The latest release from Audeze, the iSine 20, takes technology typically found only in over-ear headphones and squeezes it into a pair of ultra-portable earbuds. While that’s certainly commendable, people accustomed to regular earphones—which comfortably envelop the ears—must make some compromises. And at $ 600, there’s no easy buy-in. But with the right tunes and the right setting, it becomes clear that what Audeze has done borders on miraculous.
Audeze iSine 20
Big-headphone tech in a pocketable design. Miraculous audio quality, with commanding bass and punchy treble. Cool retro-future aesthetic. In-line DAC for iPhone users.
Odd shape and weight can cause fatigue, discomfort. Ear clips are too flimsy. DAC can be cumbersome. Open design means no private listening—the person seated next to you on the plane will hear every note of your music.
The iSine 20s look like something straight out of the 1970s, with matte-gold mesh on the sides. The set comes with a 3.5mm connector as well as Lightning cable for the iOS crowd. iPhone users can also opt for an in-line digital-to-analog converter. The converter isn’t necessary, but it does give the buds a cleaner audio signal than your phone provides on its own—if you don’t mind it hanging on your chest like a hefty necklace.
These buds are so freakishly large you must attach a couple of plastic supports. These slot into your ears to stabilize the earpieces and provide a secure fit. Blame the added bulk on the iSine’s raison d’etre: planar-magnetic drivers. You usually find this tech in audiophile headphones from Audeze and HiFiMan, to name a couple. Rather than the cone-shaped speakers found in conventional drivers, planar-magnetic drivers are flat and paper-thin. They provide more audio detail, but require more power. The innovation in the iSine 20 is that it compresses the complex electronics that drive some of the world’s best sets into something you can cram into your pocket. And Audeze really has pulled it off—the iSine 20s are a symphonic marvel.
When I closed my eyes and listened to various tracks—from Massive Attack’s “Angel” to Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love”—I could pick out every note on every instrument. The sound quality truly is a wonder, and the iSines punch well above even Audeze’s stellar pedigree, commanding near-flawless performance at every point of the audio spectrum. Music isn’t incidental here, it’s a full-body experience that fills you.
It starts falling apart, though, when you realize how much your ears hurt. While the iSine 20s (and the $ 400 iSine 10) may be the first to pack audiophile-grade planar magnetic drivers into an earbud, that mantle comes at the cost of comfort. Although they weigh less than an ounce (double the weight of a set of AirPods), the ear-clips are painfully thin. Audeze provides two types of clip: one hangs behind the ear, and the other lodges into the ear’s natural folds. I found both awkward, and irksome. Some might be able to get away without them, but for most, these plastic appendages will be necessary. Plus, the plastic clips are brittle and cheap, snapping easily. And if that happens while you’re wearing the buds, well you’re out of luck.
Audeze could have solved this problem by making the set larger, but, of course, then it would have lost out on being first to the market with something small and cool and weird. And that’s the broader issue: The iSines don’t give up any of Audeze’s aural dexterity in the shrink-down.
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