Intro and acknowledgement
I heard and purchased the Mistral Pro at Canjam London 2022 at a discounted price, direct from the Spirit Torino representatives there. No input was sought or received as to the content of this review – all opinions (however misguided) are my own. My thanks go to the team at Spirit Torino, who were very welcoming and full of interesting information about their various headphones – if you ever see them at an audio show, it’s definitely worth a trip to their stall.
I first heard about Spirit Torino a few years ago, when their then-flagship over ear the Twin Pulse was making a few waves. I must admit that I initially wrote them off as some sort of Grado offshoot after looking at their headphone design. As it turns out, that’s exactly what they were (with the brand beginning under the slightly different name of Spirit Labs as a Grado modding project). I was even lucky enough to pick up a second hand model of their first ever flagship, the Spirit Labs Twin Pulse Ragnar last year from a fellow head-fie’er, and while it is to all intents and purposes a metal Grado, the sound it produced is like no Grado I’ve ever heard. Suffice to say it was enough to get me hooked, and very curious to hear what the more up to date models sounded like.
Since these early days, the team at Spirit have moved from just designing solid metal frames and modding the existing Grado drivers to building their own high-spec dynamic drivers in partnership with Nhoord, and playing with some truly exotic internal designs like the dual dynamic driver setup of the Twin Pulse, with the drivers set up in an isobaric design to effectively reduce distortion and produce transient response that you normally only see on electrostatic models.
Spirit Torino have always had a focus on building headphones that reproduce the sound of a live concert in the most realistic way. This isn’t another “house of Harman” manufacturer, going very much down a different path and creating a sound presentation where each element is in balance.
That generally tends to mean one thing: live music has plenty of bass, so Spirit Torino cans tend to reproduce that. If you think about it, how many live concerts have you been to where the bass didn’t hit you in the chest if you get too close to the speakers? It’s an integral part of the musical landscape, and is reproduced in full in this sort of tuning. That isn’t to say all Spirit Torino models are basshead cans – far from it, in fact – it’s just nice to hear some high end gear tuned slightly differently, and which sounds more “true to life” than a lot of the gear I have heard. If the end goal is to produce headphones that play back music like you would hear it if you were in the concert venue, I think Andrea Ricci (the head designer) and his team have done a pretty good job.
Specifications and technology
If this is the bit where you are expecting me to wax lyrical about the opulent unboxing experience, you’re probably in the wrong review. Firstly, as these were acquired direct from the team at Spirit Torino at a show, the whole mystique was kind of ruined by watching them boxing up the set of cans I had been listening to rather than unwrapping them. Secondly, they didn’t actually have a Mistral Pro box left, so they gave me an identical box with the specs of the Super Leggera on the outside instead.
Thirdly and far more importantly, the unboxing experience is literally just that – the headphones come in an admittedly very nice large white cardboard container, which when opened reveals the headphones nestling inside in a foam cutout. There is a small box inlaid in the cutout with a Spirit Torino logo on and containing your chosen Portento Audio cable (in my case, a balance 4.4mm cable). You take the headphones and cable out, close the box, that’s it. No bells, no whistles, just efficient packaging, a set of cans and a cable. If you are a fan of more presentation layers and cardboard inserts than a box of celebration chocolates or accessories that look like a small LEGO set in terms of the sheer volume of pieces, this isn’t the experience for you. If you just like getting what you have purchased safely from store to door, you’ll be happy enough.
Build and ergonomics
The Mistral Pro are a bit of a deviation from the solid metal “inertial frame” design of the previous Spirit Torino models on the market, ditching the Grado-adjacent design language of the solid metal open cups for a blend of wood and lighter weight metalwork in the design. The spring steel headband design is solid metal, with an intricate Spirit Torino logo and geometrical accompaniments cut into the headband at various points to shave off a fair bit of weight. It sits over a real leather suspension pad which serves to mold to the head and distribute the light weight (c. 300 grams) of these cans very well across the crown of the head, proving very comfortable and not generating any noticeable hotspots even after three or four hours of constant listening.
The sliders on either side to adjust the length of the headband are screwed tightly in place and work on a friction system. They are simple enough to adjust to the desired size, and once done, don’t move. If they do start getting loose after multiple adjustments, a small tweak with the relevant screwdriver should set them back to tightness again. The arms are also metal in design, with a nicely hand-drawn “Mistral” marking etched in to the right hand arm just over the headphone cups. There is a little lateral flex in the arms if needed (they again appear to be something like spring steel), but they mainly pivot in one plane of motion only at the joint between arm and earcup. I have a larger than average head and I’ve had no issues whatsoever with the fit and comfort of these headphones, but it’s just worth pointing out if you are looking for a headphone that is articulated in multiple planes of motion around the earcup like the floating design used by cans like the Nighthawk from Audioquest.
As illustrated in the technology section above, the earcups are made from multiple layers of mahogany wood, coated on the internal sides with Dynamat damping to create a rigid, highly damped frame for the Nhoord driver being used that weighs a fraction of the higher end Spirit Torino “inertial frames”. The cups are nicely varnished and look like a single piece rather than a collection of individual wood slices, so the construction and fitting is excellent as far as I can tell.
The Mistral Pro is a semi-open design, so it sports a very small vent-hole on the outer rim of the earcup, and a larger circular opening on the outer face of the earcup design, covered with a black metallic mesh and another Spirit Torino logo, this time made out of a shiny chrome material. Spirit don’t disclose exactly how open they consider this headphone, but in daily use it blocks some noise coming in (but not all), and stops some noise going out to the outside world (but again, not all). These will pull a shift in the real world on public transport or in use somewhere like an office or library, but you WILL be able to hear some of the outside world, and they will likewise will be able to faintly hear your music choice.
On the inside of the earcups you can see the powerful Nhoord dynamic driver quite clearly. There is another Spirit logo masquerading as a driver protector of sorts, sitting underneath a fine black fabric mesh that acts to keep the usual dust, wax and other ear detritus out of the delicate workings of the headphone. I’ve seen plenty of headphone designs, and it’s fair to say the Spirit Torino one looks both pretty unique and also very visually appealing – it screams “look at me”, and adds a nice touch of class to the overall design. The cup are finished off with some standard 3.5mm cable connectors on the bottom of each cup, sharing the industry standard 3.5mm pin-out, so you should be able to use a wealth of aftermarket cables if the high quality Portento Audio one included with the Pro model doesn’t flick your switch.
Finally, we come to the pads. Spirit Torino have recently partnered with the industry pad experts Dekoni Audio to provide bespoke pads for each of their newer models, referred to as their Ventilation Pad System. Each pad is designed to match a specific headphone in their range, and used one internal venting to control both the flow of pressure and the overall tuning of the headphone. The VPS variant used on the Mistral Pro doesn’t have the swappable plugs found on the flagship models, being a solid pad sporting a mix of leather on the parts of the pad closed to the earcup housing and then switching to a fenestrated alcantara covering for any part of the pad that comes into contact with the ear. The body of the pad itself is soft memory foam. They don’t appear to be easily swappable, but I believe they are replaceable.
The comfort level of these pads is excellent, with the soft alcantara preventing any buildup of heat or wearing discomfort for longer sessions, and the plush memory foam conforming to the head without any undue pressure. The inner diameter of the pads also works well with my larger than average ears – they aren’t the most roomy or spacious design you will ever see, but I didn’t feel that my ears were cramped or touching the sides of the pad walls at any time, so comfort is again pretty high.
Overall, the build does have a beautiful sort of hand-assembled artisanal quality to it – these aren’t headphones that have rolled off the conveyor belt somewhere, and look meticulously designed. There are slicker looking and feeling cans in the 1k price range, but in terms of both quality and comfort it’s difficult not to recommend the Mistral Pro here. It’s nice to see a company taking on some of the feedback from their previous model designs (mainly that they weigh a ton and aren’t overly comfortable for a lot of people) and crafting something that is both lightweight and eminently wearable but still functionally and true to the “spirit” of Spirit Torino.
Initial impressions on sound
Spirit Torino are a brand that typically has a “house sound”. Simply put, they are trying to evoke the feeling you get from a live playback or concert, where all the elements are balanced and everything feels “real”. Most of their cans including the Mistral Pro have a sound profile that is based on isophonic Fletcher-Munson curves rather than the more ubiquitous Harman or Diffuse Field sort of tunings.
What that means for the layman (like myself) is simple – the aim is to ensure each element of the sound is equally loud to the ear. This doesn’t mean flat, as human hearing effectively hears different frequencies at different levels, so the point of an isophonic tuning is to bring everything back to a realistic timbre and make it sound lifelike – to this end, Spirit Torino quite often collaborate with prominent local jazz and classical musicians in their home country to ensure that the timbre produced by each headphone is as realistic as it can be.
So, that’s the theory – what does it mean in practice? It means you get a sound that carries body in the low end without being overly basshead, with an organic and rich midrange and a treble that is smooth and not crystalline or sharp. It isn’t recessed or dull up top, but the Mistral Pro in particular follows a similar sort of tuning style to the legendary (in headphone circles) Audioquest Nighthawks, preferring a detailed but not hyped presentation over something that sounds crunchy and boosted.
There isn’t an obvious V or U shape to the sound. If anything, it has the gentlest of inclines from bass down through to treble, with the staging keeping all three roughly similar in terms of position to the listener in their imaginary headspace. Imaging is more intimate than distant, with the Mistral pulling the music around the head of the listener rather than presenting a more zoomed out or wider screen sort of approach. As a semi-open design with ventilated pads, these headphones do offer a slightly “out of the head” experience, placing the listener in a bubble of sound that pushes just a little outside the ears in all directions. Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t HD800 vast, but there is a good sense of airiness and space which offsets the closeness of the staging and almost drops you right into the recording room rather than sitting you in the control booth.
Note weight is middling, with the Mistral having enough heft to guitar and bass not to sound thin, but not sounding overly rich or saturated either. In this regard, they are pretty much in the Goldilocks zone, which helps with realism of the timbre. In summary, a musical neutrality is probably how I would describe the sound; it’s NOT flat and definitely not boring, but it just isn’t too much of anything in particular. The flavour comes from the music you listen to through it, not the cans themselves, which is always a good indicator you are listening to decent gear.
Delving a bit deeper into the individual frequency ranges, we start with the bass. As mentioned above, the Mistral is weighted but not overly bassy. It has a fairly light sub bass presence, tickling the eardrums on the intro to “Heaven” by Emile Sande without really wobbling the chest or rattling the fillings of the listener. It is definitely present and digs deep, but it isn’t the all encompassing thrum you would get from a proper basshead set of headphones or IEMs. Ditto for “Disc Wars” by Daft Punk – the opening bars are suitably moody and the initial drum accent at the 30 second mark sounds powerful, but the sub bass acts as the background to the pattering tom toms rather than completely enveloping the listener in a sea of sub frequency.
Shifting upwards slightly, mid bass has a little emphasis, sporting the slightest of mid-bass “thumbs” to the sound. “Hello, It’s Me” by Sister Hazel slides into the earcups with a nicely prominent and very textured bass guitar. Again, it’s not basshead levels of decibels being pushed out, but it’s definitely not a dry or anaemic sound. The delicacy in the bass mean that detail levels are pretty high here, with absolutely bags of texture being rendered as the fretting and vibration of the bass guitar strings is clear to hear in the ears. It’s an analogy I’ve used before, but the feeling of texture is like the aural equivalent of running your finger over some expensive certificate paper compared to the usual stuff you find in your office matchine (remember the days when everyone used to work in an actual office?!?).
This track is meant to be slinky, and the Mistral just about pulls it off, the bass line sounding lithe and agile rather than overly dry. Again, it isn’t the wettest or most luxurious sounding bass rendition you will hear, but the tightness and control of the high-flux Nhoord dynamic driver here gives plenty of snap and control to the sound without robbing it of soul – I like it.
My other tester for bass punch and texture is “Bad Rain” by Slash, and the Spirit Torino acquits itself well. Again, there is plenty of texture and grip to the aggressive bass line that kicks the track off. This time the bass isn’t quite as prominent, blending in well with the crunchy guitar riff sitting on top of it due to the relative proximity in the staging of bass and mids. Detail and resolution is good, and the song carries plenty of bite. Again, it isn’t the most voluminous bass presentation, but there is a decent level of punch and viscerality, with the bass and snare drums getting a real “kick” in the ear.
The Mistral does well with low stringed instruments like cello and double bass as well – as will become a bit of a recurrent theme throughout this review, pretty much anything that uses strings to render music sounds fairly “real” through these headphones. “Palladio” by Escala sounds like a small orchestra playing in your ears rather than a stylised collection of synth, cello and violins as it does on some other gear. Again, the depth and sweep of the bass helps give the track some bombast, but doesn’t overplay it.
Overall, bass is well judged, detailed and just far enough north of strictly neutral to sound engaging with most genres of music. Not a cannon for the drum and bass or serious dubstep aficionados to get excited over, but it’s more than enough to get the feet tapping for most music lovers. A very good start.
Given the relative restraint and tautness of the lower end, there is no appreciable bleed or masking into the lower mids, the sound transitioning smoothly to a fairly intimate and forward midrange presentation. Tonally it shares similarities with the bass, carrying weight but not sounding overly saturated or thick. It evokes the same sort of reaction on first listen as I got when listening to some of the classic JH Audio in ear models like the Angie or Jolene or the more recent MMR Balmung, a sort of analogue “tubelike” sheen to the notes. Despite the organic nature of the sound, note attack and definition is crisp and clean, with a pronounced crunch to electric guitar work.
The latest effort from the legendary German rock back Scorpions (2022’s Rock Believer) is mastered with more crunch than a whole box of Rice Krispies, and the Mistral captures that bite in each guitar lick perfectly. The title track “Rock Believer” has plenty of swagger in the crunchy riffing, with just enough body in each sustained note or harmonic to stop it sounding thin or overly jagged. These cans are tuned very well for hard rock and metal, quick enough to avoid blurring the notes in a quickfire riffing segment but carrying enough weight to hit the ears hard when needed.
“Shadow Life” and “World On Fire” from Slash are two great examples – the staccato riff on the former turns on a sixpence when the track gets moving properly and gets the toes taping properly every time I listen to it on the Mistrals. The higher tempo of “World On Fire” with it’s combo of driving drums and chugging riffs are also despatched without any issue, giving the track a genuine sense of speed and urgency in the ear.
Looking for harshness and sibilance, my first track is a fairly new discovery for me: “Am I The Only One” by former Staind frontman Aaron Lewis’ latest album “Frayed At The Edges”. Lewis’ voice is raw and sharp in the recording, and can sound jagged on hotter gear. The Mistral puts just enough gloss on the raggedness to keep it enjoyable, but there is plenty of sandpaper in the ear on this particular track. It contrasts beautifully with the multiple layers of sweet sounding fingerpicked guitar and orchestration that accompany the main lyric, but it definitely skirts on the edge of hotness. In terms of vocal tone and timbre though, the Mistral presents something pretty special here, pulling the deep baritone of the more relaxed verses right into the centre of the head stage and seeming to fill the whole space between your ears with the sound. In fact, the whole album sounds absolutely fantastic through these cans – if you are partial to a bit of acoustic folk or Americana mixed with a tinge of outlaw country, it’s definitely worth a listen.
“Starlight” by Slash is another tester I frequently use in my reviews, and the Mistral is similarly flirtatious with hotness on this track as well. The harmonic wailing of the intro is almost cutting, but just pulls back from unpleasantness. Again, it contrasts well with the weight of the bass and relative smoothness the Spirit Torino model imparts to Myles Kennedy’s vocals on this track, leaning back into that sort of analogue shine I mentioned earlier. There is no hint of vocal harshness here, the Pro just presenting his voice in all its weighty, soaring falsetto glory.
Tone and timbre has been mentioned a few times so far, and I think in the mids is really where the ST headphone shows its capability in this regard. Everything sounds every so slightly warm to the ear and thoroughly musical, but also very real. This headphone has captured that magical sense of “being there” better than most of the other gear I have listened to (in ear or over ear) in a comparable price bracket. Piano tones sound real, nylon acoustic guitar strings sound like they do when you play them in your bedroom (for those of you who dabbled in guitar when they were younger), voices sound like you can hear them at the local music dive. In a sea of stylised and sculpted Harman-curved music playback devices, this makes a refreshing and welcome change.
Backed up with a pretty resolving driver and good technicalities, this is a very easy sound to lose yourself in. There is more than enough in the way of small detail and nuance peppered through each track (small vocal exhalations on “Mother Maria” by Beth Hart and Slash, creaking of orchestra chairs on “Palladio” by Escala etc etc) to aid that sense of immersion that the tonality already fosters. Playing Devil’s advocate, if you don’t like mids that are placed stage front in the sound or prefer your tone slightly colder and crisper, then there will be better choices here. If you just like enjoying your midrange, Spirit Torino have pretty much nailed it on this headphone.
These sections are always the shortest sections on any of my reviews, and this one won’t be any different. It’s not that I dislike the higher end of the musical spectrum, I just see it as an embellishment to the real music that sits underneath. In that regard, I think I’m fairly similar to the the Mistral Pro. Treble is detailed but smooth and soothing rather than hot or crispy. it sits just marginally behind the mids and bass to my ears, still having a decent presence in the overall music but playing more of a supporting role.
In terms of detail, the Mistral Pro can’t be faulted, bringing that transient speed evident in the midrange to bear here to present instruments like harpsichord and violin with a thin but clearly defined edge. “Chi Mai” from classical duo Duel has a finely honed single violin playing in the higher registers, swirling in and out of a sea of keyboard and synth notes. The Spirit Torino model captures the delicacy of the violin and the sweep of the orchestration, with just enough sharpness to the violin to cut through the denser music underneath. The treble still feels quite “bodied” and solid, but isn’t lacking in the definition around the edges so doesn’t get overly warm or stuffy.
“Go” by The Chemical Brothers is another good treble tester for me, with the electronic beats being accompanied by a crisp hi-hat rhythm that need to cut through the wall of sound below. The Mistral mostly manages this – the hi hats are defined, but the decay on each cymbal splash is quick enough to make them sound almost muted rather than splashy. They do sound realistic (if you can say that about an electronic track), but if you love splashy cymbals that linger and decay slowly into the background of a track, you’re probably looking at the wrong headphone here.
In contrast, the swirling synth that washes around the soundscape sounds bright and carries decent weight as it rolls from left to right across the stage. Detail levels are good, allowing the listener to hear the two slightly out of phase lines it splits into before the chorus.
Speed definitely isn’t something the Mistral Pro struggles with in the treble, with the ultra-capable Nhoord driver keeping up with anything you can throw at it. “The Flight Of The Bumblebee” by David Garrett fairly blisters along, the Mistrals keeping each note crisp and defined. Similarly for harmonic-heavy rock or similar music, nothing much bothers the Mistral here.
In terms of air, the Mistral Pro doesn’t sound the most open or spacious up top, despite its semi-open design. The weight of the treble keeps the upper register feeling well anchored to the music underneath, so you get the impression that the sound sits in a fairly low ceilinged room rather than drifting off and dissipating in a wide-open space or cavernous concert venue. It works well in the context of the overall tuning, as anything too airy would have contrasted with the more intimate presentation that has been carefully constructed below.
Overall, the treble here is just my sort of presentation – enough body not to sound thin and enough edge to cut through the sound without bleeding out the warmth or making things sound too crystalline. It doesn’t lack for detail, so unless you are an absolute treble-fiend or prioritise high end air and zing over all else, it’s another easy recommendation here.
Staging, Separation and Layering
As mentioned multiple times already, the Mistral Pro is a pretty forward headphone. Despite that, the sound still manages to push out past the confines of the ears in a nice sonic bubble. It’s more of an oval than a truly holographic presentation, but there is a nice sense of height to instruments and definite depth from front to back of stage, although this is by far the least expansive dimension to my ears. Width from left to right is expansive but not huge, with “Trouble” by Ray Lamontagne hard panning the drums and guitar to just outside the ears on either side rather than pushing them over into the sonic distance like it can do on some gear.
Imaging prowess is decent to good. Listening to “Better Man” and “Brown Skin Girl” by Leon Bridges allows the listener to place the various instruments to the left and right of the centre vocal, and pick up the frankly awful room echo that sits in the background like the whole album was recorded in an undersea cavern. The relative closeness of the sound and lack of stage depth probably robs the Mistral of that last bit of precision when placing the notes in the headspace, but that’s more of a nitpick than an actual criticism.
Separation and layering are both similarly good if not technically outstanding; the note size and intimacy of the presentation stop the Mistral from dissecting the music too much, but you can clearly hear the different layers of vocal in tracks like “Tomorrow” by Mavis Staples. You can’t quite pull all the backing vocals completely apart on “We Shall Not Be Moved” by the same artist, but they are still clearly audible, so it is more a function of the overall presentation rather than a lack of capability in the driver.
Overall, in keeping with the general tuning, this is a headphone that gets all the “macro level” technicalities spot on, but isn’t necessarily one you would use if you need to dissect a track in all its forensic glory in a studio setting.
Power requirements and synergy
The Mistral Pro has a nominal impedance of 32 Ohms, but a sensitivity of 96 dB/mW. In practice, it’s not the most power hungry headphone around, but it will need a little more oomph to drive than a mobile phone can put out. I’m running it at around 68/150 on the A&K SP2000T in balanced out, and similarly got best results using one of the higher gain settings on the Fiio M17.
In terms of power handling and control, the Mistral do appreciate some extra juice, scaling up slightly with the more powerful desktop-grade control of the M17 to give a slightly grippier feel to the bass. This is countered by losing a little of organic tone that the SP2000T imparts, so for this particular headphone I far prefer doubling down on something that already has that organic tube-like tone to really bring the most out of the pairing. It can be driven from things like the Cayin N3Pro or surprisingly powerful Hidize AP80 Pro as well, but neither really feel like they are extracting the most out of the ultra-capable driver setup.
To summarise – this isn’t a headphone that scales outrageously with extra wattage, but if you have a powerful source, it’s definitely worth using it.
Meze Empyrean (c. $2799, open back planar)
The Empyrean is a pretty well known flagship-level headphone from the Romanian designer Antonio Meze, sporting an unusual isodynamic hybrid array design for its planar driver, which basically means the traces that carry the signal are shaped differently on different parts of the diaphragm to affect the different frequency ranges the driver puts out. It is a fully open design compared to the Mistral Pro, and has won numerous industry awards from 2018 through to 2022 for both design and sound.
Given the price and design differences, you may wonder why I’m comparing these two headphones. It’s mainly down to the tuning, with the Empyrean offering an unashamedly musical and slightly dark sound which carries a lot of the same characteristics as the Spirit Torino model, or certainly enough to merit the comparisons anyway.
Starting with the design and build, both headphones use a metal frame and suspension band design, and both are fairly light and fatigue free in use. Where they differ is that the Mistral Pro looks like it was hand crafted by a master craftsman and the Empyrean looks like it was built by Bugatti in the same facility that manufactures the Veyron. From the metal attaché case that pulls duty as the carrying case for the Meze model through to the various items of machining on the cups and sumptuous comfort of the multiple different swappable pads included, you have to say that they have really nailed the look and feel of a top end product. The Mistral Pro unboxing is basic, the Empyrean is an experience. If that matters to you, you know what the recommendation is here.
In terms of sound, the Empyrean has a weighted low end which feels a little fuller and also a little warmer than the Mistral Pro. Detail levels are actually fairly similar between the two, with the Empyrean having that planar flatness in the sub bass that extends down just a little further than the more traditional dynamic of the Mistral pair. The mids are both fairly forward, with the Empyrean putting a little more smoke and soul into male and female vocals than the already emotive Spirit model. Detail levels are again similar – I would say factors like separation and layering favour the more expensive planar model, but not by a huge margin, with the warmth of the Empyrean taking a little away from the blackness of the background and feeling just a shade “stuffier” at times than the Mistral Pro.
in terms of staging, the Empyrean pull the stage wider than the Mistral, with more distinct lateral imaging. On some tracks the Mistral actually feels the more “real” of the two with a closer and more spherical stage, it on others the Empyrean allows the listener to pick out more layers of the music without having to strain or “listen in” to the track being played.
Treble is again similar between the two in terms of both presentation and staging, with the Empyrean actually carrying pretty good detail when you listen out for it. Both suit my preferences well, and there isn’t a huge amount in it here between either headphone.
Overall, if you prefer your sound to be slightly bassier and have a thicker and more syrupy tone to the midrange (or are a vocal lover), the the Empyrean offers the same sort of musicality as the Mistral but with a slight bit more technicality and a more coloured and enjoyable tune. If you are looking for something less coloured and a little less warm and dark, the Mistral Pro is a good bet – the large price differential definitely doesn’t reflect the relatively small difference in sound quality between these two models. For me, the Empyrean is pretty much my end-game style of tuning for my own specific preferences, so the fact that the Mistral Pro stands up so well against them is definitely impressive to me.
Abyss Diana V1 (Planar, no longer available)
The Diana V1 is a legendary set of open back over-ears from the American headphone manufacturer Abyss. It was their first small form-factor headphone, and is currently on its third or fourth iteration. It was rightly acknowledged at the time of release (c. 2016) as one of the most technically proficient planar magnetic headphones on the market. This comparison was done running the Diana V1 (with V2 pads), with both headphones running balanced on the Fiio M17.
Starting with the design, the Diana is a physically smaller and more compact design than the Mistral Pro, being made from all-metal with a unique fractal sort of perforation pattern on the driver housings. Despite the smaller size, the Mistral Pro is actually significantly more comfortable to wear, due to a combination of the lighter overall weight and the suspension headband approach. The pads on the Mistral Pro also tend to take some of the burden for the headphones, where the pads on the Diana are mainly just there to stop the drivers touching your head on either side, so feel a lot looser and less supportive.
In terms of design, there is no doubt the Diana looks the more elegant and higher end of the two – it is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, and contrasts pretty starkly to the more artisan and mechanical build of the Mistral. It was also around three times the price of the Mistral when it was first released, so it should probably look more elegant.
Moving on to drivability, the Diana is an order of magnitude more power hungry than the Spirit model. There is no beating around the bush, if you don’t have a source that can push watts rather than milliwatts into a low ohm source, you won’t get anywhere near what the Diana can actually do. The Mistral isn’t the easiest can to drive in the world, but will do a job on pretty much all of the mainstream DAPs out there without any major issues, so if you have a low powered source, Abyss will not be your choice here.
In terms of sound, the Diana isn’t a million miles away from the Mistral Pro in terms of general tuning. The Mistral is a tad bassier, but not to a hugely notable degree. That additional few dB in the bass also brings more warmth to the sound compared to the Diana, which comes off as comparatively the colder of the two headphones.
Both headphones are similarly forward in the vocal area, but the Mistral Pro places the rest of the midrange instrumentation more forward than the Diana, which more definitively places the singers “out front” with the guitars and piano tucked in behind. Detail levels aren’t a million miles apart, but favour the Abyss, which as you would expect is definitely the more resolving of the two headphones. Little details like the reverb trails around electric guitars are easier to both pick up and track on the Diana, whereas they blend more into the musical background on the Mistral.
The sonic background is also cleaner and a little blacker on the Diana – vocals don’t encroach on the instrumentation, whereas in direct comparison they feel more closed in on the Mistral. The Mistral is no slouch, but the Diana is clearly a step above in terms of both separation and layering, providing more free space in the same size of sonic image for each individual strand of music to play out.
In summary, the Mistral Pro provides a more intimate sound than the already intimate sounding Diana, and offers more lower end weight, but apart from that the tunings are actually pretty similar. The Pro errs more musical in overall tone, but in many respects it’s more like a Diana that has been warmed slightly and doesn’t reach quite as far technically, blunting some of that razor sharp clarity that permeates the whole Abyss house sound.
On the flip side, it is a LOT cheaper, and if you like the overall Diana sound but don’t mind trading away a small amount of resolution and technical prowess for a warmer take on the same sort of tuning for a lot less money, it’s worth looking at the Mistral Pro here.
Spirit Labs Twin Pulse Ragnar (open back, twin isobaric DD, no longer available)
This is quite an interesting comparison, given that the Spirit Labs models was one of the last models designed by the “original” Spirit, and the Mistral Pro is one of the latest models to be designed by the “current” Spirit brand. The Twin Pulse Ragnar (henceforth referred to as TPR in this review) is a fully open design, sharing the large open doughnut design of the original Grado models from which it originated in mod form. This obviously contrasts with the semi-open nature of the Mistral Pro, with the TPR packing almost zero isolation.
I won’t go into build too much, save to say that the TPR is heavier, less comfortable and has the ubiquitous Grado foam “Cush” pads, which are scratchy, unyielding and depending on how you place them on the headphone, actually let your ears touch the driver housing. Suffice to say the new design of the Mistrals is a definite improvement in all aspects of ergonomics and just general appearance. One thing the TPR does have going for it is durability – the solid metal earcups make a satisfying ringing noise if accidentally touched against another metal object, and could probably stand reasonable service as a murder weapon in Cluedo they are so solid. The crappy plastic bits on the headband probably won’t last too long, but the rest of the assembly will probably still be in existence long into the 22nd century.
In terms of internal driver design, the TPR was one of the original Spirit designs that incorporated their isobaric dynamic driver setup, with two large DDs in the same space providing the engine for the sound. There is some pretty interesting sound science to explain the why for packing an extra driver in there, but the long and the short of it is to drive down distortion and increase the speed and transient response.
Handily for the purposes of this review, the TPR actually sounds a lot like the Abyss Dianna mentioned above. It’s slightly bassier than the Diana, sitting roughly on par with the Mistral in terms of quantity. It actually packs more resolution than the Diana in most areas, so the bass is slightly more grippy and textured than the Mistral, but not quite so warm as a result. In the low end it is the more clinical sounding of the two headphones.
Moving through the midrange and treble, again the TPR sticks close to the Diana but with a more forward midrange presentation. This brings it more into line with the overall Mistral “shape”, but with added clarity and resolution across the board, especially in the highs, which border on electrostatic speed and clarity. This comes with a trade off of a lighter and thinner note weight and a slightly smaller sonic image. The TPR is the more aggressive and energetic of the two headphones, but loses a little bit of heft and oomph to the sound in the process.
Overall, both headphones are lifelike and musical, but the TPR carries more resolution and an almost hyper-real sound compared to the more organic and comparatively weightier Mistral Pro. There is no point offering a recommendation as the TPR is a collector’s item these days, but I can offer this: I owned both headphones for a period of time, and the TPR was the one I sold.
Note – I haven’t had the luxury of spending much time with the current crop of Twin Pulse designs from Spirit Torino outside of a few minutes at the most recent London Canjam event, but it’s safe to say the overall tuning ethos sounded pretty similar to me, so I imagine the comparison wouldn’t be a million miles away. The newer models use better drivers and materials so would expect them to be a fairly substantial improvement on the technicalities of the TPR, however.
The Mistral Pro are one of those rare things in life: an unexpected pleasure. I turned up at Canjam expecting to fall in love with the latest Twin Pulse or Radiante models from Spirit Torino, but after listening to various models there and across multiple other manufacturers, the Mistal Pro were the headphone that I fell in love with. In fact, I kept coming back to get more time with them throughout the day to confirm this, and they were the ones I ended up handing over my hard earned cash to leave with.
They don’t hit you in the face with any particular aspect of their tuning, but they do so many things right that you quite quickly find yourself listening to the music, not the headphone. The balance of weight, tone and realism really lets the listener fall into the track being played, and the lightweight comfort means that they are built for long sessions.
They aren’t the most energetic or revealing headphones you can buy in the 1k price bracket, and they don’t conform to the standard measurement styles like diffuse field or Harman target, but if you are looking for a beautifully crafted sound in a beatifully crafted wood and metal headphone and don’t need maximum isolation or maximum soundstage, I strongly recommend giving these cans a try. You most likely won’t be disappointed you did, and your wallet will probably thank you too. Belissimo!