Dan Clark Audio Expanse Review

With the release of Dan Clark Audio’s Stealth, we were introduced to a new concept in headphone design: the use of a metamaterial to fine tune challenging frequencies in a headphone. Using these metamaterials, Stealth was able to achieve a near open-back sound in a closed-back headphone. Now with Expanse, DCA is using the same tech in an open back headphone in the hopes of capturing the next level of headphone performance.

Build and Design

The overall build quality and comfort of the headphone is top notch. The headband and suspension system, coupled with the memory foam ear pads, make for one of the most comfortable headphones on the market, and the adjustment-free design simply melts onto your head and disappears. In terms of visual appeal, Expanse, much like Stealth, seems more oriented on the engineering of the headphone than on artistic aspects of the exterior. The end result is somewhat of an edgy look that might be closer to your imagination of a $3999 gamer headphone than the more luxurious looking Meze Empyrean or Focal Stellia.

Dan Clark Audio Stealth

Expanse comes in a nice looking box with some basic goodies inside. The headphone package primarily consists of a travel case of which Expanse folds into neatly and a VIVO cable terminated in your choice of XLR or 6.3mm. DCA continues to use their own proprietary standard of recessed, locking miniXLR for the headphone connection. 

Sound 

If speed, low distortion, and adherence to reference curves were the ultimate judge of a headphone’s quality, then we could stop here and call the Dan Clark Expanse one of the best headphones in the world. No other over-ear headphone that I’ve heard has matched the Harman neutral sound this well and coupled it with this sort of flagship level of technical performance. But it’s not just about matching a certain tuning, but using that tuning to deliver emotional engagement with the music. 

Expanse largely succeeds in this, and a lot of that success is owed to the bass. There’s an addictive quality to the low-end with Expanse. It’s deep and thick, with strong extension and just a little bit of extra punch coming from the midbass. The extra midbass adds warmth to the sound, and is where I think that addictiveness comes in. The bass hits just enough more than “neutral” to provide really strong dynamics and engagement, but never goes so hard that you feel fatigued by an exaggerated low end.

Dan Clark Audio Expanse

The mids don’t shine quite as much as the bass, but are generally well executed. The layering and separation is excellent, and the detail is strong. The timbre is largely neutral, but instruments can feel slightly dark at times. The treble is very well balanced, providing good definition and air, and avoiding sibilance. Basically, Expanse really nails a largely accurate and highly accessible sound, with the extra midbass giving you just the right amount of extra “oomph” to add a little fun to the sound.

The tuning is certainly excellent, but the real star is the spatial delivery and imaging. Expanse earns its name, creating a truly three dimensional soundstage with a strong sense of width, depth, and height. The imaging is likewise excellent, with vivid sensation of movement in spatial reference tracks, and strong, lifelike positioning of instruments and voices.

Of course, don’t expect to get all of this without enough power: Expanse is pretty hard to drive. You can probably get decent volume from a lot of DAPs or portable DACs, but it can use that extra bit of power to overcome the impedance in the bass, and the spatial sensation is most vivid when you’ve got a lot of headroom in your amp. In our testing, both the Headamp GS-X Mini and the Burson Soloist 3X GT provided solid power on high gain.

Dan Clark Audio Expanse

The opening violin sample on BlackPink’s “Shut Down” can hit a slight nerve with its visceral high notes, but it’s quickly balanced out by a deep throbbing bass. The main bass movement is strongly delivered by Expanse, with a few higher notes that offer a tight, punchy impact, followed by lower, deeper notes that might shake the fillings off your molars. The vocals are crisp and presented with just a touch of in your face edge on the rapped vocals, while the singing is smoother, but still feels personal. There isn’t a strong distinction in the positioning of the different lead vocals, but the interplay gives you an almost visual sense of the members of the group rotating as they trade backing vocal duty for lead vocals.

On John Coltrane’s Lush Life, the band recorded without keys, giving the songs a more open, spacious feeling. Expanse finds rich textures to display on Coltrane’s saxophone in “Like Someone in Love.” The saxophone is smooth and dynamic, while the upright bass has good pluck and a natural timbre. The drums are played with soft brushes, providing the bare minimum in rhythm, but adding to the ambience that puts you front and center in a smoky jazz club in 1958.

Van Morrison’s take on pop-jazz, “Moondance,” proves to be a much different experience than Coltrane. What initially seems to be a fairly sparse production with just the vocals, bass, and drums in the center of the stage soon spreads out with guitars, piano, saxophone, and flute popping up around the listener. The instruments have a natural timbre, and repeated listens with Expanse demonstrate excellent delivery of each. Of course, repeated listens have also let me know that I don’t care much for the vocals on this track, but with Expanse, there’s enough character and texture in the rest of the instruments to just ignore those.

Sigur Ros’s “Hoppípolla” gives Expanse’s soundstage a workout, as the instruments spread across a massively wide stage. The image is immersive and exaggerated: the drum kit alone feels 20 feet wide, and the sound of the orchestral instruments soars high into the air in the space above the band. The vocals play out in the center, but with their own heightened sense of grandeur – almost as if the band is playing out into the open air from an Icelandic mountaintop.

Comparison: Meze Elite

If you’re looking for comfort and build quality, in a planar magnetic headphone, with a name starting with the letter “E,” made by a company named for its founder, and has a tuning that isn’t quite neutral, but feels very close, the Dan Clark Expanse and Meze Elite both have a lot to offer. While there’s quite a bit that these two have in common, there are plenty of differences as well, so let’s look at which one you might want to bring home with you.

In terms of the build, both have excellent build quality, with great attention to detail, but the styles are a little different. Just in terms of looks, Expanse will look more at home next to a high end PC build on a modern workstation – with maybe some multicolored LED lights – while Elite looks more at home on an oak desk or next to a high-end leather sofa. The comfort levels are similar, but I will give Dan Clark a slight edge for having a nearly universally comfortable headphone with zero manual adjustments.

Dan Clark Audio Expance Meze Elite

In terms of tonality, the two share a similar bass response, with both depth and impact, but Expanse hits with stronger subbass extension, while Elite has more in the midbass. Elite’s stronger mids, lend a bit more warmth and emotion to the vocals, and a more natural sound overall. In the treble, Elite is a little more pulled back, giving a smoother feel in the upper mids into the treble, while Expanse provides stronger presence and definition here.

Spatially, Expanse provides a slightly wider, deeper soundstage and stronger separation, while Elite provides a more cohesive feeling sound. Elite can’t match the vivid imaging of Expanse, but it goes a different route with imaging that is still very clear, but has a stronger feeling of blending in the space between the instruments.

Overall, the differences between Elite and Expanse are fairly small, but add up to a number of things that could make a clear difference in your purchasing decision. Elite opts to provide a warmer, smoother sound, without compromising on technical performance or accuracy, while Expanse goes for the most vivid imaging and wide soundstage possible, without losing the engagement factor. Both succeed as superb headphones.

The Bottom Line

The flagship space is getting pretty crowded these days, with an ever increasing number of headphones in the $4000+ range looking to be your endgame. Expanse breaks into this space by giving you a highly accessible tuning mixed with incredible performance. And Expanse isn’t just about its huge soundstage, it walks the tightrope over that massive space it created to deliver a sound that’s both technical and engaging.