In January, while the world wondered whether Apple would replace the ancient headphone cable with its Lightning cable, one hi-fi headphone maker beat it to the punch.
Audeze introduced its new Sine headphones at CES 2016, towing an available Lightning cable. While the company’s COO assures us Audeze knew nothing about Apple’s rumored plans, there’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Perhaps more accurately, great tech companies are always thinking about the next big innovation. And a Lightning cable is just one of the Sine’s forward-thinking features.
As the first ever on-ear planar magnetic headphones, the Sine were years in the making, spawned from multiple evolutions in Audeze’s lineup. The cans bring a hi-fi pedigree from the regal LCD-3 and LCD-4 (priced at $2,000 and $3,000 respectively), patented Fluxor Magnetic technology from the EL-8, and real portability. The result is a sleek and stylish pair of planar cans with audiophile chops you can easily take along for the ride.
Out of the box
After freeing the Sine’s box from its cardboard shell, the black cans rest in a layer of thick foam, sheathed in thick cuts of premium leather. Underneath is a small collection of accessories, including a flattened, dual-prong cable with gold terminations, a quarter-inch adaptor, and a large felt pouch for travelling.
Those who opt to add the $50 Lightning cable (dubbed the Cipher), will find it packed in a separate box, identical to its sibling save for a rather bulky three-button mic piece (we’ll come back to that later) and, of course, a Lightning jack.
While the Sine’s chic design is reminiscent of other minimalist cans like Harman Kardon’s CL and Bowers & Wilkins’ P7, this is a whole new look for Audeze, courtesy of BMW’s Designworks U.S.A. The company’s priciest models are beautifully decked out in thick cuts of premium wood trim, but they’re also pretty bulky, and form is traditionally a distant second to function. In contrast, the Sine are as trim and stylish as anything in their class, cloaked head-to-toe in gleaming sheepskin offset by industrial arms of matte-black aluminum.
Ample padding rides along the earpieces, which are ergonomically shaped to fit over your ears. The metal headband has its own layer of padding up top, though, as usual, we could’ve used a touch more there. Robust metal arms glide easily out from the band to adjust to fit, and the earpieces rotate inward to lay flat for travel.
Cloaked head-to- toe in lush sheepskin, the Sine are as stylish and trim as anything in their class.
Of course, the big story here (apart from the Lightning cable) is the closed-back, on-ear design. The latter is a first from Audeze, stretching the physical limitations of its planar magnetic drivers. Unlike the dynamic speakers inside most headphones, which use a piston-style voice coil to generate sound, planar magnetic drivers employ a micro-thin membrane, excited by a magnetic circuit. Audeze says the Sine’s are the thinnest drivers it’s ever created, made possible in part by “Fluxor magnetic arrays” that were first employed in Audeze’s EL-8. Fluxor technology allows the cans to be easily driven by weaker amplifiers — such as the ones inside phones or iPods — even without the Lighting cable.
The stats for the Sine are impressive, including a claimed frequency response of 10Hz to 50kHz, a weight of just 230 grams (compare that to 548 grams for the LCD-3), and a max SPL of 120 dB. The Sine’s 80 x 70mm drivers claim three times the surface area of any other on-ear in its class, in an effort to offer better dynamic expression and bass response.
While the EL-8 and the Sine are both designed to overcome the limitations of most other planar headphones, many of which all but require a dedicated headphone amp to perform properly, the Cipher Lightning cable takes things to a whole new level.
At $450, the Sine beg iOS users to round the price to an even $500 by adding the digital cable. That buys you a custom amplifier, DSP, and DAC (digital/analog converter) capable of sourcing 24-bit audio resolution.
Almost as enticing is the accompanying app, which currently boasts just a 10-band EQ, but could potentially be updated in future iterations for a plethora of features. The best part of the EQ? It allows you to dial in your preferred sound across any music player on your phone, from Spotify to iTunes.
While the Sine are packed with padding, we still would’ve liked just a bit more. The on-ear design means the earpieces press against your ears first, so they get a little tight after a couple of hours. Some extra padding on top would help too, though we noticed the cans wore in a bit, becoming more comfortable over time. And really, with few exceptions, virtually every on-ear headphone gets a little uncomfortable after a few hours.
Simply put, Audeze’s Sine headphones are the clearest, most accurate, and well-balanced on-ear headphones we’ve ever put on. Details are as precisely sculpted as anything in their price class (and above), transients are reproduced with near-instant response, and bass is rich and punchy, without the kind of bloated rumble you’ll hear in many dynamic-driver designs. It all adds up to a powerful sound that allows you to explore every nook and cranny of your favorite tunes.
While the Sine perform beautifully throughout the frequency spectrum, they really sing at the top of the ladder, with sterling high notes that strike with laser accuracy, while avoiding the kind of bite you hear in a lot of headphones that strive for high-end clarity. That accuracy translates to brilliantly carved attacks at the front of notes — from flat-picked strings, to the subtlest of lyrical lines — and thread-bare exposure of instrumental textures from brass, electric guitar, saxophone, and so on.
The Sine’s stark clarity definitely puts you in “discover mode” when backtracking through old favorites from your music catalog. Instruments are well isolated, and the subtleties of any recording are stripped down to bare elements. Ryan Adams’ title track Ashes to Fire, for instance, pulls you in almost too close to the inner workings of the piano, as little clicks and bounces on the strings seem to indicate someone dropped a pencil in there, purposely or otherwise. Elsewhere on the record, the Sine perfectly draws the dusty thump of snare, the breathy rasp of vocals, and the sinewy waves of that old B3 organ, while even the clicks of the keys are captured in a gorgeous accident.
We found similar explorations throughout our catalog, from the buzzing-your-ear string clicks of Chris Thile’s mandolin in Nickel Creek’s House of Bombadil (which were nearly more pronounced than the melody), to the warbling grit of the synth at the conclusion of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus, percolating like a robotic heartbeat.
Bouncing between the analog and Lightning cables, the latter was a cleaner experience, with better-sculpted attacks of instruments, and, interestingly, extra bass. Luckily, thanks to the accompanying EQ, the level of bass (or any other register) administered is entirely up to you.
The clear and powerful sound allows you to explore every nook and cranny of your music.
We also compared the Sine to the closest contemporaries we could find, including Audeze’s open-back EL-8 over-ears ($700), and Oppo’s closed-back PM-3 over-ears ($400) both of which use planar magnetic drivers.
The EL-8 was a clear winner (shocker!), offering a bigger sound, not just in the bass, but also in the upper registers where instruments like piano and acoustic guitar had more weight and a richer finish. The EL-8’s open back design also offers a more expansive stereo image, though they’re much less portable, both because of those slits in the earpieces, and their overall size.
Pitted against the PM-3, however, the Sine took the ribbon, offering a clearer, more precise sound that better exposes details, especially at the front of notes — picked strings, buzzing reeds, and struck keys, all cut through with more dimension and detail. In contrast, the PM-3, while still gorgeous in their own right, offer a softer, more laid-back sound.
If you have exactly $500 to spend on a pair of headphones, we wouldn’t hesitate for a second in picking up Audeze’s new Sine. Versatile, stylish, and packing more fidelity than anything in this price class, the Sine will have virtually all other on-ear headphones running for the hills. And, for the iPhone faithful, the Cipher cable add a comforting dollop of insurance: Even if the iPhone 7 doesn’t kill the headphone jack, you can bet that’s coming sooner than later.