Review: Audeze SINE and EL-8 Headphones

Introduction

When I recently reviewed Audeze’s new flagship, the LCD-4, I kinda, sorta knew that my review would mostly fall on deaf ears. I mean let’s all be honest now. Not too many people are in the market for a four thousand dollar pair of headphones – audiophile or not. And the truth is Audeze is quite aware of that fact too, which is why that’s not the only headphone they make.

In fact, over the last few years, Audeze has introduced a number of products outside of their critically acclaimed LCD line. In 2015, Audeze introduced the EL-8, a planar magnetic that combined BMW Designworks aesthetics with their patented-pending Fluxor and Uniforce technologies. The net result was a full-sized can that not only looked sharp but at an asking price well under their lowest priced LCD. Granted, $699 is by no means chump change, but I think most of you will agree it’s at least in the realm of possibilities.

Yet while the industry was still unraveling the mysteries behind the EL-8, Audeze was silently working in the background on an entirely new headphone that would change the way we think about planar magnetics forever. That headphone is the SINE, the world’s first on-ear planar magnetic headphone, and at $449 sans Cipher cable, Audeze’s most aggressively priced headphone to date.

Audeze was very generous to send me two pairs of EL-8s, one open-backed and the other closed, as well as the SINE to do a sort of shoot out to get an idea of which one of these fine specimens of planar magnetic goodness is the right one for you. And the answer is, well, complicated.

I saw the SINE

Believe it or not, that’s the SINE circa 2014 in prototype form. Funny story though, this pic actually briefly leaked on Head-Fi before it was quickly taken down at the behest of Audeze. It was initially mistaken for an early EL-8 prototype and caused quite a stir simply due to its size. Pretty cool, right? Note: you can stop singing Ace of Base now.

Whereas the EL-8 is the epitome of trickle down economics, with a lot of its core technology derived from the LCD series, the SINE is a different beast altogether. In fact, the SINE is the culmination of over three years of development, with the entire Audeze engineer team having to think outside the box to build a planar magnetic headphone of this size.

And one of the biggest hurdles they had to overcome was controlling its weight. You see the overwhelming majority of planar magnetics are big, bulbous headphones, with a lot of their weight emanating from the magnets themselves. And if you read my LCD-4 review, then you know that most planar magnetic headphones use a double sided array, i.e. magnets on both sides of the diaphragm. But during the development of both the SINE and LCD-4, Audeze figured out a way to use a single-sided design that could both reduce weight as well as improve sound. The net result of that effort was what they dubbed Fluxor, and it is one of the SINE’s cornerstone technologies that allows it to keep its girlish figure.

But putting all this techno mumbo-jumbo aside for a moment, in terms of fit and finish, both the EL-8 and SINE are gorgeous looking headphones in their own right. As you can see from the pic above, the EL-8 open back design is a combination of wood, metal, and leather that just screams luxury. While its closed counterpart is similar in vein except that the Titanium Edition has brushed aluminum cups instead of wood (The horror! -Dave).

However, despite what you may have been told, neither of these cans are really portable, and are clearly happiest sitting on a Woo Audio headphone stand or something of that ilk. I mean that’s why they are classified as full-sized.

The SINE on the other hand is also well endowed but its focus is clearly on durability instead. Its headband is all leather and extremely plush despite feeling rigid to the touch. The transducers themselves sit in a hard plastic shell that are suspended by an all metal, heavy duty adjustable frame. Audeze did a spectacular job of giving the SINE real sex appeal while still maintaining its rugged feel.

However, all three headphones are equally comfortable with a nod to the EL-8s just because they are bigger and thus come with more padding. But the SINE is no slouch either, and at least for me, their clamping pressure was just about right. Unless you have Dumbo-sized ears, they should cover your lobes with ease. Isolation was pretty good too as I was able to listen to Deathspell Omega next to my wife without her complaining once! Happy day.

If there is one immediate downside to either the EL-8 or SINE, it would be their cables. On one hand, both connectors are insanely slick and can be swapped in and out with ease, with the EL-8 tips looking like miniature sticks of RAM and the SINE adopting the more familiar 3.5mm jack that just snaps into place. On the other, they are both proprietary, which means if you already own a pair of aftermarket high-end cables, you can’t re-use them without getting them re-terminated. Again, this is a relatively minor gripe since the overwhelming majority of consumers couldn’t care less about third-party cable support. However, given the fact that Audeze now has several headphones at different price points in their stable, it would be nice if my blue LCD-4 cable could be re-used with either the EL-8 or SINE. C’est la vie.

Decipher the Cipher

Speaking of cables, Audeze knew a headphone is only as good as the playback chain behind it which is why they developed the Cipher, a Lightening cable that features an inline 24-bit amp/DAC combo. It also includes a DSP chip too that can be used in conjunction with the Audeze app (available free through the iTunes Store) to apply various EQ settings on the fly. Pretty slick if you ask me.

I tried both the EL-8 and SINE through the Cipher using my wife’s iPad 2 and it was insanely easy to setup: plug one end of the Cipher into the headphone, the other into the iPad, start Spotify and presto, Revocation. Easy.

The Cipher itself also features a few buttons that allow you to adjust the volume up and down as well as the ability to pause the music, which is incredibly handy if you plan to use it at work. The buttons worked with both iTunes and Spotify will no issue to report. I wish though that they were programmable, but alas that is Apple’s doing not Audeze’s (Apple requires that all buttons perform certain functions to obtain certification). I also found the added weight of the Cipher negligible as it didn’t change the veracity or speed in which I headbanged.

In terms of sound, the Cipher adds a bit of artificial bass oomph by applying a +3db boost to the lower octaves. But despite the Cipher’s overall pleasantries, it was no match for the Schiit Modi/Vali 2 Uber combo (review pending) I used for the majority of this review. So if you do plan to use a dedicated desktop stack with the either the EL-8 or SINE, I would pass on the Cipher unless you want to use it for on the go or need real-time EQ.

With all that said, I found listening through the Cipher an order of magnitude better than just connecting the SINE to the iPad’s headphone out (Don’t try that at home kids. We are trained professionals here! – Dave). I should also point out that the Cipher isn’t really just a cable either, but an actual platform that Audeze plans to exapnd significantly over the next few years. So though the Audeze app is a bit spartan right now, I assure you the company has big plans for the Cipher, including incorporating technologies that were developed for the DDA-1 I beta tested many moons ago. Finally, as a $50 dollar add-on they are practically giving it away. If I was already wedded to the Apple ecosystem, I would definitely be all over it.

But as a proud Android user that brings me to the Cipher’s biggest downside: no Android support.  It is certainly on Audeze’s radar, and if the SINE continues to sell as well as it has been, I’m quite confident they’ll cave. I’m also told that adding Android support would not be very hard either as there are no intrinsic technical hurdles to really overcome. Cross your fingers.

Epic Rap Battle: EL-8 vs. SINE

Now that I’ve established that both the EL-8 and SINE are, at least on paper, well spec’ed and appropriately dressed for an evening engagement of metal, the question still remains, “Which one?” And to come up with that answer I decided to go all in and listen to all three headphones over a two month stretch through both an iFi micro iDSD  as well as a Schiit Modi/Vali 2 stack. I obviously removed the Cipher out of the equation since it would be more of a distraction than anything else. So without further ado, let’s get to it!

2012’s Of Breath and Bone still remains my favorite Be’lakor record to date. Don’t get me wrong, 2009’s Stone Reach is a brilliant record in its own right too, but Breath has this sense of urgency to it the minute you press play that is immediately engrossing. Very recently, these talented gentlemen from Down Unda’ released a FDR vinyl remaster of it as a digital download on their official Bandcamp page. And it sounds nothing short of spectacular, making it perfect test fodder for this shoot out.

SINE: The first aspect of the SINE’s sound is coherency; there isn’t a whole lot missing across the frequency spectrum to really speak of, and what it does lack in a few areas it does so in a very understated manor. Guitars are especially pleasant, with the upper mids having a bit of warmth to them. Bass is also thumpy too but definitely lacks impact. Treble extension is respectable but still a tad on the dark side which is what I would expect at this price point. It’s not that hats and cymbals don’t shine but the SINE clearly has a sharper roll off in their upper octaves compared to its bigger siblings.

Listening to opener “Abeyance” through the SINE however is an absolute thrill, and if you are coming off say a pair of Sony MDR-V6s or some other big box full-sized can, your jaw is just going to drop. Again, coherency is the word of the day when it comes to the SINE, as they offer a very well conceived sound profile that masks a lot of its shortcomings.

EL-8 Open-backed (EL-8O): Truth be told, this isn’t my first rodeo show with the EL-8O. I was given a pair to use back when I beta tested the DDA-1 so I knew what to expect out the gate. Listening to the EL-8O immediately after the SINE though showcases what the extra $250 buys you: better resolution across the board, stronger bass response, and a headstage that is an order of magnitude wider than the SINE. Again, the track “Abeyance” sounded great through the EL-8O with noticeable improvements particularly in the treble department. I also felt that the EL-8O was just overall smoother sounding across the entire frequency spectrum, exhibiting a sort of effortless in the way it presented all the Be’lakor madness that was being shot through it.

EL-8 Closed (EL-8C): Full confession: I’m not a big fan of closed headphones in general and the EL-8C didn’t really change my opinion of them. It’s not like “Abeyance” sounded awful through the EL-8C. It’s just that it sounded a lot better through it’s open backed counterpart. Closed headphones tend to sound congested since their main focus is providing isolation than absolute sound quality. So if fidelity is indeed what you crave and you are perfectly comfortable sharing your love with early Morbid Angel with everyone in the office, the EL-8O might be a better choice for you.

However, the EL-8C vs. the SINE was a much more interesting comparison, since both offer a modicum of isolation and have, like I said, a fairly congested headstage. I actually preferred the SINE simply for the fact that the EL-8C offered no more low-end grunt but certainly a lot more bulk. Yes, the EL-8C has a wider soundstage but it’s not leaps and bounds better like with the EL-8O.

As you can tell, I have been on a melodeath kick of late because one of my all-time favorite bands, Insomnium, are about to release a new record in the coming weeks. And my favorite record of theirs has got to be 2006’s Above the Weeping World, which from start to finish is a bona fide masterpiece. The track “Last Statement”, which comes toward the back end of this record. is a wonderful example of why Insomnium are the best at what they do, blending gorgeous melody with catchy death riffs in a very tight seven plus minute package. The song’s melodic interlude about midway through is grade-A horn raising material and never fails to get my head moving.

SINE: This record is crushed. Clocking in at DR5, there is just no denying that fact. But through the SINE, it doesn’t really matter all that much though. I got the sense that these headphones aren’t really going to make crushed records sound any worse than they already are, but rather make well recorded, open sounding ones less so. Basically, the SINE’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness which is its size, since their earcups just don’t create enough of an air pocket to really emulate big concert hall sound – ain’t gonna happen. So if you are a classical buff then I’m not sure you would find the SINE as gratifying as I did because of this shortcoming.

EL-8O: The EL-8O again sounded clearly the best of the bunch, but I thought only marginally so compared to the SINE this time, especially in the mids. That’s more due to the limited fidelity of this recording than any inherit flaw in the EL-8O.

EL-8C: I felt the EL-8C sounded on par with the SINE, though I still preferred the SINE overall. The main issue I had with the EL-8C is that it again made this track sound even more claustrophobic than it already is. With that said, I thought transients sounded definitely better through the EL-8C as did treble response too, which admittingly is one of the EL-8C’s clear strong suits.

I have a confession to a make: Perturbator‘s latest is probably my most listened to record of 2016 thus far, and it isn’t even metal. It’s highly crushed EDM (For shame! – Dave). But this record is so damn addictive I just can’t put it down. If you haven’t yet bathed in the 80s synth glory that is Perturbator, you really must as his latest, entitled Uncanny Valley, quite possibly might be his best effort to date.

SINE: Surprisingly quite fast. And though its stereo imaging is again somewhat lacking, it’s overall delivery brings with it a certain immediacy that lends to its involving nature. After a while, you really just sit back and rock out with the SINE which is exactly what Audeze had in mind when they designed these little beauties. Out of all three, I easily had the most fun listening to this record through the SINE.

EL-8O: Even faster than the SINE, with a lot more of the finer details buried in Kent’s mix brought to the fore. Bass is bigger, tighter, and fuller. Mids are still the star of the show though, and have that signature Audeze warmth to them which make them a tad addictive. Treble too improves, but not as much.

EL-8C: A solid performance all around but definitely bass weak. Bass is certainly accounted for but has very little impact compared to the EL-8O. Compared to the SINE however, the EL-8C was again a mixed bag. I thought the EL-8C certainly resolves more, but due to its somewhat quirky preso, I again had more fun with the SINE. Your mileage may vary but I thought the SINE was just an overall more engaging headphone even if it was ultimately less accurate.

Final Thoughts

So which one should you buy? As usual, that depends.

If price is not a concern, the EL-8O is by far the best sounding headphone of the bunch. However, at $699, it is still on the high side with plenty of alternatives from the likes of Mr. Speakers and Oppo that if are not on par with the EL-8O, certainly offer more bang for your buck. And if you can scrounge another $300 bucks, you now own a LCD-2 or even used LCD-3, both of which sound a lot better than the EL-8O. Decisions.

Now if isolation is what you crave, then the EL-8C is your can. However, you could easily buy a pair of higher-end IEMs instead, e.g. Sennheiser IE800, and have better portability and sound for about the same price. Granted, you won’t get that wide soundstage out of an IEM compared to a full-sized can like the EL-8O but still.

By now you’ve probably guessed that the SINE actually turned out to be the clear overall winner despite being the lowest cost option of the bunch. It’s deficiencies, which are mainly the lack of a wide stereo image and airy treble, are more than easily excusable, especially if your go to genre of choice is metal. Moreover, the SINE consistently offered a truly exhilarating listening experience no matter what I shot through it, eschewing all the planar magnetic goodness that Audeze has become so famous for and without breaking the bank in the process. And at under $1k, you could easily build a very respectable audiophile class desktop system around it that would give you plenty of room to grow but more than satiate your needs on day one. Add the Cipher cable and suddenly you have a complete audiophile grade playback system wherever you go. Epic win.

The SINE is an outstanding product and easily earns our coveted Metal-Fi award. So if you got $500 bucks or less to burn on a can, definitely audition the SINE. You won’t be disappointed. And seriously, stop singing Ace of Base. It’s embarrassing.