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Audeze EL-8 Headphones

Audeze EL-8 Headphones

Audeze burst onto the audio scene a couple of years ago as one of the new wave of manufacturers dedicated to high-performance headphone products. Its first headphone design, the LCD-2, has gone through several versions, but is still currently in production along with the newer and more expensive LCD-3 and LCD-X, and LCD-XC. At RMAF, Audeze unveiled its latest flagship model, the LCD-4, with an eyebrow-raising price of $3995. All of these ’phones offer similar technology, fit, size, weight, and open-back design. The LCD-2, LCD-3, and LCD-X (no one has the LCD-4 yet) have all had similar criticisms aimed at them: They are heavy, power-hungry, offer little isolation, and are not travel-friendly because they do not fold or flatten.

Given that so many ’phone fans require cans that are portable, lightweight, affordable, and easy to drive with a cellphone’s limited power output, Audeze was missing out on a good portion of the headphone market with its LCD designs. Cue the music for the Audeze EL-8 and EL-8C headphones. Priced at $699, these two models are virtually identical-looking except that one is an open-backed design (EL-8), while the other (EL-8C) is a closed-back version using a solid piece of milled metal instead of an open grille.

Apart from a 2dB drop in sensitivity in the closed-back version and a slight weight difference, their specifications are identical. Weighing only 460g or 480g (for the closed-back) and able to fold flat, the Audeze EL-8 represents the company’s thinking on how to incorporate its sound and technology into a lighter, more travel-friendly, more portable player-friendly package. How did Audeze do? Let’s find out.


The Technological Tour
Designed by the BMW Designworks, USA, the EL-8 uses a planar magnetic driver that employs an ultra-thin diaphragm with a large surface area to generate sound. Since it can start and stop so quickly, the resulting sound can be more precise and lower in distortion than a multi-driver dynamic headphone. The EL-8 is the first Audeze headphone to utilize its trademarked Fluxor magnetic technology, which delivers nearly double the magnetic flux density of the highest-grade neodymium magnetic circuits previously available. Fluxor magnets are magnetized at a 45-degree angle instead of vertically or horizontally. When these magnets are placed side by side with north/south corners touching, the magnetic fields are forced to arch out and go around to reach the corresponding magnet’s pole. This pushes the magnetic field into the diaphragm area where it can be used by the headphone’s diaphragm system instead of being wasted outside that working area. This driver technology results in reduced weight with greater efficiency, perfect for mobile devices.

The Fluxor technology is combined with something Audeze calls Uniforce diaphragm technology that employs variable trace widths in the voice-coil to capture variations in the magnetic field within the magnetic gaps by equalizing forces in the individual traces. This creates a uniform driving force across the entire diaphragm surface. Where the conductor is weaker at the outside edges, the traces are reduced so the same amount of current will be flowing through the entire conductor trace. This “industry first” was created to reduce overall distortion as well as to allow for higher resolution and improved imaging.

The EL-8 also uses proprietary Fazor technology developed for Audeze’s LCD series. Fazors are special acoustical elements positioned on either side of the magnetic structures. They enhance transparency by interacting with the sound waves generated by large planar diaphragms. According to Audeze, “a few of the benefits include extended frequency response, improved high-frequency extension, and lowered distortion, with better imaging.”

 

Fit, Finish, and Ergonomic Considerations
The more headphones I review, the more I realize that a headphone’s fit and comfort level are as important to an end user’s experience as how well it reproduces music in the audible spectrum. Both versions of the EL-8 are comfortable, but depending on your head size and tastes in side-pressure, you may find that one of the two fits better than the other.

The differences is largely because the closed-back EL-8C weighs 20 grams (.7 oz.) more than the open-back version, so it may also feel a bit heavier. While both versions of the EL-8 were far more comfortable than the Audeze LCD-2—especially during long listening sessions—I would rate their overall comfort to be slightly better than the new HiFiMan HE560, but not quite as good as the Sennheiser HD-700. The reason the EL-8 is more comfortable than the HE560 is because the EL-8’s ear pads are softer and conformed more easily to my head than the HE560’s stiffer pads. The Sennheiser HD700 outpointed the EL-8s on comfort due to their lighter weight, greater headband padding, and softer velveteen-covered ear pads. The EL-8’s ear pads are made of leather but they do not breathe, so if the outside temperature is hot and sticky, your ears will soon be hot and sticky, too.

The EL-8 headphone has a flat, lightweight, and flexible removable cable that uses a unique connector scheme. Instead of the more standard mini-stereo-style plug, or a screw-in connection, the EL-8 employs a flat connector that looks like an iPhone 6 power connection on steroids. The male section attaches into the headphone’s female section just like Apple’s, but unlike the iPhone’s connection, which can be inserted either way, there is only one correct way to attach the EL-8’s cable. And if you try to force the cable when it’s in the wrong position, you can damage the connection permanently.


There is also a second potential problem with Audeze’s new cable connection—it can and most likely will loosen up with use. Both of the EL-8 review samples have gotten to the point that even a slight tug can pull out the cable’s connections. While an easy-to-disconnect attachment scheme is great for those times when something bad happens like catching the cord on a doorknob while you walk through a door, it’s not great when merely vigorous head-shaking results in an intermittent connection. I predict that a lot of EL-8 users will be complaining about the excessive “play” in this connection, and there will be some warranty issues as a result. Audeze has reportedly improved the connectors since it shipped my review sample, and all current production features the new connectors.

Recently I reviewed a pair of $70 headphones from Monoprice that included a very nice hard-formed travel case. Given that the EL-8 was designed to be a portable and portable-friendly headphone, it was disappointing to find that instead of a nice molded hard case for travel, the EL-8 only comes with a soft drawstring bag for “protection.” Similarly-priced headphones from other firms including AudioQuest, Oppo, and HiFiMan all come with serviceable travel cases; why not the Audeze EL-8? (Audeze offers an optional hard travel case for $39.)

The EL-8 comes with one 2m (6.56 feet) cable and one 3.5mm-to-¼” stereo adapter. There are additional cables available at extra cost for the EL-8, including a cable for Apple iOs device with controls, a balanced cable for Astell&Kern devices, and a balanced cable for use with Pono players and the Sony PHA-3. Your choice of one of these cables is provided at no charge. Additional cables are priced at $49 each.

I have a new way of testing and comparing the isolation abilities of headphones—I use my AKG “Harry” dummy-head microphone rig. I place the headphones on Harry and compare the aural leakage I hear at two feet away. Using this testing method I could hear that even the open-back EL-8 had better isolation than many other open-back headphones including the AKG K-7xx, and the aforementioned HifiMan HE560 and Sennheiser HD-700s. The closed-back version (EL-8C) delivered even better isolation; I could hear nothing from two feet away. Yes, the EL-8C is definitely library-friendly.

 

Closed- Versus Open-Back EL-8: Which One Is Right for You?
In a perfect world, when a manufacturer releases two versions of the same headphone, one with an open and one with a closed back, they would sound identical and the end user could choose which one best suited his needs based on whether the ’phones were going to be used in a quiet or noisy environment. But this is not a perfect world, and the two versions of the EL-8 do not sound the same. If their sonics were identical, it would make more sense for most users to purchase the EL-8C (for closed) over the EL-8 because it could be used in more environments successfully. But because there are sonic as well as ergonomic differences between the two, your decision on which would be best for you will be more complex.

As for sonic differences, starting with the bass, the EL-8C goes deeper and has noticeably better damping than the EL-8. When using a solid-state headphone amplifier, the damping differences are less obvious, but if you happen to have a single-ended tube ’phone amp available (and one that relies more on the headphone’s own internal damping abilities), such as the new Inspire by Dennis Had Dragon IHA-1, you will notice how much tighter and faster the EL-8C’s bass can be than that of the EL-8. The open-back EL-8 simply sounds looser and less controlled than the EL-8C when connected to the Inspire amp. With marginally powered portable devices, such as an iPhone, you will also notice the EL-8C’s more controlled and extended low-bass output.

Moving up the sonic spectrum, the EL-8 has a slightly warmer, and more harmonically complex midrange character than the EL-8C. In comparison, the EL-8C has more upper-midrange energy that moves female vocalists forward in a mix, but robs male vocalists of some of their lower-midrange harmonic richness. Holding the palms of my hands about ¼” away from the open backs of the EL-8, I can almost duplicate these differences, so I suspect they are in part the result of the closed back creating some midrange frequency cancellations.

Treble response through the two EL-8 versions is virtually identical. Both have substantially more air and zing than the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones, for example, but aren’t as airy as the Audeze LCD-2.

One last area where the two EL-8 designs sonically differ is in soundstaging. The EL-8C has a smaller and less dimensional soundstage than the open-back EL-8. The EL-8’s soundstage dimensions were almost identical to the LCD-2’s, but the EL-8C had noticeably less immersive dimensionality and scope.

Whether you find one of the two EL-8 designs to be sonically superior to the other depends more on your own personal tastes in music rather than on some absolute sonic criteria. On modern pop the EL-8C’s excellent bass and sub-bass damping and control made it my preferred option. But on my own live classical concert recordings the open-back EL-8 delivered a more accurate and detailed soundstage that was closer to what I heard when I was monitoring the recordings during the sessions. On pop selections I also preferred the EL-8C’s lively and more prominent upper midrange response, but on classical chamber music and contemporary bluegrass tracks I found the EL-8 to be more harmonically neutral and representative of what I’ve come to expect from the recordings.

 

Comparisons with Other Headphones
LCD-2 and LCD-3 owners who are looking for a portable headphone that sounds identical to their beloved LCDs will find the EL-8 closer to their ideal than the EL-8C. The EL-8 captures most of the LCD’s soundstaging dimensions and harmonic character, lacking only that last iota of resolution, specificity, and inner detail. The EL-8 may not “scale up” (scaling up is the ability of a pair of headphones to sound better as you upgrade the headphone amplifier or source) quite as dramatically as the Audeze LCD-2, but when I went from an iPhone 5 playing Tidal to the Sony NW-ZX2 playing the same Tidal tracks, it was quite clear that the EL-8 preferred the additional drive and delivered a more detailed, dimensional, and involving result when powered by the Sony.

Earlier I mentioned the upper-frequency differences between the AudioQuest NightHawk headphones and the EL-8s. Both these have well-above-average bass and sub-bass response but the EL-8s are more “hi-fi” and spectacular, while the Nighthawks have a more natural (but not neutral) and relaxed presentation both in harmonic balance and dynamics. The EL-8 gave me a more accurate sonic picture in inner detail and upper frequencies—and was certainly a more accurate headphone—but the NightHawk has an engaging character that is hard to resist.

Listening to Shawn Colvin’s “Get Out of This House” from A Few Small Repairs via Tidal, the Oppo PM-3’s darker and smoother harmonic character compared to the EL-8 was quite obvious. On a better recording, such at Fences’ “Arrows” via Tidal, the EL-8’s higher resolving powers and cleaner upper midrange and lower treble outpointed the PM-3. In long-term comfort, the PM-3s won. The PM-3’s secure, single-connector headphone cable connection was another point in its favor. But in absolute sonic terms, the EL-8 is a better headphone in the important categories—accuracy and fidelity to the original source.

Although it has a higher MSRP, the Sennheiser HD-700 open-enclosure headphones are currently available for about $150 less than the EL-8. The two had far more in common sound-wise than I expected, with similar harmonic balances and sonic perspectives. The Sennheisers were slightly more “Technicolor” with a dollop of extra midbass air, and a bigger, wider soundstage, while the EL-8s were more matter-of-fact, and in the end, more accurate. Comfort-wise the Sennheisers won with less side-pressure and lower weight. Unfortunately, if you want a headphone that travels well, the HD-700’s relatively fragile metal mesh and lack of foldability take it out of the running.

Summary
Creating from a single design a closed-back and an open-back headphone that sound identical in both versions is a difficult feat I have yet to hear accomplished. While the two Audeze EL-8 headphones are sonically similar, those differences in sound are sufficiently profound that most listeners will very likely have a preference based on their own tastes and program choices. And while neither EL-8 will completely satisfy an Audeze LCD owner looking for the perfect portable LCD surrogate, both do capture much of the speed, immediacy, and presence of the Audeze headphone lineup in an easy-to-drive and portable package.

SPECS & PRICING

Transducer type: Planar magnetic
Magnet type: Neodymium
Driver size: 100mm
Maximum power handling: 15W (into 200 ohms)
Maximum SPL: >130dB
Frequency response: 10Hz–50kHz
THD: <0.1% (1kHz, 1mW)
Impedance: 30 ohms
Optimal power requirement: 200mW–4W
Efficiency: Open-back, 102dB/1mW; closed-back, 100dB/1mW
Weight: Open-back, 460 grams; closed-back, 480 grams
Price: $699

AUDEZE LLC
155 Costa Mesa, CA 92626
1559 Sunland Lane
(714) 581-8010
audeze.com

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