The VOCE: A Not-So-Typical Electrostatic Headphone
VOCE ["voh-chay"] noun: Voice.
Dan Clark Audio, which until last year went by the name MrSpeakers, is well-known for planar magnetic headphones. They took a detour in 2019, however, and came out with the flagship open-back VOCE electrostatic headphone.
The VOCE frequently garners comparisons to the STAX SR-009 electrostatic headphone. But Dan Clark did not intend for it to be an either-or proposition. In fact, his goal was to create an electrostatic headphone to complement the STAX.
Here's what Dan Clark told Moon Audio: "Because the sound of recordings varies so widely, as does people’s perception of tonality in recorded music, the VOCE and the SR-009 would play nicely together so owners can choose the headphone that best fits their listening goals, mood, or just variations in recordings."
For example, if you listen to some older recordings that are mixed really brightly, VOCE can deliver a welcome relief, Dan said. Likewise, if a recording is dull and rolled off, the 009 may add a bit of life.
If you're familiar with Dan Clark planar magnetic headphones, then you know about their relaxing, laid-back sound. Well, that quality has carried over to the VOCE, rendering it as an e-stat that sounds less like an e-stat: less clinical, less analytical, less upper-frequency harshness.
"To my ear the 009 is bright, and this brightness is part of that sense of 'detail' many clearly appreciate," Dan said. "To me it’s a coloration: When I listen to live acoustic music, the harmonic balance of the overtones is never tilted to the top end like the 009. Further, I have found the bass on most electrostatics to lack impact on larger pieces like Rock 'n' Roll and EDM. So I tried to create a tonal balance reflective of how I hear live acoustic music while delivering bass that could actually reach deep enough to be enjoyable on Electronica, Rock 'n' Roll, etc."
Dan's goal with the VOCE was to create a headphone that is very fast and detailed but that doesn't achieve its detail through an emphasis on the upper registers. He also envisioned something that could put out subsonic bass — something he doesn't think any e-stat has done. It took him longer than he anticipated to achieve the tuning he desired on the VOCE. But the result, he said, is a very detailed, relaxed sound with incredible speed, powerful bass, and a natural tonal balance.
A "Clean" Production Process
Dan Clark Audio put a lot of care into the production of the VOCE — so much so that they designed a clean room inside of the company's San Diego headquarters. Because electrostatic drivers work via the principle of static electricity, they are susceptible to dust and other contaminants. That's why a contaminant-free workspace was so important.
This special space at Dan Clark Audio features sealed ceiling tiles, recirculating air filers in the robing and production rooms, and laminar-flow lab benches to provide extra filtration at the workbench by washing clean air from the back of the workstation into the room. This carefully conceived strategy earned the space a Class 1 certification — the highest rating available for clean rooms.
Materials, Quality & Comfort
Despite its large driver and all-metal construction, the VOCE is a lightweight headphone at just over 11-1/2 ounces.
Appearance wise, the VOCE is similar to the ETHER 2. The grills on the VOCE are part of a two-piece cup housing that is made from lightweight aluminum finished in a glossy silver, whereas the ETHER 2's are finished in a matte black. Both feature a perforated leather head strap and spiderweb design on the baffles, as well as a Nitinol ("memory metal") headband.
The VOCE's ear cups were designed to remain airtight to shield the drivers from contaminants. Electrostatic drivers run on the principle of static electricity, which can attract dust! The ear pads are made of Napa lamb leather. They are perfectly comfortable, but not as cushy as the AEON ear pads.
For the VOCE, Dan Clark created a cable that is round, lightweight, supple, and non-microphonic. It's a departure from a typical electrostatic cable that is flat, heavy, bulky, and prone to noise. The VOCE comes standard with a 2m cable, but you have the option of paying a little extra for a 3m or 5m cable. The cable connector is made from machined Teflon, with machined OFC gold-plated copper pins. The cable is a fully custom design, using silver-plated conductors for optimal sound.
The cup housing on the VOCE includes front-angled cable connectors that can be unscrewed to change the cable if needed. It's important to note, however, that you need to be careful about swapping cables, as electrostatic headphone cables are pretty specialized as far as voltage, impedance, and capacitance.
Electrostatic drivers differ from other driver types (dynamic, balanced armature, planar magnetic) in that they use the principle of static electricity as opposed to electromagnetism.
Electrostatic drivers contain an extremely thin, nearly weightless diaphragm suspended between two metal plates called stators; these plates are perforated to allow airflow. One plate is positively charged and the other is negatively charged. An electric field is created when a sound signal is applied to the plates. The electric field draws and repels the diaphragm to and from the plates. Vibrations occur as the diaphragm pushes and pulls against the plates, and air is pushed through the perforations. This, coupled with the continuously charged electrical signal driving the diaphragm, produces sound waves.
The VOCE uses an ultra-thin 2.4-micron PET, the same thickness used in the Sennheiser HE-1, but a driver that’s a whopping 88mm in diameter and can produce bass flat to 10Hz due to its large size. Dan Clark also very carefully tuned the ear pads and stators to ensure the upper registers don’t have that normal electrostat brightness.
Electrostatic headphones must be used with an appropriate electrostatic amplifier or energizer (energizers connect to the outputs of a loudspeaker amplifier) to operate. The VOCE is compatible with any 580-volt bias headphone amplifier. That is the standard that e-stats need to "excite" (or charge) the drivers.
Note from Dan Clark Audio: Many electrostatic headphones make a "zip" sound when the headphone is put on or removed. This is the sound of the charged driver touching the stator, and due to the electric fields, sticking briefly to it before releasing. Due to the VOCE's very large driver size, the driver may be more prone to this than some other electrostatic headphones. As the stator is insulated this will not cause damage to the driver, and should be considered normal operation.
If you've ever heard an electrostatic headphone that sounds sterile, thin, or bright, I assure you this won't be one of them.
I want to call the VOCE a pleasant-sounding headphone — which it is — but I fear that the word is too tame to fully describe what Dan Clark has accomplished with the VOCE. The VOCE is clean, clear, and natural with a touch of warmth, a slightly forward midrange, pleasing but tame highs, and a nice thump to the bass. It's not a feel-it-in-your chest rumble, but it's clean and tight. VOCE translates to "voice." It's a fitting name, since this headphone is slightly mid-forward, which puts an emphasis on vocals. Male vocals were both prominent and intimate on tracks like "Skating Away" and "Dig a Pony." Each of these tracks had a nice thump in the bass.
"Cabron," an energetic, Latin-inspired acoustic track, sounded more relaxed than I'm used to, but still peppy, with a nice layering of sound. The high pitch of the acoustic strings can be too much on some headphones, but that wasn't the case on the VOCE — no small feat for an e-stat!
Treble sounded just right to me across the board. On "Skating Away," the xylophones had a pleasing twinkle and the flute had enough presence without sounding shrill. Joan Baez's soprano voice on "Diamonds and Rust" was rich and real, without sounding syrupy.
Soundstage is in the middle of the continuum between narrow and wide. On Canon in D, I had the sense of being in a small concert hall, with a rough idea of instrument placement. On a live track, such as "Better Days," I actually felt like I was in the mix on the stage, with the crowd sounds out in front of me. There was a sense of realism here, such that it never occurred to me that I was sitting in a chair listening to headphones. I really "felt" the music, and felt like I was part of it. However, I suspect this effect had more to do with the emotion that comes from being in (or listening to) a live concert experience as opposed to any particular feat of the headphone.
Tried-and-true test tracks:
"Beloved Wife" - Natalie Merchant
"Box of Rain" - Grateful Dead
"Pigs (Three Different Ones)" - Pink Floyd
"Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day" - Jethro Tull
"Badge" - Cream
"Better Days" (live) - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
"Cabron" - Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Canon in D" - Classical Chillout Orchestra
"Diamonds and Rust" - Joan Baez
"Taxman" - Beatles
Interesting observation on "Box of Rain": I'm usually focused on the strings at the beginning, but somehow I found myself being much more aware of the drums. It was so surprising to me that I kept restarting the track to make sure I wasn't imagining it! Conversely, though -- and I'm not sure how to explain this -- I heard the strings over the drums on a different track where I'm usually more focused on the drums.
There was a sense of realism here, such that it never occurred to me that I was only just sitting in a chair listening to headphones.
Comparison to the HiFiMAN SHANGRI-LA Jr Electrostatic Headphone
The SHANGRI-LA Jr. sounds more like a typical electrostatic headphone. As expected, highs are more pronounced, lending more clarity and instrument separation. In "Skating Away," I got a super-sweet twinkling in the xylophone and notable separation in the upper-register strings. It was a brighter and crisper sound than on the VOCE.
Strings were also crisp and defined on "Cabron," but there was less thump in the bass, and the overall sound was a bit thinner than on the VOCE. On the bass-heavy "Badge," I got more articulation in Clapton's voice, with the "k" in "park" hitting with a "kkkuhhh" sound. On another bass-heavy track, "Taxman," I got plenty of low-end oomph, but also a crisper, more forward sound overall, with more tang in the cowbell but also a borderline harshness to the electric guitar screech.
I find the SHANGRI-LA Jr to be a very clean-sounding headphone, but to my ears there is a sense of the music not sound quite as cohesive as I'd like, as if all of the layers are there but they are not coming together to the degree they could. That's just a quality that I notice in some headphones with a higher tilt.
Form meets function! The shipping box for the VOCE is in fact an attractive walnut storage box. It features clear acrylic doors with a magnetized closure, a built-in headphone stand, and a slot in the front for the cable so the headphones can be left plugged in during storage. I love this type of multi-use item and I think it's a nice touch that lends a positive vibe to the VOCE headphone experience.
If the entirety of judging a headphone lay in the occurrence and frequency of the listener getting chills, then there you have it, folks! This headphone gave me chills. And maybe that is enough of an endorsement. What more can you really ask for then for your music of choice to sound so good that it elicits a physiological reaction?
This warm(ish), cozy, contemplative listening experience. I happened to listen to the VOCE on a rainy day, which suited the mood perfectly.
With the treble being less forward on the VOCE vs. a typical e-stat, I would expect that detail would be compromised. Now, I didn't get a hyperfocus on details, but I didn't sense a lack in that regard; on tracks that I know well, I picked up on little bits that I know to be "hidden." I didn't get the level of zing and sparkle that I've gotten on other electrostatic headphone, but to me, that was a tradeoff for the smoothness and warmth. The VOCE has such a pleasing sound that is easy on the ears. I think the VOCE can be a wonderful addition to your headphone stable, especially for recordings that lean bright.
What's in the Box
In addition to the functional shipping box that doubles as a storage case, you also get:
- 6-foot signal/bias cable with 5-pin plug
- Set of three tuning pads (2 black foam, 2 black felt, 2 white paper)
- Cleaning cloth
- User guide
- Certificate of authenticity
- Key to unscrew and change the cable
Dan Clark's goal with the VOCE was to create a headphone that is very fast and detailed but that doesn't achieve its detail through an emphasis on the upper registers. He also envisioned something that could put out subsonic bass — something he doesn't think any e-stat has done. It took him longer than he anticipated to achieve the tuning he desired on the VOCE. But the result, he said, is a very detailed, relaxed sound with incredible speed, powerful bass, and a natural tonal balance.
Check out our video to see and learn more!