Audeze iSINE 10 – a DSPlanar in ear experience

Pros:  Open sound, that planar bass texture, clarity resolution for the price, no distortion audible at any volume, ability to take EQ like a chameleon

Cons: Fit is fiddly, lack of isolation, need EQ applied to sound their best (either Cipher cable or parametric)

List Price: $399

Product Website: https://www.audeze.com/products/isine-series/isine10-ear-headphone

Audeze iSine 10

Rating Disclaimer: ratings are subjective. Audio quality and value do not mean the same thing across all prices. A headphone with a 5 rating on audio at $5 does not have equivalent sound quality as a 5 rating at $500. Likewise, value at $5 is not the same as value at $5000 dollars.

Introduction

Audeze are a company that should be familiar to most audiophiles, and a fair few Apple-store browsers. They started out as a small American startup in 2008, when founders Sankar Thiagasamudram and Alexander Rosson joined forces with an engineer who had previously made circuit boards for the North American space program (Pete Uka) and planar magnetic headphone specialist Dragoslav Colich to create their first planar over-ear headphone (the LCD-1).Fast forward a few years and multiple award winning models (the now famous LCD-2, the higher end LCD-3 and 4 models and the X and XC variants), and Audeze started pushing their technology further into the mainstream. The EL-8 and Sine models started appearing in Apple stores, gaining a new audience and also introducing their DAC/AMP lightning cable (the Cipher).

The next iteration for the iCrowd was the iSINE series, taking Audeze’s patented Uniforce and Fluxor technologies and shrinking them down into an on-ear planar magnetic headphone. These were the first headphones that really made me sit up and take notice of what the team at Audeze were doing – 30mm planar magnetic drivers in something small enough to carry around in your pocket? Ridiculous. Sadly, living in an audiophile backwater like the United Kingdom, opportunities to try out the new Audeze line were sadly few and far between.

Rationalising that a room full of rabid audiophiles all cackling like hyenas at the latest gear (or Canjam, as it’s otherwise referred to) wouldn’t be the best place to test out an open-backed headphone solution, I had pretty much given up on the idea of ever hearing these OEMs (on-ear monitors?), and have been concentrating my more recent planar research and listening into various other models like the SINE and the Blue Ella. Fortunately for me, someone tipped me off to a refurbished stock sale on ThatWellKnownInternetBiddingSite™ and I managed to pick up a pair of the entry level iSINE models (the 10s) for a pretty good price.It’s safe to say the signature was both everything I hoped it would be and nothing at all like I expected, probably both at the same time.

Due to time constraints and other pending reviews I have been writing, the below writeup is a little shorter than my usual efforts. It is based purely on my own opinions (however ill-conceived or just plain wrong) with no input or obligation to the people at Audeze. If you want to know what I thought of strapping a set of high-tech audio spider-webs to my head, please read on…

Unboxing and design

The iSine come in a very nice semi-transparent presentation box, with the IEM design splashed on the outside and the contents hidden behind some sort of clip on sturdy plastic box front, accessed by opening the book style cover. The cover is held down magnetically, so can serve as part of the storage box for these IEMs when you put them away.Popping the plastic cover off reveals a nice fabric Audeze carry case (very reminiscent of the sort of wallet a rockclimber might purchase at an outdoor pursuits shop), and the IEMs themselves, nestled in a foam cutout surrounded by a heavy plastic border.

This is a clever piece of design, as the whole “insert section” can be removed from the packaging and placed directly into the wallet, giving the fragile iSines some rigidity and a high level of protection from knocks and bumps – there is even a space around the outside to coil the cable. The only irritance here is the fact you need to remove the earhooks from the IEMs each time you want to use this, so this is more a “transportable” rather than strictly portable solution, as given the relative flimsiness of the provided plastic earhooks, you wouldn’t want to be attaching and removing them every day.

Popping open the wallet, there are a variety of tips and earhooks contained within, along with the lightning-port compatible 2-pin Cipher cable. A Small Audeze flash drive is also included, which I believe holds the product manual and instructions (I didn’t feel the need to find out). The package is relatively generous, and the selection of ribbed and unribbed eartips should help most users find an appropriate fit for their particular ear size. I settled on the ribbed eartips, as I found those to provide the best grip in the inner ear when attaching the iSines via the earhook method, giving a stable fit 95% of the time.

One criticism I have is the range of included earhooks, as they feel particularly flimsy to stand up to long term daily use. They have worked well so far, but I won’t be surprised if they need to be replaced on a semi-regular basis by particularly heavy users. Also, no matter how I tried, I wasn’t able to get any of the other ear-attaching gizmos to work apart from the black hooks, so unless they are super-efficient and keeping the iSine in place for people with smaller ears, Audeze may want to consider cutting down the number of accessories and providing slightly sturdier and thicker versions of the earhooks as standard. As always, your own experience (and ears!) may well vary. Overall, a nicely thought out accessory loadout and package, giving a suitably “mid-fi” feel to the merchandise within, while also remaining practical and functional.

Usability

The iSine series are an interesting proposition. They provide an open-backed sound presentation from a 30mm driver that you effectively hang outside of your ears with the help of some flimsy earhooks and some ribbed eartips that grip the inside of your ear canal like an F1 car’s tyres. They are a portable source that you can’t really use anywhere noisy (due to chronic lack of isolation) and require a fiddly fit to get seating in your ears, so aren’t the quickest things ever to put in or remove.

The iSines also require EQ. Not to satisfy the listener’s primordial craving for moaaarrr bass, or to sharpen the treble, it’s because the intended sound signature Audeze wanted these to ship with isn’t actually achievable without it, so it lives in the DSP for the optional Cipher cable you use to plug in to your iDevices, or in a set of parametric EQ settings that can be applied to apps like Roon or Neutron Player that Audeze will provide. Now, before you slam the lid on your laptop or hoof your phone across the room in disgust, this isn’t an error in QC or a huge omission by the powers that be over at Audeze HQ, but rather a conscious choice. They opted to design something with the lowest possible distortion figures they could fit into a 30mm casing, and in order to do so, compromises had to be made with the mid range tuning to accommodate this. The bonus of this approach means that the iSine takes EQ like an absolute hero as a result, so they could “fix it in the mix” with DSP or EQ without adding any of the usual distortion artefacts to the sound after the tweaks are applied.

I will touch more on the effects of EQ later in the impressions, but suffice to say, while the iSine doesn’t sound bad in its naked form, it definitely benefits hugely from either the Cipher cable that Audeze can bundle with it (or sell separately), or access to a DAP that is able to use parametric EQ. If you don’t have access to either of these, then I suggest demoing these yourself before jumping into a purchase, as there is a serious improvement once the correct settings are applied to the sound.

In terms of form, the large 30mm drivers and space age hexagonal design of the housing mean that they need to be perched outside of your ear canal, with the sound tube pointing straight in and the rest of the IEM body being supported by either some form of hook or a “concha-lock” style contraption which tried to anchor the IEMs by slotting under the fold of your ear. As mentioned above, the earhooks are the only solution that work for me to provide a stable fit, and even then, I am always aware that the iSine is basically perched on the outside of my ears and held on by a light piece of plastic. These aren’t IEMs that are hugely conducive to massive headbanging sessions or otherwise vigorous movements, unless you want to be picking up tiny fragments of electronic spiderweb after they fall out of your ears for the 100th time.

Isolation is also something that the iSines aren’t particularly interest in. While they don’t leak a huge amount of sound outwards (they passed the “wear in bed” test with my other half quite convincingly), they let far more sound in to the ear. This can be alleviated by cranking the volume up, but as it’s difficult to pick up any distortion, that isn’t recommended, as these can easily get to ear damaging levels of loudness without triggering too many of the telltale signs. These are IEMs for people who are looking for an open-backed soundstage, and don’t mind the same sort of external noise pass-thru that you get with a set of earbuds. Due to the size of the nozzle, I wasn’t able to see if foam tips helped in this regard, but I suspect they won’t make a huge difference here.

Sound

All the impressions below are based on the suggested EQ provided by Audeze (in the main Audeze threads on Head-Fi, and on various other boards). I do have the iSine model with the Cipher cable, but as I don’t have access to any iDevices, I haven’t been able to test this – the EQ will closely simulate the output of that particular DSP, so there shouldn’t be any major variances. Also note that for my preferences, I bumped the 125Hz EQ suggestion by approx. 2dB to add just a splash more bass into the mix without adversely affecting the overall tone of the tuning or stage presentation/warmth.

The first thing that hits you about the iSine (apart from the thought that they closely resemble something that Spiderman should be sticking in his ears) is the size of the stage presented to the listener. These are marketed as an open-backed IEM, and they are just that, with a soundstage that pushes a way further out of the head than a classic IEM presentation, spreading the music a lot further both laterally and along the Z-axis. They do this without a huge amount of sound leakage, but do have very little effect on noise coming the other way, sharing the same sort of lack of isolation as the open backed over-ears they aim to mimic.

The sound is balanced and crisp, with excellent extension down into the deep sub-bass registers, a nice sense of texture and weight to mid bass without feeling too big and an overall warm-neutral sort of sound from the midrange on up. There is a decent amount of body and richness to the sound, but the IEMs don’t sound overly warm or cloying (in part due to the size of the stage). Slam is moderate rather than breathtaking, the lack of seal in the eardrum not quite giving the same physical kick as a fully sealed in-ear solution considering the gargantuan (for an IEM) 30mm drivers behind it. Extension into the really deep water is very good, although the sub bass could do with more of a lift for my tastes, if only to help combat the masking from background noise that takes place when using these IEMs in a non-silent environment. As that can easily be done with no distortion using EQ, that is hardly a major cause for concern, though.

Vocals sound sweet and velvet smooth, with the iSines spitting out a good level of fine detail in the outer edges of the sound. The mids sit a little further forward than true neutral, allowing them to grab the attention without dominating the sound signature. Detail retrieval is good but not stellar, with the large drivers resolving well for their price bracket. Guitars hover between crunch and chug, with a satisfying sense of weight and just enough edge not to sound tame. Speed is not an issue, with the iSine keeping pace with tracks like “World On Fire” by Slash without breaking sweat or blurring the edges between the notes. In fact, separation across the board is pretty good, the wider than usual stage helping the Audeze offering keep individual strands of music neatly divided without killing the heart of the track in the dissection. It isn’t as laser sharp or clean as some of the higher tier BA IEMs I have in my collection, but it isn’t tuned for hyper analysis, so for the price tag it does pretty well.

Treble is smooth and refined, chewing through meaty fare like “My Kind Of Love” by Emile Sande without hurting the eardrums too much (the track is mastered so hot you could probably use it to weld steel girders, so a little sharpness is inevitable). The large stage lends a sense of headroom and air to the high vocals and treble instruments, but the sound itself doesn’t feel particularly light or sparkly, the treble carrying a convincing if not overwhelming sense of substance. The tuning leans more to the clear and extended side, without a huge amount of thickness to the notes and a slight crispness to the edge of guitar strums and harmonics that adds a feeling of precision to the sound. Transients are crisp, as you would expect from a 30mm planar magnetic driver – the sound feels energetic and alive, with enough body to avoid sounding too surgical.

I think that is one of the takeaway points from my time with these IEMs – they have a particular “feel” or substance to the presentation that is uniquely planar in origin, voices and instruments gaining a little extra accentuation on the little nuances, and giving a nicely organic timbre to the sound. The iSine doesn’t sound 100% natural in its sound, but it does have a way of presenting vocals that can send a shiver down your spine with the raw emotion that drips out of the singers’ throat on some tracks.

“Song For Adam” is the last track Gregg Allman recorded before he passed away, an ode to a fallen travel companion that draws quite a few parallels with the untimely death of Allman’s own brother. The iSine makes Allman’s voice sound raw and throaty, imparting the texture of his rasping vocal chords and the jangling acoustic guitars beautifully into the overall sound.Around the 4:30 mark, the singer’s voice cracks and trails off into silence halfway through the chorus, palpably overcome with the emotion of the lyric about a life unfulfilled. The iSine captures this rawness beautifully, and plucks at the heartstrings of this grizzled listener entry time I hear it. It may not be the most technically accomplished delivery, but this is an IEM that does well at presenting the emotion behind a song, and that is a rare but very welcome trait.

Vocal excellence is something of a given with Audeze products, but another area I have been impressed with on the iSine is the rich tonality and heft it gives orchestral strings. “Palladio” by Escala feels well balanced between the zesty violins in the upper left hand side of the sound and the driving drums and deeper cello residing lower down. The harpsichord accents gobble at the periphery of the sound, and the overall presentation evoking a sense of scale and grandeur that usually only comes with a bigger over-ear setup.

The open backed nature of the IEM does have certain benefits, however – the lack of seal in the eardrum and overall lack of distortion allows the iSine to be worn for extended periods without any signs of listening fatigue. Also, when you do happen across the correct fit from the collection of earhooks and other mediaeval torture devices included in the “keep these things in your ears” polybag that comes with them, they are physical surprisingly comfortable too. I suspect that the size of the nozzle may prove a little less forgiving for those with smaller ears, but for my oversized head-holes they are a very easy fit.Treble is clear and extended, without a huge amount of thickness to the notes and a crispness to the edge of guitar strums and harmonics that adds a feeling of precision to the sound. Transients are crisp, as you would expect from a 30mm planar magnetic driver – the sound feels sharp and alive, with enough body to avoid sounding too surgical.

Separation and layering

The iSine seem quite adept at separating various strands of music without muddying the overall soundscape. They have a similar talent for layering, building a nice sense of texture in the music with more complex songs, allowing the listener to move around the sound in their head with relative ease. Neither would be considered stellar in absolute terms, but for the c. $399 asking price, again it is a notable success.

Interestingly, with the EQ presets off and the iSine allowed to play with its normally tuning, the overall stage organisation and sense of sense of layering takes a fairly big hit, middling the sounds more into the middle of the stage and collapsing the depth that is otherwise evident. It isn’t just the midrange instruments that are affected by this, serving to highlight the importance of synergy when it comes to tuning an IEM.

EQ

As previously noted, one of the main design aims of the iSine as to minimise distortion, reducing it as close to zero as the constraints of the technology will physical allow. The drawback to this is that in order to do this, compromises had to be made with the intended tuning of the driver itself, leaving a sound signature that wasn’t ideal. Using the DAC in the Cipher cable, Audeze were able to “correct” for these compromises using electronic means, the minimal distortion allowing the iSine and almost chameleonic response to most digital EQ. In effect, they built the tech to take EQ without any strain, so you are only limited by how good your DSP/DAC/DAC is at processing the sound signal, rather than the physical limitations of the driver itself.

Obviously, you can’t EQ more bass or treble into the sound than the driver is physically capable of producing, but I’m reasonably happy to state that with the right knowledge of audio frequencies and how they interact, you could make the iSine mimic a variety of different signatures with a pretty high level of success. Using the provided Cipher cable or the freely available Audeze EQ presets, you can make the iSine sound fantastic – as such, this is a headphone that is more difficult than most to review as it inherently requires EQ to sound good, so if you are adding a digital filter to the sound anyway, its sonic signature is really only limited by how closely you follow the recommended settings. More bass? Fine. Razorblade treble? Doable. This is one area I feel the iSine doesn’t get enough credit for (probably because the majority of the “audiophile” community has a natural aversion to EQ in any sort of digital form). They have created a shapeshifter of an IEM here, so if tweaking frequency curves is your thing, there will be plenty of fun to be had here.

Power requirements

For a planar magnetic driver, the iSine is practically anorexic when it comes to power requirements, being able to be capably driven out of my LG V30 in low impedance mode. Like all planars, they can scale pretty well with extra juice, adding a little extra dynamism to the sound, but these are definitely not an earphone that needs extra voltage to come out to play. The fact that they are designed to be run through the lightning port of any current iDevice with just a minimal bump from the inline amplifier and DAC built in to the Cipher cable should indicate that these are a pretty power-light planar implementation, and all the better for it.

 

 

Conclusion

When I first heard the iSine, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I knew I liked it. I’m still not quite sure where it fits in my own personal musical universe, but I know for sure that I like it even more now. It basically presents a beautifully considered (when EQ’d) planar style sound signature in a package you can fold down into a wallet sized carry case and run off your mobile phone, taking it anywhere with the minimum of fuss. As mentioned, unless you need maximum situational awareness when out and about, this isn’t a design that will do well on public transport or on the daily commute, leaking more sound into the ears than the Titanic after its famous encounter with that 100 ton icecube. It comes in handy if you use IEMs in the workplace, allowing you to hear the bustle of the office alongside the music playing in your brain, but to really get the full benefits of the high quality sound, this is gear that deserves to be worn in a quiet room and savoured.

The sound signature that Audeze are aiming for is well thought out and close to perfect in terms of “mass market” audiophile appeal – there is enough bass to keep most people happy, and a sense of body and substance to go alongside the excellent transient response, practically zero distortion and the other technical achievements to keep the music sounding organic and alive in the ears. The comfort and design won’t be for everyone, so the market appeal of this product is by necessity somewhat more “niche” than the rest of the Audeze line, but if you like the idea of slapping a set of over-ear quality planar magnetic cans into the front pocket of your jacket with enough room for a set of keys and some chewing gum (note: don’t store your iSines with either of these in real life – no one likes a scratched up sticky mess in their ears), then Audeze have got something just for you. The iSine doesn’t rank a full 5 across the board from me as it does have some quirks and wearability/usability “issues”, but for a first attempt at something in this new audio bracket, I’d say Audeze have made a pretty fine piece of engineering, and I’m very much looking forward to where they go next with this.

Specifications

Specifications
Price $399 (including Cipher cable) / $349 (without)
Transducer type Semi-open planar magnetic
Transducer size 30mm
Maximum power handling 1W RMS / 3W Peak
Maximum SPL >120 dB
Frequency response 10Hz – 50kHz
THD <0.1% @ 100 dB
Impedance 16 Ohms
Dimensions 31mm x 35mm
Weight 11g per side
Magnet type High-grade neodymium
Magnetic structure Fluxor
Cables Cipher (lighting cable and DAC), 3.5mm single ended cable

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