A few seconds into unboxing the on-ear Sine headphones, it's obvious they're a luxury object. They're solidly built, with a heavy aluminum frame headband and lush earcup cushions that won't turn heads, but that feel unmistakably expensive.
The company's proprietary Lightning cable means business, too. It's optional, and a major selling point, because of the way it cleans up audio signals coming through iOS devices. It's thick enough that tangling isn't even a possibility, with a large mid-cable module for controlling volume and advancing or pausing tracks, but that also houses key pass-through electronics, including a digital-to-analog converter (or DAC).
The first tracks we tried out with the Sine sounded flat-out amazing. The balance of highs, lows, and mids was great, but the real magic was in the details that bobbed to the surface, even in songs we've listened to hundreds of times. Cymbals, in particular, took on new emphasis, standing out in alt-rock crescendos as well as lower-key jazz songs. Even the lightest taps rang out, in the best possible way. With bad headphones or speakers, a crashing cymbal can turn into pure audio vomit, drowning out everything else in its overpowering spew. The Sine make you appreciate drummers like you might never have before. But when we tested these headphones against $300 models, the spell started to wear off. A fancy pair of Bose on-ears can also tease out tiny details in well-traveled songs, and reward close, focused listening. Cue the buyer's remorse.
Time to get a little technical. The headphones use magnetic planar technology to generate richer, more open audio. Magnetic planar has always been expensive — and at $500 for the Sine, this is no exception — but this appears to be the first time the tech has been stuffed into relatively portable on-ear headphones, rather than much bulkier over-the-ear cans. The main advantage of planar magnetic tech is the way it reduces distortion, and improves responsiveness. Jargon aside, the result is clarity. Not just balance, meaning that bass drums don't drown out guitars, and vocals of all ranges cut through the mix, but a true sense of lifelike, you-are-there proximity, like you're standing in the band's practice room, or the podcaster's recording studio.
This is a subtle benefit, but one that looms larger as you keep listening. You start to pick out the way a guitar riff trails off, rather than how it kicks in. You hear more of the nuances of vocals, and more of the decisions that producers make. And the more complex the arrangement, the more the Sine extracts from the mix. After listening to Radiohead's most recent album, which is full of subtle electronic flourishes, we were ready to forget all about the previous day's buyer's remorse. These headphones are a music lover's dream.
The only reason to buy the Sine is if you're going to give them your undivided attention. The clarity afforded by planar magnetic tech is lost on absent-minded listening, or in the general din of a gym or the subway. To take advantage of these headphones, you also have to be aware of the quality and kind of content you're paying such close attention to. A lo-fi recording won't really be lifted to new heights by the Sine. That goes for podcasts and movies, too. A professionally recorded podcast will sound noticeably better on the Sine, whereas a shoestring recording will sound as muddy as ever. And remember that proprietary Lightning cable, for avoiding data loss when using an iOS device? If you're streaming music via Spotify, don't expect to hear much of a difference between a Lightning connection and a standard headphone jack. The digital-to-analog converter (DAC) in the Sine's Cipher cable seems to make a huge impact on non-streamed digital audio of any quality, significantly reducing signal loss en route to the speakers. The company's non-Lightning cable is cheaper ($50 less) but doesn't feature that built-in DAC.
To live up to their true potential, these headphones require high bit-rate content, and an environment that limits distractions. These are headphones to keep at home, and to break out when you want to truly sink into a song, TV series, or movie. The irony here is that the Sine's biggest breakthrough is the way it compresses planar magnetic tech into on-ear headphones. Models using this clarity-boosting approach have traditionally been among the largest on the market. It's incredible that Audeze has shrunk this tech down. But making planar magnetic headphones more portable doesn't make them more versatile. You still need to cloister yourself away, and pick your source material carefully, to make the Sine a worthwhile purchase. Hi-res audio files, for example, sound astonishing through that Lightning cable. Actually finding hi-res music, and getting it to play on an iPhone or iPad, though, is a genuine chore — iTunes, for example, doesn't offer or play hi-res audio natively — and requires a certain amount of sleuthing.
Ultimately, these headphones are, in fact, for audiophiles. They're too heavy for workouts or casual, all-day use, too focused on clarity to counter street noise or aircraft engines, and too expensive to randomly toss in a bag as you run out the door. What these undeniably amazing headphones are for is at-home, ultra-attentive listening. Their reduced size makes those listening sessions more comfortable, and their price point, however high it appears, is dirt cheap for planar magnetic tech. The right song, played at the highest quality possible, and channeled through that Lightning cable and DAC, will sound nothing less than perfect. [$499 with Lightning cable; audeze.com]