitaire P alongside the Expanse, as they might have different priorities. Overall though, for its combination of comfort and sound quality, it's hard not to recommend the Dan Clark Audio design.

Dan Clark Audio EXPANSE review

THE VERDICT

The new Expanse headphone is another feather in the cap for Dan Clark Audio. It offers all the benefits of open-backed designs – like expansive soundstaging and fine instrumental separation – as well as an impressive amount of isolation from the outside world. Also, along with the Meze Empyrean and T+A Solitaire P, I'd rate it as one of the most comfortable premium-priced headphones I've encountered - and the most portable. Naturally, this skilled performer comes at a cost, but for those who cherish their moments with personal audio, or those unable to invest in decent loudspeakers due to situational constraints, it ticks all the boxes.

Visit Dan Clark Audio for more information

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    Jay Garrett's avatar

    Jay Garrett

    StereoNET UK’s Editor, bass player, and resident rock star! Jay’s passion for gadgets and Hi-Fi is second only to being a touring musician.

    Posted in:Headphones Applause Awards 2023 Headphones Over / On Ear
    Tags: dan clark audio  electromod 

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