Stealth introduced the world to Dan Clark Audio’s innovative Acoustic Metamaterial Tuning System, and their next headphone, Expanse, further refined the technology. While Stealth and Expanse are both $4000 flagship headphones – closed-back and open-back respectively – E3 aims to take that tech and make it more accessible, with a closed back headphone featuring much of the same technology for $2000. Can E3 achieve the same sort of legendary closed-back performance as Stealth at half the price?
Build and Design
E3 takes notes from a range of DCA’s headphones, specifically the Aeon Series and Stealth. The packaging is closer to the Aeon Series headphones and aspects of the earcups seem closer to Aeon than Stealth, but the headband and pads match up with DCA’s flagship models. Either way, E3 is lightweight and extremely comfortable. It has the sort of “melt onto your head” build that’s made DCA a go to brand for comfort.
One of the more striking visual elements of E3 is the Gorilla Glass ear cups. The ultra strong glass is vented to relieve pressure, protecting your ears from damage and decreasing fatigue. The headphones fold up into the included protective case, and you should be able to squeeze the included VIVO cable in there as well.
E3 follows in the footsteps of Stealth and Expanse with a tuning that sticks close to the classic Harman Target. There’s a tastefully elevated bass with linear extension into the lower reaches, along with a little bit of an extra midbass bump and solid fundamentals in the treble, with a touch of extra air at the top. Along with that, E3 is surprisingly open and spacious sounding for a closed-back headphone.
The bass hits a little harder than Dan Clark Audio’s flagship closed-back, Stealth, with a nice physical punch and slam in the midbass. There’s a good sense of texture through the low bass, but not a huge amount of rumble in the subbass.
The midrange presents a solid balance, with good detail that doesn’t strongly highlight anything in particular. Vocals are well-placed: not too forward, not too recessed, and there’s good clarity and articulation that prevents busy passages from becoming congested. Instruments in general feel like “there’s a place for everything, and everything in it’s place” tonally.
In the treble you get a good amount of air, and a touch of the sense of the performer’s breath in the attack and decay of vocals and woodwinds. While I’ve found both Stealth and Aeon 2/Noire to be bright at times, E3 balances out the energy in the top end with an equal helping of lows and mids, making E3 perhaps the best balanced closed-back headphone I’ve heard from Dan Clark Audio.
The soundstage is also quite wide and spacious. E3 surpasses expectations for a closed-back headphone in the width and height of the stage. The image is well constructed, with a great sense of position and separation, but instruments are somewhat diffuse. What’s interesting here is that while Stealth and Expanse both had a tendency to feel like they were prematurely cutting off some of the extension and decay of notes, E3’s slight airiness seems to counteract that, offering a more lively response.
E3 is harder to drive than most headphones, and, like most hard to drive planars, seems to do best with an amp that provides a lot of current. It’s more sensitive than the Stealth or Expanse, so higher powered portables like the KANN Ultra or Diablo 2 are a great option. Pairing with a high powered DAP helps E3 fulfill its closed-back portable potential, whether you’re bringing it to the office, or listening while you travel.
E3’s spacious sound lends to the ethereal feeling of “Into Dust” by Mazzy Star. The vocals stand out against the droning guitar line, while E3 lets you hear the subtle nuance in the difference in how each note is plucked on the guitar. The cello is delivered with a richness and texture that puts you in the room with the instruments, and altogether, E3 offers a clean, natural presentation that lets you appreciate all the small details in a simple song.
Classic jazz recordings, like “Three Bags Full” by Herbie Hancock, always offer an interesting challenge for headphones. Unlike with more modern recordings or most rock and pop, everything isn’t always exactly where you expect it to be. “Three Bags Full” tests E3’s ability to create a coherent image when everything isn’t right now the middle and evenly panned, and E3 succeeds, providing a front row seat to the show. The trumpet and saxophone are also expertly presented, balancing the need energy to make jazz horn solos exciting, with a smoothness that keeps that excitement from becoming fatiguing.
On “Angel” by Massive Attack, E3 demonstrates deep bass extension and good physical slam. In the bass, there’s a nice separation between the waves of ultra low synthesizers and more focused midbass punch. E3’s soundstage gets a workout as well, with various percussion and synth instruments getting stretched out across the width, depth, and height of the stage.
The combination of a E3’s tuning and technical capabilities are just what you need to handle the blend between complicated musical performance and hard hitting rock that progressive metal giants Dream Theater deliver. Listening to “The Alien” with E3, you get the grit and texture in guitars, physical impact from the drums, soaring leads from the keyboard and guitar, and the deep rumble of the bass. E3 keeps everything in its place, with excellent detail and articulation through the most complex passages, and a tuning that captures the emotion in the delivery of the music. E3 and Dream Theater are definitely a perfect match.
Comparison: Meze Liric
So you’re looking for a comfortable closed-back planar in the $2000 range? Lucky for you there are two excellent options which both also feature well-balanced tunings and excellent build quality. In addition to E3, the Meze Liric has long been a great option in this range, offering a very similar total package.
In terms of the build and comfort, E3 has a slight edge in comfort, with a softer feeling fit than Liric, but both are very comfortable. I specifically appreciate E3’s slightly larger ear cup size, which is more accommodating if you have big earlobes. Liric has a small edge in isolation and bleed, with a stronger seal than E3.
In terms of sound, Liric really excels in the timbre and sense of weight and body to instruments, while E3 is a little bit faster with a more crisp, resolving sound. Liric brings instruments like cellos and acoustic guitars to the forefront, as well as vocals. In the bass, E3 hits harder in the midbass, while Liric extends deeper for a bigger more powerful subbass rumble than E3. The imaging provides another contrast, with E3 having a wider soundstage, and less body to the individual instruments in the mix. Liric isn’t as wide, but the stage feels a bit more cohesive and three-dimensional.
Liric is significantly easier to drive than E3, and gets along much better with lower-powered portable players or DACs. However, both really appreciate some extra power, so while you’ll get solid performance with Liric from your average DAP – and a more “above average” one for E3 – plugging into some desktop power can really bring out the best in both headphones.
If you are in the market for a comfortable, $2000, closed-back, planar magnetic headphone you have two really solid options here. Strictly in terms of the tuning, E3 provides a better balanced more versatile sound, but fans of genres that emphasize acoustic and stringed instruments may find Liric’s timbre more alluring. Either way you’re getting not just great sounding headphones, but an excellent experience from two manufacturers who are at the top of the game.
The Bottom Line
Like Expanse and Stealth, E3 uses the combination of driver tech and innovations like AMTS to deliver great performance and a well-balanced sound. In some ways, E3 even surpasses what Stealth accomplished with a livelier more musical feeling than Dan Clark’s flagship closed-back headphone – at half the price. Put all this together, and E3 is one of the best closed-backs on the market and very competitive with a number of more expensive options.