Audeze’s Cipher cable DSP provides specific equalization for the iSine 10. Its high-resolution DAC and amp completely bypass the iOS device’s internal audio circuitry.
Audeze iSine 10 In-Ear Headphone with Cipher Cable
- Spacious yet detailed sound
- Irrepressible dynamics
- More tactile bass than other earphones
- Cipher Lightning-connector DSP/DAC/amp/remote/microphone cable effectively makes the iSine 10 two sets of earphones in one, with customized voicing plus adjustable graphic EQ
- Multiple fit options
- The only open-back planar magnetic earphones on the market, aside from other Audeze models
Way back in 2013, our Editor called planar magnetic headphone specialist Audeze "a rising star in the headphone arena" while discussing their LCD-X headphone.
Today Audeze is an established star, but still rising. The iSine line is Audeze’s first foray into earphones and to my knowledge anyone’s first attempt at planar magnetic earphones. Audeze collaborated with BMW DesignWorks on the three-deep iSine line: the iSine 10 reviewed here ($399), iSine VR for virtual reality ($399), and the step-up iSine 20 ($599).
Semi-open In Ear Headphone (earphone)
30mm Uniforce planar magnetic with phase plug
CLAIMED FREQUENCY RESPONSE:
10Hz – 50kHz
MAXIMUM POWER HANDLING:
<0.1% @ 100dB
16 Ohms DAC (Cipher cable)
DAC (Cipher cable):
3.5mm (standard cable), Lightning (Cipher cable)
Soft carrying case, certificate of authenticity, user guide (on USB stick), shirt clip, 1.5m audio cable with 3.5mm stereo plug, 1.5m Cipher cable with Lightning connector, 2 cable straps, black and clear earhooks, “Earlock” cochlear braces, 3 sizes of rubber tips, cleaning brush
31mm x 35mm
11g (per side)
Audeze iSine 10 MSRP:
Audeze, Planar Magnetic, Earphones, Cipher, iOS, Open-back, iDevice, Lightning, App, Earphones Reviews 2017
Planar magnetic headphones are familiar to SECRETS readers by now, through reviews of Audeze’s LCD-X and LCD-3; HiFiMAN’s HE400S and HE1000 V2; and OPPO’s PM-3 and PM-1. All of those headphones are large. Except for the PM-3 and HE400S, they are all also very expensive. When I learned Audeze found a way to cram planar magnetic drivers into earphones, I had to take a listen.
Audeze packs the iSine 10 well. The earphones sit inside a foam block, with the cables and accessories neatly packed in bags inside the soft carry case.
The other pack-ins (see “Specifications” for the extensive list) came packed inside the carrying case. Everything was appropriately nice in look and feel, though I prefer a separate shirt clip for each cable. The case is the weakest part of the package. It looks nice, but has gaps on the top and bottom that are large enough for things to fall out.
I liked that the cable straps adhere to the case lining, so they’re easy to find and use.
When I first snapped on the earhooks, the iSine 10 superficially reminded me of Koss’s long-discontinued KSC35. That is not damning with faint praise. I wish Koss still made the KSC35. They were the most convenient, comfortable, and good-sounding “beater” earphones I’ve found. The iSine 10 are made of far nicer materials than I remember from my long-ago broken KSC35s. The iSine 10’s open back ear cup blends nicely with the black grille.
The iSine 10’s raison d’être is its planar magnetic drive units. Planar magnetic drivers use a flat thin-film membrane embedded with a flat voice coil that pushes against magnets behind (and sometimes also in front of) the diaphragm, rather than a round voice coil oscillating in a magnetic gap. Unlike the balanced armature or dynamic drivers fitted to other earphones, planar panels are large. The iSine 10’s planar magnetic drivers have a 30mm diaphragm, with their Uniforce voice coil controlled by a powerful "Fluxor" magnet.
How did Audeze solve the twin problems of getting satisfying full-range output from a small planar, and using 30mm drivers on earphones? Audeze engineered a phase plug to take the driver’s output to your ear canals, highlighted above. Effectively, they made planar magnetic compression drivers! This is a level of acoustic sophistication far beyond the typical earphone. While large for earphones, the iSine 10s are tiny for planar magnetics. Both earpieces and the Cipher module easily fit on the grille of a HiFiMAN HE400S ear cup.
If phase-plugged planar drivers are the main event, the iSine-tuned “Cipher” Lightning cable plays a strong supporting role. The Cipher cable’s electronics module is a little larger than a standard headphone remote/microphone pod.
The module includes a DSP with bespoke voicing for the iSine 10, 24-bit DAC, headphone amp, microphone, and remote. The Cipher electronics are covered in a soft-touch material, with attractive chromed accent rings between the body and rubber strain relief ends. As with all Lightning connector headphones, you can’t charge your phone and listen at the same time. Hopefully Apple will address that shortcoming on future iPhones.
Audeze also offers an iOS app for the Cipher’s DSP that provides 10 bands graphic (fixed center frequency and Q) EQ.
The app allows you to store two EQ presets. EQ changes save to the Cipher, not the iOS device. So the EQ will be in place if you connect the earphones to another iPhone or iPad. I wish Audeze would take Cipher to the next level, replacing the graphic EQ with a parametric (adjustable center frequency and Q) EQ. While I’m writing a wish list, I would love to see crossfeed as well. See my recent “Traveling While Audiophile” primer for more about crossfeed.
I primarily auditioned the Audeze iSine 10 using the Cipher cable plugged into an iPhone 6S. I also evaluated them with their analog cable connected to a HeadRoom Desktop Amp, HeadRoom Total BitHead, or OPPO HA-2SE. With the separate amps, sources were either iPhone or MacBook. Other headphones used for comparison were Apple dual balanced armature In Ear Headphones (“ADDIEM”), HiFiMAN HE400S, NAD Viso HP50, and Sennheiser HD580.
I found the iSine 10s with earhooks instantly comfortable. Even the smallest tips sealed well. (Audeze offers a “Groovy Kit” with ridged eartips; I did not have them during my audition.) I wear glasses whenever my eyes are open, and the thin earhooks did not interfere with my glasses.
I also tried Audeze’s "Earlock" cochlear braces, but they made both ears feel a little hot.
Earphone fit is extremely idiosyncratic, and I applaud Audeze for providing different options. I bet some people will hate the earhooks and love the Earlocks. Both earhooks and Earlocks held the earphones securely and maintained a good seal.
Audeze calls the iSine 10 "semi-open" but the “semi” is redundant. They do not isolate at all.
Their sound is also not just “semi” open. The iSine 10 earphones have an otherworldly spaciousness to their sound, more so than many large open headphones. They also have excellent detail retrieval from top to bottom. Their bass is tactile like big headphones, rather than the artificial “I can hear it but can’t feel it” of most earphones. They have enough headroom to do justice to full-scale orchestras.
Audeze’s iSine 10 offers two dramatically different spectral balances depending on cable used. With the analog cable, the iSine 10s offer a tonality I’ve not heard in earphones for a while: lean with high resolution, reminiscent of top-notch mini-monitors placed out into a room but with more dynamic headroom. If you dig the balance of Etymotic’s original ER-4, but want more spaciousness, get the iSine 10 and use the analog cable. Without crossfeed, the iSine 10s sounded equally good with each amp, likely because of their flat impedance and moderate sensitivity. With crossfeed, they provided an eerily speaker-like listening experience through both vintage HeadRoom amps.
The Cipher cable demonstrates how well-judged EQ can completely transform highly resolving transducers, if they have the resolution and headroom to handle EQ. With Cipher cable, the iSine 10’s spectral balance morphs from “mini-monitor” to “big tower.” The iSine 10 with Cipher cable offers the warmth and body of the Sennheiser HD-580 but snappier dynamics and no upper midrange “veil.” The iSine 10 sounds as spacious as the HiFiMAN HE400S, with a little less bass than the HE400S with FocusPads, but more bass than the HE400S with stock pads. Detail throughout the audible band was similar. The iSine 10’s treble was not quite as smooth as the ADDIEM’s at low to moderate volumes, but they can play much louder without strain, sound more like big headphones than earphones in the bass, and improve on both width and depth of image. The iSine 10 sounded as clear and compelling as the NAD Viso HP50, while projecting a wider, deeper soundstage than those great headphones.
The lack of crossfeed in the Cipher cable harmed reproduction of songs with hard-panned sounds, such as the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” Jimi Hendrix’s "Fire," or the intro to Pearl Jam’s "Immortality." Otherwise, the iSine 10’s spacious sound made me miss crossfeed less than other earphones do.
Unfortunately, Chris Cornell died while I was writing this review. RIP. In his memory, I spent a solid week listening to nothing but his performances on the iSine 10 with Cipher cable. “Temple of the Dog,” was a Seattle supergroup (in addition to Cornell, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, and Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam, and Matt Cameron from Soundgarden and Pearl Jam).
The album is a tribute to Cornell’s old roommate, Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone, who overdosed at 24. I prefer the original album to the 25th Anniversary Edition remix because the original has wider dynamic range.
The iSine 10 leaps into action when Cornell and the percussion come in after the guitar intro to the opening lament, “Say Hello 2 Heaven.” Their fantastic midrange detail showcases the subtle inflections in Cornell’s voice and the distorted guitar. They place the laid-back cymbals floating in the air somewhere beyond your left shoulder. “Pushing Forward Back” has a more contemporary-sounding bottom end than the other tracks; it leads with the kick drum rather than guitar. The iSine 10’s refuse to get bogged down by the heavier bottom and just boogie. “When Cornell adds a sharp edge to his wails in “Call Me Dog,” the iSine 10s convey it in proportion, neither over-emphasizing nor understating. “Four Walled World” had stage-width beyond my ears. “All Night Thing” has a three-layer soundstage, with a snare-driven drumbeat behind, ethereal keyboard chords floating in the middle, and Cornell’s vocals in front. The iSine 10 reproduced these layers of depth with ease.
The Hamilton Mixtape is exactly what the name implies: remixes Hamilton’s signature songs by artists ranging from Andra Day to Jimmy Fallon. To be sure, the Hamilton Mixtape is a little uneven, and does not provide the narrative arc of the original musical. However, many of the individual songs are excellent, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are more relevant now than when he penned them. The recording quality is very contemporary, i.e. over-compressed.
Probably the best-known song from Hamilton is “My Shot,” remixed here with wall-of-sound sonics by The Roots, Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz, and Nate Ruess. The iSine 10s transmit the gravel in Busta Rhymes’ vocals without overdoing it, setting up a nice contrast with Black Thought’s more open voice. The intro of Regina Spektor’s and Ben Folds’ otherwise pedestrian remix of “Dear Theodosia” made my eyes involuntarily dart back and forth the first time I heard it on the iSine 10s, because the soundstage sounded so wide for open headphones, let alone earphones. Andra Day’s big voice is often let down by earphones, but on her remix of “Burn” it comes through vibrantly through the iSine 10s, thanks to their spacious and open sound.
Classical arrangements of “popular” music often sound cheesy. Not these. O’Riley transforms Radiohead songs into legitimate piano etudes, with texture and layering that honors the songs without overshadowing them. The disk’s sonics are rich, airy, and dynamic, while conveying a nice sense of space around O’Riley’s Steinway.
Richly-recorded piano music is a bad fit for most earphones. Their sound just doesn’t scale enough to get piano right. Audeze’s spacious-sounding iSine 10s do piano better than any earphone I’ve heard, equaling the best headphones. They start and stop on a proverbial dime as O’Riley’s fingers move furiously on “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” High notes decay beautifully into the air. “Fake Plastic Trees” is by Radiohead standards a straightforward song. O’Riley plays it relatively straight, but with power and intensity: such intensity that the Cipher cable’s amp clipped on its climax, as well as on “Airbag” and “Let Down.” There are inherent current and voltage limitations from a Lightning port. Likewise, the Total BitHead and OPPO HA-2SE clipped at high volumes playing this track. However, the HeadRoom Desktop Amp drove the iSine 10s cleanly to the threshold of my SPL tolerance, and beyond the SPL a grand piano would generate even for the player. Audeze’s 3W power-handling spec is legit.
In addition to using the Audeze iSine 10’s in home and office, I took them on a trans-Atlantic field trip. They offer no isolation, so they are useless on a plane.
However, I found them surprisingly good for local trains. I could enjoy the music, but still hear the announcement for my stop! I found about 60% volume on the Cipher cable right to let the music come through without audible leakage.
One big surprise for me was how well-suited the Audeze iSine 10s were to phone or FaceTime conversations. I find talking on standard in-ear monitors a struggle in voice modulation. It’s hard not to shout when you can’t hear how loudly you’re talking. Because the iSine 10s don’t isolate, you can hear your own voice.
The iSine 10 also works well for background music or podcasts in a “war room” environment, because they offer excellent low-volume resolution. Also, with a tap of the pause button you can hold a normal conversation. But the iSine 10 really shines when you’re alone in a hotel room at the end of a long workday. Their sound quality is so compelling that it’s easy to look at the time on your phone, realize you should be asleep already, and say “just one more track.”
THE AUDEZE ISINE 10 offers exceptional sound for their size and price, if you don’t need isolation.
- Spacious sound
- Spectral balance with Cipher cable
- The most natural-sounding bass I’ve heard from an earphone
- Dynamic headroom
- Parametric EQ and crossfeed in iOS app
- Two shirt-clips, one for each cable
- A redesigned case
The Audeze iSine 10 earphones are a marvel. I have never heard such spacious and engaging sound from earphones before. They also have two distinct sonic personalities, depending on which cable is used.
My previous auditions of expensive earphones left me unimpressed compared to the $80 ADDIEM with Comply foam tips. Others offer higher SPL, but equal or lesser sound below ear-splitting levels. That changed with the iSine 10. While I consider Audeze’s iSine 10 expensive for earphones, Audeze’s groundbreaking technology, open-back planar magnetic compression driver earphones(!),results in improved spaciousness and more natural bass. They can also play louder than I dare to listen when driven by a stout headphone amp. Those virtues temper my instinctive skepticism about expensive earphones. Likewise, most earphones don’t come with their own DSP/DAC/amp, or so many fit options.
Because they don’t isolate, the Audeze iSine 10 may not work for everyone. However, I can think of a few situations where the iSine 10 stands out. If you work in an open office and want great sound that’s easy to lock in a drawer or slip in your bag at the end of the day, Audeze’s iSine 10s are a natural choice. If you’re traveling, and you can either carry a set of closed headphones or two sets of earphones, take deep-insert earphones or noise cancelers for the plane and the iSine 10 for everything else. If you just want something to listen to at home, the iSine 10 sounds good enough to merit an audition along with any headphone in your budget. I loved ‘em.