Amplifier and power requirements.
Don’t be fooled by that 13-ohm impedance rating – it’s that 92dB sensitivity rating that tells you more about the kind of power that you’re going to need to throw at the Aeon 2 Noire to get the best sort of performance out of them. They love to suck power, and need a bit of it to wake up and get going. This is seemingly at odds with the outward form-factor of the Aeon 2 Noire – they appear on face-value to be a ‘portable’ pair of headphones with their compact design and the fact that they can fold-up to almost nothing and stow away in their terrifically small case. But, that’s not quite the story – you’ll be able to extract fairly decent performance out of a high-quality and high-powered portable source, but the Aeon 2 Noire performs best in desktop duties strapped to a powerful, discrete headphone amplifier. This was my experience from having tangoed with previous Aeon headphone amplifiers and also the reason why I chose to have this review pair ship with the optional 4-pin XLR plug to be able to make the most of the extra voltage on-tap from my balanced headphone amplifiers.
Having said that, you guys are no doubt interested in hearing how they do perform when on-the-go. And so I paired them somewhat unfairly with my smallest source device, the tiny Radsone ES100. Truth be told, the ES100 did a respectable job of extracting a reasonable performance of Daft Punk’s ‘Giorgio by Moroder’, being able to get my foot tapping at around 75% on the volume slider. Switching-over to the Schiit Asgard 3, capable of pushing-out an entire 5 Watts at 16-ohms, and it’s an altogether different pair of headphones – the Aeon 2 Noire’s dynamics take on another level of impact and engagement-factor, their bass turns from mere ‘ok’ to authoritative, and a 2D congested soundstage opens up in terms of both width and depth. Moving to a higher-power portable source in the recently reviewed Astell&Kern SE200, the Aeon 2 Noire puts out a more convincing performance. It does take a good few twists of the volume knob, pushing it past the 100 mark (of a total 150 steps) in single-ended mode to get them up to proper listening levels, but that same Daft Punk track feels alive, engaging and dynamic. If you do plan on tapping the Aeon 2 Noire for on-the-go duties, make sure you feed it some juice.
Juice is something that is in abundant supply with the Topping A90 headphone amplifier, packing a whopping 7.6 Watts of it into 16-ohms. Assuming that I was going to need all that power unleashed right out the gates, I plugged in the Aeon 2 Noire via the XLR connection and switched it over to high gain. I noticed that music actually audible with the volume set to ‘Zero’, and so dialled it back to medium gain which allows for slightly more finesse and control when changing volume. In ‘medium’, I had the vial pot set at 9 O’Clock on the A90 with the Aeon 2 Noire which was plenty loud for me. The A90 is somewhat of a crystal ball into the technical capabilities of the Aeon 2 Noire, revealing every ounce of their detailed, transparent sound and casting a layered, vivid soundstage in a completely uncoloured way.
The Asgard 3 sounded a fraction more relaxed compared to the A90 on the other hand. While it offers a meatier low-end and a fraction more warmth and texture, it doesn’t quite offer the same level of insight and separation that the A90 is able to expose and unleash. The slightly richer presentation of the Asgard 3 might be a more palatable proposition for pairing with the Aeon 2 Noire for those of you looking for a less front-foot, revealing listen, but at $199 USD (for the amplifier-only version), it’s also a lot of power for the money and makes for a fine pairing with the Aeon 2 Noire, with more than enough power on tap through its single-ended output.
Aeon 2 Noire vs Focal Radiance
Focal’s Radiance – made in collaboration with high-end automotive manufacturer Bentley – is an altogether different cup of tea to the Aeon 2 Noire. Sporting aluminium and magnesium ‘M-dome’ dynamic drivers, the Radiance sounds immediately more present, energetic and engaging when playing Tool’s ‘Jambi’ back-to-back with the Aeon 2 Noire, while presenting an overall warmer and richer tone thanks to its increased levels of mid-bass. The presence of a more immediate and forward mid-range in the Radiance is the most noticeable tonal difference between the pair, offering a more aggressive, lively and attacking characteristic to the crunch of the chugging electric guitars. The Radiance’s famed dynamic punch – a characteristic shared with other headphones in the Focal line-up is also evident after switching back to the Aeon 2 Noire, which has a more restrained sense of attack and punch by comparison. Low-end heft and impact are hands-down more on display on the Radiance, while the Aeon 2 Noire features a more vivid and airy top-end.
Aeon 2 Noire vs Audio Technica ATH-WP900.
Audio Technica’s latest wooden portable flagships are again an entirely different take on closed-back sound compared to the Aeon 2 Noire. While the Aeon 2 Noire has a mild ‘U-shaped’ sound with a gentle elevation at either end of the frequency response graph compared to its leaner mid-range, the ATH-WP900 is unashamedly a ‘V-Shaped’ sound with an aggressively elevated sub and mid-bass, and a definitively scooped mid-range making its lower treble stand out more aggressively in the mix. In terms of dynamic impact, it’s far and away a more physical experience with the Audio Technica, with drum hits in ‘The Pot’ landing in a brutal, visceral way, while on the Aeon 2 Noire it’s a markedly more restrained affair. The ATH-WP900’s bass is unquestionably harder hitting and more forward than the Aeon 2 Noire, but what also sets it apart is a more metallic treble tone compared to the drier, yet more natural-sounding Aeon 2 Noire. Staging and imaging hands-down go to the Aeon 2 Noire here, leaving the ATH-WP900 well behind in terms of being able to immerse you in a vivid, airy soundstage.
Aeon 2 Noire vs Aeon 2 Closed.
The question you’re no doubt asking by now is how the Aeon 2 Noire stacks-up against the ‘regular’ Aeon 2 Closed…aside from the fancy new paint job, of course. Back-to-back, the Aeon 2 Noire has a noticeably more airy sense of presence and shimmer, which is entirely courtesy of those semi-perforated pads – the only mechanical difference between the two models. The rise in treble in the Aeon 2 Noire is more noticeable than the ever so slight uplift in bass, but it’s the Noire’s leaner-sounding mid-range that helps pronounce both of these things. So which one is for you? If you’re looking for a leaner, slightly more treble-focused delicate tone and enjoy an immersive soundstage, you’ll probably lean towards the Noire. If you’re looking for a more immediate and intimate presentation with more mid-range focus…choose the ‘OG’ Aeon 2. Of course, you can always buy a set of both standard and perforated pads from Dan Clark Audio, and mix and match to your heart’s content – meaning that all you really need to worry about is which colour you prefer. By the way – my pick is black, no question.
Options are a beautiful thing, and Dan Clark Audio has given us a difficult one by adding another visual and sonic take on the runaway success that is their Aeon series. The Noire builds on their already winning design formula by providing a subtler, more ‘grown-up’ aesthetic choice in the new all-black colourway, and the perforated pad choice gives users looking for a more versatile, genre-friendly tuning a welcome choice when it comes to a sound-signature that’s more reminiscent of a classic ‘audiophile’ tuning, leaning away from the distinctly neutral voicing of the original Aeon Flow. All in all, the Aeon 2 Noire is simply a terrific pair of closed-back headphones – they’re technically adept and don’t seem restrained by any of the traditional hang-ups of closed-back designs, seemingly defying physics with their spacious, airy, and exciting sound. Those of you looking for a single set of cans to do just about ‘everything’ need look no further – just add plenty of power, and you’re in for a treat.