Audeze iSine10 Review

What’s this–a planar magnetic IEM? Cool! Wait, it leaks sound and lets sound in? It also needs an iOS device to use its Cipher cable that has a necessary EQ? Oh…

I’ll be honest, I don’t really understand the point of the iSine. It’s not particularly suitable for public transportation because it barely attenuates more than many open headphones so it doesn’t work there. It also leaks. I don’t care what other people say; this thing leaks. At lower volumes it doesn’t leak enough to be annoying, but at around 80dB it leaks enough for someone about five feet away to be able to discern lyrics. That’s only a little less than a Koss KSC75. And it needs EQ. For people with an iOS product, all they need to buy is the version with the Cipher cable. Easy enough, “only” $50 more. You might ask, “Do I really need the Cipher cable?” Yes, unless you really, really like the Grado sound. Those without an iOS device have their work cut out for them.

I’ve borrowed an iSine10 for this review and unfortunately this didn’t come with the Cipher cable, so I’ll write this review with the standard audio cable in mind and then briefly talk about using a similar EQ to the Cipher cable.

Aesthetically, the iSine10 is strange. It’s huge and has a faceplate that looks like a spider web. There’s no way to make these look attractive, but that may be part of their charm. They make no attempt to be nicer than they are, with their all-plastic (other than the grill) housing. They have a flat cable that feels kind of cheap, but should this cable fail, a replacement shouldn’t be too expensive. They use a 2-pin connector that’ll work with any other cable that fits, which is convenient. Getting the iSine10 into the ear is strange at first. Typically when putting an iem in, you’d expect a seal right? Not with the iSine. It’s a rather shallow insertion with no real indication of actual seal other than testing to see if bass extends deep. If you can’t hear 20Hz, they’re not sealing correctly. After a few uses finding the correct depth becomes almost second nature, but I still think it’s weird that the whole nozzle area doesn’t go completely in my ear.

But…wow these sound terrible with the standard cable. I’m not going to sugar coat it; these have an upper mid rise in the “shout” area that makes Grados sound tame. I couldn’t believe it at first. I actually started laughing at how uncomfortable it was. Vocals literally sounded like they were screaming into my ears. They do have some other redeeming qualities, but it’s so hard to hear them over their upper midrange.

Bass

The bass is probably the iSine10’s most redeeming quality. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s unique. With a good seal, it’s pretty linear to 20Hz and has decent texture and separation. I could use a bit less upper bass though as they sounded slightly congested. It’s interesting hearing this kind of bass in an IEM. Lately I’ve been using an Ultimate Ears UE7 and while balanced armature IEMs like the UE7 do extend kind of like planars in that they’re linear to 20Hz, they often lack texture and end up sounding timbrally off to me. But the iSine almost has full-size headphone bass. I was expecting a small diaphragm planar like this to struggle with control and extension but this has it down pretty well.

Midrange

It’s a mess. Like, really. It’s hilariously bad. There’s a gigantic rise from 1kHz to about 1.3kHz. What does that sound like? It sounds like screaming. Vocals scream, guitars scream, brass instruments scream. It’s really unpleasant. I can’t really tell if it’s just the rise that overshadows everything else, but it sounds like past 2k the upper midrange is actually dipped. It’s a weird combination of lacking presence with extreme shout. The low midrange is also a bit too thick for my liking; I think dropping it a bit would help it sound cleaner.

Treble

Treble is surprisingly decent. There’s a bit of a spike in the sibilance region and the mid treble around 10kHz but it’s not half bad. It doesn’t have the strange timbre I get with many balanced armature IEMs and most surprisingly, these are very open-sounding and airy. If I recall correctly, these might be just as, if not more, airy as the Sony EX1000 which I owned and loved.

Measurements

Take these with a huge grain of salt because this is just made with a measurement mic and a rubber tube with the approximate volume of the ear canal. It’s not going to be similar to the results of a real IEC711, but my measurements are close to crinacle’s so I want to believe I’m not totally off but still, don’t take these remotely as gospel.

Basically, the measurements seem to align with my impressions. I did expect to see some extra upper bass/lower mids because these sound thicker than they measure. The 1.3k peak is enormous and it sounds that painful.

So overall, it’s really, really hard to recommend the iSine10 with the standard audio cable. The upper midrange kills the sound and makes it borderline unlistenable for me.

But Audeze designed a special cable with a built in EQ. This is the EQ one of Audeze’s engineers posted on Head-Fi:

Obviously, it’s pretty significant, and it needs that to tame the outrageous 1.3k peak. And it seems Audeze also thought that the iSine is rather thick sounding as they dropped 100-1k pretty significantly. I didn’t follow this exactly because…I have no idea how EQ works and when I did this exact EQ I ended up with an abomination. Instead I incorporated elements from raw Lightning cable measurements that Tyll from Inner Fidelity made in his review until the measurement was sort of close. The end result was this measurement:

At first glance, it seems odd; it looks like it would be too thin and too much upper midrange but it actually sounded pretty nice. The low mids and upper bass sounded cleaner and less congested rather than dipped and thin. It actually almost sounds flatter this way, which is bizarre. I could do with a little less 2kHz shout though but the upper midrange is forward and energetic. I couldn’t seem to remove that 7k spike that adds sibilance. But it sounds nice. I like this. I might actually buy one with the Cipher cable and fiddle with EQ in the Audeze app. It’s not neutral or flat or whatever that means; it just sounds pleasant. It’s a nice combination of warmth and energy. I ended up making my own slight adjustments to the “Cipher” EQ and made this:

The reduced 2k doesn’t necessarily sound obvious, but it helps with coherency. It’s a smoother rise to 5kHz. Unfortunately, no matter how much I EQ, the upper midrange tone sounds pretty off. Neither dropping it nor boosting it helped, so I think it’s just an inherent issue with the iSine10 itself.

I don’t know where I stand with the iSine10. It’s a strange design with a limited use case and horrendous stock sound. I’d imagine most wonder why Audeze doesn’t just tune the iSine to sound good to begin with, which is a valid question. But with a hearty dose of EQ it’s so fun that I forget how bad they sound stock. The bass presentation and air are two things I’ve yet to hear combined in another IEM, and when the midrange is normalized it’s less obnoxious. It’s far from perfect, and I’m not sure I’d pay $400 for the iSine10 and Cipher cable, but in the used market, Audeze products seem to dip in price pretty quickly. It’s not uncommon to find the iSine10 with Cipher cable for less than $300 in classifieds, or around $320 for an open box one from an authorized dealer. It’s still on the high side, given my tonal problems with its upper midrange and lack of isolation and leakage making these basically useless in most situations I’d use IEMs, but for those with cash to burn that are not afraid to tinker with EQ and can find a use for the form factor, it might be a fun experiment.

What Audeze has created seems to be a case for the use of DSP and EQ–just create a headphone with low distortion that doesn’t fall apart with EQ and allow the user to tailor the sound to their liking. It’s nothing novel, as many, many headphones react well to EQ, and Audeze has used the Cipher cable with a less drastic EQ with EL-8 and Sine, but making a headphone specifically meant to be EQ’ed that fits solidly within the “audiophile” market opens up many possibilities and may make the idea of EQ less taboo than it once was. Still, I wish these sounded good stock; I don’t want to worry about finding a source that these will work with if my iPhone dies or the potential obsolescence of Lightning connectors in the future.

For those with iSines that want to try my EQ, I’ve exported my settings and attached them here.