Dan Clark Audio Stealth Headphones Review
David Price gets lost in music with this super sounding pair of closed-back cans…
Dan Clark Audio
There was a time when headphones were very much the poor relation of loudspeakers. What was the point of them, asked audiophiles in the nineteen seventies, when you could throw money at a serious pair of full size, three-way speakers and feel your bass as well as hear it? Only an eccentric clique kept the exotic headphone fire burning – most likely running Stax electrostatic earspeakers, which were hardly representative of the breed.
Now though, in a crowded world where more people are constantly on the move, many purists take refuge in headphones. These folk may – for various reasons – never be able to attain a large, purpose-built listening room – but there's a shortcut to audio nirvana by buying the best set of cans they can find. This is why we have a new generation of headphone royalty, such as the Dan Clark Stealth you see here. The kings of head-fi, products such as this are objects of desire for a whole new generation of enthusiasts.
The challenge for the Stealth is to justify its lofty price tag of £4,100. You can buy a decent used car for that money, or a very respectable pair of new floorstanding loudspeakers. The company's flagship product, this feels every inch a thoroughbred – even to an old cynic like me. The Stealth presents as a slice of something very exotic. The matt black finish of the carbon/aluminium ear cups is lovely, the leather headband is superbly done, and the self-adjusting suspension system ends up with the headphone sitting perfectly on your head.
I've tried so many pairs of headphones over the years that I have come to the conclusion that I have some kind of mutant head shape – German-designed headphones especially, feel like I am wearing a vice. Yet the Stealth fitted like a glove. It's also fairly light at 415g; I was never conscious of the weight, and the comfort was excellent over long periods. I managed to get through all six sides of The Clash's Sandinista LP, when most headphones have me wincing at the thought of just the four sides of London Calling.
The synthetic “vegan suede and leather” earpads sit just right with gentle but effective pressure, sealing the world out like every closed-back headphone should do. The frame uses gimbals to let the Stealth fold up into something much smaller than it would otherwise be – a great feature. A handy hard case is supplied, along with a beefy looking connecting lead and an impressive faux leather covered presentation box.
The Stealth gets the company's new fourth-generation, 72x50mm single-ended planar magnetic driver. This is said to be Dan Clark Audio's largest planar diaphragm to date and twenty percent larger than its E2 driver. The planar magnetic design confers ultra-fast transients with very high levels of detail, which is why it's so popular on high-end phones these days. In addition, the company's so-called Acoustic Metamaterial Tuning System is an inline device placed between the transducer and ear, which helps to control diffusion and propagation of the sound waves, it's claimed.
As you would expect, the manufacturer says these drive units are very closely matched; published specs are 0.25dB weighted, from 20Hz to 10,000Hz. This means that differences in drivers are pretty much inaudible if the measurements are to be believed. Total harmonic distortion is also very low – put at less than 0.03%, from 20Hz to 20kHz. Quoted sensitivity is 94dB. I found the Stealth to be a difficult design to drive; it needs both power and current to really wake it up; many headphone amplifier outputs built into tape decks, CD players, etc., will be too weedy. I mostly used my excellent, modified Musical Fidelity X-CANS v3, which has lots of grunt and superb sound.
An interesting sounding headphone, make no mistake about it. The Stealth offers a level of insight into the recording that's very rare from any headphone, along with an enjoyably fast, snappy and propulsive nature that connects you to the rhythm in pretty much any type of music you care to play. It has exceptional soundstaging for a closed-back design, but retains the firm, taut and rhythmic bass that this type of headphone is famous for. It has a very low distortion sound, allied to a fairly neutral tonal balance – that's just a touch 'well lit' in the upper midband.
For me, the fun of reviewing really good headphones is coming back to recordings I haven't heard for a long time. And so it was that I cued up my CD remaster of Tryouts for the Human Race by Sparks; this is a quirky piece of Gorgio Moroder-produced disco/new wave from the late seventies. It can sound a little plodding and muddy through lesser headphones – but with the Stealth, it was as if the recording had new life breathed into it. This headphone delved deep into the recording, searching out vast tracts of detail; it was as if I was present when the band was laying the track down in that old analogue recording studio, all those years ago.
I was particularly taken by vocal and instrumental timbre; the electronic synthesised bassline sounded rich and fruity, with some slight gruffness that's typical of analogue synths of that era. The vocals of Ron and Russell Mael were striking, with the two brothers doing their distinctive falsetto harmonies; the Stealth reproduced the grain of their voices and their vibrancy superbly. The drum track was also a joy, with the snares and hi-hats hitting hard and fast through the mix; you could tell that the producer had EQ'd these up just a touch for added FM radio appeal.
This became the template for every piece of music that I played; the Stealth brought me right up close and personal with the recording and told me all about it. Its transparency is excellent, almost revelatory, although this doesn't detract from the music's overall musicality. Thanks in no small part to those featherlight drive units, transients are super fast, making the music immersive and engaging. But the icing on the cake, so to speak, is the soundstaging…
I've always preferred closed-back headphones, just as I do infinite baffle (“closed-box”) loudspeakers. The reason is the musical timing; they always sound tauter and tighter in the bass, compared to the looser sound of an open-back. The downside of a closed-back is the slightly 'shut in' feel; here, open-backs can excel with a more spacious, expansive soundstage. Yet I was really surprised by how well the Stealth propagated sound – it didn't feel like a closed-back at all, in this respect. It has the ability to deliver a wider and more expansive stereo soundstage than any other closed headphone I've heard. There's also a sense of effortlessness that was lovely; the recorded acoustic never sounded pinched or boxed in.
Take Khan's Stranded, for example. This is a classic rock track from the late sixties, full of crashing guitars, big drums, sumptuous bass guitar work and a vast, windswept recorded acoustic. Likely done on a four-track, it's got a naturally big sound, and the Stealth caught this brilliantly; there was no sense of the music being shrunken down. Instead, this pair of headphones caught the music's power and majesty, even if it couldn't help pointing out the rather rudimentary recording technology. Beaming ahead to the late noughties and the electronic soul/funk of 4hero's Our Own Place sounded massive. I found myself completely oblivious to what type of headphones these were; both in comfort and soundstaging terms, they seemed more open-back than closed – but had all the benefits of the latter too.
By this, I mean the Stealth's sound was super precise and measured when it needed to be. Kraftwerk's mid-eighties electronica extravaganza Techno Pop was a joy, with searingly fast transients, vast amounts of detail and a flawless sound reflecting its immaculate recording and mastering. Treble harmonics from the early digital synthesisers used on this track were beautifully resolved, but I found the very high treble could sound a little dry. This is possibly because of that slight sparkle in the upper midband/lower treble, which might grab the attention more than it should. Also, whilst I loved the snappy, energetic, go-getting bass, it's fair to say that some other high-end headphones I've tried have had more sumptuous low frequencies; this is not a fat, bulbous sounding headphone by any means.
Any doubts I had that the beautiful Dan Clark Audio Stealth was all show and no go, were soon assuaged by living with it. It's a highly distinctive performer, pushing deep into the recording and turning out a polished, expansive and engaging sound, time after time. It needs careful matching with a smooth, gutsy headphone stage though – and also a smooth, detailed and highly detailed front end. This done, it's a star.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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