You could roam the the halls of the internet far and wide and never find a product as wild and uniquely designed as Audeze’s iSine headphone series. The iSine 20 in particular, with their copper-colored webbing and laser-cut edges of glistening gold, look very much like earbuds designed to amplify the spidey senses of Peter Parker’s web-slinging alter ego.
But just as intriguing as the exterior design is what’s inside these funky ‘buds, including some very powerful magnets and the serpentine circuitry of miniaturized planar magnetic drivers.
The iSine 20 offer brilliantly balanced and precise sound that’s extremely organic.
Planar magnetic drivers, for those unfamiliar, are ear candy for audio geeks. Unlike the conventional piston-style drivers we see so often in home speakers and traditional headphones, planar magnetics use ultra-thin sheets of transparent film with very flat wires running through them. These sheets of film are placed between magnets, and when current is run through the film’s embedded wires, the film moves creating sound. The engineering isn’t just cool, it’s also highly functional: planar magnetic drivers are loved for their low distortion and extremely high accuracy.
Audeze, which makes some of the greatest headphones in the world, has perfected the planar design like no other brand. But until today, you’d only find planar magnetic tech inside larger on-ear or over-ear headphones. With the iSine 20, Audeze has produced a remarkable pair of in-ear planar magnetic headphones.
After spending some time with the iSine 20, we can attest they are not a parlor trick, or even a signal that Audeze is a one-trick pony. Instead, these open-back in-ear headphones represent a new genre. And while these babies aren’t the most convenient (or comfy) in-ears on the block, the sound they reproduce is something truly magical.
Out of the box
From the moment you open the iSine 20’s packaging, you realize you’re in for something totally outside the norm. Pulling away the book-like cover reveals the buds set apart in thick foam, looking distinctly superhero-esque, and also reminiscent of oversized true wireless in-ears. Pulling them out is the wildest part, as the powerful magnets within draw the buds together on your desktop.
The robust, magnetically sealed case below is loaded with accessories, including two types of clips designed to connect either around or inside your ears, in multiple sizes. Also included are three sizes of eartips, a cleaning tool, a cable clip, and a removable cable. For $50 more, you can add an Apple Lightning cable with built-in DAC and amplification. Each cable connects to the buds via tiny gold forks, which look delicate, but feel fairly solid when pressed upon. Still, if there’s a weak point in the iSine 20’s durability, we’d wager it’s here.
Assembling the ‘buds feels a bit like working a jigsaw puzzle, but we ended up settling on using the over-ear clips (we never bothered trying the in-ear variety) which snap on with relative ease, and the smallest available eartips.
Features and design
While the webbing on the shells is the oddest design trait, the iSine 20’s sound tubes are a close second, stretching from the earbuds’ interior face like miniature horns of plenty. The tubes aren’t just long, they’re also quite girth-y, and even with the smallest eartips available, we had trouble fitting them in our ears correctly. (More on that below).
The ear clips feel precarious, though we were surprised how well they kept the buds in place while moving around the house — even shaking your head back and forth won’t free them. At just 20 grams, the earbuds are lighter than they look, which also helps keep them secure. There’s no doubt, however, that they look pretty odd, and it also takes a while to get used to putting them on.
As mentioned above, the iSine 20 boast miniaturized planar magnetic drivers which, as Audeze’s home page states, is no small feat (ba-dum-ching). Once reserved only for massive headgear, Audeze and others have worked to shrink the technology, resulting in products like 2016’s excellent Sine on-ear cans.
Audeze accomplished this in part by employing its Fluxor magnetic technology, which the company claims “nearly doubles” the magnets’ driving force on the membranes inside, allowing the company to lighten the load. Claiming a distortion level of less than .1 percent at high volumes, Audeze says the iSine 20 are the most accurate in-ear headphones ever, and after listening to them, it’s difficult to call that an exaggeration.
As referenced above, for an extra $50, the iSine 20 also include a smaller version of Audeze’s 24-bit Cipher Lightning cable, which tacks on a headphone amp and DAC (digital-to-analog converter) right into the inline microphone for high-quality digital conversion, along with Audeze’s own DSP blend for clarity that’s beyond what your iPhone can offer alone. It’s also an obvious boon for those who’ve jumped the analog ship for the iPhone 7, and you can even customize the sound with Audeze’s companion app. Familiar iOS control keys for volume and playback are also built in.
Though the ear clips feel a little strange, they’re comfortable enough over time. Not so with the sound tubes, however. Try as we might, we never found a comfortable fit; the tubes are just too wide for our ear canals, especially on the left side, which began to ache over time — not what you want from $550 in-ears. It’s worth noting that Audeze actually recommends you simply rest the tips just inside your ear canal for the best sound. We passed them to some colleagues who found them a little odd at first but comfortable enough, proving the fit will vary greatly from ear to ear. As such, we can’t knock them too hard for it — especially considering the sound.
If you’re concerned the iSine 20 might not fit you well, rest easy in knowing the company provides a 30-day trial period so you can determine whether they are right for you. Be warned, though: When you try them, you’re going to want them.
The incredible sound of the iSine 20 does a lot to make up for the discomfort and strange fit this reviewer experienced with these in-ear oddities. While we may have questioned Audeze’s motives to create an in-ear planar headphone initially, there really is nothing quite like the sound of open-back in-ears. The entrancing, airy space offered by traditional open-back headphones mixes with the solemn intimacy of hi-fi in-ear monitors to create a sound that’s unparalleled elsewhere in the audiophile realm.
Pulling the earbuds out is wild, as the powerful magnets within draw them together.
While our glorious UE Reference Monitors and 18+ in-ears lead listeners on a Fantastic Voyage-style adventure through the cavernous realms of your favorite tracks, the iSine 20 are different. The hybrid design produces a soundstage more akin to a holographic projection around your head, as if you’re listening to top-notch speakers in some sort of personalized, augmented reality. There really is nothing quite like the soundstage the iSine 20 create, and it’s a stirring experience right from the start. You’ll almost swear you hear the music echoing around you, while the outside world is filtered stealthily into your custom sonic lair.
On that note, it’s important — perhaps even more so than traditional circumaural open-back headphones — that you listen in a relatively quiet environment, or you’ll lose a lot of the little nuances the iSine 20 so brilliantly reproduce to ambient noise.
Those nuances include effortlessly pure and clear instrumental attacks, dimensional sculpting of instrumental timbres, detail for days, and excellent separation of each recorded track. It should come as no surprise that the iSine 20’s performance borrows heavily from predecessors like the EL-8 and Sine headphones, all of which offer a well-balanced and precise sound that’s also extremely organic, seeming to trace each song just the way it was recorded in the studio.
Some of our favorite instruments include dirty saxophone and bass licks, where it’s plainly evident how well the iSine 20 let the music breathe and expand to hit your ears just right. They’re also extremely talented in the upper register, crafting high notes with virtually zero stridence or distortion. Strings flow fluidly through the ear tubes, violins soaring like a leaping-water fountain in a European palace. Bell sounds and cymbals, too, ring clearly and honestly, seeming to almost gleam at the edge of the upper harmonics.
Bass lovers may find the lower register more restrained than many of today’s in-ears — premium or otherwise — but the frequencies are all there. As with our other favorite audiophile cans, when bass is called upon it’s bold, firm, and highly musical. Really, there’s nothing the iSine 20 don’t do well.
Audeze offers a limited two-year warranty on both the iSine 20 and the cables for any defects related to “manufacturing, parts, materials, and workmanship under normal and accepted use.” In addition, the headphones come with a 30-day trial period to make sure they’re the right choice for you.Our Take
Throughout our review we were torn between the iSine 20’s odd and (for this reviewer) uncomfortable fit and some of the best sound we’ve ever experienced via in-ears. Also not incidental is that the open-back design requires near silence around you to retrieve all that sonic goodness. Regardless of these caveats, those looking for relentlessly gorgeous audio performance will absolutely want to give the iSine 20 a go — they’re just that good.
How long will it last
The DT Accessory Pack
Though the tiny forked cable terminations give us some pause, the headphones look and feel very well built and should last for years with proper care. Planar magnetic headphones are generally more delicate than those with dynamic drivers, so users should treat them with care.
What are the alternatives
There really isn’t anything like the iSine’s sound in the in-ear realm, but you can get equally great detail, dimension, expression, etc. with top-tier devices like the UE Reference monitors we mentioned (around $1,000). The closest sound signature we’ve heard comes from the $800 Audeze EL-8 open-back, but they’re much less portable option. While we haven’t spent any quality time with them, the iSine 10 are also available for a lower price point of $400.
Should you buy it
If the shoe fits, wear the hell out of these things. We lament the fact that they don’t fit right for our ears, as this is truly one of our favorite new players in the audiophile space, and even at $600, they offer extremely impressive sound for the money.