Review: Audeze iSINE 10/20 In-Ear Monitors
Over the last few years, Audeze has gotten a lot traction in the prosumer marketplace. It first started with the EL-8 series ($699), an open-back and closed headphone design that featured many of Audeze’s planar magnetic technologies all wrapped in a snazzy German designed package. Perhaps even more importantly though, the EL-8 also became the launching pad for the CIPHER, a 24-bit DAC with DSP Lightning cable that provides an end-to-end audiophile class solution for any iDevice. Then of course came the SINE ($449), the world’s first on-ear planar magnetic headphone and really the company’s first honest attempt at “planar for the masses.”
So in many respects the announcement of their first planar magnetic IEM line, the iSINE 10 ($349) and 20 ($549), shouldn’t come to you as a shock. However, unlike the other aforementioned products, what is surprising is its design: From its hexagonal mesh outer shell to the fact that you need an attachment to even wear them, the iSINE is an unconventional product to say the least. Audeze was kind enough to send me a pair of both iSINE models to find out exactly what “unconventional” actually sounds like.
Trickle Down Economics
Believe it or not, Audeze has been working on the iSINE since 2015! The seeds for a planar magnetic IEM were first planted when Audeze introduced their Fluxor and Uniforce diaphragm technologies in the EL-8.
If you remember from my LCD-4 review, Fluxor is an array of magnets that are laid out in a certain way that optimizes the magnetic force on the diaphragm. Then their Uniforce diaphragm technology employs variable trace widths in the voice-coil to ensure that force is uniform across its surface. Used in tandem results in better control over the driver which in turns means lower distortion and improved imaging. The 20 has a longer Uniforce voice-coil than the 10 which is why it costs $200 more. But both iSINE models have less than 0.1% of THD overall, even at large volumes (100db!), which is unheard of in the IEM world.
Although the iSINE did benefit a lot from the technologies developed for its older siblings, everything else had to be designed from scratch including the housing, the materials used, and its assembly. Both the 10 and 20 employ some tricks of their own too due to their challenging form factor – like a specially built waveguide that is not hollow and helps minimize internal reflections and cancellations across the frequency range. And of course Audeze once again hired BMW’s DesignWorks in conjunction with Spiderman to come up with its design.
When I said that the iSINE is an unconventional IEM, I wasn’t just talking about aesthetics. First and foremost, the iSINE attaches to your ears rather than fits in them like a traditional IEM. So both the 10 and 20 come with a myriad array of different attachments to accommodate the wide ranges of ears out there.
If you have just the right set of ears though, you can try out the included SureFire EarLocks attachments. These little strange retention rings fit in key points on the outside of your ears to securely attach the iSINE in place. Audeze includes both a medium and large set which should cover any normal pair of ears.
Personally, I found the EarLocks to be very comfortable but not very sustainable. The problem is the iSINE’s are a bit heavy compared to your average set of Apple earbuds, so under heavy movement they would start to get loose and eventually fall off. I even watched several YouTube videos to ensure I was using the EarLocks properly too, and I was. My guess is if you do have just the right internal ear layout then the locks might be a viable solution.
Most of you however are going to use the plastic hooks. Unfortunately, you can’t just slip them on like you would a normal set of IEMs. You literally have to stretch the hook out first and then place it in between your head and outer ear. I find that using two hands is the best approach. I use one hand to manipulate the hook while the other to hold the iSINE in place.
The good news is that though you do have to perform some initial gymnastics to put the iSINE on, once they are on the hooks feel extremely comfortable. I have literally listened to both the 10 and 20 for six plus hours straight with no issues to report.
In terms of tips, Audeze supplies a small, medium, and large silicone set. Audeze recommends starting with the small set and then moving up in size until you get a proper seal. The iSINE tips don’t need to be buried deep in your ear canal so don’t force anything. All you are looking to achieve is a proper seal. And if you prefer to use some Comply foam tips instead of the ones provided you can. However, I found the tips that Audeze supplies work just fine.
Some folks have complained that the iSINE line doesn’t isolate as well as your typical IEM and that’s certainly true. But I haven’t had any problems to really speak of. For example, I had “Rosie”, our family Roomba, vacuuming next to me and I couldn’t hear her at all once headbanging begun. Again, finding the right sized tips is key to getting a proper seal. So definitely go through the motions of evaluating each tip provided until you find the one you are most comfortable with.
Finally, the cables Audeze decided on are also both good and bad. They are good because they have zero microphonics to really speak of and seem to be tangle proof. They are also bad because the two-pin connectors are fragile. The manual recommends to not take them on and off repeatedly and I can see why. I think Audeze should consider a screw on type design that my Roxanne’s use for its multi-pin connectors. That would prevent the pins from bending if you tug on them too tightly. For now, just be gentle.
In many respects, the iSINE’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: They are a semi-open backed design. Put simply, they leak. So if you work in an office environment or in an area where the faint sound of a really killer riff is not acceptable, these aren’t the IEMs you are looking for.
With that said, I’ve been using my pair at work every day now for several weeks without issue. I work in a standard sized cube in an open office layout. Of course I have very nice colleagues who understand my metal is very important to me (read: they don’t want me to go postal). I also listen at fairly low volumes too, so whatever leakage does occur is still very minimal. But the bottom line is that they leak, plain and simple, and there is no getting around that fact. Caveat emptor.
Honey, I Shrunk The Audezes!
My normal IEM setup is a pair of custom Jerry Harvey Audio Roxanne’s ($1745) as well as my Etymotic Research HF-5’s ($129). Both iSINE models fit squarely in the middle of that price range which should make for an interesting comparison. Most of my listening was done through a Chord Mojo ($529) which is any pair of IEMs best friend. Trust me on this.
I am not really an iDevice user so though I was shipped a CIPHER cable with the 10, I didn’t really use it for any long periods of time. It’s basically the same 24-bit DAC with DSP I reviewed with the SINE many moons ago except it replaces the bass boost with a custom EQ profile. If you do decide on adding the CIPHER, it’s an extra $50 bucks. Well worth it if an iDevice is going to be your main source or constant travel companion with the iSINE.
Say what you will, but no band has really replaced Metallica as the greatest heavy metal act of all time. Yet even with that said, the last decade or so hasn’t been kind to James, Lars, and Co. Their last record, Death Magnetic, was indeed a return to form but was mired by its horrible DR3 production job. And although St. Anger wasn’t as bad as DM, it was still a terrible record in its own right. And then there were the Load years before that which were equally as disappointing. But their latest, Hardwired..to Self-Destruct, is a solid record through and through and contains some of their strongest material since the Black album.
Regardless of your current opinion about Metallica though, let me get this off my chest right now: The 20 is the best sounding IEM I have ever heard. Period. It shames the HF-5 and it even shames my Roxanne’s in practically every way. The 20 has a wider soundstage, deeper bass, and has a much more refined sound than any of the IEMs in my stable. In fact, the 20 sounds very much like the venerable LCD-2’s, with its lush, warm midrange and impactful bass. I also thought transients and micro-detail were on par with my Roxanne’s even with its twelve (count’em) balanced armatures and crazy freqphase crossover scheme. James’ vocals were particularly outstanding and had that nice Audeze patented warmth to them.
The 10 on the other hand didn’t reach the same glorious sonic heights as the 20, but it is still no slouch either. The major difference between the two is that the 10 has a much more compressed soundstage (read: IEM like) and overall less bass. I thought they still bested the Etys by a wide margin though and it was a toss up when it came to the Roxanne’s. The Roxanne’s just have better detail retrieval overall but I thought the 10’s had a slightly wider soundstage. Both sounded dark in the treble department but I’d probably give the nod to the Roxanne’s in the end. In fact, the 10’s sound very much like a closed back version of the EL-8 which I’ve always felt has a somewhat muddled sound compared to its bigger siblings in the LCD series. But still, they are a fraction of the cost of the Roxanne’s and still manage to give them a run for their money. Take that to the bank.
2016’s Kodama may go down as my favorite Alcest record to date. It not only made my year-end list but it was one of the records I listened to the most last year as well. And at DR9, it also happens to be one of Alcest’s best sounding records too.
One of the biggest downsides to IEMs is that though they are generally excellent at detail retrieval but they compress everything into a wall of sound due to the small air chamber they work with. Not so with the 20, which due to its semi-closed design and waveguides allows the air to flow more naturally and in turn opens up the sound considerably. A shining testament to that fact is the first single off of the album entitled “Oiseaux de Proie” which starts off with an infectious bass line and takes off from there. The whole track sounds YUGE through the 20’s as if I was listening to a pair of full size cans. In fact, the sound is so massive I have now convinced myself that the 20’s are more akin to a pair of mini-headphones than a true IEM. They are that good.
And again, it was a toss up between the Roxanne’s and the 10’s. But given the 10’s $349 asking price, it’s hard to justify the Roxanne’s existence at this point.
Downsides? A few. They don’t isolate as well as your typical IEM – not a big deal for most but could get annoying if you listen to music in a very noisy environment. They also do leak due to their semi-open backed design. So if you have sensitive cubemates, it could definitely get contentious fairly quickly depending on how loud you blast them. They are also somewhat of a pain to put on though it does get better with a bit of practice. Finally, although I found the handsome soft pouch they come in perfectly reasonable as a means of transport, I do recognize the fact that some folks would prefer a hard case instead (I’m one of them). So I think it would behoove Audeze to think long and hard about providing one in the future, especially with the 20 – sitting on a pair of $500+ IEMs is no laughing matter (well, maybe a little).
With all that said, the iSINE 20 is a breakthrough product in every way and may in fact be Audeze’s finest achievement to date. It is not only the best sounding IEM I have ever heard but redefines what an IEM can and should sound like. I have owned many expensive IEMs over my illustrious audiophile career including the JH16P, the Triple-Fi’s, a few top of the line Shure’s, you name it, and none of them hold a candle to the iSINE 20. If you’ve got $549 bucks to burn and want a superb sounding, mini-full sized headphone you can carry around with where ever you go, look no further, the 20 is your can…uh, I mean IEM.
The iSINE 10 on the other hand is definitely a step down but still a wonderful sounding IEM nevertheless. I surmise you would have to spend at least double their asking price to get better sound. In fact, the 10 may very well be the best bang for your buck in the business today and certainly should be on your short list.
The iSINE series earns our highest honor with ease. Do yourself a favor and seek these little black and brown beasties out. I guarantee you will walk away impressed. I sure did.